A top army officer was converted after being struck by the reality of the risen Christ during a visit to Jerusalem over Easter.
It changed him forever, and his Christian faith is now the driving force of his life.
In an interview with New Life Publishing, Major-General Tim Cross (now retired) recalled his dramatic encounter while on leave in Israel with his wife Christine during a peace-keeping post in Cyprus in 1981.
He was a captain at the time, having been raised in what he describes as “a typical middle class British home”. He attended a Church of England primary school and, like most people, assumed he was a Christian. He even took the unusual step of being confirmed while at Sandhurst (the military academy), took communion during his wedding and had his three children christened.
So when the opportunity came for a short break in Israel over the Easter weekend – celebrating the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the heart of Christian beliefs – he and Christine hitched a ride on a United Nations plane and took in the sights of the Holy Land.
“I remember going past the bus station near the Damascus Gate (to the Old City) and noticing the hill behind it looking like a skull” (widely thought to be the location of Christ’s crucifixion, referred to in the Bible as Golgotha – place of the skull).
“On Easter Sunday we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (generally considered to have been built where Jesus was buried) and then attended a service at St George’s (Anglican) Cathedral where it was suggested I visit the Garden Tomb, not far from the bus station.
“Our guide, a retired military officer called Colonel Orde Dobbie, showed us round and explained how this could equally have been the place where Jesus was buried. He read the gospels and, most importantly, pointed out the empty tomb cut in the rocks on the edge of the garden. I sheepishly took his advice, and had a look inside.
“This is a pretty crucial issue, and I was really struck by the reality of the empty tomb. It was not a Damascus Road experience (like the Apostle Paul had when he fell off his horse on seeing the risen Christ); more of an Emmaus Road experience (when the risen Christ drew alongside two disciples who did not at first recognise him, but their eyes were opened when he broke bread with them). And it also happened to coincide with my 30th birthday!
“Back in Cyprus we had a very good Army padre (chaplain), and within two months I was a committed Christian. Christine had meanwhile started attending a Bible study and committed her life to Christ independently of me.
“Everything changed from a personal point of view in the way I led and commanded. It’s changed my view of the world and the way I saw myself in terms of servant leadership.”
As to the relationship of faith to firearms, he admits to taking stock of whether it was appropriate to continue in the military – he had wanted to be a soldier since he was a boy. He prayed about it, spoke to others and looked at what the gospels had to say, concluding that there was no biblical suggestion that you couldn’t be a soldier and a follower of Jesus. John the Baptist, for example, told the soldiers to be content with their pay, not to leave the army.
“We need Christians everywhere, and the British Army – called to fight for justice and righteousness and be a force for good in an evil world – is a much more powerful institution as a result.”
He added that the ethos of the Army is rooted in Christianity despite the increasing influence of secularism, and that it is definitely not an alien environment for Christians, with the ready availability of padres and the preponderance of church-related parades.
He has also contended that, as a community, “the British Army recognises the issue of spirituality, goodness, righteousness, justice, evil and wrong probably far more than most”.
In fact, devotion such as he has displayed since his conversion is clearly appreciated by superiors, many of whom are believers.
While at Staff College in the late 1980s, his director of studies wrote of him: “This guy is a very committed Christian; he doesn’t bash people over the heads with it – just lives it out.”
The General added: “Faith had to be part of who I was, how I commanded, the way I spoke and the decisions I took.”
This was especially the case during his third tour of the Balkans in 1999 – again over Easter. He was a brigadier at the time, in charge of 5,000 men, and at the request of the UN became responsible for coordinating multi-national troops and civilian agencies in establishing refugee camps in the aftermath of the Kosovo War. “People were beginning to die, and had no food. As a Christian commander, I didn’t hesitate.”
His soldiers duly knuckled down to build the camps and he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his role, meeting the Queen at the ceremony. But he says: “I just gave the orders. The men under my command did all the hard work.”
His learning curve was further extended in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 during which he tried to persuade Prime Minister Tony Blair to delay matters due to inadequate post-war planning. He was involved with others in planning the invasion and had spent some time in Washington from where he sent daily reports to government departments such as the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office.
He went to see Alastair Campbell (Mr Blair’s right-hand man) “who was very helpful” and subsequently spoke to the PM himself, effectively telling him: “We’re not ready for post-war Iraq.”
That his advice was not heeded is well-known. The General did not take it personally, however, recognising that Mr Blair was getting lots of advice from all sides, and had to weigh it all up.
Testifying before the Iraq Inquiry in December 2009, he said he had urged Mr Blair and his aide, Mr Campbell, to delay the invasion two days prior to the start of the conflict. He further told inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot that preparations for post-war Iraq were “woefully thin” and went on to say that “although I was confident that we would secure a military victory, I offered my view that we should not begin that campaign until we had a much more coherent post-war plan.”
Now, seven years on, he says: “I wasn’t against the war in Iraq; it was just not the right time. It did mean, however, that I was involved in failure for the first time in my life, which is something I am now able to share with others.”
The greatest of Bible figures, such as King David and the Apostle Peter, experienced this too. “The issue is not failure, but how you respond to it.”
Furthermore, there is a moral dimension to the army’s purpose, which is just as important as your equipment and knowhow in terms of ability to deliver fighting power. “You’ve got to have people with a will to fight and the will to win.”
In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2009, he said: “If you lose the moral component, you lose everything. I think we – collectively in the West – have gone through 30–40 years of pretending that this is not important, and that I don’t need to have a biblical foundation in my life. And I challenge that.”
As to the argument over a nuclear deterrent, he said it worked during the Cold War and is still clearly needed. Russia remains a threat. And, yes, Islamic extremism is obviously a serious issue. “We will not destroy Islamic extremism any more than destroy the idea of a united Ireland. But over and above that there are nations like Iran who don’t like the West much; and a nuclear weapon in their hands could be a serious threat to us.”
Does war ever solve anything? Well, the military remit is wider than shooting. As his career so clearly testifies, they have been involved in important peace-keeping and humanitarian operations. And the General describes their current role as “to try to establish a secure environment within which politicians can try to work out a solution”.
“But we live in a fallen world marred by brutal dictatorships. And we are called to fight for justice and righteousness.”
Now 65, and retired for ten years, he and Christine run their own company – speaking, advising and lecturing in business, academic and charity environments with a focus on what he describes as “morally courageous leadership”. He is a visiting professor at three universities, a role he clearly enjoys, and a lay reader (licensed to preach) in the Anglican Church.
He is involved in a number of Christian organisations including the Bible Society, of which he is a trustee, and is a former president of the Armed Forces Christian Union.
The couple live in Aldershot, Hampshire, and have two sons (one of whom is serving in the Royal Navy), one daughter and two grandchildren.
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon, and Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com