by Herman Bavinck
In determining the value to be assigned to general revelation, there is great danger of being guilty either of underestimation or of overestimation. When we draw attention to the rich grace that God has bestowed in His special revelation, we can sometimes be so filled with it that the general revelation loses all meaning and value for us. But if, at another time, we become acquainted with all the true and good and beautiful things that, by virtue of God's general revelation, are to be found in nature and in the world of man, then it may happen that the special grace that appears in the person and work of Christ may lose its lustre and glory in our soul's eyes.
This danger of straying to the right or to the left has always existed in the Christian Church, and in the theory and no less strongly in the practice of life the general revelation has been denied and the special revelation has been denied. Today the temptation to disregard general revelation is not as strong as in earlier centuries. But the temptation to reduce special revelation as much as possible, for example to the person of Christ, or even to deny it altogether and reduce it to general revelation, is all the stronger.
We must be on our guard against both of these unilateral tendencies; and we shall be safest when, in the light of the Holy Scriptures, we examine the history of mankind and allow them to show us what people owe to general revelation. It will then appear to us that in some respects they have progressed very far by its light, but that in other respects their knowledge and ability have been limited by insurmountable limits.
When the first people in paradise violated God's commandment, the punishment which they had earned by their sin did not immediately and fully come into effect. They do not die on the same day on which they sinned, but live; they are not sent to hell, but see themselves entrusted with a task on earth; they do not die, but receive the promise of a female seed. They enter into a situation which was known to God and determined by Him, but which could not be foreseen or calculated by human beings; a situation which bears a wholly peculiar character, in which wrath and mercy, punishment and blessing, judgment and endurance are connected with each other. It is this situation, which still persists in nature and humanity and which combines the sharpest contrasts.
We live in a wonderful world, a world that offers us the greatest contrasts. The high and the low, the large and the small, the exalted and the ridiculous, the tragic and the comic, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad, truth and lies are mixed together in an incomprehensible manner. Alternately the seriousness and the vanity of life take hold of us. Sometimes we are inclined to pessimism, sometimes to optimism; the man who weeps alternates every moment with the man who laughs. The whole world is marked by humor, rightly described as a smile in a tear.
The deepest cause of this present state of the world lies in the fact that God continually manifests His wrath on account of man's sin, and yet, according to His own will, also continually manifests His grace. We perish in His wrath, and yet in the morning we are saturated with His mercy, Ps. 90:7, 14. There is a moment in His wrath, but a lifetime in His mercy; in the evening weeping fades away, but in the morning there is jubilation, Ps. 30:6. Curse and blessing are so wonderfully connected and mixed together that they often seem to merge into one another.
Work in the sweat of the brow is both at the same time. And thus together they point to the Cross, which is at the same time the highest law and the richest grace. And that is why the Cross is the center of history and the reconciliation of all contradictions.
This situation immediately commenced after the fall, and in the first time, until the calling of Abraham, it again had a completely individual character. The first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis are the most important; they form the starting point and the basis of the entire history of the world.
Right at the start it deserves attention that general and special revelation, although distinct, do not yet occur separately next to each other, but continue to be constantly related to each other and are addressed to the same people, that is, to the same, then existing, humanity. The special revelation was not yet given to a few persons and was not limited to a single people, but extended to all people living at that time. The creation of the world, the formation of mankind, the history of paradise and the fall, the punishment for sin and the first demonstration of God's grace, Gen. 3:15, the public practice of religion, Gen. 4:26, and the beginning of culture, Gen. 4:17ff, The flood and the building of the tower all belong to the goods which mankind has acquired on its journey through the world; and it is therefore not at all surprising that survivals of all these events, albeit often in a very distorted form, occur among all peoples of the earth. The history of mankind has a common origin and beginning and is built on a broad, common foundation.
Nevertheless, in spite of this unity and communion, there soon came separation between people. And this separation had its cause in religion, in the relation in which one placed oneself to God. The Lord's service was still very simple then; there could be no question of a public worship service as we know it, as long as mankind consisted of only a few families. Yet from the very beginning God's service consisted of prayers and sacrifices, of bringing an offering, of dedicating to God the best that one had, Genesis 4:3, 4. The Scriptures do not say how man came to offer such sacrifices, and the opinions of scholars on the origin of sacrifices differ widely today; but it is clear that the first sacrifices arose from a feeling of dependence on and gratitude to God, and were of a symbolic nature. They were to be an expression of man's surrender and dedication to God; what mattered was not the gift in itself, but the spirit in the gift. Abel brought, both in disposition and in gift, a greater and better offering than Cain, Heb. 11:4, and was therefore accepted by the Lord in grace. Thus from the beginning there was already a separation between the children of Adam, a separation between the righteous and the godless, between martyrs and murderers, between the church and the world. And even though God interfered with Cain's life, sought him out, admonished him to repentance, and even credited mercy to justice (Genesis 4:9-16), the breach was no longer healed; the separation continued and took its course in the separation of the Cainites from the Sethites.
In the circles of the Cainites, unbelief and apostasy increased hand over fist and from generation to generation. They did not descend into idolatry and iconoclasm; the Scriptures make no mention of these among mankind before the Flood; these forms of false religion are not original but the product of later development, and evidence of a religious sense suppressed in their hearts by the Cainites. They gave themselves up, not to superstition, but to unbelief; they came, if not to theoretical, at least to practical denial of the existence and revelation of God. They acted as if there were no God; they ate and drank, married and spent, just as it will be in the future of the Son of Man, Matthew 24: 37 f. And they threw themselves with all their might on culture and sought therein their salvation, Genesis 4: 17-24. Rejoicing in a long life, which sometimes amounted to hundreds of years, Gen. 5: 3 f., possessing rich gifts and titanic physical strength, Gen. 4: 23, 6: 4, and boasting of the power of their sword, Gen. 4: 23, 24, they imagined that their own arm could provide their salvation.
It is true that in the generations of Seth the knowledge and the service of God were kept pure for a long time. In the days of his son Enos they even began to call on the name of the Lord, Gen. 4:26. This does not mean that they first began to honor God with prayers and sacrifices, because this had already taken place before then; Cain and Abel already mentioned sacrifices, and even though no explicit mention is made of prayers, they were certainly included in God's service from the very beginning, because no religion is conceivable without prayer; the sacrifice itself is a prayer embodied in life, and is always accompanied by prayer. Also, the expression in Genesis 4: 26 does not mean that God was specifically called by the name of Lord at that time; for, apart from the question whether the name of Jehovah was already known at that time, the essence of God expressed in that name was not made known by the Lord to Moses until much later, Ex. 3: 14. But in all probability the name of the Lord, which was begun at that time, means that the Sethites separated themselves from the Cainites, held their own meetings in the name of the Lord, and thus openly and publicly bore witness to the Cainites as to their loyalty to the service of God. They no longer only prayed and offered sacrifices on and for themselves, but from then on they gave a communal testimony; as the Cainites gave themselves over to the service of the world and sought all their salvation in it, the Sethites committed themselves to God and proclaimed His name in prayer and thanks, in preaching and confession, in the midst of an evil generation.
Through this public preaching a constant call to repentance went out to the descendants of Cain. And it continued, even when religion and morals among the Sethites began to decline and they began to mix with the world. Enos' grandson carried the name of Mahalalel, praise of God, Gen. 5: 15; Enoch walked with God, Gen. 5: 22; Lamech, at the birth of his son Noah, expressed his expectation that he would comfort them from the labor and trouble of their hands because of the earthly land, which God had cursed, Gen. 5: 29, and Noah himself, the son of the Sethites, Gen. 5: 29. 5 : 29, and Noah himself appeared at last as a preacher of righteousness, 2 Peter 2 : 5, and preached to his contemporaries the gospel of salvation through the Spirit of Christ, 1 Peter 3 : 19, 20.
But these pious people were more and more the exception. Sethites and Cainites mingled and brought forth children, who in violence surpassed the previous generations, Genesis 6:4. Man's wickedness was manifold, all the thoughts of his heart were evil from his youth and always, and he filled the earth with wrath, Genesis 6:5, 12, 13, 8:21. Although God in His forbearance granted a postponement of one hundred and twenty years, Genesis 6: 3, 1 Peter 3: 20, and in the preaching of Noah still indicated a way of escape, old man walked towards his doom and finally perished in the waters of the flood.
After this terrible judgment, in which only Noah and his family, numbering eight souls, were spared, a dispensation commenced which differed in many respects from that which preceded the flood. The flood was, according to the Scriptures, a unique event in the history of mankind, having its likeness only in the fire of the last days, Gen 8:21f. It is like a baptism, which condemns the world and preserves those who believe, 1 Pet 3:19, 20.
The new dispensation was introduced with a covenant. When Noah built an altar after the flood and offered sacrifices to God on that altar, which expressed the thanks and the supplication of his heart, the Lord said to Himself that He would no longer bring such judgment on the earth, but would introduce a fixed order of nature. As a consideration, it is important to note that the pattern of man's heart is evil from his youth, Gen 8:21. These words have a great deal in common with, and yet differ considerably from, those in Genesis 6:5, where it is said that all the thoughts of a man's heart are always evil. The words used there in Genesis 6:5 serve as a consideration for the destruction; those used here, in Genesis 8:21, serve as a consideration for the preservation of the earth. There the emphasis is on the wicked acts in which the corrupt heart of old mankind was revealed; here, on the other hand, attention is paid to the sinful nature which always remains in man, even after the flood.
It is as if the Lord wants to say in these words that He knows what awaits His creation if He left it to itself. Then man's heart, which always remains the same, would again break out in all kinds of terrible sins, provoking Him to wrath again and again and for a second time causing Him to destroy the entire earth. And He will not have that. That is why He will now establish mankind and nature in immutable order, prescribe to both the path in which they are to walk, and thereby limit and contain both. All this takes place in the covenant which God establishes with creation after the flood and which therefore bears the name of the covenant of nature.
Although this covenant also flows from God's grace in a broader sense, it is still fundamentally different from the usually called covenant of grace, which is established with the congregation in Christ. For this natural covenant rests on the consideration that man's heart is evil from childhood and will remain evil, Gen. 8:21; its content is the restoration of the creation blessing of fruitfulness and of dominion over animals, Gen. 9:1-3, 7, and to this end it also offers the possibility of death, Gen. 9:5, 6; it is called the natural covenant. 9: 5, 6; it is established with Noah, the progenitor of the second human race, and in him with all mankind and even with the entire living and empty creation, Gen. 9: 9ff; it is sealed with a natural phenomenon, Gen. 9: 12ff; and it has as its purpose the creation of a new world, and its purpose is to prevent a second event like the flood and to ensure the continued existence of mankind and the world, Gen 8:21, 22, 9:14-16.
With this, the existence and life of mankind and the world rest on a different, more solid foundation.
It is no longer fixed in the act of creation and in God's order of creation, but now receives its basis in a new, special act of God's mercy and long-suffering. It is not by virtue of His creation ordinances, which have been violated by man, that God is obliged to give man life and existence; but in a covenant He obliges Himself to preserve creation in spite of its fall and rebellion. From now on, the maintenance and government of the world no longer rest on a mere will, but on a covenant obligation. Through this covenant God owes it to Himself to maintain the world in its existence. In this covenant, He has pledged His name and His honour, His truth and faithfulness, His word and His promise to the creature for its existence. Thus are the ordinances of mankind and the world in a covenant of grace with all nature unshakably fixed, Gen. 8: 21, 22, Job 14: 5, 6, 26: 10, Ps. 119: 90, 91, 148: 6, Isa. 28: 24 f., Jer. 5: 24, 31: 35, 36, 33: 20, 25.
This covenant introduces an entirely different order of things than existed before the flood. The mighty forces of nature which worked in the past and still work in the flood have been subdued. The terrible monsters of living beings, who lived there in the past, have perished. The tremendous catastrophes, which in the past touched the whole of the kosher nation, have given way to an even progression of phenomena and events. People's lifespan has been shortened, their strength diminished, their nature softened, they have been organized into a society and placed under the control of a government. Nature and the world of mankind have been restricted by the covenant. Everywhere there are laws and orders. Everywhere dams and dikes have been built to stem the flow of iniquity. Order, measure, and number have become the hallmark of creation. God extends the wild animal in mankind, enables him to develop his gifts and strengths in art and science, in society and state, in profession and business, and thus fulfils the conditions which make history possible.
But this history is interrupted one more time by the penetrating act of the confusion of tongues. After the Flood the people first dwelt in the land of Ararat, in the Armenian highlands, where Noah became a farmer (Gen. 9:20). As they multiplied, they extended eastward along the rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates, and came to the plain of Sinear or Mesopotamia (Gen. 11:2). Here they settled down, and as they increased in wealth and power, hastened to plan to make a name for themselves by building a tall tower and to keep mankind from being scattered. Against God's command to fill and control the whole earth, they set forth the ideal of maintaining unity through an external center and of binding all mankind together in an empire that finds its strength in power and the glorification of mankind as the goal of its efforts. For the first time in history the idea occurs here of concentrating and organizing mankind with all its power and wisdom, with all its art and science, with all its culture, in front of God and His kingdom, an idea that has arisen again and again, and to which all kinds of so-called great men have aspired in the course of the centuries.
Therefore it is necessary that God intervenes and makes this attempt to build an empire once and for all impossible. He does so by the confusion of speech, which hitherto had been one. In what way and in what time this confusion took place, is not specified. But in any case it consisted in the fact that the people became physiologically and psychologically distinct from one another, that they began to see and call things differently, that as a result they were divided into nations and peoples and scattered to all sides of the earth. It should also be taken into account, that this confusion of speech was already prepared by the descent of different sons of Noah, Gen. 10:1 v., and by the departure of Noah's descendants from Armenia to Sinear, Gen. 11:2. The idea of building Babel's tower would not have arisen, if the very danger and fear of dispersion had not already arisen long and earnestly.
In this way Scripture explains the emergence of nations and peoples, of tongues and languages. Indeed, the immense diversity of mankind is a wonderful and inexplicable fact. People, who all descend from the same parents, share the same spirit and the same soul, the same flesh and the same blood, stand as strangers face to face. They do not understand each other. Not only that, but they are divided into races which dispute each other's existence, are bent on each other's destruction, and live century after century in secret and open warfare with each other. Racial instincts, feelings of nationality, enmity, hatred, separate the peoples. All this is a terrible punishment, a terrible judgment, which cannot be undone by cosmopolitanism and peace treaties, by volapuk and pasilalie, by no empire or world culture.
If ever there shall be unity again among mankind, it* cannot be accomplished by an outward mechanical connection around some tower of Babel, but it can only be accomplished from within, by assembly under one and the same Head, Eph. 1:10, by the peace-making creation of all nations into one new man, Eph. 2:15, by the regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, Acts 2:6, by the walking of all nations in one light, Rev. 21:24.
The unity in mankind, which can only be restored from within, has therefore also been disturbed once in the confusion of tongues from within, centrally. The false unity was violently broken, so that true unity could be made room for it; the kingdom of the world was broken up, so that the Kingdom of God could be established on earth. Henceforth the peoples are also broken up and scattered over the earth. Israel is chosen from all these peoples to be the bearer of God's revelation. General and special revelation, hitherto united, separate and are apart for a time, to meet again at the foot of the Cross. Israel is set apart to walk in the ways and dedications of the Lord, while the Lord lets the other nations walk in their own ways.
However, this should not be taken to mean that God had no involvement with these peoples and had left them to their own devices. This idea in itself is already preposterous, because God is the Creator, Sustainer and Ruler of all things, and nothing originates, takes place and exists without His omnipotent and omnipresent power.
But Scripture also repeatedly pronounces decidedly the opposite. When the Most High distributed the inheritance to the nations, when He separated Adam's children from one another, He set the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the children of Israel. 32 : 8. When the earth was divided, God reckoned with Israel and appointed for his people a country according to their number, but therefore He also distributed to all peoples their inheritance and determined their borders. He made the whole human race from one blood, that it should dwell not in one place but in the whole earth; for He did not create the earth that it should be empty, but formed it that men should dwell therein (Isaiah 45:18). Thus also He has set down (delineated, established) the times which were ordained beforehand for the life of the nations, and also the provisions (boundaries) of their dwelling places; the age and dwelling place of all the nations were determined in His counsel and appointed by His providence, Acts 17:26.
Moreover, although in times past He caused all the nations to walk in their own ways, He nevertheless did not leave them indifferent, but did them good from heaven, giving them rain and fruitful times and filling their hearts with food and gladness, Acts 14:16, 17. By His revelation in nature and history He sent His call to all hearts and consciences, Ps. 19:1. From the creation of the world God made His unseen things, His eternal power and Godhead known in the creatures, Rom. 1:19, 20. Although the Gentiles received no law as the people of Israel, and therefore have no law in this sense, yet by doing in concrete cases what is commanded by the law they show that in their moral nature they are themselves the law, that the actions commanded by that law are written in their hearts. And this is also confirmed in the fact that the judgment of the conscience and of the thoughts forming between them after their actions either accuses or exonerates them, Rom 2:14, 15.
The religious and moral consciousness of the heathen thus proves that God interfered with them Through the Word, who in the beginning was with God and God Himself, all things were made, and certainly in that Word was the life and light of man: their being and their consciousness, their existence and their reason are due to that Word. And not only in its principle and origin, but also in the sense that it is sustained from moment to moment by the Word of God. For that Word is not only the author of all things, but it also remained in the world as the sustainer and ruler of all things. And as such it not only gave life to all men, but also enlightened with consciousness, reason and intelligence every man who was born into the world, John 1: 3-10.
History imprints its seal on this testimony of Scripture. For not only did all kinds of inventions and businesses spring up soon after the fall in the circles of the Cainites, Gen. 4: 17 ff, but also, when after the flood the people settled down on the plain of Sinear, they brought about a high degree of culture within a relatively short time. According to Gen. 10:8-12, Nimrod, a descendant of Cusch, a son of Cham, was the founder of the kingdom of Babel. The Scriptures call him a great hunter before the Lord, because he drove away the tearing animals by his extraordinary strength, made the plain of Sinear safe, and attracted and moved the people to choose their place of residence there. Thus he founded several cities, Babel, Erech, Accad and Caine in the plain of Sinear; and from there he penetrated further into the land of Assyria and laid the foundation of the cities of Nineveh, Rehoboth, Ir and Calah and Resen.
The oldest inhabitants of Sinear were therefore, according to Scripture, not Semites, but Chamites; and the young science of Assyriology, which is engaged in translating and explaining the nail inscriptions excavated in Assyria, confirms this, insofar as it also teaches that Sinear was originally inhabited by a people of the Sumerians, who cannot be counted among the Semites. But this ancient population of Sinear was later overrun by a migration of Semites. These people retained their own language, but took over the culture of the Sumerians and merged with it to form the later people of the Chaldeans. The Semitic element gained the upper hand when the city-king of Babel, Hammurabi, perhaps the same as Amraphel in Genesis 14:1, made Babel his capital and subjugated all Sinear. The tenth chapter of Genesis also expresses this itself, because in verse 11 it is said that Nimrod the Chamite went to the land of Assur and founded cities there, but in verse 22 we read that Assur, that is, the population living in Assur, is related to Elam, Arphachsad, Lud, Aram and must be counted among the descendants of Shem.
The civilization that we encounter in the land of Sinear, in science and art, in morals and law, in trade and industry, is at a height which, the better we learn it from the excavations, the more astonished we are. How and when it came into being we do not know; but it completely destroys the common idea that the further we go back, the rougher and uncivilized peoples we come into contact with. As long as we do not build all kinds of fantastic impressions on the uncivilized condition of the so-called natural peoples, but try to penetrate the past on the basis of history, we are strengthened in the thought of Scripture that the oldest period of Noahite mankind, through the initiative of men like Nimrod, stood at a high level of culture.
And this civilization was not confined to the land of Sinear. As mankind expanded, it spread over the earth after the confusion of tongues. Of course, it happened that tribes moved further and further away from the center of civilization and sought refuge in the wild and inhospitable places of Asia, Europe and Africa. It is not surprising that these tribes and peoples, in their isolated lives, cut off from all contact with other peoples, struggling with the rough and tumble of nature, have remained at the level of civilization they had adopted or, in many cases, have even sunk below it. These peoples are nowadays usually referred to as ״natural peoples'. But this name is unclear and incorrect. For in all these peoples we find all those characteristics and goods which belong to the basic elements of civilization. They are all human beings, not mere creatures of nature; they all have, without distinction, consciousness and will, reason and intelligence, heart and conscience; they have language and religion, law and order, family and society, tools and jewelry.
And among them, too, there is so much difference that the boundary between the peoples of nature and those of culture cannot be defined. There is an important difference in civilization between the Boschjesmen in South Africa, the inhabitants of Polynesia and the Negro races. And however different they may be, they all have in common a fund of ideas, traditions, e.g. about the Flood, memories and expectations which point to the same origin.
Much more so among the so-called cultured peoples, the Indians and Chinese, the Phoenicians and Egyptians. The foundations of the world view, which we discover among all these peoples, are the same as those which the excavations in the land of Sinear have made known to us. Here is the origin of all culture, the cradle and cradle of mankind. From Central Asia, mankind has spread over the whole earth; from this center it took with it those elements of culture which are common to all civilized peoples and which each of them has developed further in an independent manner and according to its own nature. The ancient culture of Babylonia, with its writing, its astronomy, its mathematics, its timekeeping, etc., is still the foundation on which ours is built.
And yet, when we look at this entire history of civilization from a religious and moral point of view, it leaves a deep impression of dissatisfaction and disappointment. The Apostle Paul said of it that the Gentiles, knowing God from His general revelation in nature, nevertheless did not glorify or give thanks to Him as God; but they were perverted in their deliberations and their unwise hearts were darkened. Making out that they were wise, they became foolish and changed the glory of the immortal God into the likeness of a mortal man, and of fowl, and of four-footed and creeping animals, Rom. 1:21-23. Impartial historical research of the religions of the peoples leads to the same result. One can, by using a false philosophy of the different forms of religion to go back to an intangible essence of religion in the mind of mankind, flower the seriousness of this result. But the fact remains the same: mankind has not glorified God nor thanked God along the long road of its civilization.
Already with the oldest inhabitants of Sinear we find this service of the creature instead of the Creator. According to some, the religion of the Babylonians, like that of other peoples, is based on the idea of the unity of God, and without doubt this idea of Godhead must have existed before it could be applied to creatures. But in fact, from ancient times the religion of the Babylonians consisted of the worship of all kinds of creatures, who were thought of as gods. How this transition took place from the service of the one true God to the worship of creatures is impossible to determine for lack of historical data.
But it is an unproven and arbitrary assumption that religion would have evolved from polydaemonism (worship of all kinds of souls and spirits; fetishism, animism, totemism) through polytheism (worship of all kinds of gods) to monotheism (worship of one god). Nowhere do we see that such a development took place, because Israel is the only exception. But history teaches us repeatedly that people can lapse from the confession of one God into the worship of many gods; we are witnesses to this in the history of Israel, in the history of many Christian churches, and in our own time. For when belief in the one God is abandoned, all kinds of polytheistic ideas and superstitious practices arise.
Furthermore, there is not such a difference between lower and higher religions, between the religions of so-called natural peoples and those of cultural peoples, as is usually assumed. The same thoughts and actions recur, albeit in a modified form, among all the pagan peoples; they even live on in all kinds of forms of superstition among the Christian nations, and are honored again in modern circles with the decline of the Christian religion.
First, we find idolatry and statuary among all peoples. Idolatry consists of inventing something else in place of the one true God, or in place of Him, upon which man puts his trust. The creatures come into consideration for this, first of all the sky with its sun, moon and stars, as for instance in the Babylonian religion, which has rightly been called an astral or star religion; or the heroes, the geniuses, the great men, who are thought of as a kind of in-between beings between gods and men and who are worshipped in Greece, among other places. In Greece, for example; or the ancestors, who after their death have passed on to a different and higher state, and in Chinese religion are the main object of worship; or different animal figures, for example, of a bull, a crocodile, etc., or the saints and spirits who are generally thought to inhabit all kinds of living and inanimate beings, temporarily or permanently, and as such are an object of worship in the religions of both civilized and uncivilized peoples.
Whatever form idolatry takes, however, it is always the worship of the creature rather than of the Creator. The distinction between God and the world has been lost; the holiness, that is, the distinctness of God and His absolute elevation above all creatures, has been completely lost in the Heathendom.
Secondly, with this idolatry go all kinds of false ideas about mankind and the world. Religion is never separate in Heidelberg, but is closely interwoven with all life, with the state and society, with art and science. A religion which exists only in emotions and moods is nowhere to be found. Religion, as man's relationship to God, also regulates all other relationships, and therefore automatically includes a particular view of mankind and the world, of the origin, essence and destiny of all things. In particular, the religious ideas which accompany belief in the gods relate to the past and to the future. In all religions there are memories of paradise and expectations of the future, thoughts about the origin and future of mankind and the world; about a golden age, which existed at the beginning and was followed by ages of silver and iron and clay, and about man's survival after this life, about a judgment that will be held over all at the end, and about a different situation that will then arise between the righteous and the wicked. In the various religions these ideas often occupied an entirely different place. The Chinese religion looks back to the past and is absorbed in ancestor worship; the Egyptian religion extends to the future, is concerned with the dead and is the religion of the kingdom of the dead. But all these elements are present in all religions to a greater or lesser degree.
And in this all these representations are similar, that they mix the element of truth with all kinds of error and foolishness. The boundary between Creator and creature has been erased, and therefore the boundary between world and man, between soul and body, between life here on earth and life after death, between heaven and hell, is nowhere clearly drawn. Everywhere the physical and the ethical, the material and the spiritual, the earthly and the heavenly are confused and mixed up with each other. The lack of awareness of the holiness of God corresponds to the lack of awareness of sin. The pagan world does not know God; it does not know the world and man; it does not know sin and misery.
Thirdly, the religions of the nations are all characterized by the attempt to attain salvation themselves by exerting all human power. Idolatry automatically leads to self-willed religion. When the service of the true God is abandoned, and thus there is no longer any objective, true-historical revelation, man tries to force the gods or spirits he has invented into revelation. Idolatry is always accompanied by superstition, mantis (divination), and magic (sorcery). Manticism is the attempt to discover the will of the gods, either by oneself or with the help of soothsayers, priests, oracles, etc., and by means of starry-eyed witchcraft, dream interpretation, bird watching, etc. And magic is the attempt to make the will of the gods subservient to itself, to its own happiness, by means of formalistic prayers, voluntary sacrifices, self-pain etc.
Here, too, there is all kinds of difference in forms. Soothsaying and witchcraft have a different character and meanings in the various religions. But they are found everywhere and are a necessary part of the Pagan religion.
Everywhere it is man who comes to the fore and seeks his own salvation. Nowhere is the actual meaning of redemption (reconciliation) and grace known.
Nevertheless, although these characteristics have characterized the general character of the pagan religions, some of them have undergone reforms which deserve our deliberate attention and a separate, though brief, discussion. When on the one hand religion degenerates into all kinds of coarse and crude forms of superstition and witchcraft, and on the other hand civilization advances, a conflict arises everywhere from time to time. And out of that conflict, no doubt also under the guidance of God, are born those men who strive for reconciliation and try to lift religion out of its deep decay. This was done by Zarathushtra, who probably lived in Persia before the seventh century B.C., by Confucius in China in the sixth century B.C., by Buddha in India in the fifth century B.C., by Mohammed in Arabia in the sixth century A.D., and by many other known and unknown men.
There can be no disagreement about the fact that the religions founded by these men are in many respects highly elevated above the popular religions in the midst of which they lived. The hypothesis of development and the hypothesis of dilution are both, in religion as in every other area of culture, highly one-sided and incapable of summarizing the wealth of phenomena occurring here in a single formula. Periods of prosperity and decline, of revival and depression, alternate in the history of all peoples and in every field.
Nor are these men deliberate impostors, instruments or accomplices of Satan, but serious people who have themselves wrestled with the conflict that arose between popular belief and their enlightened consciousness, and who have sought, by the light they have been given, a better way of obtaining true happiness.
But however much this may be recognized, all these reforming divinities differ not in essence but in degree from the idolatries of the people. They have cut off the wild branches of the false religion, but they have not eradicated its root. Zarathushtra preached from the contradiction between good and evil, but he conceived this contradiction not only ethically but also and primarily physically. Thus he was forced to distinguish between a good and an evil God, and to create a dualism that permeated the whole world, nature, mankind and animals, and in practice led to the mutilation of life. Confucianism was a state religion that was formed from other religious components and linked the worship of natural gods and ancestors. Buddhism, at its inception, was not really a religion but a philosophy, which placed evil in suffering and sought suffering in existence, and therefore recommended abstinence, numbing of consciousness, destruction of being as the way of salvation. And Muhammad, who was familiar with Judaism and Christianity and who, out of his fervent belief in the approaching judgment which, according to him, was to befall his materialistic contemporaries, came to the confession of a single God, most certainly brought about a divine and moral reform. But in his personal life, the religious preacher increasingly stepped back behind the statesman and legislator, and the religion he founded enthroned in God the unlimited omnipotence, the absolute arbitrariness, in man the slavish submission. There was no communion between God and man in this religion, because neither the cause of separation nor the way to reunification was understood. The happiness of heaven consists in the full satisfaction of sensual desires.
If, therefore, we look over the entire field of general revelation, we discover on the one hand that it has been of great value and has borne rich fruit, but on the other hand that mankind has not found God by its light. It is thanks to the general revelation that all people still have a religious and moral awareness, that they still have some consciousness of truth and lies, good and evil, right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, that they live in the context of marriage and family, society and the state; That they are restrained by all these external and internal bonds and protected from sinking into bestiality, that within these limits they devote themselves to the acquisition, distribution and enjoyment of all kinds of spiritual and material goods; i. i. e. that humanity is maintained in its existence, preserved in its unity, continued and developed in its history.
But in spite of all this, it remains true to the word of the Apostle Paul that the world with all its wisdom has not known God in His wisdom, 1 Cor. 1:21. When Paul attributes wisdom to the world, he means it in all seriousness. By the light of general revelation the world has gathered a treasure of wisdom, wisdom concerning the things of this earthly life. But this wisdom of the world makes it all the less blameworthy, for it shows that man has not lacked God's gifts, reason and intelligence, power of thought and will. But it does bring to light that man, because of the darkening of his mind and the hardness of his heart, did not use the gifts he had been given in the right way.
Thus the light has shone in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it, John 1:5. The Word was in the world, but the world did not know Him (the Logos), John 1:10 .-. With all its wisdom the world has not known God, 1 Cor. 1:21.
Source: Magnalia Dei