Friday, November 8, 2013

What does the Bible Say about Cremation?

Cremation has become an increasingly popular option for believers and unbelievers alike. Yet for much of history, cremation has been avoided and discouraged by most Christians. The question that needs to be asked is “what does the Bible say about cremation?” What pattern is found in the Bible should be our concern more than what is the common practice around us or what is the most economical way to dispose of our earthly bodies.

I'd like to suggest that as Christians we begin to address this issue by considering three questions:

1. What is the Biblical Pattern?
In the very beginning of the Bible we read, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Throughout the Scriptures people were often buried in caves (Abraham and a number of his decedents, Genesis 25:9) or in chambers cut out of the face of a rock cliff (Lazarus and the Lord Jesus in the tomb of a rich man, John 11:38, 19:41). History clearly tells us that many Christians were thrown to hungry lions and eaten or burned alive from torches by the Roman Emperor Nero. We learn from Deuteronomy 21:23 that the body was to be buried. 

There are four passing references to cremation in the Bible worth considering (Joshua 7:25, 1 Samuel 31:11-12, Amos 2:1-3, 6:6-11). 

In 1 Sam. 31:9-13, the men of Jabesh-gilead are said to have "burned" the bodies of Saul and his sons. Afterward, they buried their bones. 1 Samuel 31 describes how Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle and the Philistines mutilated their bodies. "And when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard of that which the Philistines had done to Saul; All the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Bethshan, and came to Jabesh, and burnt them there. And they took their bones, and buried them under a tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days." (1 Sam. 31:11-13) Here we have Jonathan: a godly man who was cremated and, although God is the only judge, it's pretty safe to say that he will be in God's heavenly kingdom. In another instance, Achan and his family were cremated after being executed for sinning against Israel (Josh 7:25). In Amos we see that what took place was a sin of rebellion because it displayed disrespect for the dead. Each of these instances were situations surrounded by humiliation and disgrace. 

So, how should one consider this final act of honor for the deceased? Joseph, the Prime Minister of Egypt, was mummified and preserved by the traditions for the “great ones” of his time (Genesis 50:26). Jacob his father also was given the burial rites of the Egyptians of that time with great honor and ceremony (Genesis 50:2-13).

What does the Bible says about this “house” or body we live in while we are alive? What becomes of it when we die? Scripture compares our life to a “vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14): like a flower that fades away; …a shadow that does not continue” (Job 14:2). God said to Adam and Eve after they sinned by taking and eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, you shall “return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Solomon wrote, “Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal….All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return." (Ecclesiastes 3:19-21). 

The apostle John wrote, "The custom of the Jews is to bury" (John 19:40). We read throughout Scripture of those who were buried, not cremated, including: Rachel (Gen. 35:19-20), Joseph (Gen. 50:25, Ex 13:19, Josh 24:32), Aaron (Deut. 10:6), Moses (Deut.34:5-8), Joshua (24:30), Samuel (1 Sam. 25:1), David (1 Kings 2:10), John the Baptist (Mt. 14:12), Lazarus (Jn. 11:17-18), Stephen (Acts 8:2), and, of course, Jesus Christ (Jn. 19:38-42). Burying the body was the standard practice among the Israelites in the Old Testament and Christians in the New. 

Another thought to consider is that 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.

2. Which Method Best Demonstrates Love of God and Love of Neighbor?
Scripture teaches us that love of God and love of others (even deceased others) is a mark of Christ-like character (Jn. 11:1-44). So which method of interment best demonstrates love of God and of neighbor? Assuming the body of the decedent itself should be respected and shown neighbor-love by those choosing the interment procedure, including the person making plans for interring his or her own body. Among doctrines that shape and inform such neighbor-love toward a corpse, including one's own, are the dignity of the human body and the future bodily resurrection.

The dignity of the human body is supported by such biblical teachings as God's "very good" (Gen. 1:31) creation, humanity made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), the incarnation of Christ (Heb. 2:14), and the redemption of the human body (Rom. 8:23). Likewise, the future bodily resurrection is taught in passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:35-49 and Philippians 3:20-21. Note, too, that in Scripture buried corpses are referred to as persons, often by name, not as things or former persons (Mark 15:45-46, Jn. 11:43). The most prevalent word used in the New Testament to describe the death of a believer is "sleep," a term employed by both Jesus (Mt. 9:24 Mk. 5:39, Lk. 8:54; Jn. 11:11) and Paul (1 Cor. 11:30, 15:6, 18, 20, 51, 2 Cor. 5:6-8, 1 Thess. 4:13-16).

In view of these passages, we understand the body is more than just a temporary shell inhabited for a season. The real "me" has both material and also immaterial components. Man is a being with a spirit, soul, and body. Though at death the human body no longer houses a soul and spirit, the body nonetheless needs to be shown respect and dignity. Just as the soul and spirit is renewed at conversion (2 Cor. 5:17), so the physical body will be renewed and reunited with the soul and spirit at the end of the age (1 Jn. 3:2, Rom. 8:23). Such understanding begins to give moral direction to the ethics of cremation.

3. Which Method Would Bring the Most Glory to God?
The main options to dispose of the bodies of a love one available most are cremation and burial. For a variety of reasons, those facing this decision may lean more toward one option or the other, yet rarely is the glory of God cited as a rationale. Rather, funerary choices are usually based on factors such as expense, environmental concern, and ease of transportation, among other pragmatic rationales. Again, the cheapest or easiest option isn't always (or even usually) the path that brings the most glory to God.

From Biblical times until the middle of the 19th century, the church was nearly united in the view that burial brings the most glory to God. Believers have reasoned that burial best reflects proper stewardship of the body and the divine value in the material world most visibly depicts the gospel message, most clearly communicates the hope of future bodily resurrection. 

Believers open to cremation would be wise to carefully consider the practice and evaluate it in light of God's Word. After all, the funeral of a Christian is not simply a way of disposing of dead bodies, nor are they about remembering the departed or expressing grief. Rather, for believers, funerals ought to be Christ-centered events, testifying throughout to the message and hope of the gospel.

What are we waiting for?
Christian’s realize that death is not the end of the body! I find it interesting to learn that the very Greek word “Koimeterion,” where we get our word “cemetery” from, means a “rest house for strangers” or a “sleeping house.” It was often used to describe an Inn or a hotel, places where you spend the night to sleep expecting to get up the next day to continue your journey! This is a picture of the place where you and I bury our saved loved ones. The Scriptures teach in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 that the body of a Believer is put into a sleeping place until the resurrection because the Lord is coming and the body is going to be raised up. It is important to note that it is the body not the soul that is in the ground. The soul is eternal. It never sleeps or dies, but goes directly to heaven when released from the body (2 Corinthians 5:8). 

When we bury someone who knows Christ, we have the confidence that we will see them again. When the Lord Jesus returns the second time to take his people home, we will all be changed. “Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, (die) but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:51-55). Paul takes the time to tell us that just as a seed that dies when put in the ground becomes a new plant with a different structure or body (1 Corinthians 15:37-38) so we will have a new body given to us by our Lord, a glorious one (1 Corinthians 15:42-49). In fact, it will be much like Christ's glorified body (Philippians 3:21, 1 John 3:2). What was Jesus like after his resurrection? The Bible tells us that He could disappear before our very eyes (Luke 24:31), yet at the same time, He had "flesh and bones" like us (Luke 24:39-42). 

Burial is a testimony of our faith. The Bible clearly teaches that both saved and unsaved will be resurrected. Those who are not caught up to be with Christ at the Rapture will be resurrected latter according to Revelation 20. In Revelation 20:6 it says, “Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.” Then speaking of those who are not believers we read in verses 11-15, “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.” This is a solemn and terrible future for those who reject the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior.

But for those who have accepted the Lord Jesus as Lord and Savior, He has promised and prepared us a home and is going to return for us whether we pass from this life or are alive when He returns! Are you prepared to meet Him?

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