Is The Cross of Christ Even Necessary?

[From the archives.]


Language – Go Figure

When love and apples meet  (

When love and apples meet

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

Not the cross I wore - wrong color  (Wikimedia)

Not the cross I wore – wrong color

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.) 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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8 Responses to Is The Cross of Christ Even Necessary?

  1. Thanks for a good read, Tim! We may fall into the trap of thinking we can do without symbols (I mean in life in general, not just religion or spirituality), but we really can’t. The very language we use, as you so aptly point out, consists of symbols. And I love Lewis’s idea that those symbols are not haphazard, meaningless “fillers” but that, in eternity, the realities behind them will be seen to be not different from, only more real than, the symbols we knew in this life.

  2. I would say that we do not absolutely NEED symbols, but we all use them to one degree or another. Most Christians do not even realize that the cross was not used as a Christian symbol until after Constantine outlawed crucifixion as a means of execution in the 4th century. However, there were other symbols used before that time, the fish symbol being the most famous.

    What bothers me a little is the fact that some Christians seem unable to worship without certain symbols present. We have two services on Sunday – one contemporary and one traditional. Someone from the traditional service wondered out loud how we in the contemporary service could worship without candles. I can worship God anytime and anywhere with or without symbols.

    • Tim says:

      Good point, Brian. Symbols may point us to God, but they are not necessary to our being able to relate to him. The cross in itself – the place where Christ died – is necessary as fulfillment of the prophecies of how God’s anointed would suffer and die. But the crosses we see sound us are not necessary.

  3. Jeannie says:

    Lewis’s distinction between alphabetical and poetic symbols is helpful: that the former only have meaning when we give them that meaning, while the latter have their own meaning inherent in them, from the real thing. (Proving of course that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is just wishful thinking on Juliet’s part. 🙂 )

    • Tim says:

      I thought of that passage too, Jeannie. Shakespeare knew something about words and language. Talk about deft use of imagery!

      • Adriana says:

        “I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.” ― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

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