SPIRITUAL DARKNESS IN THE MIDDLE AGES #5
CONSTANTINE and the CROSS
by Ralph Woodrow
AN OUTSTANDING FACTOR THAT contributed to the adoration of
the cross image within the Romish church was the famous "vision
of the cross" and subsequent "conversion" of Constantine. As he
and his soldiers approached Rome, they were about to face what is
known as the Battle of Milvian Bridge. According to the custom of
the time, the haruspices (those who employed divination by such
means as reading the entrails of sacrificial animals) were called
to give advice. (The use of divination before battles was also
practiced by the king of Babylon: "For the king of Babylon stood
at the parting of the way, at the head of the two ways, to use
divination: he made his arrows bright, he consulted with images,
he looked in the liver" - Ezekiel 21:21.) In the case of
Constantine, he was told that the gods would not come to his aid,
that he would suffer defeat in the battle. But then in a vision
or dream, as he related later, there appeared a cross to him and
the words, "In this sign conquer." The next day - October 28, 312
- he advanced behind a standard portraying a cross. He was
victorious in that battle, defeated his rival, and professed
conversion. Of course such a seeming victory for Christianity did
much to further the use of the cross in the Romish church.
It is admitted on all sides, however, that Constantine's vision
of the cross is probably not historically true. The only
authority from whom the story has been gathered by historians is
Eusebius, who confessedly was prone to edification and was
accused as a "falsifier of history." But if Constantine did have
such a vision, are we to suppose its author was Jesus Christ?
Would the Prince of Peace instruct a pagan emperor to make a
military banner embodying the cross and to go forth conquering
and killing in that sign?
The Roman Empire (of which Constantine became the head) has
been described in the Scriptures as a "beast." Babylon - Persia
Greece - Rome. Daniel saw four great beasts which represented
four world empires - Babylon (a lion), Medo-Persia (a bear),
Greece (a leopard), and Rome. The fourth beast, the Roman Empire,
was so horrible that it was symbolized by a beast unlike any
other (Daniel 7:1-8). We see no reason to suppose that Christ
would tell Constantine to conquer with the sign of the cross to
further the beast system of Rome!
But if the vision was not of God, how can we explain the
conversion of Constantine? Actually, his conversion is to be
seriously questioned. Even though he had much to do with the
establishment of certain doctrines and customs within the church,
the facts plainly show that he was not truly converted - not in
the Biblical sense of the word. Historians admit that his
conversion was "nominal, even by contemporary standards."
Probably the most obvious indication that he was not truly
converted may be seen from the fact that after his conversion, he
committed several murders - including the murder of his own wife
and son! According to the Bible "no murderer hath eternal life
abiding in him" (1 John 3:15). Constantine's first marriage was
to Minervina, by whom he had a son named Crispus. His second
wife, Fausta, bore him three daughters and three sons. Crispus
became an outstanding soldier and help to his father. Yet. in
326--very shortly after directing the Nicaean Council - he had
his son put to death. The story is that Crispus had made love to
Fausta. At least this was the accusation of Fausta. But this may
have been her method of getting him out of the way, so one of her
sons might have claim to the throne! Constantine's mother,
however, persuaded him that his wife had yielded to his son.
Constantine had Fausta suffocated to death in an overheated bath.
About this same time he had his sister's son flogged to death and
his sister's husband strangled - even though he had promised he
would spare his life.
These things are summed up in the following words from The
Catholic Encyclopedia: "Even after his conversion he caused the
execution of his brother-in-law Licinius, and of the latter's
son, as well as of Crispus his own son by his first marriage, and
of his wife Fausta...After reading these cruelities it is hard to
believe that the same emperor could at times have mild and tender
impulses; but human nature is full of contradictions."
Constantine did show numerous favors toward the Christians,
abolished death by crucifixion, and the persecutions which had
become so cruel at Rome ceased. But did he make these decisions
purely from Christian convictions or did he have political
motives for doing so? The Catholic Encyclopedia says, "Some
bishops, blinded by the splendor of the court, even went so far
as to laud the emperor as an angel of God, as a sacred being, and
to prophesy that he would, like the Son of God, reign in heaven.
It has consequently been asserted that Constantine favored
Christianity merely from political motives, and he has been
regarded as an enlightened despot who made use of religion only
to advance his policy.
Such was the conclusion of the noted historian Durant
regarding Constantine. "Was his conversion sincere - was it an
act of religious belief, or a consummate stroke of political
wisdom? Probably the latter ... He seldom conformed to the
ceremonial requirements of Christian worship. His letters to
Christian bishops make it clear that he cared little for the
theological differences that agitated Christendomthough he was
willing to suppress dissent in the interests of imperial unity.
Throughout his reign he treated the bishops as his political
aides; he summoned them, presided over their councils, and agreed
to enforce whatever opinion their majority should formulate. A
real believer would have been a Christian first and a statesman
afterward; with Constantine it was the reverse. Christianity was
to him a means, not an end."
Persecutions had not destroyed the Christian faith.
Constantine knew this. Instead of the empire constantly being
divided - with pagans in conflict with Christians - why not take
such steps as might be necessary to mix both paganism and
Christianity together, he reasoned, and thus bring a united force
to the empire? There were similarities between the two religious
systems. Even the cross symbol was not a divisive factor, for by
this time it was in use by Christians, and "to the worshipper of
Mithra in Constantine's forces, the cross could give no offense,
for they had long fought under a standard bearing a Mithraic
cross of light.
The Christianity of Constantine was a mixture. Though he had
his statue removed from pagan temples and renounced the offering
of sacrifices to himself, yet people continued to speak of the
divinity of the emperor. As pontifex maximus he continued to
watch over the heathen worship and protect its rights. In
dedicating Constantinople in 330 a ceremonial that was half pagan
and half Christian was used. The chariot of the sun-god was set
in the market-place and over it the cross of Christ. Coins made
by Constantine featured the cross, but also representations of
Mars or Apollo. While professing to be a Christian, he continued
to believe in pagan magic formulas for the protection of crops
and the healing of disease. All of these things are pointed out
in The Catholic Encyclopedia. Yet, the concept by which the Roman
Catholic Church developed and grew-the concept of mixing paganism
and Christianity together as a united force-is clearly linked
with Constantine and the years that followed in which the church
became rich and increased with goods.
A story that greatly influenced cross worship within the
Romish church - even more than that of Constantine's vision -
centered around his mother Helena. When almost eighty years of
age, she made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Legend has it that she
found three crosses buried there - one the cross of Christ and
the other two the ones upon which the thieves were crucified. The
cross of Christ was identified because it worked miracles of
healing at the suggestion of Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, while
the other two did not.
Says an article in The Catholic Encyclopedia. "A portion of
the True Cross remained at Jerusalem enclosed in a silver
reliquary; the remainder, with the nails, must have been sent to
Constantine...One of the nails was fastened to the emperor's
helmet, and one to his horse's bridle, bringing to pass,
according to many of the Fathers, what had been written by
Zacharias the Prophet: 'In that day that which is upon the bridle
of the horse shall be holy to the Lord'(Zach.14:20)"! This same
article, while attempting to hold to the general teachings of the
church regarding the cross, admits that the stories about the
discovery of the cross vary and the tradition (which actually
developed years later) may be largely based on legend.
That Helena did visit Jerusalem in 326 appears to be histor-
ically correct. But the story of her discovery of the cross did
not appear until 440 - about 114 years later! The idea that the
original cross would still be at Jerusalem almost 300 years after
the crucifixion seems very doubtful. Besides, laws among the Jews
required crosses to be burned after being used for crucifixion.
What if someone in our day did find the actual cross of Christ
and could prove it to be such? This would be of great interest,
of course; but would there be any virtue in that piece of wood?
No, for the cross has already served its purpose as did the brass
serpent of Moses. We recall that "Moses made a serpent of brass,
and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent
had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he
lived" (Numbers 21:9). Lifting up the serpent in the wilderness
was a type of the way Christ was lifted up in death (John 3:15).
But after the brass serpent had served its intended purpose, the
Israelites kept it around and made an idol out of it! Thus,
centuries later, Hezekiah "did that which was right in the sight
of the Lord ... he removed the high places, and brake the images
and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent
that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel
did burn incense to it" (2 Kings 18:1-4). Hezekiah did "right" -
not only by destroying heathen idols - but even that which God
had ordained, for it had served its original purpose and was now
being used in a superstitious way. On this same basis, if the
original cross was still in existence, there would be no reason
to set it up as an object of worship. And if there would be no
power in the original cross, how much less is there in a mere
piece of wood in its shape?
Even as the pagan Egyptians had set up obelisks, not only as
a symbol of their god, but in some cases the very image was
believed to possess supernatural power, even so did some come to
regard the cross. Had it not helped Constantine in the Battle of
Milvian Bridge? Had not the cross worked miracles for Helena? It
came to be regarded as an image that could scare away evil
spirits. It was worn as a charm. It was placed at the top of
church steeples to frighten away lightning, yet because of its
high position, was the very thing that attracted lightning! The
use of the cross in private homes was supposed to ward off
trouble and disease. Many pieces of wood - supposedly pieces of
the "original" cross - were sold and exchanged as protectors and
To be continued with "The Relics of Romanism"