Besides its Second Commandment issues, the Catholic crucifix bothers me because it shows a dead Jesus, crumpled on the cross, reminding us of His sufferings. Those things are true, as far as they go. However, the fault of the crucifix is that it takes us no further.
First, I think it is necessary to understand that those experiences were not imposed upon the Son by men: “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, Your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage,and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against His Anointed’— for truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:24-28). Here we see that everything which Jesus underwent, though at the hands of men, was according to the plan of God in prehistory. Notice that Peter and John are quoting from the second Psalm, a prophecy of the overcoming power of the Messiah.
Second, His sufferings weren’t imposed on the Son against even His own will: “No one takes it [i. e., life] from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from My Father” (John 10:18). Jesus experienced what he did because He chose to do so.
Why did He choose to suffer and die, though He was God, at the hands of men? “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given Me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:35-40). Jesus, God the Son, chose to face the suffering and death of the cross because He had His people, the Church (Ephesians 5:25), in His mind’s eye.
And that is the problem with the crucifix. It shows the cross work of Jesus as suffering, which it certainly was, but no more. Yet it was so much more, because it was the evidence of the love of God for His people, including me, that Jesus chose that experience out of His divine love. The empty cross in a Protestant church denies nothing of the horror of the crucifixion, but testifies to the risen Christ, who suffered for me, and rose from the grave in victory over sin, Satan, the grave, and the purposes of wicked men! That is why the Apostle Thomas was compelled to greet Him with those words, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28)!
“The death of Jesus was glorious, not because it was His death, but because it could be the death of no other. A creature might as well have undertaken to create as to save a world. The work itself demands the interposition of God; and any theory which fails to represent the death of Christ as an event which, in its own nature, as clearly proclaims His divinity as His superintending care and preservation of all things, cannot be the Gospel which Paul preached at Rome, at Corinth, at Athens, and which extorted from Thomas, upon beholding the risen Savior, the memorable confession, ‘My Lord and My God!'” (James Henley Thornwell, the Necessity and Nature of Christianity).