Is the Cross for Christians?
“MY MOTHER gave it to me.” “It’s manly.” “I wear it as an ornament.” “I’d feel uncomfortable without it.” “It protects me from evil.” “It’s just something to hang on the chain.”
Thus replied several people who were asked why they wore a cross. Though obviously not all do so out of religious devotion, wearing a cross is quite in vogue in some parts of the world. Even Soviet youths have been seen wearing one. Many attach deep religious significance to the cross, for, as one youth simply said, “It’s sacred.”
But is it really proper for a Christian to wear a cross? Does it accurately portray the way Christ died? And are there valid objections even to wearing it as an ornament? To see, let us first take a look at the origin of the cross.
A Christian Symbol?
You may assume that Christians were the first to use the cross. The Encyclopedia Americana, however, speaks of “its ancient usage by both Hindus and Buddhists in India and China, and by the Persians, Assyrians, and Babylonians.” Similarly, Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, (1969 edition) says that the cross “was an emblem to which religious and mystical meanings were attached long before the Christian era.”
Indeed, there is no evidence that early Christians used the cross in their worship. During the early days of Christianity, it was the pagan Romans who used the cross! Says The Companion Bible: “These crosses were used as symbols of the Babylonian sun-god . . . and are first seen on a coin of Julius Caesar, 100-44 B.C., and then on a coin struck by Caesar’s heir (Augustus), 20 B.C.” The Roman nature-god Bacchus was at times represented with a headband containing a number of crosses.
How, then, did the cross become the symbol of Christendom?
Constantine and the Cross
In 312 C.E., Constantine, ruling the area now known as France and Britain, headed out to war against his brother-in-law, Maxentius, of Italy. En route he reportedly saw a vision—a cross on which were the words “Hoc vince,” meaning, “By this conquer.” After his victory, Constantine made the cross the standard of his armies. When Christianity later became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the cross became the symbol of the church.
But did such a vision actually take place? Accounts of this legend are, at best, secondhand and full of discrepancies. Frankly, it would be difficult to find a more unlikely candidate for a divine revelation than Constantine. At the time of this supposed event, he was an avid sun-god worshiper. Constantine even dedicated Sunday as the day for sun worship. His conduct after his so-called conversion also gave little evidence of real dedication to right principles. Murder, intrigue, and political ambition ruled his life. It seems that for Constantine, Christianity was little more than a political device to unite a fragmented empire.
There is also little evidence that the type of cross Constantine “saw” really represented the instrument used to put Christ to death. Stamped on many coins Constantine subsequently had minted are X-shaped crosses with a “P” superimposed. (See illustration.) An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, by W. E. Vine, says: “As for the Chi, or X, which Constantine declared he had seen in a vision leading him to champion the Christian faith, that letter was the initial of the word ‘Christ’ [in the Greek language] and had nothing to do with ‘the Cross,’” that is, as an instrument of execution. In fact, this style of cross is nearly identical to the pagan symbol for the sun.
Why, then, was the cross so easily accepted by “Christians”? Vine’s Dictionary continues: “By the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D. the churches had either departed from, or had travestied, certain doctrines of the Christian faith. In order to increase the prestige of the apostate ecclesiastical system pagans were received into the churches apart from regeneration by faith, and were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols. Hence the Tau or T, in its most frequent form, with the cross-piece lowered, was adopted to stand for the cross of Christ.”
The Evolution of the Cross
Was it love for Christ that caused the cross, at this late time, to become such an object of veneration? The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics says: “With the 4th cent[ury] magical belief began to take a firmer hold within the Church.” As with a magic charm, simply making the sign of the cross was thought to be “the surest defence against demons, and the remedy for all diseases.” Superstitious use of the cross continues to this day.
Over the years, some 400 different styles of crosses developed. At first, Christ himself was not portrayed. Rather, a youth holding a jeweled cross would be depicted. Later, a lamb was included. In 691 C.E., the council in Trullo made “official” a cross showing the bust of a young man, instead of a lamb, over the cross. In time this developed into the crucifix—a cross with a representation of the body of Christ.
Did Christ Die on a Cross?
‘But does not the Bible teach that Christ actually died on a cross?’ one may ask. To answer this, we must look into the meanings of the two Greek words that the Bible writers used to describe the instrument of Christ’s death: stau·rosʹ and xyʹlon.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1979) states under the heading “Cross”: “Originally Gk. staurós designated a pointed, vertical wooden stake firmly fixed in the ground. . . . They were positioned side by side in rows to form fencing or defensive palisades around settlements, or singly they were set up as instruments of torture on which serious offenders of law were publicly suspended to die (or, if already killed, to have their corpses thoroughly dishonored).”
True, the Romans did use an instrument of execution known in Latin as the crux. And in translating the Bible into Latin, this word crux was used as a rendering of stau·rosʹ. Because the Latin word crux and the English word cross are similar, many mistakenly assume that a crux was necessarily a stake with a crossbeam. However, The Imperial Bible-Dictionary says: “Even amongst the Romans the crux (from which our cross is derived) appears to have been originally an upright pole, and this always remained the more prominent part.”
The book The Non-Christian Cross adds: “There is not a single sentence in any of the numerous writings forming the New Testament, which, in the original Greek, bears even indirect evidence to the effect that the stauros used in the case of Jesus was other than an ordinary stauros [pole or stake]; much less to the effect that it consisted, not of one piece of timber, but of two pieces nailed together in the form of a cross.” Christ could well have been impaled on a form of crux (stau·rosʹ) known as the crux simplex. That was how such a stake was illustrated by the Roman Catholic scholar Justus Lipsius of the 16th century.
What of the other Greek word, xyʹlon? It was used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Bible at Ezra 6:11. In the New World Translation this reads: “And by me an order has been put through that, as for anybody that violates this decree, a timber will be pulled out of his house and he will be impaled upon it, and his house will be turned into a public privy on this account.” Clearly, a single beam, or “timber,” was involved here.
Numerous translators of the Christian Greek Scriptures (New Testament) therefore translate Peter’s words at Acts 5:30 to read: “The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, whom you slew, hanging him upon a stake [or, “tree,” according to the King James Version, New International Version, The Jerusalem Bible, and Revised Standard Version].” You might also wish to check how your Bible translates xyʹlon at: Acts 10:39; 13:29; Galatians 3:13; and 1 Peter 2:24.
Walking by Faith, Not by Sight
Even after considering such evidence that Christ really died on a stake, some may still see nothing wrong with wearing a cross. ‘It’s just an ornament,’ they may say.
Bear in mind, though, how the cross has been used down through history—as an object of pagan worship and of superstitious awe. Could wearing a cross, even as just an ornament, be harmonized with the admonition of the apostle Paul at 1 Corinthians 10:14: “Therefore, my beloved ones, flee from idolatry”?
What about true Christians today? They, too, should be conscious of the need to ‘guard themselves from idols,’ as the Bible counsels. (1 John 5:21) So they do not find the cross to be an appropriate ornament. They recall Paul’s statement: “Accursed is every man hanged upon a stake,” and therefore prefer to think of Christ as a glorious enthroned King!—Galatians 3:13; Revelation 6:2.
Though such Christians do not wear crosses, they deeply appreciate the fact that Christ died for them. They know that Christ’s sacrifice is a marvelous demonstration of “God’s power” and eternal love. (1 Corinthians 1:18; John 3:16) But they need no material object like a cross to help them worship this God of love. For, as Paul exhorted, they “are walking by faith, not by sight.”—2 Corinthians 5:7.
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The cross has evolved into many shapes and forms over the centuries
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Statue of the Greek god Marsyas flayed alive on a tree trunk—The Louvre, Paris