Burning Questions on the Issue of Cremation – A follow-up to “A Scriptural Defense of Cremation”

The previous article, “A Scriptural Defense of Cremation”, stirred many excellent comments and questions. Since many of the same questions were asked many times, it seemed like a good idea to take a close look at them in response. The following questions are a compilation of the similar type questions:

Question 1 – What is wrong with cremation since God is all-powerful and could do anything He wants to do? You are limiting God! He could resurrect ashes just as easily as he could bones. What about people who die in fires or airplane crashes? Are you saying they can’t be saved because they were burned up?

Response 1 – I would absolutely agree that God is not limited. He can do whatever He thinks best. The issue is not about what God can do. The issue is about our choices. Clearly, people who are burned up in tragic accidents did not make that choice and our God is perfectly able to resurrect them. That is not the issue. With cremation, we are making a decision that is not found in the Bible or in the entire history of Christianity until the 20th century. How could it now be okay for Christians? “Everyone is doing it” is not an appropriate answer to that question unless we really want to open up “Pandora’s box” within Christianity.

Some people say that because God is able to resurrect ashes, He gives us permission to be cremated. This is a very flawed argument, especially since cremation is not supported by the Bible or historical Christianity in any way. It would be along the same lines as the argument St. Paul provides in Romans 5 and 6. He writes that “Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more. What shall we say then? Shall we continue to sin that grace may abound? Certainly not!” (Roman 5:20-6:2)

 

Again, the “doctrine” of cremation is not about what God can do. It is solely about our decision making. Who are we to decide that it is okay with God to burn up a human body? Remember that when God created human beings He said: “It is very good!” (Genesis 1:31) Remember that we are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27). Remember that if you are “in Christ,” your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and, in the next verse, we are told to “honor God with your body!” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)  Could deciding to burn up your body truly honor God?

God does have guidelines for us as to how we should live, worship, etc. These have been in place over the centuries. Historically, the Christian Church buried folks because of the belief in the bodily resurrection. The Old Testament has a passage entitled: The Valley of Dry Bones (note that it is not the “Valley of Ashes”). It is found in Ezekiel 37:1-14. Listen to these words from verses 4-6: “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!  Thus says the Lord God to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.”’” At the end of that passage, God even clarifies further in verses 13-14: “Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live!”

One final thought on why we bury the body and do not cremate it. Again, looking at the Bible, consider this from 1 Thessalonians 5:23:  “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ!”  It really is a package deal! The body is not some separate entity that we can simply burn up as a useless piece of garbage. It is important to God and it should be important to each of His children.

Question 2 – I don’t get it. If there is nothing left of your body after decay, why would it matter whether you are buried or cremated? After all, the disposal of a soulless, lifeless body has nothing to do with the Bible anyway.

Response 2 – I would totally disagree with that last statement. The Bible has to do with all of life and death. One cannot hold to a “doctrine” of cremation and simply ignore everything the Bible has to say about the human body in death. To call a human body that has died “soulless” is a total misunderstanding of the Bible and the Christian Faith that has been followed for almost 2000 years now.

There are many, many things we “don’t get” in the Christian Faith and that is actually a very good thing. When it comes to the body being buried, St. Paul explains some of this to us in 1 Corinthians 15. He compares our bodily burial to a seed (verses 36-38):  “But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body.” I love this comparison since I like planting flowers. If I look closely at a marigold seed and then plant it in the ground, what comes up looks absolutely nothing like that seed. St. Paul is saying that about our bodies. We have no idea what our glorified body will look like. That is truly something we “don’t get” in this amazing Faith.

St. Paul goes on to say (verses 42-44):  “So also is the resurrection of the dead. “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.  It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.”  St. Paul finishes up with this amazing word for us (verse 52): “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”  Our body is sown; not ashes, but our body. Just like the seed, we will plant a natural body and we will receive a spiritual body. The body that is raised will be incorruptible. Again, this is way beyond our understanding.

Question 3 – But Father, it is cheaper to have the body cremated, so why shouldn’t we save our loved ones some money? I’m afraid financial considerations have become the single criterion for most of us and having a settled, faithful opinion about cremation isn’t even in our sights.

Response 3 – Please, please look into the price of a burial done without embalming and with a simple casket. Caskets can be ordered from many Orthodox Christian sources at a very low price compared to some of the expensive models out there. You will find that financial considerations will no longer be the driving force.

One of the reasons for writing the first article, “A Scriptural Defense of Cremation”, was that the non-Scriptural basis of cremation was not “in the sights” of far too many Christians. It is hoped that readers will understand that the Bible does not support cremation in any way whatsoever. Christians who tell me they do their best to live according to the Bible should be questioning where this doctrine of cremation crept into Christianity. It was never held by our Christian Faith until well into the 20th century. This also should raise concerns.

Lastly, Christians should never allow money to guide theology. Make no mistake about this issue being about theology. It has everything to do with our beliefs regarding who we are as Christians, what happens to us at death, and what takes place at the resurrection of the dead.

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A Scriptural Defense of Cremation

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In the town where I live, funerals have become rather rare. I hear this is true throughout our country. People now have a “Celebration of Life” with lots of pictures of the deceased person and sometimes a cremation urn will be present. Cremation has become the norm for most Christians in our country. It has replaced the funeral and the burial of the body of the deceased.

This has occurred with almost no debate about the issue of cremation. It has become an accepted doctrine of most Protestant groups (It also is fully accepted by the Roman Catholic Church). Almost every Protestant statement of faith begins with something like this:

“The Bible is the inspired Word of God, free from error, and is therefore the final authoritative guide for faith and conduct.”

Putting this in simpler terms, most Protestants would simply say that they stand on the Word of God alone. With that as a foundation, here then is a defense of cremation taken only from the Bible.

First, since cremation is the burning up of the body, let us consider some of the verses dealing with the burning of bodies in the Bible. As you will see, the Bible is filled with great examples:

  • Genesis 19 – God burned up the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • Leviticus 10 – God burned up Nadab and Abihu.
  • Leviticus 20:14 – A man who marries both a woman and her mother should be burned with fire.
  • Leviticus 21:9 – The daughter of a priest who becomes a prostitute should be burned fire.
  • Numbers 11 – God burned up some people for complaining against Him.
  • Numbers 16 – God burned up 250 men with Korah who rebelled against Moses.
  • Deuteronomy 12:29-31 – Nearby nations were burning their sons and daughters in the fire as a sacrifice to their gods. God forbid His people from doing this, but it does show that others were doing it. Haven’t you heard: “Everyone is doing it!”
  • Deuteronomy 18:10 – Even though God forbids His people, again we find that entire nations were sacrificing their sons and daughters in the fire.
  • Joshua 7:25 – Joshua had Achan and all his family stoned and then burned them up because of the sin Achan had committed.
  • Judges 9 – Abimelech burned up about 1,000 men and women in the tower of Shechem (Things didn’t go well for Abimelech right after that).
  • Judges 15:6 – The Philistines burned up Samson’s wife and her father.
  • 1 Kings 16:18 – Zimri burned up himself after things went bad for him.
  • 2 Kings 1 – The prophet Elijah called down fire and burned up the captains and their 50 soldiers (This happened two times).
  • 2 Kings 16 – King Ahaz cremated his own son (It was an abomination to God, but it was done).
  • 2 Kings 17 – The children of Israel were burning up their sons and daughters as offerings to other gods.
  • 2 Kings 21 – King Manasseh cremated his own son (It was an abomination to God, but it was done).

This brings us to the Major and Minor Prophets of the Bible who did mention cremation quite a few times, but since it was all in a rather negative light, we will not cite each passage. So let’s move on to the New Testament:

  • Matthew 18:41-42 – Jesus actually mentions casting people into the furnace of fire (which sounds like a crematorium).
  • Matthew 25:41 – Jesus does speak of an everlasting fire which certain ones will be cast into.
  • Mark 9 – Several times, Jesus mentions a fire that never goes out that some could be thrown into.
  • Luke 12:49 – Jesus said that He came to send fire on the earth. This may not be an actual reference to cremation, but could be used out of context.
  • John 15:6 – Jesus talks about throwing those who do not abide in Him into the fire to be burned up.
  • 1 Corinthians 3 – Our works will be tested by fire. Could this be a reference to cremation? Rats, that passage is about the Church, not individuals.
  • 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 – The Lord will take vengeance with flaming fire on the disobedient.
  • Hebrews 12:29 – A very strong witness for cremation: “Our God is a consuming fire.”
  • 1 Peter 1:7 – Our faith will be tested by fire (compare with 1 Corinthians 3 above for the continuing debate regarding works vs faith).
  • 2 Peter 3:12 – In the end, looks like everything gets cremated anyway.
  • Jude – More thoughts on the vengeance of eternal fire.
  • Revelation – Almost every chapter has something in it about fire. Suffice it to say, there will be some kind of everlasting cremation going on.

“If the Bible says it, it is good enough for me!” Clearly, the Bible shows that that even God practiced cremation. Some of the Kings in the Bible practiced cremation. The nations mentioned in the Bible often practiced cremation. Furthermore, the Bible points out that there is actually some sort of eternal cremation available.

But wait, these are all rather negative references toward the practice of cremation. In fact, I honestly couldn’t find one verse in which God blessed the practice of cremation. Perhaps we should take a different approach to the Biblical concept of cremation.

WWJD – “What Would Jesus Do?” This phrase has certainly impacted the Christian world and perhaps we can use it to look at this widely accepted doctrine of cremation.

The greatest miracle in the ministry of Jesus occurred with the person of Lazarus. He had been dead for 4 days when Jesus raised him from the dead. Oops, my mistake, if Lazarus had been cremated, that wouldn’t have occurred.

Jesus Himself died. Hmmm…He wasn’t cremated either. If fact, when He rose from the dead, he did have a body, ate food, and insisted on being touched. Bummer, that won’t work either.

Instead of that, what about taking a look at what St. Paul taught. He wrote a lot of stuff in the New Testament. He talked pretty seriously about death in 1 Corinthians. Let’s take a quick look at chapter 15. In discussing the resurrection from the dead (which we are all interested in), he only talks about the body. He speaks of the body as if it were a seed planted in the ground which will eventually be raised. Earlier in chapter 6, St. Paul talks about our bodies actually being the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Hmmm, there is no mention of cremation by St. Paul. But, a fair question to ask at this point is: “Doesn’t the Holy Spirit simply leave the body of a believer after death?”

There is one passage of the Bible does come to mind regarding that question. In 2 Kings 13:20, we are told that the prophet Elisha died and was buried.  Well, let’s let the Bible speak for itself here:

“Then Elisha died, and they buried him. And the raiding bands from Moab invaded the land in the spring of the year. So it was, as they were burying a man, that suddenly they spied a band of raiders; and they put the man in the tomb of Elisha; and when the man was let down and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.”

The bones of Elisha still contained the Holy Spirit so that a dead man was brought back to life. Wow, if he had been cremated and his ashes scattered over the Jordan River, that miracle would have never taken place.

I confess to you the reader that I have failed miserably in giving a Scriptural defense for the practice of cremation. That does raise the question about why so many Christians are practicing something that is actually condemned in the Bible if they truly believe in their statement of faith:  “The Bible is the inspired Word of God, free from error, and is therefore the final authoritative guide for faith and conduct.”

What is guiding this doctrine of cremation? Please don’t tell me: “Everyone is doing it!”