Did Jesus die on a torture stake?

nwtJehovah’s Witnesses deny the deity of Christ and His bodily resurrection. These unbiblical views are nothing new; the apostles wrestled with them in the days following the ascension of Jesus, and the church invested much of the fourth century in the Arian controversy, which challenged the Trinitarian view of God.

But one of the more curious doctrines of the Watchtower is the view that Jesus died, not on a cross, but on a “torture stake.”

According to Watchtower publications, “no biblical evidence even intimates that Jesus died on a cross…. Jesus most likely was executed on an upright stake without any crossbeam.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) argue that the Greek word for cross – stauros – in classical Greek means an upright stake. Further, they teach that the cross is a pagan religious symbol adopted in the early centuries of the church after Satan took control of “Christendom.”

Therefore, JWs insist that their members reject the notion of Jesus’ death on a cross. They should not wear crosses as jewelry or display the symbols in their homes or places of worship.

Say what?

In response, let’s begin with the word stauros. Robert Bowman, in Understanding Jehovah’s Witnesses, notes that stauros as a wooden structure represents shapes “similar to the Greek letter tau (T) and the plus sign (+), occasionally using two diagonal beams (X), as well as (infrequently) a simple upright stake with no crosspiece. To argue that only the last-named form was used … is contradictory to the actual historical facts and is based on a naïve restriction of the term to its simplest meaning.”

We should invite our JW friends to consult their own New World Translation and read John 20:25, in which Thomas says, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails and stick my finger into the print of the nails and stick my hand into his side, I will certainly not believe.”

If Jesus is crucified on a stake, then a single nail is driven through both hands. But twice Thomas insists that more than one nail is used for his hands, lending support to a cross as the means of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Later, when Jesus speaks of Peter’s future crucifixion, he indicates that Peter’s arms will be outstretched, not above his head, foretelling Peter’s death on a cross (John 21:18-19).

Our younger JW friends might not be aware that until the late 1920s Watchtower publications commonly referred to Jesus’ death on the cross and featured artwork depicting it that way. That changed in the 1930s, when JWs sought to distance themselves primarily from Roman Catholics, so the argument was put forth that the cross is a pagan symbol.

We also could point to the crucifixion accounts in all four Gospels, which show that Jesus is forced to follow the well-known Roman practice of carrying a heavy crosspiece to the place of execution, where it is then affixed to an upright post. But a more effective approach is to ask our JW friends why they find the cross so offensive?

The real issue

Perhaps the real reason JWs despise the cross has less to do with historical integrity and more to do with doctrinal distortion. For orthodox Christians, the cross symbolizes the finished work of Jesus, who died and rose physically from the dead to conquer sin and death for us.

JWs don’t see it that way. They believe Jesus died as a “ransom sacrifice” to buy back what Adam lost: the right to perfect life on earth. Therefore, they argue, salvation is not the gift of God; it is a works-based quest for future life on earth – apart from Jesus, who reigns in heaven with the 144,000.

The apostle Paul puts it well: “For to those who are perishing the message of the cross is foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is God’s power” (1 Cor. 1:18).

To lay it on the line: The cross symbolizes salvation by grace; the torture stake depicts salvation by works.

This column first appeared June 4, 2013, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.