The empty cross is viewed as a symbol of the risen Christ.
The empty cross is viewed as a symbol of the risen Christ.

The image of Jesus on the cross, also known as a crucifix, is widely regarded as a symbol of Roman Catholicism. Many Protestant organizations agree that the image focuses too heavily on Christ's death and not on his resurrection. By examining history, namely the Protestant split from the Catholic Church and the birth of Lutheranism and Reformed Christianity, we understand more about the absence of the crucifix from most Protestant churches.

What is a Crucifix?

A crucifix, also known as a Corpus Christi cross, is a representation of Jesus Christ in his final dying hours on the cross at Calvary. This image is fashioned into jewelry, depicted in religious art and may also adorn chapels and altars. Jesus is often depicted with blood running down the side of his chest, because John 19:32-34 states: "Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs. But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water."

Protestant Reformation

Protestantism took root in Germany at the beginning of the 14th century. Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin spread the word about what they saw as corruption in the Catholic Church throughout Europe. Though these men and their followers agreed on several fundamental theological points, factions arose over varying interpretations of the Bible and religious customs, including the use of crucifixes.

The official website for the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod states: "The history of Lutheranism demonstrates that the crucifix was a regular and routine feature of Lutheran worship and devotional life during Luther’s lifetime and during the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy." John Calvin and his Reformed Christians, however, believed that the crucifix and other forms of religious art could lead to idol worship. Other modern-day Protestant denominations, including Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Anglicans are all in some way derived from Lutheranism or Reformed Christianity because they were the first organizations to break away from the Catholic Church and introduce a new way of thinking.

The Modern Lutheran Church

Paul T. McCain, Lutheran pastor and publisher at Concordia Publishing House writes, "Here in America, Lutherans have always felt a certain pressure to 'fit in' with the Reformed Christianity that predominates much of the Protestant church here. Thus, for some Lutherans this meant doing away with things such as crucifixes, and vestments, and other traditional forms of Lutheran worship and piety." He goes on to explain that Martin Luther was never opposed to the use of the crucifix or any other religious art during worship. For this reason, many of the more traditional Lutheran churches around the world have retained this image of Christ's sacrifice.

The Reformed Christian Churches

John Calvin and his Reformed Christian followers believed that the crucifix and other religious images were forbidden in the 10 commandments, which God presented to Moses. Exodus 20:4 states: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." As Protestantism grew and spread throughout the world, the crucifix disappeared from many places of worship. The "empty cross" grew in popularity as a replacement. Instead of representing Christ's suffering and death, the cross brings to mind the more hopeful image of his resurrection.