top of page

Is the Cross the Right Symbol for the Church?

When I was taught as a child how to share my faith, the story went like this: “We’re all sinners, and sin brings death and separation from God. But God sent his Son to intercept the consequences of our sin. Jesus died so we don’t have to, and closed the gap between us and God.” Now, I still deeply believe this (although there were many years in my twenties when I rejected all of it), but notice what is missing in this thumbnail sketch: any mention of the resurrection of Jesus. The story is Good Friday-centric, with no hint of Easter. In my decade of doubt I began to wonder: isn’t Easter the fulcrum of the Gospel? Doesn’t the Bible say that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14)? Why, then, is the cross the symbol of the church, and not the empty tomb?

One of the most formative experiences for me when I lived in Jerusalem was long hours spent in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site where the early Christians remembered Jesus dying and rising again outside the walls of 1st century Jerusalem (inside the city walls today). The church was constructed in the 4th century by Helena, mother of the first Christian emperor Constantine. Destroyed later in the Muslim conquests, the rebuilt church of today is a Crusader structure, and as the Hebrew University professor who introduced me to the building told me: “The whole church is exegesis of the Passion hewn in stone.”

The most significant aspect of this architectural theology, and the most surprising for western Christians like myself, is that the whole church is strategically arranged around the “holy sepulcher,” the empty tomb of Christ, whereas Golgotha (the site of the crucifixion) is something of an afterthought, found in a glorified attic in the corner of the building. In terms of the story I learned as a boy, this arrangement struck me as theologically backwards. Shouldn’t Golgotha be at the center of the church, and the tomb somewhere on the fringe? If salvation is all about what happened on the cross, what’s it doing up in the attic?

The mistake was mine, I learned, and that of much of the western church. In its well-intentioned zeal for developing sophisticated theories of atonement, parsing out just how the cross intercepted God’s wrath and fulfilled the Torah, etc., the Catholic and Protestant churches of the West allowed the blinding light of the resurrection to drift from center until it was nearly eclipsed altogether. The Orthodox churches of the east never made this error, and fortunately stones don’t changed their shape with every new intellectual current.

Here’s a picture of the church’s physical and symbolic center, the empty tomb.

And here’s Golgotha. The exposed bedrock of the hill can be seen through the glass under the altar. Pilgrims kneel under the altar to put their hand directly into the empty space in the rock where a cross was erected.

Like millions of other Christians around the world I wear a cross around my neck, yet sometimes I wonder if Christianity chose the wrong symbol. In the first century thousands of crosses littered the landscape of the Roman Empire, testament to the brutality of Caesar’s so-called pax. (If you’ve never read it, get a copy of Martin Hengel’s The Cross of the Son of God; you’ll never look at the historical reality of crucifixion the same.) There were many crosses in the Roman Empire, but only one empty tomb. If Jesus had died and never risen, we never would’ve heard of him. Perhaps he would’ve received passing mention as a sage in the Mishnah, but no more. What makes Christianity Christianity is not just Good Friday, but Better Sunday. (See my article in Christianity Today about the rhyme between Easter and the science of the Big Bang.)

And the whole idea of resurrection is no Christian innovation. The belief that the God of Israel would overcome death was a core teaching of the Old Testament—the Bible of Jesus—and of later Jewish tradition. (My doctoral advisor Jon D. Levenson has written broadly on this theme. See especially his Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life, winner of the National Jewish Book Award. See also the study of N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God.)

As Isaiah said centuries before Jesus, speaking of Jerusalem in Isaiah 25:6–9,

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples

a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,

of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.

And he will swallow up on this mountain

the covering that is cast over all peoples,

the veil that is spread over all nations.

He will swallow up death forever;

and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,

and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,

for the Lord has spoken.

It will be said on that day,

“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.

This is the Lord; we have waited for him;

let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”


bottom of page