Does God delight in non-Christian art?

[Note: Due to the length of this article you may find it easier to read/print as a PDF document. You can do this by clicking here. -Tony]

Does God delight in non-Christian art?

This is a whale of a question, but let’s begin with a few basic points.

(1) The origin of the human artistic impulse cannot be humanly explained. In comparing theories on the origin of art 19th century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck wrote, “today there are just as many divergent ideas as there were in earlier days: one person explains art from play, another from sexual desire, a third from rhythm, a fourth from feelings and actions that also occur with animals, and so forth. But more and more the conviction is gaining ground that with art, just as with religion, we must accept an original human impulse and an urge that we cannot explain from other inclinations or activities” (Essays, page 252-253). Exactly. There are many factors that influence the artists, but nothing can explain the origin of the artistic impulse. We are born with it.

(2) The artistic impulse is spiritual. Again Bavinck writes, “with the sense of beauty, we are dealing with a phenomenon that is part of human nature: a predisposition and susceptibility of the soul to find pleasure and to enjoy oneself in things that fulfill certain conditions” (Essays, page 251). Exactly. The artistic impulse is a spiritual reality. And by “spiritual” Bavinck does not mean to say that art can save sinners from their sin. Art has no salvific influence, apart from an understanding of Christ and the gospel. It is only in light of the gospel that art has any salvific power like, for example, in the dramatic testimony of Peter Hitchens.

(3) The artistic expression of man is a reflection of God’s artistic expression in this world. Quite famously, Abraham Kuyper has written, “The world of sounds, the world of forms, the world of tints, and the world of poetic ideas, can have no other source than God; and it is our privilege as bearers of his image, to have a perception of this beautiful world, artistically to reproduce it, and humanly to enjoy it” (Lectures, 156-157). The world is populated by artists because God is The Artist.

Let me add one important qualification before we get to the question. In this short blog post I cannot begin to define what constitutes “true” art, and what does not. Obviously by “art” I do not mean art that seeks to glorify evil (i.e. pornography). Without going into the whole structure of beauty, that would be another post altogether, I am referring to good-natured beauty, the kind of beauty displayed in the riff of a skilled jazz band, or in the brush strokes of a 17th century French painter, or in the heart-exposing prose of a 19th century Russian novelist. To some degree I think this all qualifies as art. For the sake of brevity I am assuming that we are talking about “good-natured art.”

And thus we arrive to the meat of the question: Does God delight in art even if it’s performed, written, or painted by a non-Christian? Or to put the question in another way, Does the fact that a sinner who is unredeemed and under the wrath of God make his or her art repulsive to God?

It was in reading He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace Richard Mouw that I first came across this discussion. Mouw says that God can—and does—delight in non-Christian art. He writes:

I think God takes delight in Benjamin Franklin’s wit and in Tiger Wood’s putts and in some well-crafted narrative paragraphs in a Salman Rushdie novel, even if these accomplishments are in fact achieved by non-Christian people. And I am convinced that God’s delight in these phenomena does not come because they bring the elect to glory and the non-elect to eternal separation from the divine presence. I think God enjoys these things for their own sakes.

Here is the crux of his reasoning:

The above examples of God’s delight do not necessarily involve moral approval of the ‘inner’ lives of non-elect people. When an unbelieving poet makes use of an apt metaphor, or when a foul-mouthed major league outfielder leaps high into the air to make a stunning catch, we can think of God as enjoying the event without necessarily approving of anything in the agents involved—just as we might give high marks to a rhetorical flourish by a politician whose views on public policy we despise.

But how can this be true? What proof can we find in scripture and theology?

I asked a friend of mine—a sturdy Calvinist finishing up a dissertation on a preeminent Puritan theologian—to explain this concept a little further. He agrees with Mouw because this view is based upon the understanding that all men are made in God’s image. This means that, to some degree, all men reflect God’s image. In an email he explained it like this:

The central idea here, I think, surrounds the imago dei. God is the most perfect lover of his image. The image resides within humanity in the substantial human soul. Accordingly, it coruscates [glitters] in culture in infinitely different ways. It is impossible that God should see such reflections of his glory and not find himself wrapped in cognitive delights. He thinks most highly of his own image. He delights in it most profoundly.

So in some way art is the reflection of God’s image in man. And where God’s image glitters in society we can logically assume that this brings delight to the One who treasures His own image. It is something of a Self-reflection.

Thus Mouw can argue at length that the foundation of this delight is not found in the inherent greatness of the athlete, the painter, the poet, or the novelist. In fact we have an impulse to glorify the human artist rather than the ultimate Artist. It’s much more likely that we will be tempted to praise the greatness of the small-a artist. Rather, Mouw teaches us an important lesson. The foundation for God’s delight in non-Christian art is that it’s a reflection of Himself.

To understand this we must comprehend this dignity of man alongside his wretchedness. Somehow—mysteriously it seems to me—man can continue to reflect God’s image although that image is now “frightfully deformed” (Calvin) because of sin. Spiritual death cannot fully erase the imago dei. In fact it’s hard to miss the irony of the fact that each of us possesses a hateful and debased tongue that we use to curse our fellow image bearers (James 3:9). Man is both wicked and splendid. The wickedness is never more evident than when we spew hate towards a fellow image bearer. It is the splendor of man’s gifts that make his sin so scandalous. So in some way, unredeemed men can be both frightfully deformed and yet a reflection of the Creator. That is a mystery, but I see it in Scripture.

In his book The Road from Eden: Studies in Christianity and Culture, John Barber makes a number of adjustments to the Kuyper/Mouw position and many of them are helpful (pgs 445–460). For example, Barber disagrees with Mouw that God maintains “multiple divine purposes;” one purpose established for the Church before the fall, and another purpose established for creation after the fall.

Yet despite his disagreements, when it comes to the question of whether God delights in non-Christian art, Barber agrees with Mouw:

…because the cultural labor of unregenerate men is vitally important to the forward progress of the world, and to God’s long-range redemptive scheme, and because that labor stems from gifts that God has given, the product of unregenerate culture is pleasing to God. However, these observations do not lessen the “antithesis” Kuyper spoke of—the fact that there is, and always shall be, a fundamental difference between the Christian and the non-Christian cultural agent by virtue of the Cross. (453)

So God does in fact delight in certain non-Christian art, Barber argues. Yet if you are reading carefully you can hear in these words a caution. That is because the artistic skill of non-Christian artists is limited by sin. In regards to Pablo Picasso, for example, Barber writes, “While from a human perspective, his life-production may be considered ‘great,’ sin had reduced him to a mere vestige of the image of God, meaning that his work never reached its full potential” (452). That full potential requires an artist living under the Lordship of Christ and developing works that seek to glorify God.

Yet despite this lack of reaching full potential, the artistic gifting of Picasso finds its origin in God. Non-Christian artists show us, in Calvin’s words, “how widely the rays of divine light have shone” and reveals to us “the excellent gifts of the Spirit that are diffused through the whole human race” (Commentary on Gen. 4:20).

The implications of all this is explained in the words of Anthony Hoekema in Created in God’s Image:

We as Christian believers, therefore, may learn much from great works of literature written by unbelievers, even though we do not share their ultimate commitment. We may appreciate what has been produced by non-Christians in such areas of artistic endeavor as architecture, sculpture, painting, and music, since their gifts are from God. We may therefore enjoy the cultural products of non-Christians in such a was as to glorify God through them—even though such praise of God was not part of the conscious intent of these artists.

What makes it possible for Christians to delight in the artistic gifts of non-Christians is an understanding of where those gifts originate. They are from God. They reflect the character of God. And who better to recognize the origin of artistic gifts in non-Christians than God?

Christian artists should seek to use their artistic gifting to serve the Church. But this does not mean that art disconnected from the life of the church is not God-reflecting. It can be. And this is why we ourselves can delight in the beautiful artistic expressions of non-Christian artists because, as I have tried to show from reliable theologians, that is in fact what God himself does. Like God, we can separate the reflected gift from the depravity of the mirror, we can look beyond the wicked tongue and the wicked heart and still recognize God’s character in the reflection of beauty.


It seems to me that until we are open to this idea that God delights in the display of beautiful art by the non-Christian, we will find it difficult to glorify God through the art we see. This is specially true in the artisans who are not Christians, who bear the marks of their Creator while remaining under the guilt of their sin, and who are in desperate need of a Savior.

So here’s a brief summary of what I have learned over the months in reading on this topic:

  1. The artistic gift in man is intrinsic.
  2. The artistic creativity of God is on display in his creation.
  3. The human artistic impulse is, at least in part, a reflection of God’s image.
  4. God delights in Himself and therefore delights in the reflection of his own character, artistic beauty being one reflection of Him in our culture.
  5. Non-Christian artists, while remaining in a state of enmity with God, will never achieve their fullest artistic potential.

This perspective offers the Christian a wide foundation for the appreciation of non-Christian art in these ways:

  • It will open our eyes to God’s common grace in the art around us.
  • It will remind us that in every gifted artist we see a reflection of The Artist, the source of all goodness, truth, and beauty.
  • It will help us appreciate the gifts of non-Christian artists and the beauty of non-Christian art.
  • It will protect us from glorifying the glittering mirrors rather than the Sun.
  • It will remind us that the artistic potential of non-Christians, no matter how great, is tragically limited.
  • It will remind us that while there is beauty in non-Christian art to be enjoyed, art is not a “neutral territory” that should be pursued without a concern for God and truth.
  • Finally, it will remind us that God’s highest purpose for art is beautiful work that flows from an artist who lives and works under the fear of God and under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and expresses that artistic talent with the goal of bringing glory to The Artist.

27 thoughts on “Does God delight in non-Christian art?

  1. Tony: I’ve really been considering culture, art, and the extent of God’s common grace lately. Your piece is timely and I appreciate the thoughts you’ve compiled. Thanks. :-)

  2. The short answer is “Yes.” God delights in non-Christian art because the creation of art is a part of the fulfillment of God’s command to Adam prior to The Fall. God told Adam to “replenish the earth” and with that command placed within humanity the desire to be creative. Art is but one application of the creative drive that is essential to what it means to be human. Non-Christian art pleases God in the same way that charitable deeds done by unbelievers do; God delights in the results of the human action while knowing that the deeds apart from faith in His Son lack any sotereological benefits.

  3. Tony – Very detailed post, thanks! Is this at least part of what your current book project is about? Inquiring minds and all that…

  4. One thing you don’t address here, but that I think is also worth thinking about, is whether art by Christians that is not itself explicitly Christian, or indeed focused on the Church in any particular way, can be of benefit. As in your conclusion here, I’m inclined to think the answer is yes; going a step further, I’m inclined to say that it is even more beneficial and God-honoring because it is done from the right heart. That, unfortunately, is a point that is missed nearly as often as the one you have made here.

  5. Thanks for the reflections, Tony. Do you think this is also applicable for the enjoyment of sports as well?

  6. I agree with Chris. I think that “good-natured” art done by Christians for a general audience (secular and religious persons, indiscriminately) can be a powerful form of evangelism. I would posit Sufjan Stevens’ practice of covering hymns in a non-segregated part of his decidedly non-Christian-radio body of work as proof that this is possible and desirable. Thousands of people have “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” on their iPods who have little other Christian influence. I like that.

  7. Awesome post! I am a dancer, and many people in the dance community have recognised the spiritual aspect of creative expression via movement. My training is in modern dance, and many of the great pioneers in this field shared this view, even if their beliefs were far removed from Christianity. Dancers are still a bit misunderstood by the chuch generally, but attitudes are a lot better now than in the past. Thanks for sharing this.

  8. Hello Tony. I’m going to make this brief. I think you have a great mind, you write great posts but…issues like this where you’re trying to figure out God’s thought process and likes/dislikes when it comes to art, and it’s not just art, but art created by non-Christians is really a waste of your brain power and time that really only commands the attention of needless scholarly debates. I’m just trying to say this is a really, really trivial issue.

  9. Thanks for the kind comment and the encouragement, Clive, but I think I disagree with you. On the one hand I did not set out to determine with precision what constitutes genuinely pleasing art to God. This was something that VanTil attempted and face-planted in his attempt. So my goal was to operate from an awareness of the many theological limitations of this topic. But on the other hand recognizing the reflections of God in the world around us is not only a worthwhile endeavor but the fruit of it is a more focused worship. In the follow up post I go into a bit more about why I wrote this post and partially this was because a sub-topic of my current book project required a bit of clarity on these topics. Needless to say after writing this I was surprised to find that among the reformed thinkers there is a lot of consensus on this topic. There are other strategic reasons for why I wrote the piece, too, but I cannot go into all the details. Needless to say this topic is not trivial at all. The conclusions of this blog post have massive ramifications for those of us who resist what has been termed the “missional” movement, a movement that attracts followers because they are more clear on topics like this one.

  10. Tony,

    I enjoyed your thoughts on this subject. I have couple questions if you have the time.

    You say “Christian artists should seek to use their artistic gifting to serve the Church”. Are you saying that this is the only way Christians who are artists can use the gifts? IOW, is it wrong, in your opinion, for someone like the guy from Piper’s church (owl city – forget his name)to use his gifts as he does, outside the church?

    And, what is “Christian” art. This has always confused me. Is there “Christian” plumbing or “christian” baseball? Of course not. I find it confusing to say that a painting of a sunset by a non-believer is non-Christian and a painting of a sunset by a believe is Christian. What’s the difference other than the person who painted it? What makes one painting Christian and the other non-Christian? I’m not trying to be argumentative, but I am very interested in your thoughts (if you got the time! ;-) )


  11. Fascinating topic. I can’t help thinking of my own mother’s “green thumb”, and how the flower gardener is such a good example. God’s creative power is such an essential part of what he or she does; for where would the flower gardener’s work be w/o the direct touch of Him who “clothes the lilies”?

  12. Just found your blog through Twitter. Good stuff! Totally agree with your conclusion, too. Like I heard Bill Weise say: “It’s not about Mother Nature, It’s about Father God.”
    Thanks for sharing!

  13. As an art historian and professor in a Christ centered University, I appreciate your stance. This is the one thing that I try to convey to my students, we create because we were created. Part of the image of God that I possess is the desire to create, no matter how rugged that creation is.
    I also appreciate the connection you make to art and culture. So many in our world fail to realize that art is significate. It is the record of what the people of a given culture valued. I encourage my students to be aware of the comments we are leaving to the future about who we are and what we value.
    What is the difference in Christian Art and Non-Christian Art? It is not seen in the faith statement of the Artist; it is seen in the faith statement evoked by the work itself. A wonderful example is Picasso’s Girl in a Mirror. It is an image that is in the tradition of a vanitas–the sin or death of man. A reminder of what happens to our soul without God’s saving Grace. We are beautiful on the outside while hiding the our sin on the inside. This is reflected in the mirror–our soul is choking in darkness. He has used several traditional iconographic images to point the viewer to this interpretation. I find that this understanding is lost on this generation who know not their history nor understand their sacred writing.

  14. While I appreciate the effort put forth to bring this topic to light, I can’t help but wonder why the grave subject of idols or charms is not covered when it comes to the topic of God’s delight in artistic endeavors.

    It is written in Deuteronomy: “Don’t sacrifice your children in the fires on your alters> and don’t let your people practice divination or look for omens or use spells or charms. and don’t let them consult the spirits of the dead. The Lord your God hates people who these disgusting things. Be completely faithful to the Lord” (18.10-13)

    I think that one of the troubles in saying God would delight in a work because it reflects his own power, design, or image, is in the operator or artists manifest destiny: Is the artist in hell now, in heaven, hell-bound, or heaven-bound. I can’t think that God takes much pleasure in seeing a painted sunset of an artist who is spending time in hell, especially; I couldn’t think he would look at the painting and think “What a lovely sunset,” just because he created the sunset and the power/ability to paint the work. I would think he’d look at it more like the way a politician is critiqued by members of an opposing party: “Great words, but where is your heart really?” or, “Great painting, but what does beauty worship matter when the creator is now in agony?”

    And that is when I especially see the peril in the praising of works of artists who are now in hell. Of course, this is something that cannot be determined by looking at a painting, but it seems to me the pertinent question should be: “Should I let the idolatry of another man become a part of my own experience?” For this reason, I certainly would encourage people to seek out the works of christian painters from the past and present.

    How does a painter or painting become a charm or idol? I personally think it is all in the intention of the owner. If a person views an artwork as a charm of happiness for the home, I think it is obvious that it is sin, because that person placed a false value on an inanimate object, in place of what God would give them for the asking. I think that artists run the increased risk of being idolized a great deal more than plumbers, as DJ Cimino mentioned, because of the mere fact that their work is put up on a wall and “PRAISED,” and if it is eventually WORSHIPPED, therein lies the problem as the artist becomes an idol as he becomes revered for selling items of worship.

    Of course, this is all based upon the personal value that each viewer places on the object, sport, or method of entertainment, really, based on that persons reality, be they in agreement with God in Christ and his teachings, or bound for punishment along with God’s enemy.

    In Hebrews it says: 11:6 “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”

    Thus, by the reasoning of the operator or artist’s faith do I think that God is pleased, and not by the mere semblance of a painting’s similitude to his power, image, or creative abilities. This same concept applies to sports, movies, and all forms of entertainment. God is going to be most pleased by the faith of the creators, and the propagation of his gospel message of christ, and not by the fact a work uses his power. Regarding this, especially keep in mind 2nd Timothy 3:5

    2nd Timothy 3 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

    The trouble I find with artists and creators and their creations is “Whom do they serve?” Do they keep charms that are blessed by demons to increase their creative powers? From what I understand there are many places in the world where people can go to attain things such as magic rings and necklaces that will help people sing or entertain better in various ways; such things are charms and idols. I find the same dangerous concept of charms in sports: I’ve read of some sports stars attaining charm rings to enhance performance and everyone knows of superstitions such as wearing the same shirt as a day when a game was won is an immediate charm for the person placing the value of “winning” as his God over the simple act of prayer and accepting that maybe God finds losing more sculpting to the soul on any given day. And we can bet that more often than not, these teams with fallible individuals are being idolized and worshipped for the happiness that they bring when they win. In this, they become a charm and an idol, grave sins, and we should not think that people who profess Christ, and yet live in these sins are heaven-bound. Thus the danger in looking at art unawares.

    This is something I’ve been wrestling with as an artist. I have been making art of celebrity musicians who I’ve enjoyed, based on the fact that God is the creator of all musical tones. But I find a rift in my heart concerning my own art when I think that it might be cause for another to stumble, should they look upon the work as a charm or as an aid to worship their idol, the musician I’ve painted; and I certainly do not want to aid in supporting the activity of a hell-bound soul; wouldn’t that make me partially guilty for their destiny? Hence my art is changing to a more christian soul-saving focus from what it has been, and do not expect God to delight in the art of my former days simply because it is of individuals who bear his image.

  15. Thanks for writing this post Tony.

    I’m a Christian, and I got saved in 2004. Before that I was training professionally to be an actor. (In drama school, there is a lot of homosexuals, lesbian teachers). I was exposed to the Greats of Russian, American and English literature e.g Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoyevsky etc. I was exposed to fine art, fine dance, fine music, fine theater.

    When I got saved, I left the drama school, and I rejected all types of fine art, in my immaturity, I could not discern between art by unbelievers, sin, doctrine, and personal practice.

    Also, I was attending a Pentecostal church, filled with mainly black African Londoners. (Only a few blacks are in the acting world e.g. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Adrian Lester. Most drama students are white.) and their emphasis was mainly on rap (which was very incomprehensible sometimes), hard doctrine. During my time I missed many theatre shows, which I would have loved.

    I left the Pentecostal church, and I know Christ more fully. I can now appreciate the difference between art produced by unbelievers (and enjoy it), and know that I am still a Christian first, as my identity. Your article is brilliant! Keep the blogs coming.

    The only good Christian rapper is Shai Linne

    Also, what I noticed is that John MacArthur is strong on doctrine. But J Piper is a poet, into fine English Literature and good on doctrine as well.


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