The Cross: A Journey of Meaning

Jacob Rennaker, “The Cross: A Journey of Meaning,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2006 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2006), 87–100.

The Cross: A Journey of Meaning

Jacob Rennaker


The history of the cross thousands of miles and thousands of years, through which time it has become a powerful symbol. Like all symbols, its meaning is defined by the observer. The cross can evoke feelings of reverence, awe, or fear. The cross was used as a device of torture against the Son of the Eternal God. Because of its associations with the Savior, the cross itself took on added meaning. It has been used to inspire armies and to inspire the minds of Christians throughout the ages, and it has continued to inspire people across the world. Despite its gruesome beginnings, the cross has become a symbol of majesty for those who believe in Jesus Christ.

The History of Crucifixion

Crucifixion dates back to the Persians.[1] Crucifixion was later used by Alexander the Great, who was greatly influenced by the Persians during his conquests of the East. Subsequently, his competing successors used this means of punishment, and over the years it was passed on to the Romans, who inherited Alexander’s grand empire.[2]

The English word crucifixion comes from the Latin crucifixus, which is a combination of the Latin crux (“cross”) and fixus (from figere, “to fix”).[3] The standard means of crucifixion required the condemned person to carry the crossbeam upon which he would later be bound or nailed. The vertical stake (Greek stauros) on which the crossbeam would be attached was erected previous to the criminal’s arrival. As the convicted person made his way to the place of crucifixion, a tablet was hung around his neck that stated the reason for execution. This same tablet was later attached to the cross of the criminal. After affixing the person to the crossbeam, the beam was then raised and fastened to the stake. The height of the cross depended on the purpose of the punishment. For those whom leaders wished to make a public spectacle of, the cross was made higher so that those passing by would be sure to notice the person being crucified. Others were crucified on shorter crosses.[4]

Death by crucifixion was “the most painful, dreadful, and ugly” form of execution. [5] This punishment was meant for “slaves, murderers, traitors and heretics,” and was a “horrific act of public humiliation, as well as a slow means of execution.”[6] The emotions that this form of punishment evoked can be seen in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus: “I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered.”[7]

Quintilian, another ancient historian, wrote that crucifixions should be held in the busiest places of a city because such a public display was a powerful deterrent.[8] Due to the frequency with which the Romans employed this punishment, it is evident that they viewed it as “one of the strongest means of maintaining order and security.”[9] Crucifixion was as severe as it was saddening.

Jesus’s Crucifixion receives surprisingly little coverage in the Gospels. Comparatively, “the torments that preceded Jesus’ death are given in much greater detail than the death itself.”[10] In the Greek text of the Gospel of John (19:17–18), the Crucifixion itself is described using only thirty-six words. In contrast, the dividing of the garments of Christ by the soldiers (19:23–24) is recounted using fifty-seven words.[11] How, then, did a symbol that was only touched upon lightly by the authors of the Gospels become the universal symbol of the Christian faith?

The Cross as a Symbol

Despite its prominence today, early Christians did not use the symbol of the cross openly for the first three centuries AD.[12] Christians were constantly persecuted during the early years of the Church, and to openly advertise their religion could have brought about derision, banishment, or even death. The previous history of the cross also prevented its immediate use. As mentioned earlier, for centuries the cross was used for the punishment of only the vilest criminals. In light of this, “one might have expected the earliest believers in Jesus to avoid or at least soft-pedal the fact that Jesus died as a convicted felon,” despite the fact that He was wrongfully accused. [13] Others outside the faith might have mistaken this symbol as support for those who deserved such torture.

An example of this negative view of crucifixion and its relation to Christianity is found in second-century graffiti in Rome. The image depicts a crucified person with a donkey head and a man standing next to the cross. The writing next to this drawing says, “Alexamenos worships [his] God.”[14] While this illustration proves an early connection between the symbol of the cross and Christianity, it also shows a common view held by non-Christians of those who worshiped one who was crucified. Its close association with shame and pain must have played a part in the avoidance of this symbol by early Christians.

Early Christians did not, however, completely abandon this powerful image. After Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians in the first century, the faithful who wanted to express themselves and their religion found other symbols in order to conceal their meanings. The Egyptian symbol of life, the ankh, was a common symbol in the ancient Near East. It resembles a capital letter “T” with a loop on top. The similarity between this symbol and the shape of the cross inspired early Christians to use it as a substitute for an actual cross. This specific symbol was even used in a second-century copy of the Gospel of Luke.[15]

Letters of the alphabet were also given special meaning by Christians. Some of which were as follows: “‘E’. . . represented Eden; ‘N’ stood for Victory; ‘R’ for Resurrection; ‘S’ for Health; and ‘A’ for ‘Beginning’ or ‘Life.’”[16] A combination of the Greek letters X (Chi) and P (Rho), later became a widespread symbol of Christianity. These were the first two letters in the Greek name for Christ, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos). The symbol was made by overlapping the two letters. The first attestation of this particular Christian symbol is on a wall of the Vatican’s necropolis. Scholars date this cryptogram somewhere between AD 290 and 315.[17] Shortly after this period, however, one man led the most powerful empire in the world to espouse the formerly despised symbol of the cross.

Constantine and the Crusades

In the midst of a power struggle for control of the Roman Empire, Constantine, who was busy battling hopefuls for the throne, pushed his way toward the Roman capital and rested his troops at the Milvian Bridge. Before engaging in battle with his rival, Constantine pondered his strategy. The great church historian Eusebius recorded a detailed description of this pivotal moment in Constantine’s life. This great military leader was convinced that he needed something more powerful than his military in order to emerge victorious, “deeming the possession of arms and a numerous soldiery of secondary importance, for without the help of God he thought that these things could accomplish nothing.”[18] He believed that the failures of other generals was due to their belief in a multiplicity of gods, and gravitated toward his father’s belief in one, supreme God.[19] After imploring this God for assistance, “he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light formed in the very heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS.”[20] Amazed by this spectacle, he retired to his tent, “then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.”[21] Constantine then ordered his troops to paint this sign on their shields. This image was not a modern cross but the labarum, made by overlapping the Greek letters X and P (see above). This symbol represented Christ and brought to mind the image of the Savior on the cross.[22]

The battle at Milvian Bridge was a success and was the turning point in Constantine’s quest to become ruler of the Roman Empire. After arriving in Rome, Constantine restored order to the senate, which then declared him the senior ruler of the empire.[23] Constantine began consolidating his power and eventually became the sole ruler. Whether or not Constantine’s vision actually happened is outside the scope of this paper. However, from that point forward Christianity became a driving force in the mind of Constantine. Remembering to whom he owed his earlier victory, he declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and undertook a massive ideological campaign to spread the religion of the crucified Christ.[24] Evidencing Constantine’s antipathy for crucifixion, the emperor put an end to this form of punishment throughout the Roman Empire.[25] He also ordered the construction of churches in which to worship and “to display . . . the Christian faith as victorious.”[26]

A special emphasis was placed on constructing religious buildings in the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem.[27] Helena, the mother of Constantine, set out to “find and venerate the places made holy by association with events in the life of Christ.”[28] She identified and built churches on many traditional sites of Christ’s life: the cave of His birth in Bethlehem, His tomb outside of Jerusalem, and on the Mount of Olives, from which He ascended.[29] The most important “discovery” of Helena, however, was the cross of Christ.

According to tradition, while Helena was journeying throughout the Holy Land, she learned of a site where the cross of Christ was believed to be. She managed to “frighten” certain Jews “into revealing the site of the three crosses of Golgotha, long buried in a deep pit.”[30] The “True Cross” (the cross upon which Jesus was crucified) was identified by a later miracle of healing.[31] Most scholars believe this “discovery” to be a late legend with no historical basis.[32]

Early mention of the appearance of this cross does exist. Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, wrote a letter to Constantius II around AD 350 in which he reported the following: “The trophy of victory over death of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God, even the holy Cross, . . . has been seen at Jerusalem.”[33] Whether or not the tradition surrounding Helena is true, it is apparent that “reverence for the Cross as a symbol was undoubtedly greatly stimulated by the ‘discovery’ of what was considered to be the True Cross.”[34] The belief in an actual cross bolstered the faith of Christians everywhere, and “became increasingly prominent as a symbol until it eventually became the Christian symbol par excellence.”[35] The cross in Jerusalem played a vital role during the time of Constantine. Hundreds of years later, this same symbol would come to the forefront in a large military campaign to reclaim the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

A portion of the cross was believed to be kept in Jerusalem under guard until the Persian general Chosroes II conquered Jerusalem in AD 614. He retained this relic until the emperor Heraclius recovered it following the Battle of Nineveh.[36] Traditionally, it was returned to Jerusalem, where it remained during the subsequent Muslim conquest.[37] During this period of Muslim dominance, there were many pilgrims who risked both life and limb to reach Jerusalem and pray before this embodiment of their faith. Along their journey, the image of the cross was never far from their minds. Many pilgrims traveled with small crosses, which they would drive into the ground and pray beside.[38]

Eventually, the desire to regain this land for Christians became so great that Pope Urban II declared a holy campaign to reclaim the Holy Land. This effort became known as the Crusades, from the Latin word cruciare, “to mark with a cross.”[39] The Crusaders were those who went to battle against the adversary and prominently displayed the emblem of the cross on their banners, clothing, and shields.[40] These soldiers of the cross marched to Jerusalem and eventually seized it in the name of Christianity.

The actual conquest of Jerusalem was a bloody ordeal, with many of the inhabitants (men, women, and children) dying by the hands of the Crusaders. Amid the battle, a great silence fell, almost immediately, over the land. What could command such silence? “Down the hillside of Zion, [and] up the ascent of Moriah, . . . swept a train of stoled priests . . . bearing the wood of the true cross for which they had fought.”[41] This sacred sight was so overpowering that “almost in a moment the barbarous slaughter of innocent victims ceased and the bronzed warriors fell upon their knees in the blood-drenched streets.”[42] The symbolic object for which they had killed so many immediately demanded their reverence and brought an end to the senseless slaughter of the people in Jerusalem, the “City of Peace.” Peace was once again restored among those who worshiped the crucified Christ.

This brief respite from the almost constant warfare surrounding the Holy Land did not last long, and after almost a hundred years Jerusalem erupted in war. This time, the relic of the cross would end the battle in a different way. The Christians fought a final battle against the invading armies of Saladin, holding aloft the remnants of the cross of Christ. After a desperate battle, the Muslim army defeated those who were defending the land of Christ’s life, despite their possession of His cross. This thoroughly demoralized the Christians and facilitated the rapid conquest of the surrounding areas controlled by the devastated kingdom. The cross itself held no “sacred significance to the unbelievers,” and the conquerors either concealed it or destroyed it. [43] With the loss of this final battle, the last remnants of the cross of Christ were lost to history.

The thoughts and feelings of the Crusaders and contemporary Christians were eloquently expressed in the poem “Laudes Crucis Attollamus,” written by Adam of St. Victor in the twelfth century:

Be the Cross our theme and story,

We who in the Cross’s glory

Shall exult for evermore.

By the Cross the warrior rises,

By the Cross the foe despises,

Till he gains the heavenly shore.

Heavenward raise songs and praise:

Saved from loss by the Cross,

Give the Cross his honor due.

Life and voice keep well in chorus;

Then the melody sonorous

Shall make concord good and true.

Love be warm, and praise be fervent,

Thou that art the Cross’s servant,

And in that hast rest from strife:

Every kindred, every nation,

Hail the Tree that brings salvation,

Tree of Beauty, Tree of Life![44]

Because Jesus was resurrected, the symbol of the cross was changed from a sign of torture to a sign of triumph. One author put it this way: “The death and resurrection of Jesus conferred a new and vast significance on this sign of ultimate humiliation.”[45] This paradox has caused many to pause in awe of such condescension. Jesus, having “descended below all things” (D&C 88:6), showed that with His divine aid mankind could also rise above all things.

The Tree of Life

It is evident that the concept of the cross transcended the physical cross upon which the Savior was crucified. From the dream of Constantine, past the pilgrimage of his mother Helena, throughout the great Crusades, and up through modern iconography, this symbol has continued to take a powerful hold upon the minds of millions.

There are intriguing theories concerning the etymology of the word “cross.” One scholar believes that the word comes from the Aryan base ker, which means “to grow,” and from which we get the word “create.”[46] This possibility takes on additional meaning when discussing the connection between the cross and the tree of life.

The tree of life is a common motif in religious thought throughout the world. In Jewish and Christian theology, after the Creation, the tree of life was placed in the Garden of Eden and those who ate from it were granted eternal life (see Alma 42:5). Following the disobedience of Adam and Eve, access to this tree was prohibited by cherubim (see Genesis 3:24). Expulsion from the garden meant both physical and spiritual separation from God. Provisions were made, however, for these obstacles to be overcome. The prophet Lehi, in his dream of the tree of life, saw that those who pressed forward on the strait and narrow path by holding to the iron rod eventually reached this divine destination (see 1 Nephi 8:24).

When Nephi saw this same vision, he was asked by an angel what the fruit of the tree of life symbolized. He replied, “It is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men” (1 Nephi 11:22). When this verse is viewed in light of Jesus’s statement in John 3:16, a relation can be seen between the tree of life and the sacrifice of the Son. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The “love of God” seen by Nephi was the Father’s sacrifice of His “only begotten Son.” This connection between the Crucifixion and the tree of life is seen in the writings of Peter: “[Christ] bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24; emphasis added). The Roman soldiers who guarded the cross were but pale reflections of the shining cherubim who protected the original tree of life thousands of years earlier.

This relationship between the cross and the tree of life appears in an illustration found in the archbishop of Salzburg’s prayer book. In this picture, Eve is seen on the right side of the tree distributing the fruit of the tree of death, symbolized by dark fruit and a skull. Mary, mother of Jesus, is on the left side of the tree, distributing the fruit of the tree of life. This is symbolized by the image of Christ on the cross, and the fruit is interestingly depicted in the form of the Eucharist (the Catholic symbol for the body of Christ). It was in Christ that the effects of the tree of death were reversed.

Another form related to the cross of Christ is the “Tau Cross.” This cross resembles the Greek Letter Tau (T). One tradition says that this was the symbol placed above the doors of the Israelites to avoid the angel of death.[47] It is also called the “Old Testament cross” or the “Anticipatory cross.”[48] It is generally considered a “pre-Christian cross, associated by Christian tradition with the Mosaic dispensation.”[49] Tradition also explains that the object which Moses lifted the brass serpent on was a Tau Cross.[50] One author stated that “the Tau cross is the cross of prophecy, and the uplifting of the serpent of Moses is a type of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[51] This symbol from ancient Israel helped to point the minds of the people to the immanent sacrifice of the Son of God. Its image was so powerful that later Israelites began to reverence the symbol itself (see 2 Kings 18:4).

Time and Eternity

The cross also has a more abstract symbolic value. It is a symbol of “one force intersecting another.”[52] Herbert Whone, in an exhaustive study of church symbolism, outlined many implications of the symbolism embedded in the cross. He believes that the primary meaning of the cross is found in the vertical line representing eternity and the horizontal line representing time.[53] Man consists of both temporal elements (the body) and eternal elements (the spirit). His existence is the result of these two forces intersecting.

Whone believes that these two forces are at odds with each other, and that man’s eternal nature has been interrupted in the process of time. He states: “Christ’s death on the cross is a symbol of the sacrifice of all that is illusory in the world. The more a man achieves this, the more time is lived in eternity, the more he is ‘in the world but not of it’, the more apparent duality is dispelled, and the more the point of the cross becomes a living here-and-now awareness.”[54] Thus, the symbol of the cross is the symbol of opposites conjoining. The vertical line represents the active or positive element, and the horizontal line represents the passive or negative element.[55] The superior intersects the inferior, and life meets death. The cross of Christ, however, proves that mortality is not merely an intersection of higher and lower spheres; through obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel, that which is higher in each individual can prevail.

As mentioned above, the vertical line of the cross can represent eternity. As One who was “in the beginning . . . with God,” and, in fact, “was God” (John 1:1), Christ was an eternal spirit who was living in an eternal realm. He chose, however, to inherit a temporal body and inhabit a realm of time, as illustrated by the cross’s horizontal line (see John 1:14). Although mortal, Christ never succumbed to the frailties of mortality. Proving the potential of the higher nature within each of us, He overcame the most intense temptations from the tempter (see Matthew 4:3–11). Ultimately, this eternal God did “overcome the world” (John 16:33) and has promised us that we can do the same (see D&C 63:47). As a finale to His mortal performance, Christ overcame death and fused His eternal spirit with perfected “flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39). He is now the living, eternal symbol of the cross: the spiritual and the physical eternally united (see Alma 11:45).

Few symbols have undergone such radical changes in the minds of mankind. As a symbol of punishment, it was originally used to deter the wicked. As a symbol of victory, it was later used to invite the righteous. The cross at once holds the meaning of both death and life. The Savior, who died on Calvary, now and forever lives enthroned in heaven (see Revelation 3:21). From heaven, His loving invitation is still heard: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).


[1] See Gerhard Friedrich, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VII (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1971), 573.

[2] See Friedrich, Theological Dictionary, 573.

[3] See Herbert Whone, Church, Monastery, Cathedral: An Illustrated Guide to Christian Symbolism (Longmead, Great Britain: Element Books, 1990), 10.

[4] See Friedrich, Theological Dictionary, 573.

[5] Friedrich, Theological Dictionary, 573.

[6] Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew d’Ancona, The Quest for the True Cross (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2000), 10.

[7] Flavius Joseph, The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 25.

[8] See Thiede, The Quest, 10.

[9] Friedrich, Theological Dictionary, 573.

[10] Gerard S. Sloyan, The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 17.

[11] See Sloyan, The Crucifixion of Jesus, 17.

[12] See Heather Child and Dorothy Colles, Christian Symbols, Ancient and Modern: A Handbook for Students (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1971), 10.

[13] Sloyan, The Crucifixion of Jesus, 14.

[14] Thiede, The Quest, photograph 12.

[15] See Thiede, The Quest, 16.

[16] Thiede, The Quest, 16–17.

[17] Thiede, The Quest, 17.

[18] Eusebius, cited in T. G. Elliot, The Christianity of Constantine the Great (Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 1996), 63.

[19] See Elliot, Christianity, 64.

[20] Elliot, Christianity, 64.

[21] Elliot, Christianity, 64–65.

[22] See Elliot, Christianity, 61.

[23] See Elliot, Christianity, 74.

[24] See Thiede, The Quest, 39.

[25] See Friedrich, Theological Dictionary, 574.

[26] Jan Willem Drijvers, Helena Augusta (New York: E. J. Brill, 1992), 56–57.

[27] See Drijvers, Helena Augusta, 57.

[28] Child, Christian Symbols, 11, 14.

[29] See Drijvers, Helena Augusta, 57.

[30] Child, Christian Symbols, 14.

[31] See Hans A. Pohlsander, Helena: Empress and Saint (Chicago: Ares, 1995), 107.

[32] See Drijvers, Helena Augusta, 81.

[33] Drijvers, Helena Augusta, 82.

[34] Drijvers, Helena Augusta, 81.

[35] Drijvers, Helena Augusta, 81.

[36] See George Willard Benson, The Cross: Its History and Symbolism (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1983), 48.

[37] See Benson, The Cross, 48.

[38] See Benson, The Cross, 49.

[39] Whone, Church, 63.

[40] Whone, Church, 63.

[41] W. C. Prime, Holy Cross (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1877), 91.

[42] Benson, The Cross, 52.

[43] Benson, The Cross, 52.

[44] Prime, Holy Cross, 99.

[45] Child, Christian Symbols, 10.

[46] Whone, Church, 59.

[47] Thomas A. Stafford, Christian Symbolism in the Evangelical Churches (New York: Abingdon Press, 1942), 66.

[48] F. R. Webber, Church Symbolism (Detroit: Book Tower, 1971), 104.

[49] Stafford, Christian Symbolism, 66, 68.

[50] Stafford, Christian Symbolism, 66.

[51] Webber, Church Symbolism, 104.

[52] Whone, Church, 59.

[53] See Whone, Church, 59.

[54] Whone, Church, 59.

[55] See J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1971), 70.