Sometimes persistent questions demand a response. The question I would like us to ask and answer this morning is will beauty save the world? It may sound like an odd question. It’s a question occasioned by Dostoevsky the great Russian novelist, in his work The Idiot—a novel drenched in Christian content and deeply engaged with Christian theology. Beauty will save the world. Is that a Christian affirmation or not? When Dostoevsky said that beauty will save the world, how was he defining beauty?
I want us to consider two biblical texts in response to this question. First Isaiah 53:1-10.
“Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.”
Isaiah, in this great Christological prophecy, says, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him.” But now compare this with the Psalmist’s declaration of the Lord’s beauty in Psalm 27:4, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.”
What do we make of that juxtaposition? In Isaiah 53 the Christ has “no beauty” as people gazed upon him; rather, he was stricken and afflicted. He was one from whom men turned their faces. Now, is that talking primarily about his physical appearance? Clearly not. Isaiah has in view Christ’s substitutionary atonement and the judgment on sin that occurs in that great event. Yet the Psalmist requests “that [he] may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.” What do we make of this? Are the works of God in Christ beautiful or are they not?
In one sense, the Bible begins and ends in beauty. In Genesis, Moses repeatedly emphasizes that God’s verdict on His creation is that “it was good,” even “it was very good.” But this statement has a deeper meaning than our English word “good.” Instead the Hebrew also carries the connotation “beautiful.” It was beautiful. It was very beautiful.
Now consider how the Scripture ends Revelation 21:22-27 as the apostle John describes the New Jerusalem: “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” The New Jerusalem and the river of life are a testimony to beauty.
Humans are instinctively drawn to beauty. This fact is the reason why we go to museums, art shows, or even the Grand Canyon. But how should we think about beauty from a Christian worldview? How does beauty fit within our understanding of the framework of redemption? Consider with me the problem of beauty, the priority of beauty, and the power of beauty.
The Problem of Beauty
Beauty itself is not necessarily problematic. The problem is that humans are not good at recognizing true beauty when they see it. In a fallen world, even our perception of beauty has been corrupted by sin. This is nowhere more evident than in the magazine racks found at checkout lines of grocery stores. Magazines that airbrush models and artificially mask a person’s physical flaws are making claims about the character of beauty. But while these images may be “pretty,” they are certainly not, from a biblical perspective, beautiful.
The Christian worldview posits that anything pure and good finds its ultimate source in the self-existent, omnipotent God who is infinite in all his perfections. Thus the Christian worldview reminds us that the “transcendentals”—the good, the true, and the beautiful—are inseparable. Thus when Psalm 27 speaks of the beauty of the Lord, the Psalmist is also making a claim about the goodness of the Lord and the truthfulness of the Lord. While we distinguish God’s attributes from one another in order to understand them better, we must also recognize that these attributes are inseparable from one another.
In our fallen state we often separate the good, the true, and the beautiful from one another. But the Bible reminds us that if something is true then it is good and beautiful. If something is good, then it is beautiful and true. Finally, if something is beautiful, then it is good and true. Thus, while beauty magazines may present an image that is “pretty,” those images are not rightly beautiful because they do not faithfully represent the truth. But the Christian Worldview teaches that the face of a child with Downs Syndrome is far more beautiful than any photo-shopped (and therefore fake) image of a professional model. True beauty is found in what is good and true.
Similarly, the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ is certainly not attractive from the world’s perspective. The agony of the Savior, the blood of his self-sacrifice, and the horror of crucifixion are not pretty. Yet, while the cross is not pretty, it is certainly beautiful. The cross is beautiful because on it Jesus paid the penalty for sin. The cross is beautiful because in it we see the grace and justice of God. The cross is beautiful because it is also good and true. So Dostoyevsky was right, beauty will save the world. Our job as Christians is to remember the difference between the beautiful and the pretty.
The Priority of Beauty
We must also recognize the priority of beauty in every human heart. Part of what it means to be made in the image of God is that we yearn for things that are genuinely beautiful. Even the most hardened secularist marvels at a sunset or stands breathless at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Augustine explained in his Confessions that every human heart is directed to beauty. The problem with the sinful human heart is that we can be bought off by something less than beauty. Of course, Augustine also pointed to the fact that the human craving for beauty was not mere sentiment. Rather, true beauty reveals an objective origin and source of beauty, God himself. Our longing for beauty ultimately reveals our desperate need for God.
The Power of Beauty
Dostoevsky asserted that beauty would save the world. I’m entirely confident that beauty will indeed save the world because nothing could be more beautiful than the work of Jesus. And because Jesus’ work is beautiful, it is also true. And because his sacrifice is true, it is also good. The atoning work of the Lord Jesus is the epicenter of all that is true, good, and beautiful. The cross of Christ may not be pretty, but it certainly is beautiful.
This post is an edited transcript of a chapel message from September 1, 2016.
R. Albert Mohler Jr.