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I understand WHY the cross became a symbol for Christianity, but HOW did it become a symbol? How did it start and how did it evolve into the symbol (or symbols since there are many variants) we all know today?

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Early Christians felt the empty tomb was too difficult to draw. –  dancek Aug 30 '11 at 14:47
    
still only one answer –  DForck42 Sep 20 '11 at 3:29
    
The Cross of Christ by John Stott answer the question in his introduction. –  David Laberge Jan 13 '12 at 12:11

2 Answers 2

The way it was explained to me once is that it was a literal interpretation of Christ's commission to take up the cross and follow him.

"Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." (Matt 16:24; see also Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; Matt 10:21;)

The Encyclopedia Britannica attributes Emperor Constantine as the one that initiated the use of the cross as a symbol of Christianity:

[...] Before the time of the emperor Constantine in the 4th century, Christians were extremely reticent about portraying the cross because too open a display of it might expose them to ridicule or danger. After Constantine converted to Christianity, he abolished crucifixion as a death penalty and promoted, as symbols of the Christian faith, both the cross and the chi-rho monogram of the name of Christ. The symbols became immensely popular in Christian art and funerary monuments from c. 350.

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I'm not sure if this is how it came about but it could have contributed to it. This was told to me by a friend so I don't have sources for it right now. I'll look for sources on this later.

In the early church days Christians were persecuted by both Jews and Romans. In order to keep their worship services safe and secure they needed to develop a signal to inform everyone that they were 'safe' and not there to harm everyone or be a spy. So they used the hand gesture of making the sign of the cross on their bodies, the same sign that many Christian faiths use today while praying.

If you were outside of the church and looked in, you couldn't see what was being done or what sign was made. However, if you were inside the church, you could watch people as they came in to determine if they were a Christian or not. Anyone coming in who did not know the sign would be noticed quite easily.

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