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.
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.
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.