Thursday, March 22, 2012


Many Christians are opposed to the use of crucifixes. Some are opposed to all pictures of Jesus. Others are opposed only to depictions of Jesus crucified. I'll deal with the latter first. They say things like, "We worship the risen Jesus." They will use empty crosses and tell people that the cross is empty because Jesus rose from the dead. But the cross would still be empty even if Jesus never rose from the dead. The empty tomb is the symbol of the resurrection. The cross is always a symbol of the death of Jesus. Most don't seem to have a problem with baby Jesus in nativity scene. Nobody says, "Jesus didn't stay a baby, we worship the grown-up Jesus." Every year a baby Jesus seems to get stolen from some nativity scene. I think we should go into churches with empty crosses and say, "Who stole your crucified Jesus?" Paul said he preached nothing but Christ-crucified. Paul was well-aware that Jesus rose from the dead and even said the Christian faith is a bunch of nonsense if Jesus didn't rise from the dead but the central message of Christianity is Christ-crucified. In Galatians 3, Paul compares his own preaching to a painting of Christ-crucified. If Christ-crucified is the central message of the Scriptures and we are going to have pictures of Jesus, it seems pretty obvious that we would have pictures of Christ-crucified. But Christ-crucifed both in preaching and in art is offensive. Paul said Christ-crucified is offensive. Christ-crucified shows us how bad we really are. We are so utterly sinful that God had to be crucified for us. In many churches you will a find a picture of some effiminate looking Jesus staring off into the distance but they are opposed to images of Christ-crucified.

Some people are opposed to all images of Jesus. They reason that God forbade the making of images of God, Jesus is God, therefore images of Jesus are forbidden. This is a position I held when I was a Calvinist. But the idea in the commandments is that we are not to make images of God in order to worship those images. If create an image in order to worship it, then it is sinful. God commanded Moses to make a graven image of Jesus--God commanded Moses to make the bronze serpent. But this had to be done away with when people started worshipping the bronze serpent. In Deuteronomy the prohibition against images is tied to the fact that God did not take any form when He spoke to the Israelites. But Paul says that Jesus is the image/icon of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). If we were simply left to our devices we would simply make a god of our own imagination that looked like some super powerful animal that was bigger and stronger than the other gods. But God comes to us in humility. He most fully reveals who He is on the cross. And the cross is offensive. Christ-crucified is the exact opposite of any god that we would create.

Pictures of Jesus are a confession of the incarnation. If you had been there you could have snapped a picture of Jesus. That doesn't mean that all pictures of Jesus are good. It's still very possible to paint a picture of Jesus that is false just as it is very possible to paint a false picture of who Jesus is through a sermon. Some people get hung up on ethnic traits. They get upset if Jesus is not portrayed as a very Jewish looking man. But we are dealing with artwork and the purpose of artistic depictions of Jesus should not be to show us what Jesus looks like but to show us who Jesus is. Throughout history, different ethnic groups have created different pictures of Jesus that make him look like someone from their ethnic background. I think this is actually a good thing. Jesus died for us and in our place. It only becomes a problem if people with a white Jesus hanging on their wall get mad at people with a black Jesus hanging on their wall. German 16th Centurty artists would paint Jesus into a scene that looked very German and very 16th Century. Contextualization can be helpful in communicating the truth that Jesus' death is relevant to our present day just as much as it was when it happened. In Eastern Orthodox iconography there isn't any real attempt to show us in any kind of realistic way what the people looked like. Rather, color and objects are used to tell us something about the person. The people in the pictures don't look like any real human beings and they're not intended to.

It's interesting that the pictures of Jesus that people find the least offensive are also the ones that are most likely to say something truly false about Jesus and lead us into idolatry. The effiminate Jesus staring off into the distance is one of the most popular and least offensive images but doesn't really tell us anything true about Jesus. Jesus isn't doing anything at all. It's only an imaginitve depiction of what someone thought he may have looked like. It portrays Him as gentle but doesn't really tell us how He is gentle. A man at our church, as an act of love, created a beautiful wood carving of Jesus the Good Shepherd carrying a lamb in his arms. The carving looks significantly different than any of the other depictions of Jesus we have in our church. It's a little more cartoonish but not in a silly way. But when my little girl who hasn't even turned two yet saw it she stood up, pointed, and yelled excitedly, "JESUS!" The other children knew who this carving was a depiction of right away as well and were very excited to see it. They recognized that this was a depiction of Jesus because the man in the carving was doing what Jesus does--lovingly, caring for His sheep. The crucifix is not a tool to show us what Jesus looked like, but to show us what Jesus does for us. The crucifix simultaneously shows us how great our sin is and how much greater Jesus' love is for us. It's easy to talk about the crucifixion in terms of abstractions but we cannot ignore reality when it is depicted before our eyes.


Mark said...

Thank you for insights on displaying Jesus on the cross. You mentioned some things that I had not considered before.

Anonymous said...

thank you, charles. i think i'm going to break out the paints right now.

i would love to hear more of your thoughts on how images helps us turn our minds and hearts toward God, and how that is different from worshipping the images themselves. :o)

~lynnie ha

Chuck Wiese said...


I think it's just a matter of what you put your trust in. If you put your trust in the crucifix then you are engagin in idolatry. The Scriptures say that the heavens declare the glory of God. If you start worshipping the sun or the stars then you are engaging in idolatry but if they remind of what God has done then they are helpful in directing us toward God. I put my trust in lots of things that I shouldn't like my job or my family. But I think I'm being honest with myself when I say that I don't put my trust in my crucifix.