Ask the Pastor: What About Cremation?
Don’t forget to submit your Bible questions to us – firstname.lastname@example.org or in the “Question Box” outside the sanctuary.)
One question submitted this week by a congregation member:
What does the Bible say about cremation?
During the days of Jesus, it was very common for the Romans and Greeks to cremate the bodies of the dead. This was especially true of the wealthy and more powerful classes.
In contrast, the Jews of the day were against this practice. The Mishnah, a Jewish book of oral teachings of famous rabbis, says:
Every death which is accompanied by burning is looked upon as idolatry (‘Ab. Zarah i. 3).
Tacitus, the Roman historian of the first century, also noted of the Jews: “Prefer to bury and not burn their dead” (Volume 2 – page 298).
As Christianity took root in the first century over the Roman world, the same thoughts about cremation were apparent in early church traditions. This great disparity between the Christians and the secular government they lived under opened opportunities to share the Gospel. Over the centuries, the critical view of cremation remained associated with pagan practices.
What about today? Within the last two hundred years, the Roman Catholic Church stated in the Catholic Catechism on paragraph 2301:
Autopsies can be morally permitted for legal inquests or scientific research. The free gift of organs after death is legitimate and can be meritorious. The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.
Protestants, on the other hand, have various opinions on the matter and are quite divided on a single answer.
Time and again, biblical characters took great care of the bodies of the deceased and did so with great respect. In Genesis 23, Abraham worked long and hard to find a place to bury Sarah, his wife. This same cave became a family cave where both Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah were buried (Gen. 25:9; 49:31; & 50:13).
Some other notable passages (just a survey – not all possible references):
- Joseph made his sons pledge to bury his bones in Promised Land of Israel (Gen. 50:25; Josh. 24:32).
- Moses was buried by God (Deut. 34:5-6).
- Joshua was buried after his death (Joshua 24:30).
- Samuel was buried in Ramah (1 Sam. 25:1).
- King David was buried in Jerusalem (1 Kings 2:10).
- Several judges were buried at the time of their death (Judges 8:32; 10:2; 12:7-15, etc.)
- John the Baptist was buried by his disciples after his beheading (Matt. 14:12).
- Lazarus was buried by his family before he was resurrected (John 11:17-18).
- Ananias and Sapphira were buried after their sin (Acts 5:8-9).
- Stephen was buried after becoming the first Christian to die (Acts 8:2).
- Of course, Jesus, our Lord and Savior, upon His death, was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38-42) to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah (53:9).
Is Cremation Mentioned Anywhere in the Bible?
- Partial cremation of Saul and his sons – 1 Samuel 31:11-13
- Other possible but more obscure references – Amos 6:8-11 and 2:1-3
Some Biblical Teachings to Consider
It should be clear from the above that the history of the Jews, the church, and the Bible itself indicates opposition to cremation. However, no chapter and verse speaks to cremation directly. We must, then, look at our biblical theology from across the whole of Scripture. Two major topics to consider:
- Created in the Image of God – The Dignity of the Body
Genesis 2:7 says that God made Adam’s body out of the dust of the earth. In Genesis 1:31, God said all He had made (which includes our first parents’ body!) “very good.” 1 Cor. 15:38 says that “God gives it a body as he has chosen.” In Isaiah 5:2a, the prophet, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, warned “those who call evil good and good evil.”
Further, Genesis 1:26-28 says:
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
There are six noteworthy aspects of this passage at a glance:
- We witness a solemn, divine council the leads to the creation of man. The personhood of human beings comes from a personal God.
- The word “create” is used three times – this repetition has the effect of being superlative to emphasize who is creating what.
- God is the direct agent of the creation of man.
- There is a comparatively large number of words used retelling the creation of man versus other parts of creation (the heavens, plants, animals, etc.).
- This is the first time poetry is used in the Bible.
- Man is created in the “image of God” – not “according to [his] own kind” as the animals are.
So what is it to be created in the image of God? God calls Adam and Eve to represent Him on earth – their purpose is to display God’s authority and glory on earth by ruling it. The Bible gives a high place to humankind as the pinnacle of creation, but at the same time mankind is in a place of great humility. We are referential creatures. Like the image in a mirror, we are not the thing itself, but a representation of it. Every human being you have ever met was created to reflect God’s image.
A new take on the Westminster Confession’s statement regarding man’s purpose:
The chief end of man is to image God’s glory by representing His rule over creation.
What is this passage’s implications regarding our identity – the essential question, “who am I?”
Being a God-imager comes before any other identification we could receive – name, family, marriage, church, profession, gender, ethnicity, nationality, etc. That is why Christians above all others reject all forms of discrimination. God Himself has crowed each person with His own authority, and for us to treat others inequitably is to place ourselves above God. Whenever we seek to justify ourselves in any way besides God’s righteousness, every form of discrimination follows. But when our justification comes from outside ourselves, there is no reason to treat anyone differently.
Human beings are images – we only reflect whatever we allow to influence us. Have you ever thought about the fact that everything you do reflects something about God?
What does the Bible say about our image-bearing through history?
- The Fall. Adam and Eve decide to not image God – they ostensibly rebelled against the very purpose of their creation (as do we, every time we sin).
- Israel. God had a plan to save and use a people for His glory. He ever calls Israel His son and defines their purpose as worshipping Him. However, Israel further demonstrates that fallen human beings, left to themselves, cannot image God’s glory rightly. There must be divine intervention.
- Christ. Jesus is identified as God’s true Son, second Person of the trinity, who is fully God and fully man. He is the image of the invisible God, because He did nothing on His own, but only as the Father did – in human flesh.
- The church. We are called to display the glory and likeness of God through corporate living and worship. We are to love one another, love our enemies, and be peacemakers.
- Glory. We will image Him most perfectly when we see Him face to face.
The fact that we are Christ-imagers is to govern everything we do. Image is everything.
Finally, Jesus lived, declared, and showed in His in His incarnation the considerable value of the human body. Thus, we are to treat the body respect and dignity. The Gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-8) indicates that Jesus’ coming in the flesh, life, death, burial, and bodily resurrection made our salvation and redemption possible (1 Cor. 15:1-8, etc.) This salvation includes each person’s physical body (Rom. 8:23), which was redeemed by Christ (1 Cor. 6:20), and is now a “member of Christ” (1 Cor. 6:15), a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19), and will someday be made into the glorious likeness of Christ’s risen body (Rom 8:11, 29; 1 Cor 15:49, etc.).
- Future Bodily Resurrection – This may also impact how we view this topic.
Job declared of this topic in 19:25-26:
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. 26 And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God,
Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 15:20
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
And John in Rev. 1:8:
and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.
There’s very little doubt or debate that the biblical teaching that true believers will be resurrected in a physical, glorified body is part of a basic biblical worldview.
Yet, the Bible doesn’t give us too many specifics or details about the event in relation to resurrection decomposed or scattered bodies of believers. Paul addresses this to some extent in 1 Cor. 15:35-58. He compares the resurrection to a seed being planted in the ground. The death and burial of the body seems to be in line with seed that will be sown for a future harvest. But we’d be wise, it seems, to not steer the direction of the silent conversation to the procedure and supernatural happens.
Lastly, it is worth noting that the Bible never indicates that those are cremated or burned (perhaps in a house fire or war or something else) won’t be part of the resurrection of believers. The resurrection is promised to all who are in Christ (Rom. 6:5; 1 Cor. 15), regardless how the person died or the treatment of a person’s body.
Certainly, though, as we look at cremation or any other issue we may face as Christians in this life, how we view the Word of God and its theology will shape how we handle and approach life’s events, including our bodies.
So, what should we do?
At least three summary points can be made:
First, the Bible is quiet on particulars of how to handle the deceased. However, from what we saw from the model of biblical persons and similar passages it seems to suggest a positive-burial path.
Second, from history we saw that Jewish and church history established substantial resistance toward cremation itself. The normal practice seemed to be burial.
Finally, as we saw, the body is created in the image of God and is important in God’s plan and economy. Any action done or symbolism depicted in how you handle the deceased should be carefully considered.
Indeed, each death is different and unique. Each death may not allow family or friends of the deceased to choose how their loved one is interned. Variables like family finances, national rules, where and how the person died, etc.
However, if a person is able to decide under normal circumstances, he or she (or loved ones) ought to judiciously examine what is being said in the handling of the body. From a Christian worldview, funerals aren’t just a way to dispose of dead bodies or celebrating and remembering a life (though we certainly do these things!). Overall, for true Christians, a funeral should be Christ-honoring, Gospel-centered events that speak the message and hope found only in Jesus Christ.
Closing Thoughts from Around Christianity
Obviously any buried body will eventually decompose (Eccles. 12:7). So cremation isn’t a strange or wrong practice-it merely accelerates the natural process of oxidation. The believer will one day receive a new body (1 Cor. 15:42-49; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Job 19:25-26), thus the state of what remains of the old body is unimportant.
The imagery of Christ’s resurrection pictures burial and then a raising up from the dead (Rom. 6:3-5; 1 Cor. 15:3-4). Because of that, many Christians prefer burial to cremation to maintain a likeness to Christ’s burial (although literally He was laid in state in a cave, not buried in the ground).
What we need to focus on as Christians is not how to dispose of our earthly bodies, but that one day new bodies will be fashioned for us like our Lord’s glorious resurrection body (see Phil. 3:21; cf. Luke 24:30-40; John 20:19, 26; 21:1-14; and Acts 1:1-9 to get an idea of what to look forward to). That transformation will be eternal!
Anytime we consider how our behavior communicates we need to be careful. On the one hand we don’t want to be Gnostic enough to suggest that our bodies, and how we treat them are meaningless and communicate nothing. On the other hand this does not mean that anyone who ever approved or requested a cremation has self-consciously denied the gospel and affirmed Gnosticism. Of course buried bodies decompose. And of course, better still, cremated bodies will in fact be resurrected. Nothing we do can undo the promises of God and the glory of the resurrection. Balance, however, suggests that we think through our behavior, that we think deliberately. Balance also suggests that we ought to honor our fathers who gave us this liturgy in the first place.
One cannot say that cremation is a sin. One might say that burial better reflects the biblical perspective on life, death and the body. One can say with certainty that Christ will come again, and our bodies will be raised again, never to die again.