Chapter One: Everybody Uses Them (How, Who, Why)

Need For A Study

There are so many pictures to represent Christ today. They are everywhere.

Do these pictures have any influence on the church and the world? For instance, do these pictures create or shape people’s concept of Christ? If not, why are so many used?

Nobody publicly rejects them. Nobody in the church seems to seriously question the legitimacy of picturing Christ. Paradoxically the secular world makes occasional laws against such pictures: church and state separation laws sometimes forbid such religious pictures in public places. These laws do not try to protect people’s knowledge of the deity of Christ; they attack the promotion of the church’s concept of Christ. This attack from the secular world upon the pictures serves only to further legitimize these pictures in the mind of the church. If the world accepts them as true representations of Christ then they must be true representations of Christ. Everywhere in the church and in the world the pictures are accepted as being pictures of Christ.

The focus of this chapter is on the numerical quantity (not the validity nor the legitimacy) of pictures that are trusted to represent Christ in today’s world and the purposes for which they are used. Later chapters will examine the validity and legitimacy of such pictures. But first let us heighten our consciousness of the vast numbers of pictures that are being used to represent Christ. (1) Consider how many art forms are used for pictures and images to represent Christ in today’s world. (2) Consider how many churches use one or more of these art forms to represent Christ. (3) Consider how many basic church functions (e.g., Christian education, evangelism and missions, and worship services) employ these pictures to accomplish their function. (4) Then, and to the point, consider the enormous number of these pictures actually existing in the world today (in all their various art forms, in all the various churches, doing all the various church functions) creating the world’s concept of Christ. The total number of these pictures used by all the media forms for all the various purposes is an immense number of pictures.

Many Art Forms Are Used

Jesus’ name is given to all kinds of pictures, icons, and statues. Here are samples of some of the more common forms of art that are used to picture “Jesus.”

Crucifixes and statues
Metal, wood, or plastic figures in the form of a dead man on a cross adorn homes and churches, especially in Roman Catholic circles. Tiny crucifixes attach to necklaces and rosaries. Statues made of metal, wood, or plaster frequently stand in Catholic places and increasingly appear in Protestant places.

Three-dimensional images are sometimes defined as icons, but icons often include paintings that are flat, or are raised in very low relief. Three main types of icons are mosaics, wall frescoes, and panel icons. Jesus is a frequent object of artists who create icons. The Eastern Orthodox Churches’ sacred images or figures to represent Jesus, Mary, or the saints are commonly called icons, and these iconic media are commonly seen many places in the world.

Pictures to represent Christ are created in various kinds of media. Stained glass art gives pictorial form to “Jesus” in many church windows. Many oil paintings to represent Christ are famous; printed copies of these pictures adorn walls in homes and churches. Printing presses put these pictures on paper in books, magazines, newspapers, and church papers. These pictures also appear on postage stamps and Christmas cards.

This does not include the TV and video pictures, which gets into the question of moving and animated pictures.

Most, if not All, Churches Today Use Pictures to Represent Christ

Churches everywhere use one or more kinds of these images, icons, and pictures. All the major branches of the church use pictures to represent Christ.

Roman Catholics
The Catholic church requires all Catholics to use pictures to represent Christ. The Catholic Church officially ordered their usage in 787 A.D. Again at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) the Catholic Church agreed that it still requires these pictures. Again, in 1962, at the Vatican II council, Catholics officially reaffirmed their pictures. Modern popes promote them. Pope Paul VI, in 1964, called for a “rebirth of religious art, noting that Vatican II declared ‘all things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy...signs and symbols of heavenly realities’ (Abbott, 174). This makes the God of heaven accessible through art. When Paul VI visited America (an historic occasion because it was the first time a pope came to America) he gave the president a picture to represent Christ. (The president gave the pope an autographed picture of himself, President Johnson.) A decade later another pope came to America to conduct a televised Mass from the White house, a Mass, with its images to represent Christ, that was broadcast to homes across America. The common usage of crucifixes in the Mass indicate the universality and the centrality of “Christ” images in Roman Catholicism. The Mass, with these images, is the basic worship service performed wherever the Roman Catholic Church conducts worship services.

Eastern Orthodox
The Orthodox churches, after centuries of hesitation, now use pictures to represent Christ almost as freely as do the Roman Catholics. We ‘lave already noted that the Orthodox churches display these pictures as their concept of Christ. Icons are defended as symbolic forms; they are intended by their users to be transparencies of an unseen world. Icons are part of our world, but are intended to open up heaven to people’s view. Icons are trusted to evoke awareness of the glory of God and the beauty of his holiness. (Yule, 203).

History shows that Protestants at first opposed using pictures to represent Jesus. But now in modem times Protestants obviously use the pictures freely, in some ways more freely than do Catholics.

Here is a Lutheran example. Concordia, a Lutheran publishing house in America, announced that “millions” of their Sunday School lessons were illustrated by artist Leslie Benson. “Without a doubt, his images of Christ...are forever impressed on the minds of thousands of people... “In every Benson painting Christ’s divine nature is apparent,” declared the publishing house. Note that they said Christ’s divine nature is what their pictures show.

All denominations, it appears, use Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ” painting. This picture shows up everywhere, obviously an acceptable picture of “Christ” for modern Protestants.

The Church Expects These Pictures to Do the Work of the Word

Consider how the church uses these pictures to do the work of the Word. In most major functions of the church (education, evangelism, missions, and worship) these pictures often take the place of the Bible to present “Christ.” They are treated as if they actually were Christ.

For Education
Sunday Schools use lots of pictures to represent Christ to interpret the Bible. Especially in children’s curricula these pictures appear, but they also appear in curricula for all ages. These pictures illustrate each story about Jesus. These pictures create the learners’ first concept of Christ, and shape the development of their later “Christ” concept. Teachers and leaders provide these pictures. The leader of one denomination defended these deity pictures this way: people think in pictures, so the church must provide pictures for people to be able to think of Christ. This theory seems to be a general view, judging by the universal provision of these pictures to represent Christ in Christian education.

For Evangelism and missions
Pictures create the mental picture of the “Christ” that Christians give to non-Christians. Missionaries give these pictures to the nations to create a concept of the “Christ” which the nations are to accept. These pictures filter all Gospel stories, filtering out any concept of Christ that cannot be pictured; all Gospel stories are first translated into these pictures, and then given to the people. Pictures are both the medium and the message. Speakers illustrate their messages with these pictures. Evangelistic efforts broadcast these pictures as the symbol for the Christ to be believed. These pictures are given as the Christ of the Bible, the focus and message of the Bible.

For Worship
Pictures to represent Christ are the focus of attention in public and private worship. Protestants and Catholics teach their children to use such pictures in their worship. Pictures to represent Christ are always placed in Sunday Schools and church buildings, especially where children will identify them with everything said about Jesus. For instance, to use the one Concordia Publishing House mentioned earlier, Concordia also commissioned an artist to paint four oil paintings to represent Christ. The publishing house, in its sales promotion, advertised ways to use the pictures for worship purposes. Focus and meditate on the picture, they said. Focus your meditations on the title, “on the whole Christ figure,” or on “his” outstretched hands. “Concentrate. Let your faith and imagination carry you.” To focus on the picture as a regular part of one’s devotional exercises would give new inspiration for all of life, they promised. Thus, “Christ” pictures are to be used for worship.

Presbyterians do the same. For instance, Westminster Press published Worship Services Using the Arts in which one service is entitled “We Would See Jesus.” This service is to be shown in a darkened room, with slides projected on a screen. These pictures include “Madonna and Child” by Murillo and “Head of Christ” by Rembrandt. While “Head of Christ” is on the screen, the choir sings “We would see Jesus.” While Presbyterians, may not often use this particular service, they do publish it and this symbolizes how far Presbyterians can go with such pictures. It teaches people to worship what they call “Jesus” when they see such a picture. Even among conservative and evangelical Presbyterians, it is popular to use pictures to represent Christ. They are not to be “worshiped,” but they are to be used for “didactic” purposes. But is not the “Christ” received in didache (education) the “Christ” that a child will worship? If the child-and then the adult-worships the Christ learned from a didactic picture, then it must be the pictorially-pictured Christ that he or she worships.

What denomination does not use pictures to represent Christ in its worship services? Many, if not most, churches have such pictures and images, for instance in oil paintings, crucifixes, or stained glass windows, located above pulpit and altar and worship center where people will bow toward them when the people bow in prayer. Sometimes worship leaders even turn toward the picture or image when they lead the congregation in prayer. But the pictures and images need not be there physically if those pictures mentally form the concept of Christ being worshiped by the worshipers. They are mentally put there.

“Billions” of Such Pictures Are Used in Today’s World

How many pictures to represent Christ are used every year in these various media, in these various churches, to accomplish the various functions of the church? How many are used? As many as a million? Or is it a billion? Or billions?

To start the estimation, nearly two billion people are classed as Christians in today’s world (see the World Christian Encyclopedia, ed. D. B. Barrett, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). Then try to estimate how many of these people own such pictures, or crucifixes, or icons, or other images to represent Christ in their homes and personal possessions.

Furthermore, figure that many of these people own not just one, but many such pictures in their Bibles, books, magazines, wall hangings, necklaces, and other adornments.
Furthermore, try to calculate how many pictures to represent Christ that local churches possess, use, and distribute. Sunday Schools give them out weekly in their Sunday School materials, thus even one small Sunday School will give out hundreds of these pictures every year.

Furthermore, add the number of such pictures and images that church buildings maintain. Around the world countless church buildings stand, each one on its walls multiplying the number of pictures, crucifixes, icons, or other images to represent Christ. How many of these church buildings are there in the world?

Furthermore, try to calculate the vast number of Christmas cards that multiply the number of pictures used to represent Christ annually. Most families send and receive many of these Christmas cards with these pictures every year, connecting the newborn Savior with nativity pictures.

Furthermore, try to calculate the number of Madonna and Child postage stamps issued every year by various national postal systems, postage stamps on envelopes delivered to homes around the world, postage stamps issued by various countries every Christmas. These stamps spread enormous numbers of pictures to represent “baby Jesus” around the world every Christmas.

Furthermore, try to calculate the number of newspapers with such pictures of “Jesus” during the Christmas season. Even secular papers and magazines multiply pictures of the manger scene, Madonna and child, and other “baby Jesus” pictures. The number published must be very great.


Countless millions or billions of pictures to represent Christ are used around the world every year. These pictures and images include crucifixes, paintings, stained glass windows, wall ornaments, Sunday School papers, Christmas cards, postage stamps, etc. Who can add up the vast numbers of these and other pictures used every year to present “Christ”? They are countless. And they are used extensively by the church to accomplish purposes such as evangelism, Christian education, and to focus worship.

Legitimacy of picturing Christ is not questioned in today’s church. Occasionally somebody says that the pictures are only artists’ ideas of what Christ looked like. But these same people go ahead and use them. This legitimizes them in a practical way as “pictures” of Christ.

They seem legitimate because of the repetition with which they are used, the variety of media that use them, and the apparent universal usage of them by all churches.
But are they legitimate? Does the Bible permit them? It is time to evaluate the influence that such a large number of pictures has upon the church and upon the world.

Bibliographic References and Notes

Abbott, Walter M., S. J. (ed.). Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings,” ch. VII of The Documents of Vatican II (All Sixteen Official Texts Promulgated by the Ecumenical Council 1963-1965, Translated from the Latin). New York. Guild Press, America Press, Association Press, /966.

Barrett, D. B. (ed.), World Christian Encyclopedia, (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1982)

Maus, Pearl. Christ and the Fine Arts. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959).

Sill, Gertrude Grace. A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art (New York: Collier Books, 1975). Declares “The major theme in Christian art is the life of Jesus Christ” (p. 68). Also see “Selected Bibliography,” p. 221.

Yule, Robert. Icons as Christian Art,” in Evangelical Review of Theology (Paternoster Press), Vol. 6, No. 20, pp. 202-214 (October, 1982).