Beauty Is in the Eye of the True Beholder

The Beauty of Eternity

Where have you seen the beauty that God is bringing into the world?

I have glimpsed it in a flaming meteor streaking across the August sky and disappearing with a flash over a darkly shimmering lake. I have heard it in the laughter of a baby girl climbing up into a chair for the first time and chortling over her unexpected little triumph. I have seen it in the face of a radiant bride on her wedding day and the irrepressible tear on the cheek of her beloved groom.

I have also seen beauty rising from the ashes of a burning world. Pastor Steve Wood bore witness to such beauty as he surveyed the ruins of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 2018. After a long legal battle, the congregation finally had secured possession of its church building. Then disaster struck. A few hours before worship services were scheduled to begin one fine Sunday morning, fire ravaged the church. Although rescue workers salvaged the cross, the baptismal font, and the Communion table, the building was a total loss. Yet as Pastor Wood stood in the smoking ruins, he said to a reporter, “The Lord promises to bring beauty out of ashes. And we’re taking Him at his word.”1

Beauty Is Your Destiny

Philip Graham Ryken

Adapted from chapel messages given at Wheaton College, Beauty Is Your Destiny provides readers with an introduction to the theology and practice of beauty.

Beauty out of ashes. The promise that Pastor Wood had in mind comes from Isaiah the prophet, who foretold a suffering Savior, anointed by the Spirit to

provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
      instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
      instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
      instead of a spirit of despair. (Isa. 61:3 NIV)

Even when his culture was crumbling, Isaiah had the faith to see beauty rising. He knew that one day God would restore his people to their forgotten splendor.

There is beauty all around us in this grace-filled, sometimes smoldering world, if only we have the eyes to see it. There is a basis for it in the beauty of our triune God and in what he calls beautiful. There is a purpose for it too. Beauty is our destiny. We were born to be beautiful—to behold the beauty of our God and to be so transfixed and transformed by it that we become beautiful ourselves.

What Is Beauty?

My simple goal is to awaken a longing for beauty and the eternal love of God that can be fully satisfied only in the face of Jesus Christ. My hope and prayer is that you will be able to look toward eternity and say, in all sincerity, what David said:

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. (Ps. 27:4)

Whether we know it or not, David’s one desire is also our deepest longing and enduring destiny: to behold the beauty of the Lord. But as soon as we start talking about “beauty,” we have difficult problems to address, starting with the conundrum of definition. What is beauty?

Beauty is transcendent, reminding us of God.

Great thinkers have wrestled with this question at least since the dawn of philosophy in ancient Greece. Today we do not seem to be much closer to an answer than we were two thousand years ago. In his book The Beauty of the Infinite, David Bentley Hart reluctantly concedes that it is “impossible” for anyone “to offer a definition of beauty, either in the abstract or in Christian thought.”2 Traditional definitions include concepts of beauty such as order, proportion, symmetry, simplicity, harmony, and the pleasure they produce. Yet by themselves, these qualities do not guarantee that something is beautiful. We can all think of beautiful things that contradict the classical ideals. In fact, some of the world’s most famous works of art creatively violate certain aesthetic principles. According to philosopher Roger Scruton, “Rules and precepts are there to be transcended, and because originality and the challenging of orthodoxies are fundamental to the aesthetic enterprise, an element of freedom is built into the pursuit of beauty.”3

Even if we have trouble defining it, however, we know there is such a thing as beauty. We know this biblically. If we scan the pages of Scripture, we can derive a long list of things that God calls beautiful: people (Judg. 15:2; Isa. 33:17) and their melodious voices (Ezek. 33:32), animals (Jer. 13:20; 46:20), plants and trees (Dan. 4:12; Hos. 14:6), clothing (Josh. 7:21; Isa. 61:3), cities (Pss. 48:2; 50:2) and their fine buildings (Isa. 5:9), ships at sea (Isa. 2:16), and royal crowns and other treasures (Ps. 16:6; Prov. 4:9; Isa. 28:1; Ezek. 23:42).

If the Bible stipulates certain things as beautiful, then there really is beauty in the eye of the Beholder, with a capital B. Almighty God is inexpressibly beautiful in his own being. One early theologian thus described him as “the all-beautiful,” “the superabundant source in itself of the beauty of every beautiful thing.”4 Beautiful in himself, God has also promised to “set beauty in the land of the living” (Ezek. 26:20). Whatever God sees and says is beautiful is beautiful! The Bible tells us so.

We also know beauty experientially. In a talk titled “Why Beauty Matters,” the poet Dana Gioia mentions four stages of engaging with something beautiful.5 First, it arrests our attention; the world stops while we look or listen. Second, we have a sudden thrill of pleasure in the presence of what is truly beautiful. As the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar testified, “Within the beautiful the whole person quivers.”6 Third, we have a sense that we are in touch with ultimate reality. Beauty is transcendent, reminding us of God. Fourth, the moment passes, and all we have left is the happy memory, which never quite matches the experience.

To Gioia’s list we can add the instant desire that beauty brings to share the joy of our experience with someone else. The point is that we all experience beauty, and in that sense it is universal. What we see as beautiful may vary across cultures (which is yet another reason to value diversity—it helps us behold more beauty, as we see with new eyes). We also have different capacities for recognizing beauty (an aesthetic appreciation that we can develop). But beauty is more than merely a personal preference or a social construct. If God is beautiful and his creation is beautiful, then beauty is objectively there! Jonathan King summarizes by saying, “The beauty expressed in God’s outward works is objectively real and subjectively experienced.”7 God has put his beauty into the world, and we are witnesses.

Our struggle to define beauty is an important signal in and of itself. Rather than giving up on beauty because it is hard for us to agree on how to explain it, we should accept the fact that the beautiful is ineffable. In other words, beauty always goes beyond what we can describe or define, and this is an unmistakable sign of its transcendence. The overabundance of beauty in our present existence is intended to point us beyond this world to an eternal reality, “in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered.”8


  1. Jamie Dean recounts this true story in “Beauty out of Ashes,” World, March 27, 2021, 38.
  2. David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 15.
  3. Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 119.
  4. Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names, quoted in Patrick Sherry, Spirit and Beauty: An Introduction to Theological Aesthetics, 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 2002), 56.
  5. Dana Gioia, “Why Beauty Matters,” First Things, February 18, 2020, https://www.first
  6. Hans Urs von Balthasar, quoted in Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999), 127.
  7. Jonathan King, The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics, Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2018), 50.
  8. Scruton, Beauty, 145.

This article is adapted from Beauty Is Your Destiny: How the Promise of Splendor Changes Everything by Philip Graham Ryken.

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