Dr Jim McClure, noted theologian, considers a touchy (to some) choice…
What a sombre topic!
I have just returned from a funeral and listened again to the familiar scriptural words that are frequently quoted at a Christian funeral.
During the service I thought of a question I was asked a few weeks ago about the rightness of burial over cremation. Eventually we will all be confronted by this choice concerning loved ones.
Arguments in favour of burial
There are many Christians who would adamantly assert that burial is unquestionably the correct way to dispose of a body.
(i) Some biblical arguments
- The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, makes many references to the death and subsequent burial of many of the important characters.
- There is not one biblical text that argues in favour of cremation.
- John Piper makes this point, ‘The main issue was the message of the symbolism about the preciousness of the body now, and the glory of the body at the resurrection. The double symbolism of sowing seed, as though ready to sprout, and laying to rest, as though ready to waken, was the main reason Christians have buried their dead and provided burial for those who could not afford it.’
- Cremation involves the deliberate destruction of what God has designed and destined for us. ‘The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable’ (1 Corinthians 15:42). This verse implies burial of the body. In other words, how will the body be raised if there is no body to raise?
(ii) Some emotional arguments
- It is dishonouring to a loved one to dispense with his or her body in such an uncaring way.
- As Christians associate fire with judgment (2 Peter 3:7), this symbol does not seem appropriate when disposing of a body.
Are those arguments conclusive?
The above arguments in favour of burial over cremation are not decisive. While some of them may appear to be convincing, an examination of the facts raises theological issues that weaken the view that burial is the only method for the disposal of the body that has biblical validation.
Consider, for example, the idea that burial is fundamentally important for acquiring an eternal resurrection body. What about those …
- … whose bodies have been blown asunder on the battlefield? Will a glorious body be withheld from them?
- … whose bodies have been lost at sea and eaten by various sea creatures and scattered on the seabed. Have they missed out on the opportunity to receive a brand new permanent body?
- … whose bodies have suffered various illnesses and have had to undergo many amputations? Will they fail to enter into the joy of a whole, new, perfect body because they were incomplete when they died?
- … whose bodies have been turned to dust via the process of cremation? Will they be denied the resurrection experience because their complete body was not interred? In fact our bodies will inevitably all return to dust, either slowly when buried or quickly when cremated! God said to Adam, ‘dust you are and to dust you will return’ (Genesis 3:19). That is a fact!
There are, of course, many other such scenarios which question the conclusion that the bodies of Christians must invariably – or preferably – be buried in order to align with what is wrongly considered to be the ‘right’ biblical position on this matter.
What the Bible actually teaches
This is not the place to give a detailed and systematic thesis on the subject of the biblical teaching on the topic of the disposal of the Christian’s body, but I want to mention some solid and unambiguous New Testament teaching on the subject.
Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:1, ‘Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.’
It is interesting to note that Paul particularly included word ‘earthly’ in reference to our bodies in this sentence. He was emphasising that our bodies belong to the earth and that this is the arena in which we live for a time. Paul then used the word ‘tent’ which in Greek is skēnos and it refers to a temporary residence. In this verse Paul was strikingly contrasting our temporary earthly tent with the future ‘eternal house in heaven.’
He was clearly teaching that our bodies are important for us as long as we live. Once we have no further use of them, we can move out of our impermanent residence and into the permanent one that God will give us! The acquiring of that eternal house is not dependent on our having a complete earthly tent to exchange for it! It is because we have no longer any use for the tent that God freely gives us a house!
Paul also wrote, ‘… the splendour of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendour of the earthly bodies is another’ 1 Corinthians 15:40). On that wonderful day when Christ returns, we will be given a magnificent spiritual body to replace our natural body (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).
The bottom line
The implication is that we need to grasp is this – our earthly bodies are dispensable! They were designed by God to be so! Regardless of what happens to our earthly bodies, God has promised to provide us with a wholly new heavenly one. That’s a great deal!
In Romans 8:38-39 Paul triumphantly affirms, ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
That is our glorious future if we belong to the family of God through Jesus Christ.
The bottom line is this – whether the body is cremated or buried is theologically irrelevant. It is a matter of personal choice.
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
In his well-researched Grace Revisited he reveals grace as having a strong active meaning and is like a many faceted diamond out of which shines a greater understanding of the great God we worship. Normally $35 but now offered free by Dr Jim in EPUB and MOBI versions to anyone who contacts him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ah, yes. Dr Jim McClure has ‘cleared the air’ on this matter by showing that how the body of a believer is disposed of after death is not a matter of scriptural relevance or importance. There is no command to bury, and no forbidding of cremation. This should help anyone who might be troubled because of the clear – but in my view unsupportable – stand by some writers that burial is preferable… or required.