Question from a reader:
Is there somewhere in the bible that talks about the two aspects of crosses….meaning the crucifixion side and the symbolic religious side? I mean on one hand crosses have been used for killing people in past history. On the other hand they were (and are) used as a positive symbol for loving God. There seems to be some disconnect there in my mind about that. Does the bible address that issue anywhere? Or what do you think about that?
You have asked some interesting questions on the subject of the cross–the physical aspect vs. the spiritual aspect of the Crucifixion. Unfortunately (as with so many things that we wish the Bible talked about more), I don’t know of any specific Scripture passages that talk about this. However, I believe that we can still construct a Biblical answer to your question by tying some verses together.
However, first of all, I think it’s important to note that the people living throughout the Roman Empire during the time of Christ were well aware of the violent nature of crucifixion. Rome was a powerful world empire, and it used its power to strike fear in the hearts of its adversaries. Rome’s enemies lived in fear of its military power, and its domestic enemies (lawbreakers) lived in fear of crucifixion. Crucifixion was quite common, and Rome proudly displayed the crosses and the broken bodies on them. The idea was that a would-be criminal would think twice before breaking the law if he thought he would end up like that–usually suffering a very slow death over a period of many days, where the cause of death was often dehydration, exhaustion, and / or asphyxiation. The victims were in agony, but not only because of the nails in their hands and feet. The nature of crucifixion also made it difficult for them to breathe. They would hang loosely from their arms for a while, trying to rest their muscles, but causing respiratory distress from the pressure on their rib cage. Then they would muster enough strength to push up with their legs, and take a few relatively clear breaths, until the strength in their legs would give out again. As a result, if the soldiers (and the authorities) took pity upon someone who was crucified, they could break his legs, as this would actually hasten their death.
Incidentally, Christ’s death was relatively quick, and unusual for crucifixion. The soldiers were ordered to break His legs in order to hasten His death (in response to the plea of the Jews that He should not have to hang on the cross throughout the Sabbath Day–John 19:31). However, when they came to break His legs, He was already dead. So, part of the miracle of the Cross is that Christ actually bled to death, due to the wounds in His hands and feet (from the nails), His skull (from the crown of thorns), and His side (from the spear). This is why, in Christendom, the blood of Christ is sacred–the very means by which the only sinless man was sacrificed for those who choose to believe in the gospel message. Leviticus 17:11 says, “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”
Now back to the Biblical answer to your question, I believe that the following Scriptures apply:
– Acts 2:23 notes that Christ was “… nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” This confirms what history tells us about how gruesome death by crucifixion was.
– Galatians 3:13 says that, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us-for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE.” This teaches that the perfect Christ became a curse when our sins were placed upon Him.
– Colossians 1:20 says that Christ “… made peace through the blood of His cross.” Our reconciliation (for our sins) with God was made possible only through Christ’s blood on the cross.
– Hebrews 12:2 notes that Christ “… endured the cross, despising the shame.” Everyone understood that crucifixion was quite something to endure. More importantly, Christ overcame the shame of the cross through His resurrection.”
– 1 Peter 2:24 says that Christ “… bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” This is one of many scriptures explaining that, upon believing this gospel message, we believers know that Christ died for our sins, and we will live with Him in eternity (John 3:16-18).
So, I can understand why you might feel a disconnect between the killing aspect of crucifixion and how we use it in our faith as a symbol for God’s love. However, I believe that this disconnect can really be interpreted as a connection–between Christ’s great sacrifice and how it provided salvation for us when we had otherwise had nothing worthy to offer God.
One other thing comes to mind: I was taught (as a Protestant) to believe that the display of a cross in our day was acceptable as long as it was only a cross; i.e., not a cross with Christ’s body on it, as seen throughout Roman Catholic churches. We were told that, since Christ had defeated the cross through His resurrection, then we should think of the cross as “the empty cross which could no longer hold Him,” instead of the cross that held His dead or dying body. Well, I’m no longer as adamant about this as I used to be. Although it’s my preference to display an empty cross (like on Karen’s “wall of crosses” in our kitchen), I can also understand why one would also want to remember the cross as it still held Christ’s body, re-enforcing the idea of His great sacrifice.
Sorry, I got a bit long-winded there. I truly get excited when I think about Christ’s death on the cross for sinners such as myself.