FactChecker: The Cross an Electric Chair?

Note: FactChecker is a new monthly series in which Glenn T. Stanton examines claims, myths, and misunderstandings frequently heard in evangelical circles.

Have you ever heard a Christian writer, teacher, or pastor say something like the following?

“When Jesus told those who would follow him that they must ‘take up his cross daily’ this was like telling people today to take up their electric chairs and follow him.”


“For Christians to wear crosses around their necks is like us wearing a symbol of an electric chair.”

The analogy between the cross and an electric chair is intended to show that, while the cross has become a common and even sentimental symbol of Christianity today, in Christ’s day it was a harsh symbol of execution. Like an electric chair is today.

It is an important truth that Christians of every age remember about the cross. But the electric chair analogy actually dilutes the point.

This comparison between the cross and old sparky was first made by an important theologian of the 1960s: Lenny Bruce. In a series of articles he serialized in Playboy, later published in his 1967 posthumous book, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, Bruce observed,

If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.

Cue the laughter. But the truth is, an electric chair and a cross are similar in only one way: each is designed to kill criminals. Otherwise, they are nothing alike.

The electric chair was created by the Edison Company in the late 1800s as a means to execute a prisoner faster and more humanely. Typically, the process—leading up to, during, and following our executions today—is carefully scripted and implemented to ensure the criminal dies with some dignity and as little suffering as possible.

The cross was designed and used to execute criminals in the slowest, most painful, agonizing, and humiliating way possible, reserved only for slave, pirates, and traitors. Being such an unspeakably horrifying way to die, Roman citizens were not subjected to it. Anyone hanging on a cross was of no value whatsoever. They were a curse. When Paul wrote to the Galatians about the nature of Christ’s death, they knew exactly what he was talking about because they knew what the cross signified.

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.'” (Gal. 3:13)

And the Corinthian Church understood what Paul meant when he declared:

. . . but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles . . .” (I Cor. 1:23)

It was indeed foolish and a stumbling block to those who heard the gospel to hear that one’s God ended up on a cross. It was absurd.

John Stott, in The Cross of Christ, quotes Cicero on how debased and unthinkable such a death was,

To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to kill him is almost an act of murder: to crucify him is – What? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed.

The earliest known depiction of the crucifixion of Christ is a graffito scratched into stone just years after the Gospel was first preached in Rome. Seen here, it is a rough sketch of a crucified man, but with the head of donkey. A young man has arm raised in reverence or worship. The letters etched below read “Alexamenos worships his god.”

It was a common statement of insult, portraying Christians as those who gave their lives in worship to an ass. The Octavius, a very early work of Christian apology answers the common accusation made against Christianity that,

The religion of the Christians is foolish, inasmuch as they worship a crucified man, and even the instrument itself of his punishment. They are said to worship the head of an ass . . .

Everett Ferguson, in his Backgrounds of Early Christianity, explains the thinking behind this taunting and wild accusation:

As repulsive as the [Alexamenos graffito] is to Christians now, it conveys strongly how contemptible the idea of a crucified Lord was to pagan thinking.

This very point was our artist’s belittlement of the young Christian, Alexamenos.

The following facts provide the worlds-apart contrast of the cross and the electric chair.

• Those conducting an electric chair execution don’t do it as sport, seeing how creatively and how long they can inflict pain, suffering, and humiliation. This was precisely what execution on a cross was about.

• People put to death in electric chairs are not forced to carry their own means of execution to the place they will die. The crucified were required to.

• Those walking their last steps to the electric chair are not taunted, spit upon, kicked, punched, and verbally demeaned. The crucified were.

• Those going to the electric chair are not brutally scourged to the point of substantial blood-loss as a lead-up to their electrocution. The crucified were.

• People going to the electric chairs are not stripped bare so their death is more humiliating. The crucified were.

• Those in the electric chair are protected from the mob-circus who would celebrate in their death. The crucifixion is designed precisely to expose the condemned to such people.

• People executed in electric chairs do not have their legs broken to finally bring death after days of suffering there. The crucified did.

• Those executed in electric chairs are not left on display for all to see as a statement to other criminals. The crucified were left that way for days after death.

• The electric chair dead are not left for the birds and wild animals to pick away at. The crucified were.

• Those killed by the electric chair are given at least a modest burial. The crucified were denied burial and what remained of their bodies was thrown away. (Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate to get permission to have Jesus’ body for burial.)

Yes, it is important that we remind fellow believers that the Cross of our faith was a device of death, torment, and humiliation; a symbol of great offense. That is why the electric chair comparison just doesn’t work. Nor does the noose, the gas chamber, or the lethal syringe.

There is no parallel symbol to speak of what our Savior suffered and endured for each of us. And that is why the cross is the primary and universal symbol for our faith. It is a peerless and powerful reminder of the dramatic extent of Christ’s love. And it makes Christianity unique and powerful beyond compare.


Other Posts in this Series:

Misquoting Francis of Assisi

  • Respectabiggle

    The cross is clearly unique, as is the sacrifice of Christ.

    One modern symbol that does approximate it, though, is the noose, at least in the US. It’ an ugly and threatening symbol, with terrifying connotations, especially to our black brothers and sisters. Like crucufixion, hanging (especially of the lynching variety) is a cruel, slow way to kill a man, the kind of thing that is done to someone you hate, not a citizen or one you consider a person.

    It’s not the same, but it’s far closer than an electric chair or a guillotine, and hearers without an understanding of the cultural signifigance of the Cross may understand it better in comparison.

    • http://www.glenntstanton.com glenn

      Very good point. I had thought of that in the writing, that lynching would be the closest comparison for us today, as it is meant to humiliate, incite fear and is executed in a circus atmosphere. It is an ugly, dark stain on our nation’s record, indeed.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

    Maybe you are right. But I do understand the motives of those using such comparisons.


  • Barbara

    ….and then there’s the *empty* cross – no one has been resurrected from death resulting from any other form of execution.

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  • http://almostreadytogoamish.blogspot.com/ RationalN

    Excellent essay, and yes, the cross had nowhere near the instantaneous nature of the electric chair, but the cross by nature was a device used for a torturous experience that lasted for hours.

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  • http://robinrevier.blogspot.com robin revier

    I like the quote below found on Bible Exegesis that addresses this. But honestly without being a biblical scholar it seems obvious that Christ in Acts 17:11 was referring to sacrificing fleshly desires (our cross) for spiritual growth.

    “The process of taking up the cross becomes a way of giving up one’s life for the sake of the sacrifice Christ made 4 us on the cross.” (commentary B.E.)

  • rick

    Very well said Mr. Stanton. Knowing that Jesus humbled himself in this way is not just significant, it’s “crucial”! Isn’t it interesting that this word we use to mean “important and essential” comes from the very cross that meant “worthless”?

  • http://www.youtube.com/mikeisi Michael

    I agree and find this article helpful on understanding the horror of crucifixion as a form of execution. However as Steve mentioned above, I think it’s very important to understand the motives of why people have used the electric chair analogy.

    I use to hear Billy Graham mention this image; but I don’t believe by any means he was unaware of the theological importance of one knowing how awful and demeaning this form was. His point was to address a problem in our culture in how we view the cross as a pretty icon that we hang on our necks or a beautiful piece of artwork or sculpture. Not that it’s necessarily wrong to wear a cross….but we should be always aware of what it points to.

    Again though….good article.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    This is a good article- there are totally a LOT of differences I hadn’t realized before.

    I still like the analogy though- the cross and electric chair are similar in that they are both used for killing people, and thus unpleasant to think about. I feel like it’s easy for Christians to just put cross symbols on stuff without realizing how horrific crucifixion was.

  • http://veritasdomain.wordpress.com/ SLIMJIM

    Wow thank you for this article…and for putting this in perspective. I’m guilty of using this analogy, and the two lines are exactly what I’ve said many times when I preached in the past.

  • David WL

    A grammatical correction:
    “But the electric chair analogy actually deludes the point.”

    To “delude” is to “deceive” or “fool.” People can be deluded, but can “points”?

    I suspect you meant “elude,” which means to “evade”. To compare the cross to an electric chair, you are saying, *evades* the fact that the cross was a long, hideous death, while the electric chair was meant to be quick and humane.

    I appreciate your emphasis on the contrast (cruel versus quick) and what that brings out about Jesus’ experience in dying for us. However, I think you are ignoring how the analogy is meant to be used. When I use it (and I have), my focus is not on the nature of the death, but the outsider’s reaction to the *symbol*. Even if the electric chair is a relatively humane death, still the *symbol* of the electric chair bespeaks humiliation, degradation, and symbolic and physical expulsion from society–exactly like the experience of Jesus.

  • mason

    just a thought…there have been literally thousands of people crucified. Jesus was one of many. what makes Jesus death so important is not necessarily the manner, but the fact. as horrible as crucifixion was, it was not unique. it is possible that some suffered more than Jesus physically that is, because there is records of people surviving for days. Jesus died within hours. i am not making light of Jesus’ death only to point out that the manner is not as important as the fact. that the one Son of God would lay down his life, no matter the manner of death, in order to save a fallen world is almost incomprehensible…thank you Jesus!!

  • David

    Like one of the commenters said, thousands of people have died via crucifixion. Not to minimize the horrible physical death that it was, wasn’t the real horror and sacrifice the fact that Christ became sin for us and suffered the just wrath of God that would have otherwise been directed at God’s people for all of their sin for all of history? In other words, the punishment in the spiritual realm vs just the physical pain and death.

  • http://athenians.info Laura

    I think David had a good point. Despite all the physical horror…how much greater is in that He was completely cut off from God and suffered God’s wrath. I’m so glad that I won’t face the wrath of God in hell because of what Jesus did on the cross.
    Join in more discussion on this post at Athenians, the Christian news aggregator at http://www.athenians.info/stories/factchecker-the-cross-an-electric-chair

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  • Ike Hobbs

    I agree with the point of the article, just a reminder thought that the cruelest part of the crucifixion was not the physical pain that Christ endured, but rather the “drinking of the dregs of God’s Wrath”, that’s what made the crucifixion of Christ something so inhumanely impossible that we will never understand it fully. The physical pain He endured is not what redeemed us, it was Him taking upon himself the wrath of God.

  • http://inesdelorange.wordpress.com/ Carmen

    Brilliantly written! Going to share it all over the Internet!

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  • http://disruptivegrace.blogspot.com Chris TerryNelson

    So are you telling me that there is no worse torturous way to die in the history of human execution? Because if their were, that would be awkward. It’d be like: “Hey God, if you really loved us so much, why did you choose the cross instead of really taking on the absolute worst way to die?” God’s love is not supposed to be based on how much pain he takes on, as if that could be quantified. But penal substitutionary views of atonement seem to always try to make this the good news, when no New Testament writer seems interested in such a game of quantifying. Mel Gibson on the other hand…

  • http://reformingchristianity.com Alexander M. Jordan

    Thank you for this article pointing to the manner of Christ’s death. As some have stated above and I would agree, it is not just the pain and suffering and humiliation that Christ underwent that is primarily significant, but the spiritual suffering He endured on behalf of sinners.

    I noticed in the sentence, “But the electric chair analogy actually deludes the point,” you used the word “deludes”, but I think you probably meant to use the word “dilutes”.



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  • Rick McLain

    all analogies break down at some point, but as you pointed out this one breaks down very quickly when looking at it from the perspective of the Crucifixion of Christ. I think that when Mark Driscoll uses this analogy, he is coming from the perspective of the believer who is must “take up his cross daily” and “put to death the flesh”, so for the 21st-century believer, the mental image of walking to an electric chair and sitting down in it voluntarily and then nodding to the executioner to flip the switch is a valid analogy.

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  • Rob

    This article is an over-reaction, really. To say the cross is like the electric chair makes a helpful point (that the cross is a symbol of a method of execution). To make the comparison is not at the same as saying that the cross is like the electric chair in EVERY respect. I don’t think anyone is saying that. The comparison is helpful for conveying to modern people the strangeness of the cross as a symbol for our faith. Of course it can’t convey the full meaning of the cross, but that is not what is intended.

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  • david rahtz

    Very informative comparison – but I must say it makes out American methods of judicial execution to be the most civilised, decent and “humane”. Surely the guillotine, or a bullet, or stun gun like cattle, is “cleaner” – if thats our intent?