I posted some pictures of several ceramic skulls in my office, and a fun conversation ensued on Facebook. Later that evening, I received a short letter from a friend:
“Hey, I’m curious! You create art with skulls and enjoy having them as part of your decor. How do you reconcile that with skulls being the antithesis of all that Jesus is? He is the Way, the Truth, the Life. And the skull is a symbol of Death.”
It’s a great question! And for Christians who enjoy skull art, it’s one worth thinking about. Here’s a few brief responses outlining how I reached the conclusion that the skull symbol is not “the antithesis of all that Jesus is.”
Material things are not inherently evil. This includes the human skull. In Romans chapter 14, the apostle Paul addresses dietary and Sabbath laws and the freedom of individuals to decide the parameters of their own conduct. He concludes, “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean” (Rom. 14:14). Paul followed a similar line of argument when addressing meat sacrificed to idols in I Corinthians 8. He writes,
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (I Cor. 8:4-6)
Here, Paul mocks the idea that an idol — an icon, statue, or false god — possesses any real power. So he reasons that eating meat sacrificed to idols is perfectly fine because “an idol is nothing.” Of course, he goes on to appeal to one’s conscience. But my point here is to illustrate that material things, even things employed for evil (meat sacrificed to idols) are not inherently corrupt.
Objects are not evil, but people’s intentions for using them can be. In Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis wrote, “It is the stealing of the apple that is bad, not the sweetness.” The fruit of the Garden was beautiful and tasty. However, it was the intentions of the eaters that were rotten. Likewise, the nature of of the human skeleton is neutral. Bones have no inherent power in them. You could even say that, by design, bones are a good thing. They frame the body, providing armature for the muscles and organs. The skull may be the most important component of the entire skeleton as it contains the brain. In fact, skulls (and skeletons) are a common accessory found in biology or anatomy class. Are these skulls evil? Do these skulls represent something antithetical to Christ? Of course not! They are purely an anthropological exhibit. Now, if someone were to steal a skull from a laboratory and use it for an occult ritual, would that make it evil? No more than sacrificing a rack of ribs to Aphrodite would spoil the meat. Again, a skull is not inherently evil, but people’s intentions for or depictions of it can be.
And here’s where we need to make a distinction between cultural symbology and moral law. What most Christians object to about skull art is when it is conjoined with evil intentions and dark sentiments. And this is a very legitimate concern! Truth is, for many, the skull is representative of a morbid, grim, and negative outlook on life. Believers should be able to agree that a bleak disposition, or an unhealthy fixation upon death, is not aligned with a Christian worldview. And here, my friend is right. The Christian life should be characterized by joy and hope. A gloomy Christian is a contradiction in terms. These objections, however, do not amount to a moral restriction of all skull art. Because some use the skull as a symbol of evil does not mean all skull art is evil.
Which leads to my final point: Skulls can also be used as a symbol for mortality, a reminder of our own death, and a summons to live life to the fullest. Indeed, some Christian traditions embraced memento mori. Roughly translated, the phrase means “remember death.” It was a religious summons, a meditation. In his article Memento Mori: What It Means and Why It Should Matter to You, Matt McCullough, describes it as “death awareness.” Far from a morbid obsession with darkness, memento mori was a call to live soberly, reflective, and with gusto. Indeed, the Bible often calls us to reflect upon our own mortality and live life with purpose and passion. The psalmist wrote, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). The Bible describes your life like a “vapor” that appears for a moment and then vanishes away (James 4:14). The apostle Peter said our lives are like grass that springs up before wilting under the sun; all man’s glory is temporary (I Pet. 1:24). In our age of longer life expectancy and medical advances, it’s easy to avoid contemplating death. And pop culture provides plenty of distractions to keep us from those important reflections.
The memento mori tradition employed many icons and symbols. But most often, it was the skull. Many Catholic saints, like Saint Francis, were portrayed as holding a skull or meditating upon one. Older chapels and monasteries actually gathered the bones of dead saints and displayed them as reminders. A church in Rome, Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, is famous for its crypts decorated entirely with the bones of friars. Entering the crypts, one passes a sign which reads, “What you are, we once were. What we are, you will become.”
While some could see this as grotesque, contemplating death, especially one’s own, can be a deeply biblical — even lifegiving! — practice. Indeed, the very road to eternal life leads through death. Jesus was crucified on Golgotha — the Place of the Skull. The irony is that the road to life leads through the Place of the Skull. Jesus conquered death and said that His followers no longer needed to fear it. In this way, the skull can be a signpost, a symbol or reminder that our bodies will whither and be reborn in glory. Or as the apostle Paul put it, “O death, where is your sting?” (I Cor. 15:55).
So in conclusion, Skulls are neutral; they’re just human bones, an important part of our anatomy. Yes, some use skulls for evil purposes and as a depiction of dark, unhealthy obsessions. As Christians, we should avoid creating or displaying skull art that is attached to, or conveys, such spiritual darkness. Nevertheless, displaying skulls is not automatically evil. While some use the skull as a symbol of morbidity and evil, others can use it as a symbol of mortality and a reminder to number our days and apply our hearts to wisdom. When judging skull displays, we should make sure to see past the symbol to the owner’s intent. Is the skull being displayed as a symbol for evil or darkness? Is the skull being displayed as a celebration of life and/or to “remember death”? Or is the skull simply being displayed as a generic cultural icon?