Why Christians Need to Stop Wearing Crosses, Part 2

By | July 9, 2014

“No hero in your tragedy
No daring in your escape
No salutes for your surrender
Nothing noble in your fate
Christ, what have you done?” -Rush,
The Pass

My first real Internet arguments took place on homeschooldebate.com, and I most enjoyed the time when some atheists found the forum, and questioned my religion. They were trolling our group of sheltered, homeschooled, conservative Christian kids (I was thirteen), but it was a fantastic introduction to alternative perspectives.

I’ll never forget the time one of these atheist trolls described Christianity. He wrote, “The death of Jesus is nothing more than a guilt trip.”

It made me stop and rethink. Was I following something because I’d been told that I was responsible for someone else’s terrible death? Everything about the way I’d heard the gospel preached came under scrutiny.

Jesus chose his own death, which is why it was the stupidest thing he could have done at face value. The idea of telling people that Jesus died for them became repulsive for me. I memorized all kinds of little phrases in AWANA from a young age: “Grace is God giving me a free gift I don’t deserve.” And “Christ died for our sins,” a phrase with a definitions-debate behind every word.

Both communicated the same thing: Jesus’ death was for you. If you don’t accept it, you’re ungrateful. God killed his son because of you, so it’s your fault. If you don’t repent, you’re going to hell.

Oh, how I wish I were setting up strawmen. These are actual things people tell children. To deny them and remain a Christian would mean abandoning evangelism, refusing to believe in propitiation, and condemning the brainwashing of children.

Here are my defenses, as they came up in various conversations about the symbol of the cross.

As I do in all conversations, I asked questions. “What does the cross mean to you?”

Everyone gave some variation of the phrase, “It’s a reminder of the price Jesus paid.”

“Everybody dies. Crucifixion was a really common method of execution in Jesus’ time. What makes him unique?”

“He rose from the dead.”

“Then why do we wear a symbol of a common death?”

One of my friends once told me that we’re not even sure that Jesus died on a cross. Chances are really good that he was crucified on a tree. The narrative in the Bible, and the reference to “dying on a cross” are interchangeable with the concept of crucifixion. The cross as a common Christian symbol dates to about 200 years after Jesus’ lifetime. Early Christians lived in a world where crucifixion was just an execution method. To use it would be like wearing the simple symbol of a noose, or an electric chair, or a gun. If Jesus didn’t even die on a literal cross, it makes even less sense.

My sister Lydia, after all this, insisted that she would still be wearing her crucifix. I asked why. She said, “Now that you made me think about it, it means Jesus saved me at a high price.”

I asked, “What if that’s not the point?”

In one of our favorite films, Bridge to Terabithia, two kids are best friends. Leslie is significantly more well-off than Jess, but she tries not to let her wealth come between them. In one scene, she gives Jess a set of paints for his birthday, because he loves art. He says, “These must have cost a ton.”

Leslie winces slightly, composes herself, and asks, “What’s it matter what it cost?”

It was a gift. Her family is rich; she can afford it. She picked something thoughtful because she knows her best friend.

I think when most Christians agonize over the horrible death Jesus endured, Jesus kinda watches them and wants to say, “But I wanted to give this to you. You don’t have to beat yourself up over it. Take my gift of life, and bring heaven on earth instead of acting like the life I gave you is a waiting room for the afterlife.”

I mean, there are a bunch of things that are costly about it. My friend Ben says since Jesus is God and God is infinite, the price paid on the cross is literally an infinite payment for a finite measure of humanity. It’s an overpayment. No constant rewatching of The Passion of the Christ is going to help someone understand that concept. Along with the fact that Jesus’ death wasn’t unique, the “high price” defense of wearing a cross doesn’t make sense.

I ended the conversation with my sister saying, “Like, if you died and were raised from the dead, thousands of years ago, would you look back on it like that? With melancholy and revisiting it? Or would you be like, ‘man yeah that sucked but woooooo I got the keys to hell, check it.’”

That just leaves the question: why is Christianity’s most common symbol one of death and torture and pain?

My friend Flynn guessed that it was guilt, the same thing my atheist Internet-debate companion suggested. “Guilt trumps joy when motivating people,” he said, then added, “Of course, it’s very open to debate as to whether or not guilt *actually* trumps joy as a motivator, but observing how people attempt to motivate other people, it’s a very common perception that guilt is better/more efficient.”

Kevin pointed out that other religions have positive symbols. Islam uses a star and crescent moon, Daoism is most often the yin-yang, and then there’s the Star of David, to name a few. The only religion that uses a symbol of death, connoting guilt, is Christianity.

I gave Flynn a cynical, tongue-in-cheek response. I said using the cross symbol is underhanded advertising. Christianity is the #1 religion in the world. The guilt-trip marketing campaign seems to have worked.

“Honestly though,” Flynn said, “I think a lot of people would deny its tie to guilt.”

I indicated that I was whispering over our chat window. “This is the part where I run the risk of sounding totally cliché.”

“…now you have my full attention, ‘cause I know you don’t do that lightly.” Flynn typed back.

I explained. “Okay, so I don’t think most Christians genuinely believe in evil – too much emphasis on the will of God (when the only way for evil to exist is if it’s not in the will of God, meaning God’s will is not being done). let’s just say there was some agency of hell, out to tear apart the gospel, totally infiltrate the whole thing. It would hit that thing with everything it’s got. If guilt is a weapon of hell, not heaven, what better symbol to bury the grace of heaven with than one of guilt? (Avoiding clichés is hard.) Basically I’m saying crosses are of Satan. However, that’s not merely based on the presence of guilt. Even people who wear crosses and don’t associate it with guilt are still using a symbol of death. Emphasize the death instead of the resurrection, because that was the moment where it seemed like hell was winning.”

Flynn replied, “You must not be very popular in Christian circles.”

I said, “I’m really not.”

  • DavidS

    I’m surprised that you can’t separate guilt-driven religiosity from the cross.

    The cross is a symbol that stands for so much more than that.
    For instance, the cross represents
    – the beauty and power of self sacrificing love over violence and coercion.
    – the triumph of love over evil/sin
    – the infinite absorbing the corruption of creation in order to kick start

    It isn’t that the symbol of the cross should be abandoned, but that following Christ should be bathed in joy and love, not guilt.

    • stjebus

      David: You can claim the symbol of the cross stands for those things, but that’s not the way it’s used. In Christian thought, the cross means you’re guilty (original sin and all that).
      I said it before on FB, and I’ll reiterate it here: until your message doesn’t start with “You’re awful and God hates you”, it will never, ever be good news.

      • DavidS

        stjebus :
        Guilt can be defined as the recognition of responsibility for a negative choice.

        Packaged in the story of the death of Jesus on the cross is the fact that humans/creation is tainted with selfishness and that we’ve made damaging and destructive choices for which we bear responsibility. These choices enslave us with the guilt we bear from them. The honest recognition of the chains of enslavement leads us to desire deliverance from them. This is where the cross comes in. It is the ultimate act of loving, self sacrifice, brutal to see and experience yet staggering in its effects. Guilt, as defined above, leads us to the cross, where we are freed from our enslavement to guilt. After the cross, we are free to live, grow and love in relationship with Jesus.

        When it comes to the message of the gospel, it should never start with “You’re awful and God hates you”. That notion is not found in the message of Jesus, nor the early church.

        Rather, the gospel starts with “The true King has begun his revolution based on love. Let’s join into the resurrection of all creation.”

        • stjebus

          Your definition only works in a legal sense. The cross represents the feeling of guilt, or in other words, false guilt.

          Your “starting place” has so many assumptions. That’s not a starting place, that’s a middle place. Just off the top of my head, here’s some assumptions in your “starting place”:
          An assumption of what “truth” is
          the existence of a “King”(capital letter important, even)
          revolution against what?
          an assumption of what resurrection is
          an assumption that “resurrection (whatever it is)” exists
          what are you considering “all creation”
          what do you mean by “love”?
          That’s just off the top of my head. You can’t start at that place, you’ve clearly started from somewhere else and gotten there. The “gospel” as I’ve always seen it starts like this:
          Humanity is sinful.
          God hates sin.
          Therefore, God hates humanity.
          Therefore, God wants to destroy/punish humanity (implicit: God wants to destroy/punish things he hates)
          In other words, “You’re awful and God hates you”.

          • DavidS

            My starting place does have many assumptions and is meant to precipitate the kind of questions you asked.

            I’m sorry that the good news of Jesus has been presented to you in the format of God hating humanity and wishing to destroy it.
            The version that you are familiar with has a few fatal flaws.
            Here’s my feedback on it from what I understand of God’s story from the Bible.

            “Humanity is sinful.”
            Humanity is infected with a propensity towards selfishness (sin nature) and therefore makes choices that are destructive to themselves and others. However, humanity is also created in God’s image, which means we are also valuable and precious to our creator. Our infection is a condition, and can be separated from who we really are.

            “God hates sin.”
            Sin is defined as actions and attitudes destructive to humanity and the universe. Therefore as the creator, it is reasonable to see that he hates that which destroys the beauty of what he intended, just like someone would hate the cancer that ravages a loved one.

            “Therefore, God hates humanity.”
            This assertion assumes that God cannot separate his hatred of the infection from the infected. This isn’t true. In fact, the idea of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is proof that God is willing to go to extravagant lengths to save the infected from their sickness.

            “Therefore, God wants to destroy/punish humanity (implicit: God wants to destroy/punish things he hates)”
            If God wanted to destroy humanity, then why do humans still exist? God does desire to destroy the infection (sin) and purge it from his creation. This is why Jesus on the cross and his subsequent resurrection from the dead is central to history.

            Perhaps the message you’ve heard portrayed as the gospel isn’t actually the gospel after all?
            Your objections may rage against a misrepresentation of the good news of Jesus.

          • stjebus

            Ok, first, please don’t assume I’m “raging” – while you may have meant it innocently, it’s often the starting place for people to tell me, “You’re just angry at God.” Thanks.

            If you want to start with telling me I’m sinful, you have to tell me why I should believe in “sin”. If the first step of the “good news” is convincing me of “sin”, then yeah. The first step is “You’re awful”.

          • DavidS

            My intention of using the word “rage” was to describe the juxtaposition of your objections to the actual message of the gospel. It wasn’t meant to imply anything about your motivations or attitudes. My apologies if my words implied otherwise.

            Actually, I don’t want to start by convincing you that you are sinful or even the existence of sin. For me, the gospel starts (and ends) with Jesus. If he was who the historical texts said he was, and did what the historical texts said he did, then, to me, his ideas of reality should have primacy over all others. Careful examination of the historical documents of the life of Jesus (ie. the 4 gospels) in order to assess if they are telling the truth about him is a good starting point.

          • stjebus

            This is changing the subject a bit, but it needs to be said: you don’t get to decide what “rage” means. Definitions are a consensus. You can say you used the wrong word, but you can’t say that “rage” means something that it doesn’t just because you think it should. Your words didn’t “imply” otherwise; they explicitly said something else.
            Intent is not magic.

          • mr glasses

            “Intent is not magic.”

            Can I get the tattooed on my forehead?

          • stjebus

            I think a lot of people need it tattooed in a prominent place. :)

  • roos

    What about the patriarchale system? A religion based on guilt fits perfectly in the need to keep people in their place. To keep the obedience and prevent growth.
    And something else: i don’t see how “life” can be used for “payment”. Life is not an object. Life simply is.

    • stjebus

      This: A religion based on guilt fits perfectly in the need to keep people in their place. To keep the obedience and prevent growth.Indeed.

      • roos

        But then i wonder: what does life means to christian religion?
        How do christians see life? What does it mean?
        I’ve been thinking what my own answer would be ( took me some time). I experience life as the puppetplayer, and i am the puppet.
        i am defensless against life.

      • Mrs. Bennett

        Islam in a nutshell.

      • Mrs. Bennett

        Islam in a nutshell.

  • A Mom

    Brilliant, Cynthia. I agree.

  • eap

    Who exactly do you think you are to think you can tell other people what they should and should not wear and what they should feel when they do. Your guilt is your own. Perhaps you should figure out where it is really coming from. What makes you so important? You are no more important then anyone else. You are nothing but a hypocrite especially when you write posts in which you get so bent all out of shape when told what YOU should wear and how you should behave and feel. The cross stands as a symbol that we are forgiven, redeemed, children of God. For the future and hope of everlasting life with our loving Father which without the resurrection would not be possible. The resurrection message is the central message in Christianity without which there is no Gospel.

  • Daniel Silver

    It’s only a symbol of guilt if you believe in original sin, I agree that the Cross was a symbol of death and a tool of Satan but that’s why the Early Church primarily used the Christus Victor model and not the model of Original Sin. In the Christus Victor model the emphasis is on Christ taking the symbols and power of Satan and defeating them, the emphasis is rightly on the Resurrection. This goes hand in hand with the Ransom theory of atonement where Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was to Satan for our sins but by accepting that payment Satan lost his fight, so the symbol of the Cross is positive because it was the tool for our freedom.

    St. Ignatius of Antioch explains it better than I can here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.xvii.iv.html?highlight=cross#highlight