Images, Icons, and the Christian cross

Old Testament symbols
The Old Testament contains strong prohibitions against idolatry: “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: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Exod. 20:4-5).[1] The prohibition was not intended to forbid images generally, but to prevent images being made as objects of worship. Images can include sculpture, castings, relief, tapestry, paintings, decorative embellishments of religious objects, etc. Several examples of decorative images are the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant (Exod. 25:18-20); two large cherubim in the temple of Solomon (1 Kings 6:23); the twelve oxen supporting the brazen sea of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:25, 44); cherubim on the veil in the tabernacle (Exod. 26:31); and lions decorating Solomon’s throne (1 Kings 10:19-20). The temple of Solomon was also decorated with carvings of cherubim, trees, and flowers (1 Kings 6:35), and lions and oxen (1 Kings 7:29). Such images are decorative and not intended for adoration or veneration. In the case of the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant, they illustrate the exaltation of God over his creations.[2] Nowhere in scripture is a man-made image of God mentioned. The only possible exceptions are the brazen serpent Moses constructed in the wilderness, which according to Jesus was a type representing himself (John 3:14-15), and the image of God found in man: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him” (Gen. 1:27). There is also evidence of statues, probably human in form (1 Sam. 19:13).

Old Testament idolatry
The Old Testament prohibition against idolatry was so strong that the Israelites were instructed to “make no mention of the name of other gods” (Exod. 23:13). And at times idols were destroyed: “[Josiah] began to purge Judah and Jerusalem from the high places, and the groves, and the carved images, and the molten images. And they brake down the altars of Baalim in his presence; and the images, that were on high above them, he cut down; and the groves, and the carved images, and the molten images, he brake in pieces, and made dust of them” (2 Chron. 34:3-4; see also Exod. 23:24; 2 Kings 10:28; 21:3; Hos. 8:6; 2 Chron. 31:1; Hos. 10:8).

Idol worship included bowing to the idol (Isa. 44:15; Dan. 3:7); presenting food and drink offerings (Isa. 57:6; Jer. 7:18; 19:3; Hos. 2:8); immorality (Exod. 32:23-25; Amos 2:7-8); self flagellation (1 Kings 18:26-28); as well as kissing an image of the god (1 Kings 19:18; Hos. 13:2). It also included animal and even human sacrifice (Deut. 21:31; 2 Kings 17:31; 23:10; Jer. 19:5; Abr. 1:7-8; Mic. 6:6).

New Testament idolatry
With few exceptions, idolatry was the universal form of religious worship and was part of the fabric of everyday society. Hospitals and schools were dedicated to gods; all family and civic ceremonies invoked the name of a god; coins contained the images of gods; public festivals involved the worship of idols; contracts might invoke the name of a god. There were gods for doorways, door hinges, bridges, and gateways. The images of gods were on bracelets, rings, belts, earrings, shoes, and other handicrafts; as well as dishes, eating utensils, and cups. Thus nearly every form of employment in the public and private sector touched the idolatrous religions of the day. The New Testament does not furnish us with a comprehensive list of what Christians were permitted and forbidden to do. But it does speak extensively about avoiding fornication and eating things sacrificed to idols: “abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well” (Acts 15:29). This strong prohibition against idolatry and eating things sacrificed to idols was inherited from Judaism.[3]

Pagan sacrifice involved invoking the name of a god. Part of the sacrifice would be burned upon the altar (usually the entrails) and part would be kept by the priests as payment. Most of the animal would be returned to those who brought the offering, who might then invite their friends and family to participate in a feast honoring their god.[4] These type of feasts could be luxurious events: “Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play” (1 Cor. 10:7, compare Exod. 32:6). The prohibition against eating things sacrificed to idols and against fornication is repeated in the book of Revelation (2:14, and 2:20). Paul said, “Sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed…is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). While one would be tempted to label immorality, lust, and greed as forms of idolatry (a correct observation), idol worship often did involve those things.[5]

But immorality wasn’t connected to all forms of idol worship: a pagan could be a very moral person. This being the case, why was participating in pagan feasts prohibited? Firstly, it would honor a false god. Secondly, it could hinder the conversion of others. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one” (1 Cor. 8:4). If we know there is only one God and that an idol is nothing why not participate in these feasts? Paul admits, “for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse” (v. 8). But not every person knows this. Some people viewed idols as representing a very real god, their conscience being weak (v. 7). So he counsels the Corinthians to “take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.” Paul ends by saying, “Wherefore, if food maketh my brother to fall into sin, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to fall into sin” (Web, 1 Cor. 8:13).

Other stipulations are as follows: “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof.’ If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience--I do not mean your conscience, but his” (ESV, 1 Cor. 10:25-29; italics mine).

The symbol of the cross
The cross has symbolic and/or liturgical use in nearly every Christian denomination. It has many iconic forms such as the crux immissa (), crux simplex (|), crux decussata (X), crux commissa (T), and the Greek forms (+). A cross that has an image of the body of Christ hanging on it is known as a crucifix. Most Protestant denominations do not use this symbol, but instead use an empty cross to symbolize Christ’s resurrection.[6]

The Christian writer Tertullian (circa A.D. 200) says in his Apology, “if any of you think we render superstitious adoration to the cross, in that adoration he is sharer with us” (Apology 16), referring to the Christian practice of using the cross as part of the worship of God and to the pagan tendency to worship images that in form resemble a cross.[7] Christians were generally reluctant to display any outward Christian symbols for fear of persecution. But after Christianity became universally recognized (A.D. 313) the public display of crosses became common.

In addition to the symbol of the cross some Christian denominations include making the sign of the cross as part of their worship and ritual. Making the sign of the cross goes back to at least A.D. 200. Tertullian wrote, “At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the cross]” (The Chaplet iii).[8] Though this gesture is not derived from scripture, one reason behind its use was that non-Christians considered crucifixion a sign of great shame and mocked Christians for worshiping a man who had been crucified. Thus making the sign of the cross was a way for Christians to affirm the precept “whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed” (Rom. 9:33), and to show they were willing to glory in Jesus “which was crucified.”

There is evidence in the Old Testament of marking the forehead. God instructed Ezekiel to “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it” (NIV, Eze. 9:4). Apparently this mark was the form of a cross.[9] In the book of Revelation there is mention of writing the name of God on the foreheads of believers: “Him that overcometh…I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God…and I will write upon him my new name” (Rev. 3:12); “And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads” (Rev. 22:4; see also 14:1 and 7:3). These verses, however, refer to a figurative mark, not to a literal one.

Images in the Catholic and Orthodox churches
One difference between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church is that the Orthodox Church has images only on flat surfaces: i.e. paintings, murals, stained glass windows, and images of crosses sewed into vestments. The Catholic Church has those, as well as sculptures and statues. In the Catholic and Orthodox churches veneration of images is the act of giving honor to a person by giving honor to an image of that person. Veneration can include bowing, kneeling, making the sign of the cross, burning incense or candles, or kissing the object of veneration. Veneration is respect given to saints or to living persons of high rank. (This is similar to the honor given to kings, such as referring to them as your highness, your majesty, my lord.) Adoration is distinct from veneration in that adoration is worship due to God alone.

Most protestant denominations do not participate in veneration of saints or display the crucifix--one exception is the Anglican Church, which does not discourage the crucifix.

The cross in scripture
Paul uses the image of the cross as a symbol of Christ’s enduring the humiliation of the world, his suffering, and death. For example Hebrews 12:2: “the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.” It is also used as a symbol of how Christ has slain the enmity between God and man: “that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby” (Eph. 2:16). As well as a symbol of Christ’s obedience and humility: “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philip. 2:8). Paul often uses it to refer to atonement aspects of Christ’s suffering and death. Christ used the image of the cross as representing self-denial and self-sacrifice: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).

In the Book of Mormon the image of the cross is used primarily as a preaching device, illustrating that as Christ as suffered the humiliation of the world we should likewise endure our sufferings with patience: All men ought to “suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world” (Jacob 1:8); “forsake your sins…but cross yourself in all these things” (Alma 39:9); “it is better that ye should deny yourselves of these things, wherein ye will take up your cross, than that ye should be cast into hell” (3 Nephi 12:30).

Mormonism and Icons
Mormonism is a religion with very few symbols. There is the beehive (representing industry and hard work), the angel Moroni on the top of many temples (representing the restoration and heralding the Second Coming of Christ). The Salt Lake Temple is also somewhat iconic. There is also CTR rings (Choose The Right); and certain paintings by LDS artists have become iconic within in the church. However, the acceptance of these symbols developed through tradition, and they have no liturgical function. In the foyer of every LDS church there are paintings of a religious nature; but in the chapel there are no paintings, crosses, or other symbols. In the temples there are paintings and murals on the walls, but I don’t recall seeing any sculpture in the ones I have been to. The celestial room in most temples does not contain any paintings or images; the only exception I know of is the Idaho Falls temple which has murals painted on the walls of the celestial room.

There are no prohibitions against sculpture, paintings, castings, and murals of Christ and/or the Apostles, both past and present; but these have no liturgical use. There is also symbolism in the temple clothing, but these symbols are to remind us of things religious and are considered sacred and not spoken of outside the temple. There is also a strong aversion to any display of crosses that is not art depicting the crucifixion of Christ; and I don’t recall ever seeing any kind of sculpture resembling a crucifix.

Mormonism and the cross
One thing that bothers non-Mormon Christians about Mormonism is that our faith does not include the symbol of the cross in any form. The standard explanation we give for this is that Christ’s resurrection represents his triumph over sin and death. “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen” (Luke 24:5-6). Further, there is no New Testament instruction for the use of iconic objects or images. I am not aware of any revelation in which God instructs the church not to use an image of the cross. But from Joseph Smith’s first vision we learn that all Christian denominations had departed from the truth. Thus the restoration was not a reformation, and the symbol of the cross never carried over to LDS symbolism. “Our mode of worship, and everything belonging to our religion. It has all been revealed to us, and we accept it as having come from a higher source” (Apostle Charles W. Penrose, 1883, JD vol. 23, p. 344).

Within Mormonism the symbols of the suffering and death of Christ are found in the emblems of the sacrament which we partake in remembrance of his body which he sacrificed and of his blood which he shed. We are specifically instructed to remember Christ’s suffering and death in this way:

the Lord Jesus…took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lords death till he come. (1 Cor. 11:23-26).

The symbols of the death and resurrection of Christ are also found in baptism (Rom. 6:4), and we remember Christs death and resurrection in song.

Until the later half of the twentieth century using the symbol of the cross in any form of worship was derided by some LDS leaders as being in very poor taste. For Latter-day Saints “A humble, contrite spirit and sincere prayer of gratitude is a far better means of worship and acknowledgment of our love for the great blessings we receive through our Saviors voluntary sacrifice than to adore the cross,” wrote the Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith (who later became 10th president of the church, serving from 1970 to 1972).[10] Sometimes criticism would take the form of ridicule[11]--in much the same way that Protestants sometimes accused Catholics of worshiping idols.[12] Presently, however, there is a more respectful attitude toward the symbol of the cross. In answering a question from a Protestant minister about why there are no crosses found in LDS temples, Apostle Gordon B. Hinckley (now President of the church) replied,

I do not wish to give offense to any of my Christian brethren who use the cross on the steeples of their cathedrals and at the altars of their chapels, who wear it on their vestments, and imprint it on their books and other literature. But for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the living Christ.

The minister then asked: “If you do not use the cross, what is the symbol of your religion?” Hinckley replied, “the lives of our people must become the only meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship” (Gordon B. Hinckley, The Symbol of Christ, Ensign, May 1975, p. 92).

End Notes--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] This is repeated in Leviticus: “Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it” (Lev. 26:1).

[2] “And David and all Israel went up to Baalah, that is, to Kiriath-jearim that belongs to Judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD who sits enthroned above the cherubim” (1 Chron. 13:6).

[3] Many Jews would rather die than eat something that had been offered to an idol: “The tyrant Antiochus... commanded his spearbearers to seize every one of the Hebrews, and to compel them to taste swine’s flesh, and things offered to idols. And should any of them be unwilling to eat the accursed food, they were to be tortured on the wheel, and so killed” (LXX, IV Maccabbes 5:1-3, translated by C. L. Brenton). According to Josephus, when Pilate tried to have images Caesar brought into Jerusalem, “Hereupon the Jews…fell down in vast numbers together, and exposed their necks bare, and cried out that they were sooner ready to be slain, than that their law should be transgressed” (Wars of the Jews, 2:9).

[4] This is similar to what occurred in Jewish sacrifice. In Old Testament law part of an animal sacrifice was kept by the Levites as payment for their services (Ezek. 44:29-30). After the offering was made, the person who brought the offering would retain most of the butchered animal. If it was a peace offering it was to be eaten before morning (Lev. 7:15-21). As the peace offering could be cattle, sheep, or goats the person making the offering might invite friends and relatives to the feast: “all that be clean shall eat thereof” (Lev. 7:19; see also Num. 18:11, 12, 13). (For pagan feasts see Ittai Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion, p. 16; Magie, Roman Rule in Asia Minor, vol. 1, p. 167; W. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, pp. 172-173, 181; L. R. Farnell, “Sacrifice (Greek),” Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, 1921. Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks, p. 13.)

[5] Pagan temple worship often involved immorality. Turtullian (c. A.D. 200) writes: “But if I add--it is what all know and will admit as readily to be the fact--that in the temples adulteries are arranged, that at the altars pimping is practised, that often in the houses of the temple-keepers and priests, under the sacrificial fillets, and the sacred hats, and the purple robes, amid the fumes of incense, deeds of licentiousness are done” (Apologetic 15).

[6] “Some feel that the cross should be empty since Jesus is no longer on the cross but has resurrected. They ask, ‘Isn’t the glory of the cross the fact that it is empty’?…We are certainly called to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord and the empty cross and tomb…this is God’s triumph over sin and death!…An absence of crucifixes…is a lop sided Christianity that celebrates the empty cross alone and never the sacrifice made upon it.” (here, written by a Anglican minister calling herself Reverend Rebecca).

[7] “how far does the Athenian Pallas differ from the stock of the cross, or the Pharian Ceres as she is put up uncarved to sale, a mere rough stake and piece of shapeless wood? Every stake fixed in an upright position is a portion of the cross; we render our adoration, if you will have it so, to a god entire and complete. We have shown before that your deities are derived from shapes modelled from the cross” (Tertullian, Apology 16).

[8] Tertullian writes to his wife, “The more care you take to conceal [your faith], the more liable to suspicion you will make them, and the more exposed to the grasp of Gentile curiosity. Shall you escape notice when you sign your bed, or your body” (To His Wife v).

[9] According to the commentary by Keil & Delitzsch “God commands the man provided with the writing materials to mark on the forehead with a cross all the persons in Jerusalem who mourn over the abominations of the nation, in order that they may be spared in the time of the judgment. תּו, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, had the form of a cross in the earlier writing. התוה תּו, to mark a ת, is therefore the same as to make a mark in the form of a cross.”

[10] Joseph Fielding Smith (1957-1966), Answers to Gospel Questions, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, p. 17.

[11] Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith wrote: “Of all the ways ever invented for taking life and the execution of individuals, among the most cruel is likely the cross. This was a favorite method among the Romans who excelled in torture. We may be definitely sure that if our Lord had been killed with a dagger or with a sword, it would have been very strange indeed if religious people of this day would have graced such a weapon by wearing it and adoring it because it was by such a means that our Lord was put to death” (Ibid).

[12] “All Protestants accuse the Roman Catholic Church of worshipping idols. It is the practice of its members to carry a cross with them to worship the Virgin Mary. They have paintings and images in their chapels and other places of worship; and they are accused of worshipping these paintings and images, and that they are idolatrous worshippers. But those representations were introduced in the same way that a father would show his children that Jesus Christ is actually a man like their father, by showing them a figure representing Jesus as extended upon the cross, and saying, “This gives you, my children, an idea that he was a man.” Now, let those children, when saying their prayers, have that representation before them, and how long would it be before some of the neighbours’ children would tell their mothers that those children were worshipping a picture or image? This is the way that idolatry has sprung up in the world, through a method established to keep the people in remembrance of the God they once worshipped and were acquainted with” (Brigham Young, JD 6:195).


  1. See "Mormons and the cross," by Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune (05/04/2009).

    "Roots of opposition to the cross were laid in the 1920s, when then-apostle McKay was president of the church's European Mission. He noted with disdain one Catholic celebration in Belgium, where people were "drinking and carousing until 6:30 a.m."

    "He also saw the obstacles Mormon missionaries faced in Catholic countries such as France, Italy and Spain, while having more success in Protestant areas such as Great Britain.

    "Tensions in Utah arose in the 1930s, Reed writes, when the state's Roman Catholic Church became more concentrated and powerful. Catholic Bishop Duane Hunt launched a radio show intended to reaffirm the faith of the state's Catholics, but the Mormon leadership -- including McKay, by then in the First Presidency -- saw Hunt's addresses as a veiled attempt to convert Mormons.

    "Two years after becoming president in 1953, McKay pointed to a Catholic church in California and commented: "There are two great anti-Christs in the world: Communism and that church."

    "In 1957, McKay established the LDS Church's no-cross protocol, saying it was not proper for LDS girls to wear it on their jewelry, saying the cross is "purely Catholic. ... Our worship should be in our hearts."

    "Though McKay later tempered his comments about Catholicism, his opposition to the cross became church policy. From that day to this, Mormons look askance at any member who pays too much homage to the ubiquitous Christian symbol.