The painting of “The Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things” confronts believers in many ways. We have noted already the all-seeing eye of God. Related to that is the focal point of God’s vision, that is, the risen Savior.
The risen Savior is the focal point of God’s eye, or the apple of his eye. It is also the central figure of the painting itself. In fact, if one steadies his gaze on the risen Savior, he will have a difficult time seeing the sins which encircle him. Likewise, this is the central truth of the Letter to the Hebrews.
From the outside of the painting inward, Bosch presents to the viewer three reasons not to sin. First, to be afraid of punishment because of sin is good. Better is to see the wounds of Christ for our sins. For it is on account of Christ’s wounds that the believer receives forgiveness of sins. This is the argument of Hebrews 8-10.
The best motivation for not sinning, however, is that we do not have to. Our risen Savior is now our high priest. During the very moment of our temptation we flee to him so that he will deliver us from the temptation. We need not bring a sin offering to the priest after the fact, after it is too late. We boldly enter the Most Holy place and find refuge in the midst of a holy war.
“The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things,” offers much for the believer to contemplate. The painting reinforces the written word. As we contemplate the Letter to the Hebrews and its message for the Christian life, Bosch assists us with something more powerful than a mere visual aid. It strikes our moral imagination, which in turn shapes the way we think about sin, about Jesus Christ, and about our God.
Now that we have briefly discussed an interpretation of Bosch’s “Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things,” we need to consider how it assists us in understanding the letter to the Hebrews. I will focus on two: 1) the vision of God, and 2) the priestly ministry of Christ.
The first way is the depiction of the all-seeing eye of God. A common example is that a child never steals a cookie from the jar while mom is watching. How often, though, do we forget that God sees everything we do, we think, and we love? He says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (3:12-13).
The vision of God works in two ways. Positively, it can become a motivation to do right because we love God and desire to please him. Alternatively, it may keep us from sin because God may chastise us accordingly. Later the author of Hebrews writes, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (12:6).
Finally, in the painting, we see what God sees. Yes, A painful reminder of our sinful behavior confronts us. But there also stands the risen Savior in the center of the painting—as the very apple of God’s eye. God does not look at our sins without seeing the sacrifice of Christ which pacifies his just wrath toward us. “For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers” (2:11-12).
Dwelling on the omniscience of God sanctifies us and pushes us toward maturity. Indeed, it conforms us to the image of God’s dear son.
Now that we have surveyed the various parts of Bosch’s painting, “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things,” we are ready to examine its meaning. The primary metaphor of this painting is the concentric circles in the middle. Altogether, these circles represent the all-seeing eye of God.
What is it that God sees? First, he sees people’s sinful acts. In the outer ring of the circle, or the iris of the eye, Bosch depicts the seven deadly sins. Each vignette makes two points. First, there are few people depicted in each scene. Why individuals and not large groups of people? I think Bosch’s point is that God sees each one of us individually and personally. Second, each scene is set in common, everyday life. Our sins, whether we admit to them or not, are more apart of us than we care to confess.
Secondly, God sees the resurrected Christ. In the center, in the pupil of the eyes stands Jesus Christ from a tomb. He is pointing to the wound in his hand and in his side. There is an ancient figure of speech that if someone is special she is “the apple of your eye.” Literally that means, she is reflected in your pupil. The answer to the problem of sin is the very gospel itself.
As we focus on the eye of God, we are seeing what is reflected in his eye. Thus, as we gaze into his eye, we are confronted with two things: our own sinfulness, and the resurrected Christ. Considering our sinfulness should make us also consider judgment or discipline—negative deterrents against sinning. On the other hand, the higher motivation is also present. Whenever we are tempted to sin, we focus our attention on the risen Lord wherein we find grace to overcome temptation.
Bosch’s painting, “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things” summarizes the message of the Letter to the Hebrews. In the previous essay, I focused on two of the Four Last Things. In this, I wish to focus on the other two of the Four Last Things depicted in the bottom corners of the tabletop: heaven and hell.
In the scene in Heaven, we again find Christ seated, only this time it is upon his kingly throne. He is holding a book in his hand which is evidently the Book of Life. A few are playing instruments, while angels encircle the throne.
Hell on the other hand, is certainly a place of torment. We note, in addition, that Hell has some resemblance to the scenes represented in the Seven Deadly Sins. The punishment of Hell is that the sinners are tormented by the very sins which they desired while they were on earth. Demons haunt each scene in terrible way—ways difficult for us to even look upon.
The ribbon which separates the two circles on the bottom also has a verse on it, “I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end shall be” (Deut 32:28-29). Since the painting depicts the all-seeing eye of God, this verse sits in irony. No mercy exists in hell; no opportunity for escape. That which the people wished for is in this world the people receive in a more real way.
As we have studied the Letter to the Hebrews, we have discussed the target audience of the warning passages. Is the author addressing those who only profess Christianity but do not have true saving faith? Or, is he addressing believers who are struggling to live their Christian lives by faith? Regardless, Hebrews 10:31 states, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
Bosch’s painting, “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things” summarizes the message of the Letter to the Hebrews. In the previous essay, I noted the main parts of the painting. In this, I wish to focus on two of the Four Last Things depicted in the top corners of the tabletop.
The top two circles represent Death and Judgment and are connected by a scroll. Printed on the scroll is a quotation from Deut. 32, “For they are a nation void of counsel, neither is there any understanding in them. O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end.” Bosch applies this quotation to the Christians of his day.
In the picture of Death, Bosch portrays a man on his death bed. On his headboard are a demon and an angel, while Death himself is approaching from behind the bed in the form of a skeleton. The priests are giving the last rites to the departing, and the women in the other room are praying for him. In spite of all these who surround the dying man, no one can prevent Death from taking him.
The picture of judgment is sometimes called the Last Judgment or Resurrection. The jury appears to be saints or the witness of the faithful. Jesus is judging by the sword, which is his word. Because of the association with the seven deadly sins it seems clear that the judgment pertains to the kind of lives these people lead.
I have not yet made application of the painting to Hebrews. At this point, I want to make clear what Bosch is saying. Then I will apply it to believers today. Nonetheless, the author of Hebrews, while arguing for the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, reminds us that “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (9:27).
It is my opinion that the main point of the letter to the Hebrews is that believers must actively pursue Christian maturity. We do this positively by living by faith and negatively by shunning sinful deeds and attitudes. The problem is that on our own, we behave in the opposite manner. God in his grace has given to the believer three means by which he or she may attain maturity and shun evil: 1) The word of God; 2) Jesus Christ the High Priest; and 3) correction or chastisement.
One of the best illustrations of the message in Hebrews is a painting. The work is by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch and is titled, “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things.” Bosch painted it on the top of a rectangular table. In each corner is one of the four last things. Starting in the upper left-hand corner and moving clockwise, they are: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
The center section consists of three concentric circles. The outermost ring consists of scenes depicting the seven deadly sins. From the top and moving clockwise, they are: gluttony, sloth, lust, pride, anger, envy, and avarice.
The second section is simply a wide band of lines which draws the eye toward the center. The center is a picture of Jesus rising from the tomb and showing his wounds. Below the center are the words “Cave, Cave Diis Videt,” Beware! Beware! God is watching! Because of the shape of these circles, and this warning, many believe that the concentric circles represent the all-seeing eye of God.
How does this painting help us to understand the book of Hebrews and the Christian life? In the future, I hope to explain why I see both the life of faith and the shunning of evil taught in this work of art.
The author of Hebrews dedicates a lengthy part of his letter to the topic of faith. He defines it in two ways that are quite familiar to us: First, it is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.
Conviction of things not seen simply stated is that faith “sees” the invisible reality that is all around us. One cannot prove the existence of God based on his five senses. One can only know that he exists by first believing that he exists. This conviction manifests itself through believer’s attitude and actions.
Faith is also the assurance of things hoped for. By assurance, the author is speaking of the words of God. When the Scriptures attest that God created the universe, then the believer can have full assurance in spite of the scientific evidence hurled at him.
The author continues in Hebrews 11:2, “For by it the people of old received their commendation.” By example, then, we learn that faith results in actions which are commended by God.
One of the stories mentioned in passing is David. When David fought Goliath he demonstrated his faith in God to both his fellow Israelites and to the Philistines. David did not kill Goliath with faith like a sword. Faith is not a magical power that if, one has enough, one can perform miracles. Instead, David says to Goliath, “This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand” (1 Sam 17:46).
David’s faith allowed him to “see” two things: 1) the presence of God in the battle, and 2) a dead Goliath. His conviction of these was so strong that it caused him to act accordingly with all assurance. Seeing is not believing. Rather, believing is seeing.