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The offence of the cross: Why extremists attack churches at Easter

13 April 2017

On Palm Sunday jihadists attacked Churches in the Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Tanta killing at least 49 and injuring many others. In India Christians were targeted by Hindu extremists in at least five separate locations on the same day

These incidents all illustrate a sad fact that Barnabas Fund has seen far too many times over the years. Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter are times when Christians are particularly vulnerable to attack. In the past, this has been in countries dominated by another religion such as Islam or Hinduism where Christians are a minority. However, as we saw with the planned attack on Melbourne Cathedral last Christmas, jihadists are now extending their attacks to threaten churches in the West too, and church leaders need to be aware of this threat over the Easter period and take sensible precautions.

Christmas is when we celebrate the incarnation, how God himself visited the earth, not merely as a local manifestation of His presence as He did at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-6) or when He came down on Sinai (Exodus 19:11-24), but by adding human nature to Himself and becoming man (John 1:1-14). Easter is when we celebrate His atoning death on the cross that paid for the price for our sin and enabled us to be reconciled to God. Both of these – Christ’s divinity and His atoning death on the cross – are explicitly denied in the Quran.

So, one of the reasons that extremists attack Christians at Easter is the offence of the cross. This is nothing new. The Apostle Paul calls Christ’s crucifixion “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). This week we also report a story from Australia of how a Christian was recently attacked by a group of Muslim youths on a train in Sydney, Australia, precisely because he was wearing a cross, which they found “offensive”.

Whilst we desire good relations with members of other religions, it can never be at the expense of downplaying the cross. Christ’s incarnation and atonement are absolutely central to the Christian faith.

Scripture tells us that God is a holy God “who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). However, Christ is the visible form of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15-20) who became incarnate on earth. It is only through His sacrificial death on the cross, dying in our place, that we can enter the presence of God in heaven.

However, if Christ were not God then He could not save us. For, we all owe God our Creator a duty of complete perfect obedience which we have fallen well short of (Romans 3:23). No other created being can pay this debt we owe. Even the highest angels can only give to God the perfect service they themselves owe, with nothing extra to pay our debt. Only God Himself could pay that. As the Easter hymn puts it:

“There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, He only could unlock the gate of Heaven and let us in.”

That is why the New Testament speaks of “our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). For without Christ’s incarnation and death there can be no salvation.

These are truths that go to the very heart of who God is and what He has done for us by becoming our Saviour. Whilst we celebrate His incarnation at Christmas, at Easter we celebrate how He became our Saviour. It is because extremists recognise that these two festivals – Christmas and Easter – challenge the very heart of what they have been told about God that their hatred spills over into violent attacks on Christians and churches at this time of year.

In his letter to the young church at Philippi, the Apostle Paul warns them to beware that there are many who live as “enemies of the cross” (Philippians 3:18). That is something that at Easter time many of our brothers and sisters in countries such as Egypt are already only too painfully aware of. However, with Islamist attacks on churches now beginning to spread to the West, it is something we must all be aware of at this time.