This article first appeared in the Effective Evangelism column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 02 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Three thousand years ago, in ancient Israel, when wild nature was as common as sunshine and rain, a wistful King David looked to the wilderness as a way to escape his troubled life: “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. Behold, I would wander far away, I would lodge in the wilderness. I would hasten to my place of refuge from the stormy wind and tempest” (Ps. 55:6–8).1
Jump ahead a thousand years to the life of Jesus Christ. Again, we see the wilderness as a sought-after retreat for peace and rest. When Jesus learned of John the Baptist’s execution, He “withdrew…in a boat to a secluded place by Himself” (Matt. 14:13). Likewise, when the pressures of ministry became great, Jesus sought out “the mountain” to be alone (John 6:15). On other occasions, He withdrew to remote places simply to pray (Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12). And when Jesus’ disciples were so busy they “did not even have time to eat,” Jesus instructed them to “come away…to a secluded place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31).
This same urge to seek peace and rest in a “secluded place” is just as common in today’s civilized world. When the stresses of daily living become burdensome, most of us crave an escape to a place where the pressures, annoyances, distractions, and anxieties of ordinary life are held at bay. More often than not, just like Jesus and King David, we envision a place somewhere in wild nature. This is true for
Christians and non-Christians alike. There is a reason for this.
Just as the human race possesses an intuitive sense of eternity, because God placed such knowledge in the human heart (Eccl. 3:11); just as the human race intuitively recognizes a universal moral code, because God placed such a code in the human conscience (Rom. 2:13–15); so too God placed in us an awareness of His existence, which can be awakened through contact with nature (Rom. 1:19–20). We might say we become aware of God’s presence by “reading” the Book of Nature. The call of the wild is God’s voiceless summons; it is His universal self-disclosure to the entire human family.
The Book of Nature
During the late Middle Ages, theologians used the term Book of Nature as a metaphorical description of God’s revelation outside the Bible and through creation. Today, theologians usually refer to God’s self-disclosure in nature as general revelation. As the term implies, it’s called general because, as a channel of divine revelation, nature is limited in scope and details about God. For example, it does not reveal God’s redemptive plan for the human race nor the depth of the immeasurable love He offers all of us. But it does reveal that God exists, is the creator of life and the cosmos, and that He is eternal, all-powerful, and sovereign over all life on Earth. So although the Book of Nature is an abridged, limited version of God’s more detailed revelation in the Bible, what creation does reveal about God is in perfect harmony and consistent with Scripture. Two passages are sufficient to demonstrate this: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God;…their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Ps. 19:1). “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they [people who ‘suppress’ this truth, v.1] are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
These passages capture the essence of general revelation. Besides the self-evident fact that God exists, they portray physical creation as revealing His awe-inspiring “glory” and artistic craftsmanship (“the work of his hands”). Creation reveals God’s “attributes,” “power,” and “divine nature.” Together, these two passages are a preface to the Book of Nature. The entire cosmos and the laws of nature make known to all people God’s spectacular creative acts, His transcendent and sovereign power, and His splendor expressed in the beauty of creation.
The Book of Nature, then, is God’s second “book.” It discloses real truth and knowledge about God in and through creation. Everywhere we look in the natural world, there are symbols and pictures of God’s divine nature, character, and eternal truths: His presence, creativity, grandeur, wisdom, love, care, glory, provision, and eternal promises to both human and nonhuman life. Even the Resurrection is pictured symbolically in nature (1 Cor. 15:35–38). C. S. Lewis provides examples of — and the limitations to — general revelation:
Everything God has made has some likeness to Himself. Space is like Him in its hugeness: not that the greatness of space is the same kind of greatness as God’s, but it is a sort of symbol of it, or a translation of it into non-spiritual terms. Matter is like God in having energy: though, again, of course, physical energy is a different kind of thing from the power of God. The vegetable world is like Him because it is alive, and He is the “living God.” But life, in this biological sense, is not the same as life there is in God: it is only a kind of symbol or shadow of it. When we come onto the animals, we find other kinds of resemblances in addition to biological life. The intense activity and fertility of the insects, for example, is a first dim resemblance to the unceasing activity and the creativeness of God. In the higher mammals we get the beginnings of instinctive affection. That is not the same thing as the love that exists in God: but it is like it — rather in the way that a picture drawn on a flat piece of paper can nevertheless be “like” a landscape.2
Since Christian Scripture provide the most insight into the use of general revelation, as a testimony to God’s existence and activities (Acts 14:15–17), it’s not surprising that its inspired authors would record many examples of people encountering and communing with God in wild, lonely habitats.
It was in the wilderness that God often reached out to His faithful followers. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. John the Baptist received his commission to be the forerunner of the Jewish Messiah (Jesus) in the wilderness (Luke 3:2), and it was in the wilderness that he preached his “baptism of repentance” (Mark 1:4). Jesus confronted and rebuked Satan’s temptations in a desert wilderness prior to beginning His ministry among the Jews (Matt. 4:1–11). He appointed His twelve chosen apostles on a mountainside (Mark 3:13–14), preached His most famous sermon in a mountain valley (Luke 6:17), and gave a few of His disciples a glimpse of His heavenly glory on a “high mountain” (Matt. 17:1–2).
How to “Read” the Book of Nature
The visible world of nature can be an introduction to unseen, spiritual realities inaccessible to science and impossible to fully comprehend independent of divine assistance (the Holy Spirit). In other words, God has created two realities: the invisible, spiritual realm undetected by our five senses, and the physical, visible realm accessible to our senses and science. Nature can be a bridge between the two. On the one hand, it is thoroughly physical; yet, because the natural world is the product of God’s creation, it is filled with pictures and symbols of spiritual realities.
Since knowledge about God is beyond the purview and limits of science,3 knowledge from God revealed through the Book of Nature is of far greater value than anything we can learn from science. This is not to say that empirical science is unimportant in terms of understanding God’s general revelation in nature. In fact, science corroborates the Book of Nature and thereby can enhance our wonder of nature, and thus God. But I am saying that in order to gain knowledge about God through nature — to understand the Book of Nature — requires that we look at nature more as a poet than a scientist. This means we must be alert to our feelings more than facts. That is, seek to be more sensitive to the pleasures, elevated thoughts and impressions, and insight into spiritual realities that wild nature conjures up.4 Features and phenomena within nature are visual indicators of supernatural realities that penetrate our feelings and intuitions independent of normal reasoning processes. In particular, they provide direct apprehension of the reality of God’s existence and His continuous loving outreach to the entire human family.
Time spent contemplating the Book of Nature can awaken thoughts and feelings that often lie dormant and unexpressed in the human heart, such as enhancing a desire to think about and worship God. Wild nature’s beauty and grandeur softens inflated self-esteem, humbles tendencies toward self-exaltation, eases stress, and offers peace to troubled souls. Nature can be a place for physical and emotional retreat and renewal and a setting where greater insight into spiritual truths can be realized. Former religious skeptic turned theologian Alister McGrath — referring to his own spiritual journey — speaks to this: “I now [know] that nature was charged with the grandeur and majesty of God. To engage with nature was to gain a deeper appreciation of divine wisdom.”5
Nature as an Apologetic/Evangelistic Point of Contact
One of the great blessings God has granted the entire family of man, as His most beloved creation, is His self-disclosure in nature — and making it available to every human being who ever lived, regardless of period in history, culture, religious beliefs, or secular ideologies (Rom. 1:18–20). This is why nature can be an effective apologetic and evangelistic point of contact. God has revealed enough information about Himself in creation so that the Book of Nature (general revelation) can inspire sincere spiritual seekers to desire a deeper, fuller understanding of God. For those who acknowledge the reality of God’s existence revealed in nature, a door is open for Christians to share biblical testimonies of the Book of Nature and its influence in their own spiritual journey.
There are millions of non-Christian outdoor enthusiasts — campers, sportsmen, wildlife photographers, backpackers, birdwatchers, day hikers, environmentalists, and neopagans (nature worshippers). Many of them hope to find spiritual fulfillment in nature. As an apologetic/evangelistic point of contact, with the help of Christian friends, the Book of Nature provides a legitimate way for people of any faith, as well as nonreligious people, to begin to learn truth and gain knowledge about the only true and living God. The apostle Paul confirms this in Romans chapter 1 and applies it in his encounter with the Greek philosophers in Acts 17. He first points out that “God…made [created] the world and all things in it” (Acts 17:24), and then assures his listeners “that [if] they would seek [this] God…perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (27). Let’s see how this can play out today.
Since virtually all people appreciate and enjoy the natural world, opening the Book of Nature for unbelievers to examine can be an inspiring evangelistic conversation starter. Point out God’s creative brilliance displayed in the ecological harmony of nature; His great love for the human race displayed in the abundant resources nature provides; His design of wild habitats for the welfare and survival of wildlife (Ps. 104), and that the only sensible explanation for why nature intuitively provides peace, restoration, and heightened spiritual sensitivity is because God created it that way. The Book of Nature can encourage non-Christians who love the outdoors (with Christians as their guide) to begin a life-changing journey that inevitably leads to the gospel. And this is because God desires all people to come to know Him (1 Tim. 2:4).
In the same way, the Book of Nature can be a compelling apologetic point of contact with secular nature lovers, followers of Earth-based religions, or other like-minded people who have never responded to traditional apologetic efforts. After all, the very Person unbelievers find so hard to accept created nature (Col. 1:16) and loves and enjoys it as well (Ps. 104:31).
Dan Story has an MA in Christian apologetics and is the author of seven books, numerous booklets, and dozens of articles. His newest book is Will Dogs Chase Cats in Heaven? People, Pets, and Wild Animals in the Afterlife (see danstory.net for more information).
- All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.
- S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1952), 139.
- By definition, the scope of science is limited to what can be discovered through observation and experimentation. Knowledge about God is not subject to either.
- I am not suggesting that nature itself is sacred or the source of spiritual realities beyond biblical revelation. Any subjective impressions experienced in nature must always be judged for authenticity by God’s fixed and objective revelation in Scripture. Otherwise, they will be in accord with paganism rather than Christianity.
- Alister McGrath, The Reenchantment of Nature (New York: Doubleday/Galilee, 2003), xiv.