As a pastor I was often asked about cremation. It’s a good question.
We believe all Scripture is breathed out by God to adequately equip us for every good work (2 Tim 3.16-17). How we care for the body at death falls within the realm of “every good work.” Therefore, Scripture adequately equips us to answer this question.
What should Christians think about cremation? Should we think about it? Is it simply a matter of individual Christian liberty or prudent financial stewardship? Or, should we consider it more deeply as a theological issue?
This issue certainly isn’t one to threaten Christian fellowship. Many biblical convictions should come with sufficient latitude for gracious disagreement or personal reconsideration. That said, I will insist on being buried, unless providentially hindered, because I think it best reflects biblical teaching. Cremation is not sin but it might strain important biblical principles.
I say “unless providentially hindered” because God may not allow me (or my family) the option. Space Shuttles explode, planes crash in oceans, nuclear happens. Homeowners sleep until they suffocate beyond recognition inside their burning house. Terrorists fly planes into buildings and immediately incinerate bodies. So there are certainly occasions when burial is impossible because there is no body to inter. However, we leave such occasions to God’s sovereign hand knowing the biblical principles encourage burial.
First, some preliminary questions. If God promises we return to dust anyway (Gen 3.19) then how could cremation be a strain on biblical principles? Didn’t God himself ordained the decomposition of our bodies? Doesn’t cremation simply accelerate the process God has already ordained for sinners? Be it natural decomposition or cremation, don’t our bodies become dusty anyway? After all, wouldn’t we want to relieve unnecessary financial burden on our families?
To that end, God also promises that we will all die one day due to sin, but are we to accelerate that process as well? Since we’re all going to die anyway should we all hasten our own deaths? After all, it would be cheaper if we died sooner than later so why not alleviate unnecessary financial burden? Of course not.
God promises inscrutable judgment on all his enemies, who will suffer eternally, painfully and consciously for eternity. Are we to accelerate that process by exercising vigilante justice against all nonChristians? If God has promised to judge all his enemies anyway then why not get a head start on what God is already going to do anyway? May it never be!
Although God has promised certain things we also trust him to work out those promises according to his own will. And if the normative way God has promised that we “return to dust” is through natural decomposition then we let God have his way.
That said, I humbly offer the following five reasons why I intend to be buried unless providentially hindered.
1. God values the body as much as the soul. God created Adam and Eve with physical bodies that were very good. To be human is to be both body and soul, material and immaterial. We should cry “Foul!” when we see a soulless corpse in a bejeweled casket festooned by flowers. There is something fundamentally wrong with a soulless body, or a body-less soul. Our sin has cleaved what otherwise should be inseparable. Death de-humanizes us.
That’s why, along with all of creation itself, “we ourselves, having the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom 8.23, emphasis mine). The souls of Christians now in heaven are crying out, “O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on the hose who dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6.9-11). Even in heaven, right now, there is still a sense of groaning, a realization that all is not yet right. And it will only be right when the bodies of God’s people are reunited with their souls for eternity.
Our Christian loved ones who’ve died are indeed in a “better place” but it’s not yet the best place. There is still something wrong. God must still do something to complete what he started in Christ. They still need their bodies back if they’re to be truly human again (or for the first time!).
Those espousing cremation often do so with good intentions, but to the detriment of a well-rounded biblical theology of what it means to be human. Many would say, “Man, this body is just an old carcass anyway, the real me will be with Jesus. So I don’t care what you do with my body, it’s the spirit that really matters.” That is a gnostic, Manichaen view of humanity that considers the spirit the “real” part of our humanity and our bodies a shell to house it. Yet, this is neither how God created us nor how we are to interpret our deaths. We are not animals. We are children.
Our physical bodies aren’t “disposable wrappers” but are part and parcel of what it means to be human. If God was only concerned with our souls then Jesus’ resurrection was irrelevant as would be the hope in our own. More on this in a later.
God wove a profound care for the body into the fabric of Israel’s life. “Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones up from here'” (Gen 50.25). And five hundred years later we read, “they buried the bones of Joseph, which the sons of Israel brought up from Egypt, at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for one hundred pieces of money; and they became the inheritance of Joseph’s sons” (Josh 24.32). They honored Joseph’s body by preserving what could be preserved of it (undoubtedly naturally decomposed!) for five hundred years until they could bury it honorably with his people in their land. We should consider if incinerating the body in days for the sake of expediency and cost is a best use of the gospel.
If, in redeeming humanity, God needed only to redeem the soul then there was no reason for Christ’s incarnation (much less a bodily resurrection!). Yet, as it is, “human” is to be both body and soul, material and immaterial. Therefore, there is no redemption of any human that does not also involve redemption of the human body. Hence, “since the children share in flesh and blood, [Jesus] likewise partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2.14-15). Jesus came to reverse the curse of sin for all those who believe in him. That curse involved the physical death of the body as well as the estrangement of the soul from God; therefore, Jesus came not only to redeem souls from slavery to sin but sin-enslaved bodies as well.
God created us wholistic beings and as such values the body as much as the soul. So much so that he came to us in “flesh and blood” not merely so that our spirits “go to heaven when we die,” but so that He “will also give life to [our] mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in [us]” (Rom 8.11).
I want to be buried because God values my soul and my body. He sent Jesus in bodily form so that this earthly “tent” will one day be raised in Christ’s glory (2 Cor 5.4). God isn’t throwing my body out like an old carcass but lets it sleep until he wakes it up to eternal life (1 Cor 15.42-49). I hope you’ll be groaning with me at my funeral. I may look peaceful in that casket, but I’ll be crying out for the avenging power of God to crush Satan and demand the grave give me back my body. God be praised Jesus has already removed the stone.
Read Part 2.