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Why Did God’s Beautiful Plan of Redemption Involve Something So Ugly?

By Koa Sinag

Why Did God’s Beautiful Plan of Redemption Involve Something So Ugly?

That Old, Ugly Cross

At the center of our beauty-loving God’s perfect plan for making us beautiful is something so grotesque and so offensive that people cannot even bear to look: the God-damnable death that Jesus died on the cross. Wrestling with this paradox, however, brings healing to the soul.

In Scripture we witness many beautiful things: the living God in his triune majesty, the created world in its variegated splendor, human beings in the divine image, human sexuality in its mysterious wonder. We see the Son of God come into the world as the morning star of the Father’s glory—beautiful in his deity and humility. All along, we have hope in the reality that through faith in Jesus Christ and by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, beauty is the guaranteed destiny—both individually and communally—of the people of God.

Yet at the center of God’s plan for the beautification of the cosmos is an act of appalling ugliness and degrading humiliation that nevertheless took place according to “the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). I refer, of course, to the cross where Christ was crucified, as well as to what the Scripture says about the physical form of our Savior. If God is beautiful, if people made in his image are beautiful, and if the life of the Son he sent into the world is beautiful, then why does the Bible explicitly tell us that the Messiah, Jesus, was not beautiful? The prophet Isaiah could hardly be clearer on this point:

He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. (Isa. 53:2)

The promised Christ was unattractive in his appearance. Indeed, the prophet says that Jesus “grew up” this way (Isa. 53:2), which implies that our Savior was more homely than handsome. Certainly, in his sufferings and death, Jesus became so physically disfigured that he was socially rejected. The horror of his cross thus screams against every sensibility of the divine aesthetic. It was so hideous that even the Father (in a manner of speaking, during the dark hours that his Son bore the guilt of our sin) looked away. Nevertheless, the Bible still tells us to look to Jesus on the cross for our salvation (e.g., Heb. 12:2).

Here we confront the paradox of the crucifixion, which was both the ugliest sin ever committed and the most beautiful sacrifice ever given. When we look at “the Passion and crucifixion of the Lord of glory,” writes Thomas Dubay, we witness “consummate splendor in monstrous horror.” There “at one and the same time we find supremely horrific ugliness and supremely divine and loving beauty.”1 In this paradox we also find our salvation, for the crucifixion of the Christ was the ugly sin that alone had the power to make this world beautiful again.

Why So Ugly?

To understand this shocking paradox, it will help us if we linger at the foot of the cross. Before rushing on too quickly to Easter Sunday and the triumph of the resurrection, we need to take a closer, harder look at the sufferings of our Savior.

What they did—what we did—to Jesus was ugly. It was ugly to betray that innocent man with a Judas kiss, ugly to put him— wrongly—on ecclesiastical and political trial, ugly to parade false witnesses against him and condemn him to die for crimes he did not commit—crimes that were not even crimes at all. It was ugly to mock him royally for claiming to be the King, to crown him with bloody thorns, to beat him, strike him, and spit in his face. Ugly too were the nails that pierced his hands and his feet, the game of chance to steal his last garment, the dark insults hurled against him in his dying hours, and the absolute agony of gasping for every breath—naked and afraid—as his life bled away.

According to the prophet Isaiah, these travails were so repulsive that people could not bear to look but despised the crucified Christ by hiding their faces (Isa. 53:3). This prophecy is especially profound when we consider how much Isaiah said throughout his writings about beauty and splendor. Of all the prophets, he was the most sensitive to beauty as the destiny of the people of God (see Isa. 62:3). Yet when he came to the saving work of the suffering servant, Isaiah saw it as so ugly that he turned away.

How ugly was the cross? It was as ugly as what Jesus was dying to deal with—as ugly as sin and death.

When we consider carefully what Jesus was doing on that old, rugged cross, we can understand why it was so ugly. To atone for our transgressions, Jesus had to shoulder our guilty sins. The apostle Paul said it as plainly as he could when he wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Simply put, Jesus bore the ugliness of all our sin on the cross.

We all struggle with the same problem every day of our lives: the problem of sin. Our beautiful God made this world beautiful and made us to be beautiful too. Yet sadly, we see signs of ugliness everywhere we look. In “A Brief for the Defense,” the poet Jack Gilbert lamented,

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.2

The evils of a fallen world are not just somewhere “out there”; they are also right here, among us and inside us. We are not yet the beautiful people—or the beautiful community—that God is calling us to become.

In the face of the world’s unspeakable evil, how can we find any real hope that God will fulfill our destiny and make his world beautiful again?

In a strange way, we find the hope of beauty in the ignominy of the crucifixion. If anyone ever dared to enter the sorrows and struggles of a fallen world, it was Jesus of Nazareth. Reflecting on his own personal travails with physical disability, Andy Abernethy describes our Savior as “a spectacle of deformity, paraded to Calvary. Suffering, deformed, and disabled. Like me. Like millions of others. He can relate; he became what I am.”3

We can go further and dare to say that the cross had to be as ugly as it was in order to deal with the awful sin and guilt that it was destined to address. In a strange way, the ugliness of the cross gives us hope, therefore, because it shows that Jesus endured and ultimately conquered the worst problems in the world: injustice, hatred, abuse, and every transgression that we too have committed against the holiness of God.

Sometimes we wonder whether it is really possible for every wrong to be made right. Then we look at the cross—at the bullying, the torture, the humiliation, and the degradation—and we are able to say, “Yes, Jesus the Christ has entered fully into humanity’s suffering and into my suffering because of sin.” He did not save the world in the perfection of health and strength, in a body impervious to pain; Jesus did it in a body that was broken for sinners, suffering to his very soul for the sins of the world. As John Calvin put it, “clothed with our flesh,” Christ “offered as a sacrifice the flesh he received from us, that he might wipe out our guilt by his act of expiation and appease the Father’s righteous wrath.”4

Beauty is the guaranteed destiny—both individually and communally—of the people of God.

Jesus died to bear our sin. He also died to put death to death. “The Son who is risen,” writes Jeremy Begbie, is “the Son who was given up to the corrupting forces of sin and death afflicting creation.”5 This too was totally necessary—that in order to deal with death, our Savior had to suffer death’s pain. Maybe Athanasius said it best in his famous treatise on the incarnation:

The death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished. Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid. Wherefore, the Word, as I said, being Himself incapable of death, assumed a mortal body, that He might offer it as His own in place of all, and suffering for the sake of all through His union with it, “might bring to nought Him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might deliver them who all their lifetime were enslaved by the fear of death.”6

Here again we see why the cross had to be so ugly. Death is an affront to the life of God, so dealing with death was ugly too.

In death, said Melito of Sardis, “the beautiful body” that “once fitted beautifully” has been “split apart.”7 We see this horrific loss of beauty at Calvary. Bleeding from his extremities, with his chest collapsed, the crucified Christ put death on display in all its horror. Now we know—really know—that sin and death and every evil have found their adequate answer.

If we could bear to gaze on the fatal torture of the innocent one, then we might think that somehow his sufferings and death fell short of what was truly demanded to carry away our sin, do away with death, and wipe away every evil. But in fact, we do feel compelled to turn away. “Surely he has borne our griefs / and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4). Indeed, “he was pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5). Truly, “the Lord has laid on him / the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). We know all this because Isaiah also said that “as one from whom men hide their faces / he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3). We cannot bear to look at the crucifixion any more than we can bear to look at the worst sins and most painful sorrows in the world—or to look inside and see the darkness of our own depravity. The old, ugly cross therefore serves as a proof that Jesus did what he meant to do and put an end to all our sin.


  1. Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999), 111, 310.
  2. Jack Gilbert, “A Brief for the Defense,” in Refusing Heaven: Poems, by Jack Gilbert, copyright © 2005 by Jack Gilbert. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
  3. Andrew Abernethy, “Why Matthew’s Disability in The Chosen Matters,” The Gospel Coalition, May 7, 2021,
  4. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., Library of Christian Classics 20–21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 2.12.3.
  5. Jeremy S. Begbie, “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts,” in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, ed. Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 64.
  6. Athanasius, On the Incarnation: The Treatise “De incarnatione verbi Dei,” Popular Patristics Series (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 49.
  7. Melito of Sardis, quoted in Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018), 38.

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

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