An Atheist at the Cross (or Why the Suicide of God might be Good News)

An Atheist at the Cross (or Why the Suicide of God might be Good News) November 6, 2014


Editor’s Note: A secular chaplain offers a positive, modern and inclusive way of interpreting the Crucifixion, whether you’re religious or not.


small_1798467700By Chris Highland

“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)

“For the message about the cross is foolishness [to unbelievers]….” (1 Cor. 1:18)

“I have been crucified with [a Freethinker]….” (Gal. 2:20)

A secular person, a freethinker and an atheist can all find something at the cross. It’s even possible, I reason, that the cross itself could draw all people – faith or no faith. Come to the cross with me, I’ll show you. 
During my years as an Evangelical Christian, these biblical verses were crucial (“the decisive crux”) in my life.

In those youthful years, I would even say those words were my life—absorbed in my memory. I was a Cross-centered Christian.(Is there really any other kind?) To be sure, the Resurrection was of high importance. We were always trying to prove it. It was the exclamation point after the cross (like a T!). For those of us who were “God’s People” and “Followers of Jesus,” the center of it all, our lives, our faith, was The Cross.

In my liberal seminary days and early ministry, I was in part driven by Bonhoeffer’s “come and die” alongside Moltmann’s “crucified god.” Facing a cross-filled world while sitting on top of the old rugged one, offered a very down-to-the-dirt perspective and practice. I suspect I could write a book on this, and maybe I will someday, but here’s where my thoughts have arrived after all these years.

First, the summary we all know, (I think):

The cross—or a rough pole in the ground—was first and foremost a common tool of execution by the Romans (like our gas chambers and lethal injections).

In Christian Theology, God died on the cross (at least some part of God committed suicide).

The death of Jesus of Nazareth (the human part of God) was a sacrificial event determined by God (the Father killing His Son).

The sins of the world (those things God decided were wrong about His flawed human children) were forgiven there (blood was required).

You must be a Christian believer before you can benefit from that sacrifice.

Every human being must come to the cross or be tortured for eternity.

Leaving aside, for a moment, 2,000 years of fighting over what all this means, I come to the cross now for a different reason. I want to reclaim the cross for both believers and non-believers. I think this is preferable to following my temptation to push it over, cut it down or burn it to sacrifice this ancient symbol of death for all it has done to divide the world forcenturies.

Is it possible to reclaim the cross, and if so, why in the world would I wish to attempt that? As I say, leaving aside the theological explanations for this event, the story says an ancient Jewish freethinker was executed by the Roman state. He must have been seen as some kind of criminal threat, an outside agitator or maybe a terrorist to that paranoid government. Like countless other criminals in the Roman judicial system, he was nailed up and died. His students and friends were devastated and without hope. They recovered some of that hope and went on to create a religion, gathered around the cross (not the tomb). I would guess that what they made would be unrecognizable to the one hanging there exposed to the world.

Ok, that’s essentially the Christian message. Christianity in the crosshairs. But is it? Should it be? 
I know a number of “Progressive” Christians who do not give much time to the cross or atonement theology. They are more social justice or education directed. That’s a good step in the right direction, in my opinion, but it doesn’t go far enough.

Here’s another view; not simply good news but better news — a message that potentially gives us all, theist and atheist, something to rally around and work with. 
You can come to the cross as:

  • An almost universal symbol of suffering (if you’re a believer: God feels pain—all pain)
  • A reminder that death is common to all living things (makes our short life more precious)
  • A reminder that Freethinkers, founders of spiritual traditions and those who teach opposing views are unjustly treated and sometimes killed for teaching heretical notions. Therefore, no matter what our beliefs, we should work together for true justice
  • A reminder that all symbols are limited and embody the danger of sectarian division or violence (the ironic image is knocking a cross over someone’s head, painting it on a missile or gun — or burning it to intimidate)

So, we need not be afraid to come to the cross, to look very closely and even touch it.

Like the Jewish Nazarene and countless others who bled on a cross, it does not belong to Christians and it never has. The cross was no doubt a reusable execution device anyway! We can imagine an ancient Palestinian heretic hanging up there and feel some sadness for that. We can think of how deeply hurt his family and friends were. Then we can imagine all those who have suffered and continue to suffer through injustice, discrimination, physical or mental anguish (and, of course, wars of faith). We can sense that. We can feel it. By running our hand over the blood-splattered, splintering wood, we can touch our own compassion. That makes his life, and our own, much more meaningful than spraying a super-naturalizing cover-coat on the whole mess.

Foolishness? Perhaps, but I think not. It’s wisdom. The message of the cross on which a roustabout named Jesus bled out and died can be revolutionary, if seen in this light. He was not the first or the last to suffer for unacceptable beliefs. His execution may not redeem or save any of us. However, his death will not be in vain if nonbelievers can respectfully claim a piece of the old knotted wood currently guarded by believers and find ways to build something other than weapons with its branches.


biophoto-150x150Bio: Chris Highland served as an Interfaith Chaplain for 25 years. In 2001 he left his Christian ordination and “came out” as a non-theist freethinker.  He is a teacher, writer, housing manager and a member of the Speakers’ Bureau of the Secular Student Alliance. Chris is the author of ten books and host of Secular Chaplain.  Originally from Seattle, he lives in the SF Bay Area with his wife Carol, director of the Marin Interfaith Council.



photo credit: <a href=””>Pensiero</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>

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  • This may be freethinking and atheistic, but it’s still Christianity. So count me out. The world needs to move on—the world has moved on. The imagery and symbolism of Christianity might be useable in the quasi-abstract sense of their underlying fitness for profitable contemplation by beings with our particular psychological adaptations. But their association with particular, condemnable institutions in our cultural history makes them deeply problematic for anybody wishing to maintain the condemnation of those institutions.

    That Christian imagery and symbolism are susceptible of repurposing to suit modern humanist or “secular” purposes does not mean that they should be so repurposed. As long as people who have laid aside theism and Christianity continue to employ the language, images, and symbols of those things, the keepers of those condemnable institutions will be able, probably rightly, to dismiss the importance of their unbelieving, unchristian critics as just another eddy in the stream of their own tradition.

    The historical power and importance of Christian thought cannot be denied. But it need not be perpetuated.

    • I feel your pain, Peter (kidding). I’m a strong critic too and I agree this approach is not for everyone. Most skeptics no doubt (sorry for the pun) will avoid any symbolism from the broken cross of faith. However, some of us are still in relationship with people of faith and see the good if not the god that resides in the people and some of the teachings (compassion and justice to name a few). You sure use the term “condemn” a lot. I don’t personally feel the need to do that. My point in the post challenges the notion that this is some kind of watered-down Humanist “Christianity” re-packaged for moderns. Far from it. I’m simply suggesting non theists could, if they choose, employ some symbols for more earthly purposes. This isn’t abstract at all for me. Thanks for the comment.

      • I understand the problem of “being in relationship with people of faith”; I’m married to a “person of faith.” So yes, there are what I think of as translational issues, particularly in helping “people of faith” to see the possibility of perceiving, experiencing, and interpreting the world through a variety of images and symbols beyond the traditional Christian ones. And one can certainly navigate those translational issues more easily by having a solid understanding of the different ways that Christians themselves have used and can use the raw materials of their own tradition.

        Having passed through liberal Christianity on my way out, and taking a broader historical view of Christianity, rather than one that divides between orthodoxy and heresy, I will be first in line to say that there is no such thing as “watered-down Humanist ‘Christianity,'” or “watered-down” Christianity of any kind. If you’re engaging the tradition, whether by participating in a church, by merely calling yourself “Christian,” or maybe even just by criticizing it (and that would include most of the atheists produced by Christianity, especially in their first few years of unbelief), then I think you fit somewhere within Christianity.

        But yes, I’m going to condemn the institutions that have subjugated women, that have enabled the abuse of children, that have repressed and psychologically damaged millions of people, that have passively resisted or actively fought against the ability of people to have their most important relationships respected in the communities where they live, and otherwise systemized evils under the banner of their engagement with the Christian tradition.

        And I have no desire to give any comfort to the people who control or support those institutions by making them feel more comfortable about the viability of the Christian tradition. To be clear, I am skeptical that beliefs themselves, to the extent there are such things, are viable as identifiable causes of behavior, so my point is not that merely having Christian thought (or Islamic thought, or Hindu thought, or whatever) in the head will cause a person to do bad things (as a distressing number of non-theists seem to believe); I think people do bad things due to a variety of causes, but are aided in those behaviors by the protection of social systems and structures that foster morally distortive in-group loyalties and provide the impetus to rationalize or normalize certain behaviors. And people maintain their sense of in-group safety and justification by assessing the signals they receive from others around them: if everybody around them is talking like a Christian, even if for different (e.g., modern humanist) reasons, then they are more likely to feel secure in their loyalties and moral distortions. So I am not inclined to contribute to that by speaking the language of Christianity just to make Christians feel comfortable.

        What I am inclined to do, however, as I suggested above, is to lead Christians (and other “people of faith”) into situations where they can experience the juxtaposition of their language with other ways of making sense of the world, and, I hope, come to the realization that their shared humanity with people who talk and perceive differently is good reason to loosen their in-group loyalty.

        • Well, Peter, I choose to continue in relationship (including work and marriage) with people of faith, who are, by and large, good and even thinking people. In other words, I don’t find that a “problem” to solve, or an opportunity for secular evangelism. I simply can’t paint the whole history of any religion with a brush of condemnation. Is there nothing good to work with? If not, we would eliminate any chance to actually work with others and build relationships without always trying to change them and their minds. I won’t participate in that arrogance and, frankly, ignorance (for every person or church a person could name that has done something bad in the name of the cross, I could present a number of people I have known and currently know, who are doing good. . .should I condemn, and evangelize them in the name of atheism?).

          If someone wishes to call me by my former label, a Christian, I can’t prevent that. It simply makes no sense, rationally or personally.

          • Where, precisely, did I “paint the whole history of any religion with a brush of condemnation”?

  • Kent Truesdale

    Great post, Chris! It always encourages me as a liberal (Presbyterian) minister (and agnostic) to see non-theists building bridges to Christians (vs Christianity?). Just to make it clear, the substitutionary atonement summary you give of the Cross is of course a fundamentalist one that the liberal church has wholly rejected (as you noted). And I would add that a majority of progressive Christians in fact DO go (at least most of) the extra mile you commend as a humanist understanding the Cross. My own personal favorite that I would add to your list would be the Cross as a symbol of universal victimhood and non-violence (French literary critic Rene Girard has done faith-changing exegesis in this area.)

    • Thanks, Kent. Good points here. Yes, the irony of using a symbol of oppression to oppress! The issue of non-violence, a la MLK, is a powerful reason to re-claim the ancient symbol along with modern symbols, for issues of justice across the board.

  • tatoo

    For a Jew, the cross has often been the symbol of death and destruction. And not of a good death. During the middle ages, cross bearing citizens locked Jew up in synagogues and burned them. Under the cross, the inquisition took many lives. Just as a swastika is reviled by Jews today, the cross was the symbol of fear and revulsion. Today, Jews don’t feel the same horror at the cross, but for me it is not a welcome nor comforting symbol, especially on mountain tops, etc.

    • Yes indeed. Symbols can be powerful weapons of hatred, fear and death in the hands of the powerful. I suspect the nazarene would be disgusted with the whole mess and lament his cross and the religion formed around it.

      As for crosses on public property, I am 100% opposed to that. Churches can stick up a hundred if they choose on their own property. And messing up the natural beauty of mountains or any place with religious symbols is such a waste–frank pollution.

  • XaurreauX Pont DeLac

    This is still based upon woo-woo and the standard myths about Jesus (one can’t really know that he existed, much less was a “freethinker”).

    • No convincing someone who can’t find wisdom or a model of justice and compassion in this person, myth or not.

  • Sqrat

    As I say, leaving aside the theological explanations for this event, the
    story says an ancient Jewish freethinker was executed by the Roman
    state. He must have been seen as some kind of criminal threat, an
    outside agitator or maybe a terrorist to that paranoid government.

    Is it Ehrman who hypothesizes that Jesus was a would-be prophet proclaiming the imminent establishment of an earthly “Kingdom of God” in Judea and Galilee? Assuming that the ruler of this kingdom was not going to be someone hand-picked by the Romans, the Romans would, not unreasonably, have regarded this as a threat to their own rule, so perhaps it is may not quite be accurate to imply that in this case they were being paranoid. Jesus was surely not an “outside agitator,” but was he an inside agitator? It’s hard to say, based on the limited evidence we have.

    Why do you call Jesus a freethinker? The evidence suggests that he was anything but.

    • A freethinker is someone who rejects or challenges accepted opinions (orthodoxy). Hence, a heretic. Sounds like the criminal christ to me. Would you consider him orthodox? If so, why was he rejected?

      • Sqrat

        It seems somewhat odd to describe someone who was religiously devout as a “freethinker”. Here’s another definition for you, from the American Heritage Dictionary: “One who has rejected authority and
        dogma, especially in his religious thinking, in favor of rational
        inquiry and speculation.” Or, from Merriam-Webster, “one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority; especially : one who doubts or denies religious dogma.” In the latter sense, the meaning of the term “freethinker” seems to overlap at least in part with the term “atheist.”

        Jesus may have been rejected, by many Jews, for heterodoxy, but I think it is likely that he was crucified, by the Romans, for plotting rebellion or being suspected of the same. If that is the case, then I think his message was revolutionary in a somewhat different way than your are suggesting, and the symbolism of the cross would be somewhat different as well.

        • “Religiously devout” according to whom? “Atheist,” perhaps, by definition of the orthodox, and other “authorities” in these matters.

          • Sqrat

            I am sure that you are not trying to argue that Jesus was in any sense an “atheist” according to the definitions of that word that can be found in good contemporary dictionaries of the English language. But you are certainly arguing that he was a “freethinker” according to a definition that would cover, I suppose, Mohammed, John Calvin, and Joseph Smith (among others of similar ilk). Correct?

  • MNb

    “a terrorist to that paranoid government.”
    Beg your pardon? The Roman government was hardly paranoid. Their empire lasted so long (until 1453 CE actually, which makes it about 2000 frigging years) exactly because they largely had a keen eye for their own interests and how to look after them.
    That’s a bad start. I have come at the cross with you and I find nonsense.

    “are unjustly treated”
    Well, yes, in our 21st Century eyes. Within the Roman judicial framework Jesus was not unjustly treated at all.

    “He was not the first or the last to suffer for unacceptable beliefs.”
    Oh, but that’s not what he suffered for. The Romans were remarkably indifferent towards beliefs. What they absolute did not tolerate was rebellion. American citizens rejecting governmental authority, whether they are extreme libertarians or religious folks, are generally not looked upon favourably by the White House either.

    I am not interested in claiming even a splinter of that piece of wood. I don’t need it. It’s superfluous. These are my symbols of suffering:

    To remind me of death I only have to think of my parents and grandparents.
    For the unjust treatment of freethinkers I only have to read the essay De Koning Komt – a mockery of King WIlliam III. Domela Nieuwenhuis got sentenced for it even though he didn’t write it (he was chief editor of the magazine that published it).
    To remind me that symbols are limited I only have to look at the swastika – a Hindu symbol.

    • Just Sayin

      If you think the Roman Empire lasted until 1453 in anything other than name, you are, well…off to a bad start.

      Not every impressive.

  • John Lombard

    The fundamental problem with this article is the ethnocentrism behind it. The author, personally, has a positive association with they symbol of the cross, and therefore interprets it in that light. But he seems to forget that for much of the world, the cross is a symbol of thousands of years of oppression, violence, and intolerance.

    For many Muslims, the cross is a symbol of brutal Crusades conducted against them. For many Jews, the cross is a symbol of almost two millennia of oppression. Even in modern times, for many ex-Christians, the cross is a symbol of the abuse and lies they faced when they were within the church.

    Let me illustrate by choosing two other symbols — the swastika, and the Confederate flag.

    The swastika has a LONG history of being a symbol of peace and balance; it wasn’t until the Nazis appropriated it that it became a symbol of terror and oppression. Would it therefore be reasonable to argue for the “rehabilitation” or “reclaiming” of the swastika? I’d say no. So, I think, would most other people. It is too indelibly and powerfully linked with the images and actions of the Nazi party.

    The Confederate flag, for many whites living in the Southern States, is a symbol of freedom and independence; but for many African Americans, it is a symbol of slavery, oppression, and abuse. There are people today who argue that the Conferate flag should be ‘rehabilitated’, and the symbology of slavery and abuse associated with it should be ignored or overwritten.

    Is this an effort that we should support? I’d say no. And based on the polls that I’ve seen, the vast majority of others agree with me.

    Why then the argument that we should try to ‘reclaim’ or rehabilitate the cross? How do we ignore the fact that for so many people, the cross is irrevocably a symbol of oppression, of violence, of intolerance, and of abuse?

    Is it not INFINITELY superior to create a NEW symbol, than to try to “reclaim” a symbol that carries TWO MILLENNIA of negative associations with it?

    • Not at all ignoring these things, John. That many find inspiration to do the work of compassion and justice while honoring an ancient symbol also needs to be considered. Would you suggest all religions dispense with their symbols due to past or potential offense? Dragging out all the dirty laundry of history is really something other than what my post was about.

      • John Lombard

        Would I suggest that all religions dispense with their symbols? I wouldn’t propose to tell RELIGIONS what to do at all. In fact, I’d PREFER that they keep their symbols, as it will hopefully help speed the decline in people who follow them.

        What I’d suggest is that it is pointless for NON-RELIGIOUS to attempt to “re-define” or rehabilitate those same images. You failed entirely to respond to my questions about the swastika or the Confederate flag. All three symbols — the cross, the swastika, and the Confederate flag — have positive associations for at least SOME people. So would you support efforts to “re-define” the swastika or the Confederate flag? If yes, please explain…if no, how is the cross any different?

        And “dragging out all the dirty laundry of history” is rather disingenuous, isn’t it? I mean, your article CLEARLY refers to many historical precedents; and this ISN’T just about history, it is about the fact that in our MODERN world, many large groups of people still find the cross to be a symbol of hatred, intolerance, violence, etc.

        Why on earth would you think that is somehow not relevant to your argument?

        Let me illustrate what I see as the fundamental problem here. Take the Confederate flag. For many whites who live in the south, who were not negatively affected by slavery and racism, the flag is primarily a positive symbol. They honestly can’t understand or appreciate how oppressive the Confederate flag is to African Americans, who were enslaved and abused under it’s banner.

        Is it therefore legitimate for them to simply dismiss the negative associations that African Americans have towards the Confederate flag? Or perhaps to refer to it as “the dirty laundry of history”, and complain that they shouldn’t be dragging that stuff up?

        I’d argue that the reactions of various groups — Muslims, Jews, American Native Peoples, etc. — towards the cross are in EXACTLY the same category as the reactions of African Americans towards the Confederate flag. And just because the cross never symbolized anything like that to YOU, it doesn’t justify dismissing or ignoring the impact that symbol has on those other groups.

        The “dirty laundry of history” is 100% relevant to the discussion of “re-claiming” the image of the cross…in fact, I fail entirely to see by what argument that dirty laundry should be ignored, as it is fundamental to how literally MILLIONS of people see and respond to that image today.

    • graveyardmind

      In fact there are many who ARE arguing for a rehabilitation of the swastika. Speaking of ethnocentrism, why should a billion Hindus and Jains be forced to abandon their ancient symbol because some angry white dudes appropriated and abused it?

  • Marcus Small

    It is quite clear that the cross is important to a particular strand of Christianity. The letters of Paul, which come from an early period shows the writer attaching a great deal of significance to the cross and its meaning. However these letters are written to existing churches, to people who were are ready Christian.
    When we look at the proclamation to non Christians in Acts the cross and its significance are missing. The cross is mentioned but in passing, the fact of the cross is not interpreted. What is proclaimed is the resurrection, and what is called for in response is metanoia, a change. couple with the recorded proclamation by Jesus of the Kingdom of God in the Gospels with similar call for metanoia. the cross is missing, except as a fact in the narrative.
    Even if the proclamation in Acts does not represent, as Dodd believed, the earliest recorded proclamation, it does represent the proclamation of a strand of 1st century Christianity for whom the cross nothing more than an incidental significance.

  • Isaac Edward Leibowitz

    Sung to the hymn “At the Cross:”

    At the bar, at the bar,
    Where I smoked my first cigar,
    All the money in my pockets rolled away!
    It was there by chance,
    That I tore my Sunday pants,
    So now I have to wear them every day!

  • the sword shaped cross brings me no peace. But the symbol of an equal lateral cross is very ancient. it has many different meanings and can be a very helpful picture of life. the cross horizontally we are in the center, between our birth and our death, between our ancestors and our descendants, and held vertically also between the immaterial/mysterious and the material/known realm. Its a balance of axles, its a circle and also a sphere

  • Mark Rutledge

    Here’s a note from my teacher that might be relevant to this discussion:
    Compassion and justice are two sides of the same coin
    “Those who live by compassion are often canonized.
    Those who live by justice are often crucified.”