God as the Best Explanation of Beauty

Some of Western civilization’s greatest works of art are housed in the Vatican Museums. Museum benefactors say that part of their mission is to promote “evangelism through beauty.”Thus, they are expressing an aesthetic argument that can be made for God’s existence. One way to frame this argument is to reason that God’s existence provides the best explanation for the world’s beauty.

Let’s briefly explore the topic of aesthetics and a Christian approach to the subject. Then we’ll look closer at an aesthetic argument for God.

Aesthetics

Aesthetics involves the study of beauty, taste, and art. It asks questions like: What defines beauty? Is beauty merely in the eye of the beholder? Is there an objective basis for evaluating the beautiful?

Philosophers ask further aesthetic questions like: Why do human beings have an aesthetic and creative sense? How is aesthetic value related to moral values and to other focal points of one’s worldview such as God, ultimate reality, and knowledge?

Aesthetics and Christianity

Historic Christianity affirms that God is the source of all beauty either through direct creative acts or through human beings’ creations as divine image bearers (Latin: imago Dei). So God as Creator is not only a Designer and Engineer of the world’s intelligibility but he’s also a playful and skillful Artist.

When it comes to promoting the truth and desirability of the Christian worldview, aesthetics seems to be underutilized, maybe especially among evangelical Protestants. But doctrine and theology place limits on what constitutes an appropriate use of religious art, particularly in church and especially in a worship service. Thus, in Christendom, Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants have different standards concerning how they approach, evaluate, and use aesthetics.

An Aesthetic Argument for God

One way of making the aesthetic argument for God is by proposing that beauty fits better in a world with God than in a world without God. For example, the secular worldview of naturalism says that God does not exist and that life in this world is the product of mindless, unguided natural evolutionary processes. But according to naturalism, evolution runs exclusively on the track of survivability. So how does the mechanism of naturalistic evolution driven by survivability produce artistic beauty whenaesthetics doesn’t seem to contribute to survivability? Put another way, why so much beauty and creatures that can appreciate beauty when beauty doesn’t contribute to human survival? This is known as the problem of nonutilitarian or nonuseful values: beauty does not seem to be survival-conducive.

In evaluating this argument, consider the words of Christian philosopher William C. Davis:

“If everything (including humanity) is the result of random, impersonal forces which encouraged only survival, then it seems highly unlikely that the process would yield organisms (humans) which recognized values like these [artistic beauty] which aren’t survival-conducive.”2

Davis adds this important point as he contrasts naturalism and theism:

“But values like these [artistic beauty] are what we would expect if humans (and the human environment) were created by a personal, loving, and beauty-valuing God. God’s existence is a much better explanation for the existence of nonutilitarian value than any explanation without God.”3

Christian philosopher Paul Copan makes a similar case for beauty fitting better in a theistic world than in an atheistic world dictated by the forces of naturalistic evolution:

“[I]mpressive natural beauty is in no way linked to survival. So why think this overwhelming beauty should exist given naturalism? Why isn’t everything functional, monotonously textured, and a battleship-gray color?”4

Copan then appeals to the human aesthetic element:

“And why should (human) creatures exist who can admire and appreciate the world’s loveliness and majesty? And why do scientists prefer elegant or beautiful theories, often without observational support?”5

Christians and other theists are not the only ones who find this argument persuasive. Consider the remarks of skeptical philosopher Paul Draper:

“[T]heism is supported by the fact that the universe contains an abundance of beauty.”6

And the critical human aesthetic element is not lost on Draper:

“[A] beautiful universe, especially one containing beings that can appreciate that beauty, is clearly more likely on theism than on naturalism.”7

Beauty as a Pointer to God

The aesthetic argument for God’s existence proposes that an abundance of beauty and the human capacity to appreciate beauty fits better in a world with God than in a world without God that is driven by mere survivability. Thus, beauty may best be explained as a pointer to God. Because all people seem to be attracted to some form of beauty, the aesthetic case for God may be an underutilized apologetics gem.

May we be motivated to appreciate the beauty all around us and to discuss its origin with skeptics who also see that beauty.

Reflections: Your Turn 

While I am especially moved by the historical art of Christendom, my wife Joan is drawn to the beauty of nature (e.g., natural parks). What form of beauty do you find most appealing? 

Resources

Endnotes

  1. “Inside the Vatican Museums,” EWTN Vaticano Special, YouTube, December 31, 2017; youtube.com/watch?v=xg8SVfl40NU.
  2. William C. Davis, “Theistic Arguments,” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael J. Murray (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 39.
  3. Davis, “Theistic Arguments,” 39.
  4. Paul Copan, Loving Wisdom: Christian Philosophy of Religion (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), 110.
  5. Copan, Loving Wisdom, 110.
  6. Paul Draper, “Seeking but Not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic,” in Divine Hiddenness: New Essayseds.Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul  K. Moser (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 204.
  7. Draper, “Seeking but Not Believing,” 204.

  One thought on “God as the Best Explanation of Beauty

  1. November 19, 2019 at 7:44 am

    Great post. Your presentation definitely takes the next steps toward making a case for the existence of God, aside of the popular classical arguments from cosmology, design and moral law. The argument for the existence of God should be included, and I have sought a good explanation from the argument, but this one does it. Keep up the great work. Blessings, Rob

    • November 19, 2019 at 8:51 am

      Thanks, Rob.

      Ken Samples

  2. November 19, 2019 at 9:24 am

    But much has been written about the survival value of beauty. Fit people look good. Healthy foodstuffs communicate through colors.

    • November 19, 2019 at 10:06 am

      Fridix:

      Thanks for your comments.

      I personally find it very difficult to think that beauty in a world without God somehow supports the survivability of the human species.

      And as my article indicates, so do some atheist philosophers.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

      • Deno
        November 24, 2019 at 8:33 am

        Im just recalling what DR Ross said second hand There is nothing as beautiful as Mathematical equations esp in physics Take for ie General relativity

      • November 24, 2019 at 9:57 am

        Thanks, Deno.

        Ken Samples

  3. Chris Morris
    November 19, 2019 at 12:51 pm

    In such a brief essay as this it’s not possible to look at all of the arguments but you do seem to have skimmed over a couple of points that it would be useful to explore.

    In your response to the previous comment you admit to finding it difficult to credit any possibility of a naturalistic explanation without really engaging with the idea that attractiveness certainly does have survival value in many ways. Although you quote Draper as an atheist philosopher presenting the idea of beauty supporting theism, the context of his argument is not clear from the quotations. Coming, as it does, from a collection of essays on divine hiddenness one suspects that the context may make a difference.

    The other problem is the jump from aesthetics to an aesthetic argument for theism. As you recognise in your concluding question, there are many opinions on what constitutes beauty, a relativism that seems to present a problem for the argument.

    • November 19, 2019 at 1:45 pm

      Chris:

      Greetings.

      Thanks for your comments.

      Here’s my very brief response:

      My article is brief but I think it is clear and helpful in at least beginning to introduce the provocative subject.

      Regarding attractiveness, even if it is survival conducive I don’t think it rescues the worldview of naturalism’s difficulty when it comes to accounting for beauty.

      Regarding the Draper quote, I think if you check it you will find that it represents his view fairly.

      Also regarding your comment about the challenge of defining beauty, I think people nevertheless know it when they see it and I think it is reasonable to inquire about how to account for it (thus an abductive argument).

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  4. ethos6
    November 20, 2019 at 8:10 pm

    Ken, thanks for this article. I really do think you’re on to something here in including beauty in the apologetic toolkit. The same may be true also of joy or happiness. Every human being longs for lasting beauty and happiness. So much so that we have entire industries for each. Human longing for beauty and happiness makes sense in a world created by an infinitely beautiful and happy Being who desires to share those very qualities of himself with human beings he designed expressly for that union.

    I can imagine that a skeptical response might be to link beauty with survivability or competitive advantage. Something to the effect of drawings on cave walls helped humanity’s ancestors to mentally and emotionally recreate after a long and harrying mammoth hunt. And while they were about it, it occurred to one of them to draw up a crude plan of coordination for the next hunt, thereby increasing the likeliness of success and, in turn, perpetuating the species. I don’t say it’s a good argument. For one, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a linkage (at any level) between beauty and survivability is evidence that the former caused the latter. But it is a somewhat plausible argument. And plausibility, however miniscule or contrived, is more than enough for the committed skeptic to remain a committed skeptic.

    While it is true that beauty is often in the eye of the beholder, yet there are many cases in which beauty (especially natural beauty) is in the eye of every beholder. A sky ablaze at sunset, a mirror lake hedged by pine-crested hills. Very few, if any, beholding or experiencing such scenes can deny their beauty. This really is quite astonishing. How is it that human beings universally recognize and appreciate beauty of this kind? The skeptic may again claim that humans today inherited this trait from ancestors who derived survivability benefits from the beauty of those scenes. Yet, presumably, that argument would apply only to natural beauty that our ancestors experienced. What of the natural beauty of the cosmos? Of spinning galaxies, of quasars, of nebulae? These we as a species have only beheld within the past several decades. There was no time for selective preconditioning: at first sight we found them beautiful and wonderful. The best explanation is summed up in Psalm 19:1: there is a God who made us and who wants to be known.

    • November 20, 2019 at 9:26 pm

      Ethos6:

      Thanks for your comments.

      Beauty seems a major compulsion for humankind. The possible survival advantages to cave art and colors in birds seems inconsistent with the amount of beauty in the world and humankind’s major obsession with it.

      Even if beauty has small survival advantages, beauty as a whole is still best explained in world with God then without him.

      Ken Samples

  5. Cynthia Rasmusson
    November 23, 2019 at 7:35 pm

    John 8:12 We often think of beauty in macro terms, such as majestic mountains, but I am increasingly drawn to the micro, as in the beauty of a bird’s feather under a microscope, or the iridescence of a bubble. I find it fascinating that light, which is fundamental to our mere existence, also reveals a stunning spectrum of colors. And how would naturalism explain the biological ability of the ‘black boxes’ in our eyes, nervous system, and brains to perceive this beauty, and why would we have an emotional response to it, as it is beyond mere survival? How could this all be explained by chance or necessity? How could it not be designed by a loving creator?
    And then there is music……..

    • November 23, 2019 at 7:39 pm

      Appreciate your insightful comments, Cynthia.

      Ken Samples

      • Cynthia Rasmusson
        November 24, 2019 at 3:12 pm

        Thanks! There are so many verses in the Bible about light and the spectrum, and I have searched for a video linking these with both the argument from beauty and the teleological, but I haven’t found one yet. I believe it would be a powerful (and beautiful!) apologetic.

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