A Freethinker Climbs the Cross

A Freethinker Climbs the Cross April 19, 2019

Editor’s Note: Now for a more traditional look at Holy Week – traditional for non-believers, that is. I think some former fundamentalist readers will be surprised at the hard stance this gentle freethinker takes on the Easter story. /Linda LaScola, Editor


By Chris Highland

 “Moses made a serpent of bronze, put it on a pole, and whenever a serpent bit someone they would look at it and live.” (Numbers 21)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Humanity be lifted up.” (John 3:14)

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


In the first chapter of my book, Life After Faith, I describe the years of my life given to “the religion of the cross.” Referencing the image of a broken Celtic cross gravestone I saw in Scotland, I “lift that up” as a symbol of the fallen cross of my faith. And, as I view it, the history of Christianity is quite literally a history of fallen trees. Whole forests have been sacrificed for bibles, churches and crosses themselves.

One could easily hate what faith has done to forests. I do. As one who has lived in the woods, hiked in forests and climbed trees for years, I have deep-rooted feelings on this subject. Yet I’ve chosen not to sit in the catastrophic clear-cuts of Christianity and complain. After all, complaining might roust the rattlers. More on that later.

A secular person, a freethinker, an atheist can 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. If you’re up to it, we may even climb.

During my early years as an Evangelical Christian, Bible verses on the crucifixion were crucial, “decisive crux” in my life. A personal favorite was Galatians 2:20:

“I have been crucified with Christ.”

Lovely. 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!). But 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.

We wore it, stuck it on doors and cars, and prayed under it. We couldn’t stop singing emotional songs about it.

“At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light.”

“I was in His mind, when Calvary’s hill He climbed.”

We were supposed to crucify our egos, yet all these songs were about us, each one personally. “He died for ME,” was repeated over and over (only later could we laugh along with Life of Brian’s “Always look on the bright side of life,” sung by the crucified chorus).

The biblical verses quoted above trace some of what is at “stake” in the religious history of this bizarre use of trees. It was told that Moses was instructed to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole so any Israelite bitten by a poisonous snake could look at it and be healed. In the story, the people complain about the lack of food and water in the wilderness— complaints that don’t seem unreasonable. Yet, this is enough to make the Livid Lord send poisonous serpents to bite and kill them. That’s a lesson with teeth!

Deadly snakes are sent by God, but seeing a reptilian representation of one stuck up on a branch could heal. Note that the Holy Herpetologist does not bag up the serpents to send them over to the Canaanites. People still get bit, and die, if they don’t look—or can’t see—the metal reptile.

Keep this is mind when reading the strange connection made by the writer of the Gospel of John. Jesus compares himself to that bronze snake. Everyone who “believes” will live, this time they’ll live “forever.” This implies of course that once again God is angry that people have — well, that people are people — and so God’s plan is to have someone hoist his bronzed Son on another pole in the wilderness of the Roman Empire. This will make it all better.

Are you seeing the point? I didn’t think so. Me neither.

In my liberal seminary days and early ministry, I was in part driven by Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship with its edgy gospel: “come and die.” This was read alongside Moltmann’s The Crucified God and the divine disguised as the oppressed in Latin American works like “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and “Christians and Marxists.” Along came John Hick’s The Myth of God Incarnate and the cross began to crack and tilt.

Facing a cross-filled world while sitting on top of the old rugged one, I was now being presented with a very down-to-the-dirt perspective and practice. This stick-in-the-mud of theology was not so much about atonement or appeasement but a stake in the heart of the world, especially the poorest human beings. There was finally recognition that the sap flowing from the dying tree was the blood of the world (not God), and religion was often caught holding the axe or holy-oiled chainsaw.

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, or think we know:

  1. 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).
  2. In Christian Theology, God died on the Cross (at least some part of God committed suicide).
  3. The death of Jesus of Nazareth (the human part of God) was a sacrificial event determined by God (the Father killing His Son).
  4. The sins of the world (those things God decided were wrong about His flawed human children) were forgiven there, at that specific tree and point on the map (blood was required and a drop wouldn’t do).
  5. Yet, however, you must be a Christian believer before you can benefit from that sacrifice.
  6. Every human being must come to the cross or be tortured (as on a cross) for eternity.

Leaving aside, for a moment, 2000 years of fighting over what all this means (between Christians themselves and between Christians and non- Christians), I come to the cross now for a different reason. My tendency and temptation is to push it over, to cut it down, to smash it to kindling, to sacrifice this ancient symbol of sacrificial death for all it’s done to divide the world for centuries.

But another tendency is to fearlessly climb it, to re-claim it for all of us – believers and non-believers. Is this possible, 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, maybe a terrorist, to that paranoid government. Like countless other criminals, he was nailed up and died—a statistic in the Roman judicial system (the bloody branch was no doubt re-used again and again).

His students and friends were devastated, without hope. They recovered some of that hope and went on to create a faith, a religion, gathered around the Cross (not the tomb). And, I would guess, what they invented would be unrecognizable to the one who hung up there exposed to the world (they “lifted him up” so far off the earth he “rose and ascended” beyond the reach of reality or reason).

So God climbed down, then climbed up and up and kept going. This is 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 focused on social justice or education. That’s a good step in the right direction, but in my opinion, doesn’t go far enough. It makes no sense to climb any tree or carry any cross that only bears the body of Christianity.

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, to work with.

Come to the cross, or climb up, as:

  • An almost universal symbol of suffering (if you’re a believer: God feels pain—all pain)
  • A reminder that death is, as life itself, common to all living things (thus making our short life more precious)
  • A reminder that Freethinking people (like the infidels who founded the world’s religions and those who teach opposing views) are unjustly treated and sometimes killed for teaching “heretical” notions, therefore no matter our beliefs, we should work together for true justice
  • A reminder that all symbols are limited and embody the danger of sectarian division if not violence (the ironic image is knocking a cross over someone’s head, painting it on a missile or gun — or burning it to intimidate in the name of racial—or religious—superiority).

So, we need not be afraid to come to the cross (though it may not be The Cross), to look very closely and even touch it. Unlike those serpents in the wilderness, it won’t bite (or if it does, it’s not poisonous). I think of a woman I met while a street chaplain, who asked me why churches don’t bring crosses down from those high steeples so people could see and touch them. A question the Church should ask itself.

In the years I served as a jail chaplain I often counseled inmates waiting transfer to nearby San Quentin State Prison. Some of the prisoners I spoke with were facing death in “The Chair”. After testifying in court for a Latino man, he was given a lengthy sentence rather than the death penalty. I was up-close-and-personal on a daily basis with the human-side of our justice system.

Whether it’s a chair, noose, injection or cross, we should know who is being executed in our name and dare to look them in the face.

Like the non-Christian Nazarene who bled on it alongside countless other outsiders, the cross—or rough wooden pole in the earth—does not belong to Christians and it never has. The assumption that it was a reusable execution device should at least give us pause.

We might think of other symbols of meaningful deaths—if there is meaning:

  • The communion table where Oscar Romero was assassinated
  • The balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr was killed.
  • The garden in New Delhi where Gandhi was shot.

I have stood in places where slaves were bought and sold in the South and I’ve sat where homeless women and men have died on the streets. This is “touching the cross,” but it’s way beyond a Christian thing.  It’s up close and personal with those serpents that bring us face to face with our mortality. And it doesn’t require a God who sends snakes to kill or a son to die.

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, through physical or mental anguish (and, of course, religious wars). We can sense that. We can feel it. By running our hand over the blood-splattered, splintering wood, we can touch our own humanity (if not divinity). At least we might feel a deeper sense of 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. Wisdom. The message of the cross on which a rough roustabout named Yeshua bled out and died can be revolutionary, if seen in this light. He was not the first to suffer for unacceptable beliefs and not the last. His execution may not redeem or “save” any of us, but his death (and the death of the tree!) will not be in vain if unbelievers can respectfully claim a piece of the old knotted wood guarded by believers, as we find ways of building something more than weapons with its branches.

Living in a small cabin in a deep green Northwestern forest for several years I learned more about “nurse logs.” I’d climbed enough trees and clambered over enough fallen timber to have a good idea what the ecosystem was doing:

It’s pretty simple, as complexities of Nature go. A tree falls and living things grow out of it.

New trees and diverse species root and sprout from the fallen giant—nursed to life and seeking light.

I can’t think of a better analogy for what can happen when faith falls, when the cross breaks and hits the earth. The forest recovers and renews—one might even say it resurrects. This is the converse to the verse about being lifted up to draw everyone to a single person, one faith or faith itself. There is a wilder, more organic story to tell: the toppled totem, transformed into the nurse log, is the living representation of life after faith.


Chris Highland was a minister and chaplain for many years in the SF Bay Area.  Now teaching courses on Freethought in Asheville, North Carolina, he writes a weekly “Highland Views” column for the Citizen-Times. His new book, A Freethinker’s Gospel, is now available from Pisgah Press.  Chris has been a member of The Clergy Project since 2012. To learn more, see

 >>>>By Wing-Chi Poon – self-made; in Schooner Trail, Pacific Rim National Park, British Columbia, Canada., CC BY-SA 2.5, ; By Bronzino – Œuvre appartenant au Musée des beaux-arts de Nice, Public Domain, ;

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