From the various medals, statues and drawings adorning his
car, it was obvious that my taxi driver was Hindu. He was driving me to Kuala
Lumpur’s airport, through the vast oil palm plantations of Southern Malaysia.
Malaysia is a multicultural nation, and although the
principal religion is Islam, it is common to see Hindu and Buddhist temples
alongside the mosques in the towns and villages. There is even the occasional
Christian church—although Christianity is very much a minority religion in
The older I get, the more tolerant I become of other people’s
religious beliefs. I don’t mean that I accept them or even understand them, but
I have learned that what to me might seem foolish or confusing can have deep
meaning to someone from a different culture. For example, my Hindu taxi driver
is an intelligent man, but I have to wonder what he sees in what to me are
rather odd symbols of his faith. Like, for instance, the brightly colored
statues of monkeys and elephants that adorn the temples. Or the small statue of
a multi-armed goddess on the taxi’s dashboard.
To those who don’t know the story, it must seem odd to
choose a tortured, bleeding corpse on a cross as the symbol of your faith.
I was thinking of asking the driver about this, when he
neatly turned the tables on me. We passed a Christian church building decorated
with a large cross on the wall. The cross had a gaudy plaster statue of the
crucified Christ nailed to it, with bright red painted blood flowing from its
hands, feet and side. Turning to me, the driver asked, “Excuse me, sir, but are
you a Christian?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then could you tell me what you Christians see in that
strange dead god?”
I had never thought of the symbol of the cross like that. To
me, Jesus is very much alive. When you know the story, the cross becomes a
powerful reminder of how Jesus suffered when he became the sacrifice for sin.
But to someone who does not know the story, it must seem odd to choose a
tortured, bleeding corpse hanging on Roman cross as the symbol of your faith.
Not always the cross
Today the cross is the universally recognized emblem of
Christianity. It wasn’t always. In the early years of the Church, the cross was
not widely used. Perhaps it was considered too horrific at a time when
crucifixion was still a dreaded punishment in the Roman Empire. The first
Christians identified themselves with the symbol of the fish, like the one you
see on bumper stickers. The first letters of the Greek words that meant “Jesus
Christ, God’s Son, Savior” (Iesous
Christos Theou Yios Soter) happened to form the Greek word for “fish” (ichthys).
It was an apt symbol, because Jesus told his followers they
would be “fishers of men.” But in those early days, they had to “fish” in
secret. It was dangerous to be a Christian, and the followers of Jesus resorted
to secret signs and symbols to keep from exposing themselves unnecessarily. For
example, a man sometimes drew half the picture of a fish in the sand while
talking with someone. If the figure was recognized to signify more than an
unconscious movement during the course of a conversation, the other person
would complete the drawing, and the two believers would know they were safe
with one another.
The Christians had to worship in secret, and visiting
Christians could find their way to the worship center in the long underground
passageways by simply looking at the fish on the wall pointing in the direction
they were to go.
However, when Christianity became the religion of the Roman
Empire in the days of Constantine and crucifixion was abandoned as a
punishment, the cross became more prevalent as a symbol of Christian faith. But
during the first millennium, the Christ figure was usually portrayed fully
clothed and very much alive, focusing on his triumphant resurrection rather
than his ignominious death.
My Hindu taxi driver was not the only one who did not
understand “our strange dead God.” In many parts of the world, where the
representatives of Christ have not always behaved well, the cross is seen as a
symbol of oppression and exploitation. And of course, there are now millions of
people in the Western world who wear a cross as jewelry, but have no clear idea
of what it symbolizes. Perhaps you have heard the story of the girl who asked a
jeweler, “Do you have one of those cross things people are wearing?”
“Do you want a plain one, or one with the little man on it?”
the jeweler asked.
Core of our faith
Even if a growing number of people see a cross as nothing
more than another kind of trendy jewelry, the cross continues to hold its
rightful place as a centerpiece in our places of worship. It adorns our Bibles,
prayer books and hymnals. It represents forgiveness of sin and reminds us of
what Jesus suffered to become our Savior.
But here’s something to think about. Does a cross actually
convey the core meaning of our Christian faith? It might to us, since we know
the whole story. Jesus didn’t remain on the cross or in the tomb. He rose from
the dead and ascended to the Father, having conquered death and reconciled
humanity to God as both the representative and substitute for all. But to many,
like my taxi driver, the cross conveys the idea that we worship a “strange dead
Many a church notice board reminds passersby that “the wages
of sin is death.” Such constant emphasis on avoiding punishment for sin can
give the impression that this is what our faith is all about.
But Christianity is not primarily about avoiding death. It
is not even primarily about forgiveness of sin. It is about love and life. John
3:16 reminds us that God so loved the world that he gave his only beloved Son
so that humanity could have—not just their sins forgiven—but true life, life
with God. Forgiveness is part of the process, but even forgiveness springs
eternal only from God’s heart of love, and it is God’s undying love that
transforms people into brothers and sisters of Jesus, more than that, into
friends of Jesus, and into the beloved children of the Father.
The world has never been so filled with fear, suffering and
death. We need to remind ourselves that Jesus said “I have come that they may
have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
Christianity stands for love and life. The cross will always
be a symbol of the death of our Lord. But is there an equally recognizable way
to represent the new life created for humanity in his resurrection and
ascension to the Father? Artists’ attempts to show the risen Lord in all his
glory inevitably fall far short of reality. But maybe there is a way.
Jesus said he would live in and through people who accept
him as their Savior. They would follow him, their lives transformed, reflecting
his love and life like a glowing candle in a dark room. “By this everyone will
know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” said Jesus (John
A life characterized by love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, goodness, trustworthiness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians
5:22-23) will undoubtedly be thought of as a bit strange. It is to be expected;
people thought Jesus was strange, too. But Christian faith is best represented
not when someone looks at a handmade symbol that might have different meanings
to different people, but when those who believe it become living symbols of our
“strange living God.”
Author: John Halford