There is of course some sense in which Beauty will save the world. God is ultimate goodness and beauty, and God most certainly will save the world. He will put all things right. He will finally cast Satan, his evil angels, and all of the wicked into Hell. And amen. God in His Infinite Beauty will do that. In that ultimate sense, Christ Himself as the Beautiful One will save the world.
Yet there is so much muddle going about these days that we really must be more careful. There are a number of ways in which beauty will not save the world. Perhaps the central, most fundamental muddle is related to the nature of man and our predicament in sin. The Bible teaches not that man is born merely inclined to sin, not that we are dying, but rather that we are born dead in our trespasses and sins, enslaved to our sinful passions, hating God, hating our neighbor, and willfully refusing to submit to God our Creator, much less, God our Savior.
And directly related to this is our stubborn refusal to see the beauty of the universe for what it is. We have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23), which means, among other things that we have willfully twisted the beauty of the world.
Now, at times in my own writing and thinking, I have crept up to the edge of an understanding of beauty that says despite all of this, God in His sovereign grace sometimes melts our cold hearts of stone with beauty. I have thought that perhaps a beautiful sunset, a beautiful piano sonata, a beautiful woman, a poem, a dance, a meal and so on may in fact turn someone from their sins to God. If not in a definitive way, I’ve at least thought that these things are at least something like breadcrumbs leading back to God. But I want to go on record as repudiating that view. To the extent that I have stated that elsewhere in any form, I retract it.
Now, let us be clear: it is of course absolutely true that those truly beautiful things do radiate with the glory of God. They do point to God. They are the flecks of gold that lead back to His infinite treasures of glory and beauty. And if we could see them and hear them and taste them for what they truly are we could not help but fall down and worship our Creator and Redeemer. But the trouble is that the Bible teaches that we cannot see them, we cannot hear them, and we cannot taste them for what they truly are. Imprisoned in our sins, we refuse to. And worse than that, we willfully choose to worship those flecks of gold rather than the Creator. In other words, beauty for an unregenerate sinner is just a little more rat poison sprinkled on top of the maggot infested meal we insist on eating. While the natural man certainly may have some appreciation of beauty, the natural man is dead to God, and therefore his joy and appreciation of beauty is not merely severely handicapped, it is actually an obstacle getting in the way. All of that beauty is sufficient to damn him, but it is not sufficient to save him.
The Bible teaches two fairly offensive things on this count:
First, that only God saves, through His supernatural working. “[God]… even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ… For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). One minute everything is like the adults talking on the Peanuts cartoons, wah-wah-wah wah-wah-wah, and the next minute there’s meaning and poetry. It’s like playing music for a dead man, like reading a poem to a corpse — that beauty does nothing for the corpse, unless or until resurrection happens. We are a valley of dry bones, demon infested corpses, deaf, dumb, blind, and lame — utterly helpless. Salvation is pure gift, so that no one may boast. To say that beauty saves is at best to introduce muddle and ambiguity about the state of man in his sin. And at worst, it suggests that man is not entirely dead or entirely helpless, and that perhaps with some of that remaining innate goodness, he may rehabilitate himself by following that trail of beauty to salvation. But this not only credits man with an innate goodness that the Bible denies, but it robs Christ of His glory in the act of salvation by sheer grace.
Second, God’s primary instrument for working supernaturally is His Word proclaimed. Now, is there beauty in the Word? Of course. And this may seem like a difference without a difference to some, but it really does touch on some fundamental truths. When God spoke creation into existence, He did so from nothing. There is something fundamental about the Word spoken, read, preached, proclaimed that echoes that original event. Of course, the Word proclaimed by a man in this created world always includes sound waves, mouths, tongues, facial expressions, tone of voice, ears, minds — in sum, a great deal of created matter is involved in the Word proclaimed. And while we may say there is something analogous to the incarnation taking place — the Word takes on flesh in a sense. Nevertheless, it is of the utmost importance that we not collapse the two things into one another. To put it in theological terms: there is no new hypostatic union involved when men are born again. The Word does not take on the “flesh” of a symphony, a poem, a sunset, a movie, or even a really good sermon in the same way that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ. Despite the good “creational packaging” that ordinarily accompanies the process/moment someone is saved, there is still something utterly transcendent that is occurring, something akin to that original Word: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:5-6).
In other words, if we mean roughly the same thing when we say Beauty made the world as when we say Beauty will save the world, then my objections decrease (though not entirely disappear). However, there’s a subtle ambiguity that creeps in when we do not distinguish between beauty as creation and Beauty as God Himself before all creation, outside of all creation. If we are not careful, we are imbibing a creeping pantheism. Despite the fact that God did create the world to mediate His glory and presence, sin has severely marred our ability to rightly receive Him. And even after regeneration, believers are still prone to idolatry: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn. 5:21). Even when we begin to be able to hear rightly and taste and see truly, we are still tempted to worship the creation rather than the Creator. And in some ways the temptation can be even more insidious because we can see how God works through created things and subtly, slowly begin to confer deity on those created things, all the while thinking that we’re actually honoring the Creator. Think of it as a sort of Protestant version of iconolatry. We think (or at least implicitly assume) that because God works through some aspect of creation, the honor we bestow there accrues and transfers to Him in heaven.
The sacraments remain the glorious signs and seals of the great reversal of the curse of sin and idols, and for the regenerate heart all of creation sings His praise and leads toward Him in ever increasing wonder, but all of it must be received by faith. And faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17).