Is the Cross a Pagan Symbol?
You wondered if the word "cross" or any items representing a cross should be used by Christians. Some people believe that since a cross symbol was used in some pagan religions, Jesus could not possibly have been crucified on a cross. They believe Jesus was crucified on a simple upright stake.
The objection to the cross is usually summarized in the following words: "My Lord and Savior was not crucified on a ‘cross,’ the symbol of a pagan deity." The problem with this reasoning is that a stake or upright pole, such as an obelisk, was also used as a symbol in pagan religions. That means, no matter on what instrument Jesus was crucified—cross or stake—it could be said that it was used as a pagan symbol. Prior pagan usage of the cross symbolism, then, cannot be the deciding factor regarding what instrument was used in Jesus’ crucifixion.
With that in mind, let's for a moment consider how the Roman crucifixion procedure was carried out when used for capital punishment. The term "crucifixion" is based on the Latin word crux, which means cross. In English versions of the Bible, we read that Jesus was crucified on a cross (stauros in Greek).
Stauros refers to a wooden pole or timber with or without a crosspiece. Acts 5:30 and 10:39 and 1 Peter 2:24 tell us that Jesus was put to death on a tree (xulon in Greek). The reason this word was used in a few places is because the authors were making a point to the Jews. Traditionally, the Jews viewed an individual who was hung on a tree as one who was under God’s curse (Galatians 3:13, quoting Deuteronomy 21:23). But the authors of Acts and Peter, when they used xulon did not mean Jesus was crucified on a living tree. He was crucified on some kind of apparatus fashioned from the timber of a tree.
The worst aspect of crucifixion, from a Jewish perspective, is that it indicated the person was accursed by God. Most Jews could not accept the fact that someone who had been publicly hung up to die could be the Messiah, God's Anointed One. Paul preached a Lord who did die such a cursed death—and his gospel was "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Corinthians 1:23). The shape of the cross did not offend people, but its function did.
Though information is limited, historical and archaeological evidence shows that the Romans generally used a crossbar, not a vertical post alone, when crucifying individuals. This crossbar either sat on top of the vertical post or traversed it somewhere along its upper quadrant. The beam that Jesus was made to carry (John 19:17), and that Simon from Cyrene carried for him after Jesus collapsed in exhaustion (Luke 23:26), was most likely the crosspiece that was later affixed to an upright pole that was already in place.
There is no indication in the Gospels that Jesus’ crucifixion was in any way different from the normal Roman crucifixion. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology states: "It seems that the Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus describe a standard Roman procedure for crucifixion" (page 287). We may conclude with a reasonable degree of assurance that the implement used in the standard Roman crucifixion formed some sort of cross-like shape.
However, the shape of the instrument on which Christ was crucified is not what is important. Rather, what is crucial is the fact of the crucifixion in which the Son of God gave his life to pay for the sins of all humanity. The fact that cross-like emblems and designs were present in non-Christian religious practices does not eliminate its importance to Christians, or prohibit its proper use. What would be wrong, of course, would be to look superstitiously to the cross as an icon, or to worship its image.
When the expression "the cross" is used in the Bible, it is used as a literary metaphor, like the gallows or the guillotine has been in later times. The cross symbolizes what Jesus accomplished, and the Christian life itself. Jesus says that each Christian must take up a cross and follow him (Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 14:27). This figure of speech originated from the practice of forcing condemned criminals to carry the wood or crossbeam on which they were to be crucified.
In Paul’s writings, the cross is presented in terms of the meaning for believers of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It became a centerpiece of Paul’s gospel message. When writing to the Galatians, Paul used the expression "the cross" to convey the glory of Jesus’ saving work in the crucifixion: "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14).
Paul also uses "the cross" to symbolize the entire Christian message. In Corinth, Paul preached "Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). He summarized his message as "Christ crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:23). His gospel, proclaiming salvation to Gentiles without any need for circumcision, he called "the offense of the cross" (Galatians 5:11).
Paul, when preaching the gospel about the crucified Jesus, was not concerned about giving a detailed physical description of the death of Jesus or describing the actual shape of the cross. He pointed to the meaning of Jesus' sacrifice, and he used the cross as symbolic of God's grace toward us, demonstrated through Jesus Christ. Because of the cross, God's people are saved by grace through faith (Galatians 2:16-21). Paul can boast in the cross, that is, in what God has done on our behalf, rather than in circumcision, that is, in what people can do (Galatians 6:12-15).
In Galatians 5:24, we are told that Christians "have crucified the sinful nature." We have put it to death and consider it dead, no longer exercising power over us. This is one of the ways we daily carry our cross. Our old nature has been "crucified with [Christ] so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin (Romans 6:6). The Christian life—rejecting sin and obeying God—can be described as sharing in Christ's death on the cross.
In speaking of the "cross," the New Testament is talking about the sacrifice of Jesus, not the literal wood on which he was executed. The "cross" becomes a symbol that brings together several fundamental Christian concepts, especially Jesus' sacrificial death on our behalf. And like any symbol, its purpose is to remind us of something or to point us to something—just like a flag of a country or a wedding ring.
The cross is not an object of veneration or worship. Christians worship Christ. Whether crosses have a pagan history or people wrongly use them is not crucial to our recognition that Jesus was crucified on a cross. Certainly, the cross, as a symbol of Christ's saving work, is not an abomination for Christians. The cross of Christ reminds us of the sacrifice of our Savior. The Roman symbol of death becomes, for us, the symbol of Christ's victory over sin and death, and of our victory in him.
Some have asked whether it would be a sin to display a cross in church services. Others have asked whether it would be wrong to have a cross on a bracelet, a necklace, in a picture, on a key chain, and so forth. Unless the cross becomes an object of worship in these uses, it is not a sin to wear or display one, any more than it is a sin to wear a church seal on jewelry or display it on the lectern at services. Such a thing is entirely a personal choice. Just as the church cannot demand that anyone use the word "cross," it can certainly not demand that anyone remove a cross on a necklace, key chain or a Bible binding.
Others have wondered if wearing or displaying a cross would be breaking the second commandment. Again, the commandment is against theworship of or service to images, not against every image. Otherwise, we could have no symbols, pictures, carvings or any representation of anything at all. But God does not command such a thing. Even the tabernacle and the temple had images of various plants, and even of cherubs. We are commanded not to make idols and not to worship them. And, of course, anything can become an idol, whether it has "pagan" origins or not.
To summarize, the cross of Christ has rich meaning for Christians as a powerful symbol of their relationship with God, who gave his Son that we might die to sin and live in him. We need not be ashamed of it, and we need not be offended by it. The cross is not to be worshiped, but neither should it be disparaged as sinful. Because some people might wrongly worship the cross must not mean that other Christians cannot use it rightly as a symbol of Jesus' profound sacrifice for sin.