Do We Really Need the Cross of Christ?

Language – Go Figure

Language can be literal and language can be figurative. But all language is an analog. It stands for something else. The word “apple” is not itself an apple. The word “love” is not itself love. Words stand in for the real thing.

Perhaps the simplest languages are the ones called on to work hardest at being analogous. Think of how computer programmers use zeroes and ones – and nothing but zeroes and ones – to carry out complex functions. English, on the other hand, has one of the largest stores of words known, with the 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) listing over 170,000 words in current use and another 47,000 obsolete words. That’s a lot different than trying to express everything with only a zero and a one to call upon.

Words, then, are symbols we use for expression. C.S. Lewis once divided these expressive symbols into two categories:

Two kinds of symbol must surely be distinguished. The alphabetical symbol comes naked into the world of mathematics and is clothed with value by its masters. A poetic symbol – like the Rose, for Love … – comes trailing clouds of glory from the real world, clouds whose shape and color largely determine and explain its poetic use. In an equation, x and y will do as well as a and b, but the Romance of the Rose could not, without loss, be re-written as the Romance of the Onion, and if a man did not see why, we could only send him back to the real world to study roses, onions, and love, all of them still untouched by poetry, still raw.

The titular question – Do We Really Need the Cross of Christ? – is not meant to lead us to a discussion of atonement doctrines. This post is not about Governmental Atonement versus Christus Victor versus Penal Substitution versus Ransom versus whatever other doctrines you care to list. I am concerned here with the question of whether we need the cross of Christ as a symbol.

Ripping Off Crosses

When I was an atheist, I wore a cross. It was a gift from an old girlfriend, a small silver cross on a thin silver chain. I liked the way it looked and it gave me something to fiddle with when I was bored.

One time, shortly before becoming a Christian, a couple of young Christian women I’d met asked me about it. I told them the story, and that to me its symbolic attributes were of nothing more than a relationship past. Later, after I came to Christ, one of the women told me that every time she saw me wearing it she wanted to rip it from my neck.

That cross, even merely a tiny metal symbol of the one Jesus hung on, meant something to her quite different from what it meant to me. I’m glad she didn’t give in to her urges.

The Reality of Symbols

Some might say that symbols are irrelevant when you have the real thing. Jesus died on a cross, they’d point out, isn’t that enough? In a sense, yes it is.

But God himself uses symbols, metaphors, idioms, and more in his very own word. (I wrote about it here recently.) In fact, the Bible itself speaks of the cross as symbol.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18.)

A cross made of real wood was the instrument of death for our Savior, who was nailed in place with real metal spikes. Yet God’s word says that very real cross is also a symbol, a message. Depending on the hearer, that message is either foolishness or the power of God: think of me in my atheist days and my friend who controlled her urge to rid my neck of the cross, chain and all.

Yet do we need the cross as a symbol? Apparently we do. It symbolizes for us God’s power of salvation, what he as done in sending the Son into the world. As Jesus himself told us:

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:17-18.)

The cross, then, symbolizes much. Salvation. Freedom from condemnation. The hope of the world. And as Lewis said, such a symbol trails “clouds of glory from the real world”, the reality of what Jesus has done for us.

So I’d say yes, we really do need the cross of Christ. Symbolically and literally, it exists for our salvation.


What comes to your mind when you see the symbol of the cross?

Has seeing a cross ever realigned your thoughts to God?

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10 Responses to Do We Really Need the Cross of Christ?

  1. Nick says:

    Some historians claim the church focused more on the resurrection for the first couple of centuries than the cross. I’m reading through John Stott’s “The Cross of Christ” this Fall for my II Theology. He makes a case that the sign of the cross on the forehead was a prevalent Christian symbol from the church’s earliest days. He notes that even in speaking of the resurrection, we are only commenting on the completed work of the cross. Great post, Tim. Thanks!

    • Tim says:

      Yeah, Nick, I can’t see how the two could be separated. Paul said he preached Christ crucified, yet he also said that if Christ was not raised form the dead then it’s all a sham.

      • Jeannie says:

        This part of the discussion really interests me because recently we sang a worship song at church that said Jesus “trampled over death by death.” I wondered about this at first because I would have thought it was LIFE that defeated death. But the worship leader told me this phrase came from a Byzantine version of a Paschal hymn which says:
        Christ is risen from the dead,
        By death He conquered death,
        And to those in the graves
        He granted life!
        So it makes sense what you say: the two can’t really be separated. Both Jesus’ death AND His resurrection defeated death. Beautiful paradox!

        • Tim says:

          I love that song, Jeannie, and particularly that line you quote. The connection to the Byzantine hymn is really interesting.

          I think it can be traced back to Isaiah 53 as well, where the prophecy says the Messiah would heal us by his wounds, that he would be slaughtered and sent to the grave on our behalf, essentially conquering death’s claim to us. Then there is 1 Corinthians 15 which tells us that the last enemy to be destroyed is death and Revelation 5 which explains that the reason Christ is worthy to have this victory is precisely because he was slain.

          What a concept: by surrendering to death, Christ conquered death itself!

  2. Sarah Beals says:

    I wear a small silver cross. One day two Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door and tried to tell me that Jesus was not God. After an hour and a half of discussion with these two, one of the men, the men in the background who didn’t do the speaking seemed confused and disturbed. He told me that he grew up in a Baptist home and that he learned that Jesus did claim to be God. I held up my little cross and told him that Jesus died for him and that I believed that he had people praying for him to trust Christ. The other lady who was presenting was clearly annoyed that I seemed to be getting through to her “JW trainie” and she retorted: “WHY would you wear a symbol of death around your neck. That is disturbing.” I told her that this symbol of death was actually a symbol of hope for all mankind. By the way, I made your cake, and will be posting it on my blog with a link to yours soon. 🙂

    • Tim says:

      That is a great story about the people at the door, Sarah. That man probably did have a bunch of people praying for him, and I wonder what he thought about it after you reminded him of that. As to the woman with him, Paul told us that the cross is foolishness to the world and that our witness is an aroma of death to the perishing but an aroma of life for those who turn to God; you had a case in point standing right in front of you that day!

      On the cake front, I am so looking forward to reading how it all turned out. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I have.

  3. Mary Anne says:

    I think of a book I read many years ago (don’t remember title or author, sorry) and this one part has always stayed with me. The author talked about re-casting a lot of the Christian symbols in modern terms that would really bring home to us what they meant. Imagine if Christians walked around wearing small replica electric chairs, or if there were a hymn called “There’s Room in the Gas Chamber for You.” Yikes.

    I seem to remember C.S. Lewis writing about the way art has distanced the reality of crucifixion; we’re used to seeing oil paintings and sculptures of it and it’s trimmed with gold and represented in rich colours, but Lewis’ description of it is “death by torture” and being nailed to a stake “on the town garbage dump.” Not pretty, but real in a way that art doesn’t usually capture. The beauty shining through all this atrocity is in verses like “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” or “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” But He laid down His life for His enemies. All of them(or should I say, all of US), for all time, everywhere.

  4. Great post. It is interesting to me that athiests would wear crosses when they tend to know what it symbolizes and usually seem pretty against Christ, from those I know who are athiests, that is. Yet you wore one and fiddled with it when bored. It is so strange!

    I have a hard time with the golden beautiful symbolic crosses. I used to wear a few of them (mainly celtic knotted ones), but over the past year I actually threw out any cross I had (as decoration in the home or jewelry) because of Christ’s bloody disgusting torture device being something that I want to have disgust over, not adornment over.

    Also there is a guy Rob and I know personally who wanted to start his own cross mirror business where you have these gigantic gaudy crosses that have mirrors in them so that when you look in them, you see your reflection which should show you that Jesus died on the cross for you. I was upset and told Rob that as a vain person, you (I) won’t be thinking about what Jesus did for you, but make it a way of making more money and a way to just adore yourself. The cross has become an idol instead of a sincere understanding of how awful they were in Jesus’ time (that the word execution comes from crucifixion). I can’t live like that. Rob and I never told the guy because I think he wouldn’t understand or would be offended, and we understand that we think a lot differently from most people.

    Great article again.

    • Tim says:

      I’m with you on that cross mirror thing, Victoria. There are too many ways that can go wrong. For one thing, if they sell like hotcakes and end up all over the place, they’ll be just like crosses around atheist’s necks: adornment void of meaning. It would be different if it were part of a display of some sort that was specifically designed to draw people’s attention to Christ’s sacrifice, but without the proper context I think it’s just drivel.

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