What does the Bible say about aesthetics?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: What does the Bible have to say about aesthetics? More specifically, I'm looking to understand beauty from a biblical perspective. I once heard that to experience beauty is to experience one of God's attributes. If that is true, what do they mean when they say that?

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries — and thank you for asking such a challenging question. I’m a great consumer of God’s aesthetics! It’s just that I’ve never thought about them systematically before — and one of the reasons is the subject of aesthetics is very broad.

Since the field is so broad, it would take months to do your question justice... and there’s no way I can do that in this question-and-answer format. What I’ll do instead is show you just how expansive it is, and then I will focus on one aspect of aesthetics that matches my personal interests in hopes that it will intersect with yours.

Jonathan King has written a book entitled The Beauty of the Lord. He says that the topic of godly aesthetics is best considered under four categories: the natural theology of beauty, theology of the arts, religious aesthetics and theological aesthetics — and your question touches on all four! The introduction to this book is available free online. You can find it at the following link:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325165084_The_Beauty_of_the_Lord_Theology_as_Aesthetics_Introduction_only

James S. Spiegel has weighed in on aesthetics, too, but his emphasis is how it relates to worship. His article, Aesthetics and Worship, although a long piece, is available for free. For someone with your interests, it would be well worth reading. Spiegel believes that the Church has a duty to strive for beauty — and that we Christians should celebrate aesthetics! The problem, he says, is that we are missing the boat. Here’s the conclusion to his article:

The Christian church, once the leader of the arts, is now scarcely taken seriously in artistic communities. Worse yet, the formal worship of Christians is compromised by mediocrity in this area. Our problem, however, is not for lack of inspiration, as the scriptures are brimming with aesthetic instructions, from the Genesis creation account to the hymns of Revelation, not to mention the nature of the Biblical writings themselves. We must recapture a truly Christian vision for the arts, and strive mightily to be aesthetically virtuous. The duties of the church pertain not only to goodness but to beauty as well.

http://d3pi8hptl0qhh4.cloudfront.net/documents/sbjt/sbjt_1998winter6.pdf

Since I can only reasonably cover one aspect of aesthetics — and since I have an interest in Christian apologetics — I’m going to share Dr. Jeff Miller’s article on the value of aesthetics as evidence that God exists.

There are several extra-biblical arguments for the existence of God, but the four main ones are the Ontological Argument, the Moral Argument, the Teleological Argument and the Cosmological Argument. The argument based on aesthetics is a subcategory of the Teleological Argument — the design argument — but it is strong enough to stand alone.

This argument shows how Darwinism fails to provide an adequate explanation of beauty — but perhaps more pointedly — an explanation for why we appreciate it. I’m including the full text of that article below... and I pray this helps you. (Please respect the copyright of Jeff Miller, Ph.D., and Apologetics Press.)

The Aesthetic Argument for God’s existence is sometimes considered to fall under the design argument for God’s existence (the Teleological Argument). The argument highlights the fact that beauty exists, and more specifically, the ability to appreciate beauty exists. Atheism cannot adequately explain this appreciation in the diverse forms it is found, because that appreciation, by-in-large, has no evolutionary advantage. So, the argument says that the existence of beauty proves that a God must exist Who cares for His Creation and wishes to give us joy and pleasure.

Charles Darwin recognized the Aesthetic Argument as a threat to evolutionary theory. In the Origin of Species, he said, “Some authors believe that many structures have been created for the sake of beauty, to delight man or the Creator…or for the sake of mere variety….  Such doctrines, if true, would be absolutely fatal to my theory.”1 Why? Because naturalistic evolution cannot explain why something would become beautiful for the sole benefit of others. According to Darwin, “Natural selection cannot possibly produce any modification in any one species exclusively for the good of another species…. But natural selection can and does often produce structures for the direct injury of other species.”2 Evolution is “survival of the fittest” and “the strong survive.” It is the selfish, bloody battle of the strong for survival. It is not about benefitting others. So if naturalistic evolution (i.e., atheism) is true, evolving a trait must have a selfish benefit—not for the benefit of others.

So Darwin conceded, “If it could be proved that any part of the structure of any one species had been formed for the exclusive good of another species, it would annihilate my theory, for such could not have been produced through natural selection.”3 In the same breath, however, he made a critical admission: “I fully admit that many structures are of no direct use to their possessors.”4 In other words, contrary to evolutionary predictions, “many structures” are possessed by creatures which are not useful at all to them! His response to the “problem” of beauty was to blindly conjecture that beautiful features must have just accidentally happened or perhaps were useful to a creature in some way at some point in the past, though not today.

Atheists today seem to acknowledge that Darwin’s response to the Aesthetic Argument was not satisfactory. They often respond to the beauty “problem” by claiming that beauty evolved accidentally in various creatures and then remained in those creatures because it helped them personally in getting mates—sexual selection. Those beautiful creatures would tend to reproduce more often, keeping the “beautiful” genes “alive.” Darwin, however, disagreed with this reasoning. He said, “The effects of sexual selection, when displayed in beauty to charm the females, can be called useful only in rather a forced sense…. [M]any structures now have no direct relation to the habits of life of each species.”5 In other words, Darwin recognized that, while sexual selection might help explain some cases of beauty, it does not even nearly explain all of the examples of beauty we see in the animal kingdom. And that admission highlights the fact that atheists still have not adequately answered the Aesthetic Argument.

Besides that fact, consider: sexual selection attempts to explain why beautiful animals would tend to “stick around,” but should not the opposite also be true? Should not the “ugly” animals have died out since they were less “pleasing to the eyes”? Why isn’t the animal kingdom more beautiful all around, after “millions of years” of tweaking? According to the fossil record, many “ugly” creatures have existed since they originally came onto the scene and have not changed—in many cases, over “millions of years,” according to the evolutionary time line. They have not changed, and yet they have not died out, as evolution would predict they should. Bible believers can explain why “ugly” things would exist (e.g., the effects of sin, Genesis 3:18; on-going genetic entropy as a consequence of being banished from the Tree of Life, Genesis 3:22-24). But would not evolution predict much more beauty in the animal kingdom if sexual selection is the powerful, beauty-generating mechanism it is espoused to be?

Further, keep in mind that sexual selection cannot work until beauty exists in the first place. Darwin was not able to provide a mechanism through which an animal would “grow” a new trait that would make it beautiful. Random mutations, for example, cannot generate new genetic information—and new genetic information is necessary to explain beauty where there once was no beauty. In other words, even if his response to the Aesthetic Argument could explain why beauty exists in the animal kingdom, he did not explain how evolution could create beauty in the first place. He attempted to explain how beauty would be in harmony with “survival of the fittest,” but he did not explain the arrival of the fittest in the first place. Although we are now some 150 years removed from Darwin, evolutionists still have no answer to that pivotal question.6

Also notice that modern atheists only attempt to respond to one “finger” of the Aesthetic Argument—namely why some of the beautiful animals exist. Sexual selection does not adequately explain why an orchestra playing Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major is so beautiful that it can create an emotional response; why certain things that are not inherently good for you (and are sometimes even bad for you) taste good or smell good; why some things feel good—again, even when they are not always beneficial to you; why looking at a sunrise, waterfall, or ocean can give us such pleasure. Such examples of beauty highlight a more fundamental component of the Aesthetic Argument. Atheists scramble to try to explain why various creatures are beautiful, but the underlying question is, why do we perceive something as beautiful in the first place? Even if a beautiful trait could accidentally evolve in one creature, another creature, simultaneously, must also evolve an appreciation of that beauty. Even if natural selection could adequately explain why something beautiful tends to survive, it does not explain why we would see that thing as beautiful in the first place. Though “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and therefore everyone differs somewhat on what constitutes “beauty,” nevertheless, everyone possesses the inbuilt faculty that causes them to conceptualize the characteristic of beauty.

Why does beauty exist? Because an omnibenevolent God exists Who wants to give His children good things, as any decent parent would; Who wants humans to experience joy and pleasure. So, He has “made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)—things “pleasant for the eyes” (Ecclesiastes 11:7); people that have a “pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument” (Ezekiel 33:32); things which are “sweet to your taste” (Proverbs 24:13) and “give a good smell” (Song of Solomon 2:13); things that make a “joyful sound” (Psalm 89:15). “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” (Psalm 34:8).

ENDNOTES

1 Charles Darwin (1998), The Origin of Species (New York: Grammercy), p. 146.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid., emp. added.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., emp. added.
6 Jeff Miller (2013), Science vs. Evolution (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press), revised edition.

https://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=12&article=5451

Beautiful, no? God bless you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20201005 The problem of goodness )

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