When you see a cross on top of a building, you would identify it as a church. When you see a car having a cross, or a cross being placed on the door of a house, or someone wearing a cross necklace, undeniably you would identify or associate them to be Christians. Many identify the cross as a symbol of Christianity. Crosses can also be found in most churches’ interior or steeples. However, is this truly a teaching of the Bible?
1. Origin of the cross
It is a common notion that Christianity adopted the usage of cross in churches after the crucifixion of Jesus. However, history1) has it that the cross “had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in adjacent lands, including Egypt.” In other words, crosses were already being used for religious purposes even before Jesus’ time.
2. The cross as a punishment tool
The Baker’s Dictionary of Theology2) explains that the cross was adopted as a punishment tool by the Romans during their reign in Jesus’ time.
“The use of the cross as a form of punishment was adopted by the Greeks and Romans from the Phoenicians, Persians, and Carthaginians… The public use of the cross was adopted by the Christians as a symbol at the time of Constantine. For the early Christians, surrounded by crucifixion as a grim fact of common experience, there was no danger of beautifying the cross by sentiment.”
The punishment of Roman crucifixion was mainly carried out on slaves and the most heinous criminals. After the sentence had been pronounced, the criminal had to carry his cross to the place of execution outside the city.
The main cause of death by Roman crucifixion was due to asphyxiation. When nailed to the cross, the rib cage was constrained in a fixed position, which made it extremely difficult to exhale and impossible to take a full breath. This lack of exchange between oxygen and carbon dioxide naturally results in insufficient oxygen in brain, leading to unconsciousness and death.
Death by Roman Crucifixion may also result from physical shock caused by the scourging preceding the crucifixion; shock from the process of being nailed to the cross; dehydration or exhaustion. The length of time required to die from crucifixion could range from hours to a number of days.
3. The cross as an object of worship
After Christianity started to became secularized in AD 313 and crucifixion being abolished in AD 337, crosses started to appear in churches as the church in Rome began to accept the worship of pagan objects and along with all sorts of pagan rituals. The cross appeared in churches’ interior in AD 431, and was set up on churches’ steeples in AD 586. Clearly it was never the teachings of Jesus nor acts of his disciples to erect the cross in church.
4. Idolatry according to the 10 Commandments
Exodus 20:4-6 You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Most Christians, and even non-Christians, know about the 10 Commandments written in the Bible. Among them, the second commandment instructs us not to make idols in the form of anything. Then, can the cross be an exception to the words in the form of anything?
Leviticus 26:1 Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it. I am the Lord your God.
The Bible describes the classification of idols as anything that is made and set up by the hands of men. Since the cross is merely an object made by the hands of man, the Bible testifies that the cross is an idol. Then, does it still amount to idolatry if we only set up the cross but don’t bow down to it?
5. Does the cross have powers?
Many believe that the cross have the power to protect and give salvation. We can see it depicted in the media where priests or pastors holding onto the cross to drive out demons; or to protect themselves. Many pray holding onto the cross, or bowing before the cross. However it is written:
Jeremiah 10:2-5 This is what the Lord says: “Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.
Just like a lifeless scarecrow, a cross is merely an object that has no power. This is why it has to be carried around. However, since crosses cannot do any harm nor good, why should we still carry them around?
6. The cross from a biblical viewpoint
Ironically or surprisingly, you cannot find any biblical evidence about the setting up of crosses as the symbol of the church. Many who worship the cross justify with these verses:
Galatians 6:14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
We have to also understand that the saints of the Early Church considered the cross as a cursed tree, since it was an execution tool on which Christ was sacrificed.
Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”
Footnote: NIV, 1984
Let us think about it, if Jesus was sacrificed on an electric chair instead of the cross, then would images of the electric chair appear in churches, on steeples, at homes and cars?
Considering the history of Christianity and the examination of biblical scriptures, we can clarify that the setting up of cross in the churches or worshiping of cross in any way is considered a form of idolatry.
7. The true meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice
People who erect the cross justify their acts by saying, “Since Jesus died on the cross for us, we commemorate His sacrifice by looking at the cross.” However, the Bible says that the thing we should engrave on our hearts is Christ’s precious blood of sacrifice that He shed on the cross.
1 Peter 1:18-19 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
Remember the Passover of the New Covenant, the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, which is Jesus’ last teaching before He died. This is the true meaning of commemorating our Father’s sacrifice.
1) Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, CROSS, CRUCIFY, 1940, W.E. VINE, Merrill F. Unger
2) Everett F. Harrison, Baker’s Dictionary of Theology pg. 152