The Idolatry of the Cross

Author’s Note – Since I wrote this piece several years ago, I’ve had a significant change of perspective with regards to the role of the cross in the Christian context. At this point in my faith, I hold the cross in much higher significance than when I wrote this, due largely to the work of theologian Jürgen Moltmann in his book The Crucified God. While I still agree with a few of my thoughts here, I will offer that the views expressed in this blog are not necessarily indicative of the views of the author now. I will leave the post unedited (except for this introductory note), but encourage the reader to seek alternate perspectives as well. Perhaps one day, I will write another blog post about the role of the cross that more accurately explains my current views.

It’s everywhere. We wear it on our necks, we hang it on our walls, and we paint it in our pictures. We have church songs about it. It’s a decoration, a symbol, a sacred reminder.

Oh, and it’s an instrument of torture.

And yet, if there’s any symbol in the world that is universally recognized, it’s the cross. As Christians, we identify ourselves by the instrument of Jesus’ death. We put it up in our churches as a reminder of the sacrifice that he made that brought life into the world. We wear it on our t-shirts as a symbol of who we choose to follow.

The cross holds a position of great significance among Christians. It’s the place where Jesus showed the ultimate submission to God and gave himself up for us. It has rightfully earned its place in Christianity.

The cross is both beautiful and repulsive to us. It is a reminder of the unending grace of God, but it’s also a reminder of our own rejection of Him. It’s the instrument of salvation, but it’s also the instrument of torture and death for the one person in history who deserved it the least.

100 years ago, in 1913, George Bennard captured this tension of beauty and anguish in a beautiful hymn that we still sing at church sometimes:

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.

So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.

So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.

So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

It’s a haunting, beautiful hymn that reminds us that for all the shame and horror of the cross, victory abounds.

And yet, as we sing about the cross of Christ, I can’t help but ask myself, “Are we overdoing it?”

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that the cross has fully earned a place in the Church today. We would be foolish to forget everything that it stands for. But at the end of the day, a cross is just a cross. It’s just two sticks. The cross has no more bearing on God’s redemptive power than the nails in his hands, the crown of thorns on his head, or the convenient little loincloth that shows up in all of our paintings of the crucifixion.

Our God did not require a cross to bring us back to him. There is no power in the cross. We do not belong to God because of a magical cross. We belong to God because God chose us to be his.

Perhaps we know that.

But as we sing these songs that glorify the position of the cross, I think our emotions can get ahead of us. When we sing that we will cling to the Old Rugged Cross, I wonder if God might ask us to let go of the cross, an instrument of death, and instead rejoice in his life.

I’m not suggesting that we throw the cross out entirely. I think it is good and healthy for us to reflect on a perfect submission that leads all the way to a cross. I think to abandon the imagery of the cross is to forget that true submission to Christ has real and sometimes painful consequences. But to cling to it? To love the cross, and to sing songs about it’s glory? To hang pictures of it in our homes and wear symbols on our t-shirts? It starts to look a lot like idolatry. It starts to feel a lot like worship.

Leviticus 26:1 says

“You shall not make for yourselves idols, nor shall you set up for yourselves an image or a sacred pillar, nor shall you place a figured stone in your land to bow down to it; for I am the Lord your God.” (NASB)

There it is. We shall not set up any idols. No images or sacred pillars. Nothing that we should bow down to.

How often have we been told to kneel at the foot of the cross?

The best thing about Leviticus 26:1 is that it tells us precisely why we’re not supposed to establish any idols. Because Yahweh is the Lord our God. Because there is nothing that takes the place of our God. Because any idol, any sacred image, or any figured stone is nothing in comparison to our Lord.

We tend to remember that when it comes to false gods. None of us are all that tempted to create a golden calf and fall down and worship it. But the cross has became so pervasive in our Church culture, that we have made it an idol without even giving it a second glance. Leviticus 26:1 reminds us that the cross is not Yahweh.  The Cross does not bring salvation. It does not rescue us from our sins. It does not reunite us with the Father. The cross is a means to an end.

It may just be possible that while we cling to a cross, we might give up our hold on what it actually stands for.  It may be the case that we focus so much on the death of Christ, that we forget that he taught us how to live abundant lives.  It may even be that our fascination with the cross has made us forget that the death of Christ would have been worthless had it not been for his life.

So from now on, I will not cling to the old rugged cross. I’m going to exchange the cross for the Christ who died on it. We have been redeemed by God and his infinite mercy, not by a cross. Let’s abandon our idols and cling to the God who continues to save us, long after Christ died on a cross.

4 thoughts on “The Idolatry of the Cross

  1. Interesting thoughts, Tyler. Perhaps because I’m coming at the issue from a slightly different theological framework, I’m not quite sure if I agree with you. The cross is worthy of veneration, because by it Christ redeemed the world. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on one of the Good Friday anthems from the Book of Common Prayer. Often, but not always, while it is recited, a large cross is placed in a prominent place in the church, and people are invited to come forward and kiss it.

    Anthem 1 (BCP 281)

    We glory in your cross, O Lord,
    and praise and glorify your holy resurrection;
    for by virtue of your cross
    joy has come to the whole world.

    May God be merciful to us and bless us,
    show us the light of his countenance, and come to us.

    Let your ways be known upon earth,
    your saving health among all nations.

    Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you.

    We glory in your cross, O Lord,
    and praise and glorify your holy resurrection;
    for by virtue of your cross
    joy has come to the whole world.


  2. I like that the anthem focuses more on Christ than on the cross, but I would still contend that the cross only filled an incidental role in the process. The cross happened to be the method by which Jesus died. I don’t see it as being particularly worthy of honor because the Son of God died on one. If Jesus had been stoned to death, I think it would be equally idolatrous to cling to the old rugged rock.

    But I do very much appreciate getting another perspective. Particularly an older, more liturgical tradition’s approach to the topic.


  3. And so the gnostic heresy continues to spread. It’s funny how determined this heresy is to wipe out all the symbols of Christianity. I never hear this heresy complaining about the ubiquitous symbols of the world. It is revered for who it represents and what he did for us. When they’ve stripped us of our symbols, with whose symbols will they replace them, a poster of a celebrity or politician, Mother Earth or some occult TV character?

    God loves the world and it’s both material and spiritual. He created it and said it is good. He chose the cross to be the instrument used to achieve his sacrifice of love for us. The crosses we wear and display are not revered for themselves but for the person and love it represents. Don’t let anyone load false guilt on you. Wear your crosses. They’d love it if we hid them then they could pretend that God is not alive and worthy to be praised.


    1. I’m getting the impression that you came to this blog with some preconceived ideas about what I would say, what I meant, and what my agenda is. Unfortunately, you were wrong about all three.

      I would love to have a reasonable conversation about this, but you’ve got to help me out here.

      What is gnostic about what I wrote? What is heretical? Where do I state that we should get rid of the cross? (I actually said the opposite). What “ubiquitous symbols of the world” are you talking about?

      My goal here is to examine whether or not we’ve made the cross more important than it actually is. My conclusion is that we have. If you disagree (and you certainly seem to), tell me why. Preferably without accusations of heresy and a hidden agenda.


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