“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.”