Is beauty objective or subjective? The answer is yes. Beauty is both objective and subjective, which is why it can be a confusing topic to think through and even more difficult to articulate. I say it’s both because beauty involves both fact and personal preference. It is both an external reality that every person can perceive and yet involves an individual’s personal liking.
Give me a moment to try and explain this.
The ability to perceive beauty does involve a kind of personal sensitivity, a sensitivity that can either be cultivated and trained or distorted and blurred. Some instances of beauty are readily perceptible by people who have cultivated a sensitivity to them through practice. For example, the ability of an artist to notice additional color variations in a sunset or a painting. In this fallen, sinful world, we can actually lose sensitivity to beauty by being self-absorbed, being inattentive, or by allowing dark circumstances to hide what is beautiful, to name only a few situations. A person may even develop a liking for what is ugly and abhorrent.
However, beauty itself is objective and not subject to personal preference or opinion. The colors that make a sunset or mountain overlooking a landscape or the tones that create musical notes are properties that are real and objective. They are there whether or not we are sensitive enough to perceive and appreciate them. The fact that all people everywhere understand, at least in some way, what beauty is, is evidence that it is something outside of us. We can respond to beauty in different ways, sometimes by surprise, or by being captivated by something beautiful, or by being grateful, or by adoration, or by a position of reverence. These reactions show we don’t really believe something is beautiful merely because we think it’s beautiful. We are responding to the beauty it has, independently of us. And this is appropriate, because what is truly beautiful deserves such a response.
For me, these arguments make sense and are convincing. But the theologian and philosophical skeptic in me won’t allow an explanation without arguments from Scripture. So I would now like to show how what I have been saying is supported by the Bible.
1 – Beauty Is Rooted in God Himself
Ultimately, beauty is rooted in the nature of God Himself. Read these verses: “One thing I have 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…” (Psalm 27:4). “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth (Psalm 50:2). “Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Psalm 96:6). “On that day the LORD their God will save them… For how great is his goodness, and how great his beauty!” (Zechariah 9:16-17).
These verses (and others) show that beauty is a quality that God has. God is the greatest example of beauty, as His moral perfection and radiant holiness are captivating and demand a worshipful response. God has no imperfections whatsoever. There is also God’s creation, which reflects His beauty (Genesis 1). Creation is wonderfully diverse in its beauty.
But beyond these observations is the fact that because beauty is rooted in God, it must be something that is objective and unchanging. Because God is beautiful, there is a definition of beauty, just as because God Himself is good and truth there is a definition and standard of both goodness and truth.
This is easier to understand if we compare beauty with another quality that is given definition by God, like truth. Something is true when it is in agreement with Who God is or what He has said, not because somebody believes it is true or feels that it is true. Similarly, something is good when it is in line with Who God is as the very definition of good or what He says is good, not because somebody thinks it’s good (in fact there many things people think are good that are not).
The logic is this: (1) beauty has its definition in the nature of God, and (2) God’s nature and character are objective and unchanging, and so (3) beauty must be objective and unchanging.
2 – Beauty Is Much More than Outward Appearance
This point is really just a more specific version of the first point, but I think it’s helpful to explain. There are many things we would describe as beautiful that have nothing to do with the way a person or something looks, and the Bible says the same (just think of God being the example of beauty though He is invisible and cannot be seen). For example, moral beauty is a type of beauty that has nothing to do with what we can see with our eyes. The following verses are instructions to how wives can be godly, but in doing so they say that there is an internal kind of beauty: “Do not let your adorning be external… but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:4-5).
Another instance is when an expensive flask of ointment is broken over Jesus. In this well-known story, the disciples become angry because they consider the act a waste, saying that the flask could have been sold and the profits used for the benefit of others. However, Jesus says that the woman “has done a beautiful thing to me” (Matthew 26:10).
There are connections between goodness and beauty, with goodness being a type of moral beauty (also reference Philippians 4:8). Further, beauty is something we were made to desire and find ultimately in God. We long for beauty.
However, we all experience things that are not beautiful. Because of sin, there is ugliness and distortion of beauty in the world. Evil is not only false and immoral but ugly. For instance, abuse of position is a distortion of God’s beautiful purpose of male headship in the family, or another example is how pornography is a terrible and ugly distortion of God’s beautiful purpose for, and beautiful created context of, human sexuality.
What Does This Mean?
I could go on, but I am sure I have continued for long enough on the topic. But I think it would be good to end this by saying that beauty has value for how we relate to unbelievers. Beauty is a common area of interest that we share with everyone, since we are all created and live in a created world. Beauty points beyond what we see to the Creator. Like goodness, truth, righteousness, and love, beauty is not a physical property like water, that can be measured, and it indicates that there is more to existence than the physical world we can see. The beauty of creation points to the glory of the God Who created it. And the longing for beauty that is in every person, and the ability to understand, at least in some way, what beauty is, shows that we are seeking ultimate satisfaction somewhere. Why not use this common interest and truth about beauty to engage unbelievers?
Some material for this was taken from the CSB Apologetics Study Bible, page 660, an article by David A. Horner.