From a cross to a fish to a dove, there are many visual emblems of the Christian faith. Many reflect biblical truth about God the Father, his son Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit. Others represent the church, the Bible, or the Lord’s Supper. IHS is a prominent symbol but doesn’t have an obvious meaning at first glance, leading many people to wonder about what it means.
The letters IHS represent Jesus’ name. They are the first three letters in the Greek name for Jesus: iota, eta, and sigma. In upper-case letters, Jesus’ name in Greek is ΙΗΣΟΥΣ. The English letters that correspond to ΙΗΣΟΥΣ are IHSOUS, the first three letters of which are IHS.
What do IHS crosses mean in graveyards? What do they mean in churches? What other Latin and English meanings are there for IHS on crosses? Why does Christianity have so many symbols? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
What is the significance of the IHS symbol?
IHS is a Christogram, which means that the letters represent Jesus Christ. Another well-known Christogram that is commonly used as a symbol in Christianity is Chi Rho. Using English letters, the Chi-Rho symbol looks like a “P” and “X” arranged next to or on top of each other.
When the letters IHS appear on a cross, they represent Jesus Christ, who was crucified and died for sinners who were in need of salvation (John 3:16; Rom. 6:23). Christian crosses with IHS don’t necessarily have a different fundamental meaning than those that don’t have letters.
Crosses, when used as symbols, sometimes have different features. These include the t-bar foot rest; a circle surrounding the point of intersection; arrows at the end of bars; a crown of thorns ringed over the top of the horizontal bar; and a sign placard connected to the top of the vertical bar.
Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox crosses, called crucifixes, include the body of Jesus, while Protestant crosses don’t.
What do crosses with IHS mean in graveyards? When the letters IHS appear on crosses in a graveyard, the emblem conveys that the person who is buried in the grave believed in Jesus and was his follower. Blank crosses often depict the same reality, but the letters IHS add more decor and visualization.
What do crosses with IHS mean in churches? Crosses with IHS that are displayed in churches have the same basic meaning that they do anywhere else. It’s common to find them as decorations on tables that hold the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper to remind people of the meaning of the elements.
Since most Protestants don’t believe it’s right to visually depict Jesus’ body on the cross, the IHS emblem is an acceptable alternative to blank crosses.
Are there other meanings to IHS on crosses?
The letters IHS have developed other meanings over time, though none are as well known as what has already been described. Christians have used the letters in different ways.
Jesus Our Savior
Some people use IHS to convey that Jesus is the Savior of the world (e.g. 2 Pet. 1:11). The Greek phrase “ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΗΜΕΤΕΡΟΣ ΣΩΤΗΡ” means “Jesus our Savior.” The English letters that correspond to the first letter of each word are IHS. (Note: Greek doesn’t have a “J” (i.e. jay) sound, which English got from Latin or German.)
In His Service
Another English meaning of the letters IHS is “In His Service,” which doesn’t have roots in Greek or Latin. It also doesn’t represent the name of Jesus or convey that he is the Savior of the world. The term is merely an invention by English speakers to assign meaning to the letters.
Similarly, some Christians use the letters A.D. to mean “after death” to mark any historical point that occurred after Jesus died on the cross. However, A.D. doesn’t mean “after death” even in Latin. Instead, the letters stand for “anno Domini,” which is a Medieval Latin phrase meaning “in the year of the Lord.”
We have Jesus as our companion
The Jesuits, also called The Society of Jesus, is an order of the Roman Catholic Church, founded in the 16th century by Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, and others to increase the effectiveness of their missionary work. The Jesuits sometimes used the letters IHS to convey the Latin phrase Jesum Habermus Socium, which means “Jesus our compassion.”
Jesus, Savior of Men
Another use of the letters IHS, from the Latin phrase Iesus Hominum Salvator, means “Jesus, Savior of Men.” It’s unclear where this use originated. 
Why did Christians first start using IHS?
Though IHS stands for Greek letters, it was first used when the primary language of the Christian church was Latin. One of the first places it was found was in Codex Bezae.
The Codex Bezae is a book comprised of sections of the New Testament that dates to the 5th century. It includes sections of the Gospels, Acts, and 3 John. The IHS emblem appears in the Gospel of Luke.
Why is Christianity rich in symbolism?
Christianity has many symbols, emblems, and visual representations. Early Christians used symbols for different reasons.
Communication among the illiterate: Some Christians, especially those who lived in poverty and weren’t educated, were illiterate, so while reading words wasn’t an option. Instead, they could see a symbol like a cross and know that a book, a building, or a person (e.g. who was wearing jewelry), was a follower of Jesus like they were.
Communication among the persecuted: During times of heavy persecution in the Roman Empire, Christians would identify themselves through symbols that were unknown to the civil authorities.
One scholar explains that the Ichthys (i.e. fish) symbol was “initially used as a secret sign during the time when Christians were persecuted by the Roman authorities, the fish symbolized the mission of the group it represented and did so simply and effectively.”  (cf. Mark 1:17, “I will make you fishers of men.”)
Other Christian symbols include, but are not limited to:
- Fish (Ichthys)
- The Greek letters Alpha and Omega
- The Greek letters Chi and Rho
- IH monogram
- IX monogram
- Bread and wine
- A crown of thorns
 The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. F.L. Cross, Ed. p. 690.
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