Tag Archives: Bible

Should Christians Be Cremated?

I was recently asked what seems to be an oft-asked question for pastors; the question is: Is cremation an appropriate method for Christians to deal with the body after death? I say that this is an oft-asked question, because it is an oft-answered question, the answers themselves being rather varied. Thus, the first reality we must recognize is the reality behind the varied answers: the Bible does not give a clear-cut command when it comes to this issue. Nowhere in Scripture do we see burial commanded or cremation forbidden. Thus, from the outset, we must be clear that it would be somewhat presumptuous to forbid something that is not clearly forbidden in Scripture; if Scripture is our rule of faith and practice, we must not add to it, nor take away from it.

That being said, though the Scriptures do not clearly command or forbid one way or the other, the Bible does have a great deal to say about the practice of the burial of the dead, the body, and other issues that should certainly influence how we answer the question.

  1. First, it’s necessary that we acknowledge that, in Scripture, the normative practice of disposal of the bodies of the dead is burial. We see this practiced in both the Old Testament and the New. In Genesis 23, for example, we see that Abraham buries Sarah in a cave in a field he had purchased from the Hittites. “After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites.” (Gen. 23:19-20). Abraham would likewise be buried in this cave after his death (Gen. 25:9-10). Isaac was buried (Gen. 35:29); Jacob was buried (Gen. 50:12); Joseph was embalmed by the Egyptians and put in a coffin (Gen. 50:26), but was later disinterred, as it were (Ex. 13:19), and his bones were carried to the Promised Land and buried in Shechem (Josh. 24:32). Thus, all of the Patriarchs were buried. Moses was buried (Deut. 34:5); Joshua was buried (Judg. 2:9); Samuel was buried (1 Sam. 25:1); David was buried (1 Kgs. 2:10). More examples could be given, but those given should suffice to show that in the Old Testament, the normal practice was burial, not cremation. Likewise, when we come to the New Testament, we see that burial is still the normal practice for the people of God. Of course, the most famous of burials is that of our Lord Jesus Christ in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea; we will discuss this in more detail in a moment. There are more burials in the Gospels and also in Acts. For example, Lazarus of Bethany was buried, though he would be later raised from the dead by Jesus (John 11:17). The dead son of the widow of Nain was being carried out of the city, likely to be buried in the tombs (Luke 7:12). The rich man in Jesus’ parable which is usually entitled “The Rich Man and Lazarus”, was buried (Luke 16:22). The thirty pieces of silver that Judas returned to the chief priests and elders was used to buy “the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers.” (Matt. 27:7). Both Ananias and Sapphira, his wife, were buried (Acts 5:6,10). Stephen was buried by devout men (Acts 8:2). Thus, what is clear from the practice of the church in both the Old and New Testaments was that burial was the normative practice.
  2. Second, we must consider a biblical theology of the body. Of course, in saying this is “second”, we must be clear that it is only second in the present list, but not in importance. Indeed, the biblical view of the body was no doubt the driving force for the practice of burial in all the above-mentioned cases of burial. A creeping and ancient heresy (Gnosticism) that has resurfaced in the church today might be expressed in the following phrase: “The soul is really you, and the body is only a vessel for the soul.” In this view, the body is often seen as a kind of cage for the soul; once the body is dead, the soul is free. Thus, what happens to the body after death really doesn’t matter. But, the Bible does not view the body in this way. When human beings were created, they were created as embodied creatures (Gen. 2:5-7); indeed, as embodied creatures we are said to be made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27), and this embodiment is deemed by God to be very good (Gen. 1:31). Even before the commandment is given at Sinai (Ex. 20:13), Noah is given this injunction: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed…” Why? “…for [or because] God made man in his own image.” (Gen. 9:6). As another human being cannot kill the soul of another, but only the body (Matt. 10:28), then implied in this injunction is that the body itself, and not just the soul, images God. God sees, and so we have eyes; God hears, and so we have ears; etc. So, the body in death should be treated with the same dignity as the living body. Likewise, though it is true that we are soul-body creatures, one is not more “us” than the other. In fact, when we look at the way Scripture talks about the body after death, we see that though the soul of the believer has departed the body to be with the Lord, the body is still the person just as the soul is the person. Dr. John Frame writes, “It seems paradoxical to put it this way, but in Scripture it is not a material part of the person that lies in the grave; rather, it is the person. It is the person who returns to the dust (Gen. 3:19). While in the grave, Lazarus was Lazarus (John 11:43), Jesus was Jesus (Matt. 28:6). Jesus says, ‘An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice’ (John 5:28). So the bodies in the tombs are people, not former parts of people that have been discarded.” (John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 800). The soul is the person; the body is the person. Both are true. The person is alive in heaven with the Lord; the person is dead (or “sleeping”, as the NT puts it (1 Thess. 4:13; etc.)), in the grave. At the consummation of all things, when Christ returns, the fully sanctified souls of the dead will be reunited with their glorified and transformed resurrection bodies, just as Christ was raised bodily with the same body, though glorified. Our bodily resurrection is modeled after the bodily resurrection of our Lord Christ, the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20)! And believers will dwell bodily in the Kingdom of God on earth forever. Thus, Paul writes, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thess. 4:16).
  3. We must also consider the biblical imagery of burial. Paul writes, “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.” (1 Cor. 15:35-38). Here Paul raises the metaphor of the sowing of a seed; the seed is sown in the ground, and from that dead seed springs up wheat, etc. A few verses later, he writes, “So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 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. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” (1 Cor. 15:42-44). The imagery that is very clear is that the natural body – our bodies that have died – are like the seed which has died and is planted. From that seed springs new life! Likewise, the dead bodies that are planted, are raised in resurrection life, imperishable, glorious, etc. The imagery of sowing is of course the imagery of placing a seed in the ground. Which option better represents the imagery being used by Paul here – cremation or burial? Of course, the option is clearly burial.

Another reality with which we must reckon, though not necessarily an exegetical argument from the Scriptures, is Christian tradition. Of course, we never want to grant tradition an equal standing with Scripture; where our traditions are clearly unbiblical, they need to be reformed. However, to not acknowledge what has been the normative practice of the church for the past two millennia would verge on silliness. And the normative practice of the church for the past two thousand years (and beyond) has been to bury our dead. Augustine writes, “Nevertheless the bodies of the dead are not… to be despised and left unburied.” (Augustine, City of God, I.XIII.). A little over a century before Augustine, the Church Father Minucius Felix writes, “…we adopt the better and ancient custom of burying in the earth.” (Minucius Felix, The Octavius of Minucius Felix, XXXIV.). Clearly, the Early Church adopted the practice which they saw in Scripture, rather than the practice of burning the bodies of the dead which they saw in the paganism of Rome; burial was one way in which the Christians were differentiated from the pagans. Burial has continued as the normal practice in the church since earliest times; cremation for Christians did not become a normal practice until the last century.

Thus, in counseling someone on whether to bury or cremate, my counsel, along with the counsel of the church for the past two thousand years and the normative practice based upon the theology of the body that we see in Scripture, would be burial. That being said, because Scripture does not explicitly give direction in this matter, I would suggest that one prayerfully weigh the evidence presented here. Though I do not think cremation is a sin, necessarily, I think the Bible (and how the church has understood the Bible) tells us that cremation is not the best option.

With all that said,  I am aware of possible financial reasons for cremation instead of burial. A funeral can cost on average between $7,000 and $12,000; cremation, on the other hand, is usually several thousand dollars cheaper. For some, burial is a financial burden. Another issue is overpopulation, which might not be a problem in many places, but in a place, say, like tiny Singapore, the issue becomes a more pressing reality. These are legitimate concerns, and should be weighed as you consider one or the other. Ultimately, God can resurrect the body in ashes just as He can resurrect the body in the grave. But, given all the information above, I would counsel burial rather than cremation if possible.


 

Addendum: An historical note that should be mentioned, during the time of Christ, it was the custom, especially among the more well-to-do, to place the body in the tomb until decomposition; after decomposition of the body, the bones were collected in an ossuary (a box used to house skeletal remains) and reburied. Thus, “Joseph [of Arimathea] took the body [of Christ] and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock.” (Matt. 27:59-60a; brackets and italics added). Jesus was placed in a new tomb “where no one had ever yet been laid.” (Luke 23:53). In other words, the tomb in which Jesus was placed after death was a tomb that had not seen even an initial burial of anyone; He would have been the first to use the tomb, where His body would have been tended (Luke 24:1) until decay, after which, His bones would likely have been placed in an ossuary. But, of course, Jesus was resurrected on the third day! There was no need for an ossuary, for the Incarnate Christ lives and reigns forever!

The Bible in the Internet Age

When I was but a lad, barely a sapling in the forest of humanity, my grandmother took me to the library and acquired on my behalf what, at the time, was seemingly my ticket to the world of learning – a library card. If you were to ask about the impact of such a rite of passage on my young mind, you might see it reflected now that I have grown into a man. I have no idea how many books I have actually read in my lifetime, and my reading habits are not likely to change, as the only list bigger than the books I’ve read is the list of books I desire to read but haven’t.

And today, like many a pastor before me, I own a library. It is relatively large, and I continue to build it; at some point we may have to reinforce the floor beneath my study. But, if you were to enter my study and see the books on my wall I could tell you, in all honesty, that I have not read them all… yet. One of my mentors, a pastor from my teenage years, once allowed me to help him organize his library which had taken up a large shed in his backyard. I asked, in the wonder of a bookish sixteen-year-old, if he had read all of his many books, to which he replied, “Have you read all of yours?” I felt strangely shamed, but I got the point.

Why am I taking you on this brief trek through my personal history? Let me explain.

Today, in what is often called “the internet age”, perhaps the most widely hailed “good” is the fact that, now more than ever, information is readily accessible. The massive world of human knowledge is virtually at your fingertips. Would you like to know the population of sheep in the Falkland Islands? Google it! Would you like to take a class in writing from Stephen King? You can do that too! Would you like to learn how to speak Mandarin? You can take your pick of the websites that will teach you how. The internet is like the new library card; if you have internet access, all human knowledge is yours…

Or is it?

One thing that often gets overlooked in the internet age is the difference between the access to information and true education. It is assumed by many that because we have access to so much information, we are the most knowledgeable human beings who have ever lived; reason and experience prove the opposite.

Reason itself would tell us that having access to something does not equal full possession. I may have access to lessons on Mandarin, but if I do not take those lessons, I do not know Mandarin. Likewise, even if I take those online Mandarin courses, if I do not put my knowledge into practice, before long it will be nothing more than “something I used to know.” It will come as a shock to many who know me, but I used to know the Merengue; I’m so out of practice that I am out of knowledge – I can’t even remember what the dance actually looks like.

Experience also teaches us that having access to information does not equal knowledge. If I were to ask you how many sheep there are in the Falkland Islands, the most likely answer you would give me would be – “Hold on just a second”, as you brazenly asked your smartphone the same question. In other words, you’re ignorant; you do not have this knowledge, and thus you must ask someone else. And, I’m certain that were I to ask you the same question two weeks later, I would acquire the same response, because you didn’t really learn the answer when you looked it up the first time.

Now, I’ve spoken about learning Mandarin and the Merengue and the wooled ovine population of the tiny islands off the coast of South America. Perhaps you believe these things to be unimportant; perhaps you are correct. I could live without ever speaking Mandarin (though learning foreign languages is helpful); I’m not a dance instructor, and so I can’t imagine why the Merengue is a piece of information I need to retain; and, quite frankly, I don’t care in the least how many sheep there are in the Falkland Islands (504,620).

But what about things that are important? Questions like: “Who is God?”; “What is the purpose of my life?”; “What is right and wrong (and is there such a dichotomy in the first place)?”; “Who should I marry?”; “What happens when I die?” In these cases, the difference between access to information and real education becomes much more serious. Sadly, this is also where we see people treat the Bible in the same manner they have been trained to treat the internet.

As Christians, we believe that the Bible answers all of these important questions. Evangelicals talk about the importance of the Bible, the inerrancy of the Bible, the infallibility of the Bible; their facebook statuses often relay Bible verses (with no context); their instagram is littered with their colorful “Bible art”, often word art drawn over the actual words of Scripture; their t-shirts and bumper stickers tout “John 3:16”. But, what has become abundantly clear in our culture is that many who call themselves “Bible-believing Christians”, don’t diligently study and know the Bible they claim to believe. They are not students in the school of God’s Word.

Practically every church-goer has a Bible at home. It might even sit in a special spot; it might even be the biggest book (or the only book) in your house. But having a Bible and being a student of the Bible are not the same thing; having access to the Scriptures and knowing the Scriptures are not the same thing.  I don’t think any real Christian believer would claim that the Bible is not important; but there are many who by their practice reveal that being a student of the Scriptures is not important to them. They’ve fallen for the lie of the internet age that access to information and true knowledge are the same thing.

Often, it is the case that even when people do read the Bible, they read it through the lens of their own experience, rather than, as students who are being formed in the classroom of Christ, viewing their own experience through the lens of the whole of Scripture. Because of this, verses are taken out of context to suit the reader’s prejudice; for example, “God is love” (1 John 4:8) is divorced by many from the reality of the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ in the next couple of verses, and the love of God is instead defined by their own experience of sentimental or even erotic love. Instead of being shaped by the context of all of Scripture, these readers shape the Scriptures to their own subjective contexts. They are more knowledgeable of the index than they are of the Book; the only time they go to the Word is to find a proof-text, and having found it, they go back out again, unchanged and as ignorant as they came. They have access to information, they even superficially access the information, but they do not truly learn because they do not truly submit as God’s pupils.

What I am suggesting is that if we believe that the Bible is God’s Word, we must diligently submit to the Holy Spirit speaking through the whole of Scripture as our Teacher. We must be students at Christ’s feet (Luke 10:39). We must take advantage of the means of grace in the preached and taught Word. We must not only be Bible-readers, but Bible-students. This means that we must no longer deem it acceptable to possess a Bible without being possessed by the Bible. Spurgeon once warned his people, “There is dust enough on some of your Bibles to write ‘damnation’ with your fingers.” Having access to Scripture and knowing Scripture (and through Scripture knowing the God Who has revealed Himself in His written Word) are not the same. The difference between the two is found in the hearing, the reading, the studying, the living, the praying, the learning, the submitting, the meditating, the inwardly digesting. The Bible on your shelf will do you no good until it is the Bible in your mind and heart, until it is the world in which you live.

 

 

A Word Against Injustice

By this point, most who would be reading this have seen the horrific video, or at least heard the horrific news, of the death of George Floyd, murdered by a Minneapolis policeman. Thankfully, that former policeman is now in custody, and has been rightly charged with murder. But, that is not the end of it.

And which of us, seeking to be empathetic to other human beings made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), does not understand why this can’t be the end of it? Over the past several decades we have seen the unjust death of numerous black men and women; unjust, because they never saw the courtroom, their right to a trial by jury was taken from them by the actions of a police officer who had taken upon himself the office of executioner. Try to imagine being a black man or woman after having seen pictures and videos of other people of color being murdered by police; as a white man, I can’t imagine fully the fear that they must have of the police, those who are meant to be the servants of peace and order. It’s one thing to be afraid of the authorities when we have done something wrong; indeed, the wrongdoer should fear the authorities! (Rom. 13:4). But there are many in our country today who have not broken the law, have no intention of breaking the law, live their lives as outstanding citizens and contributors to the good of the community, who, when they see the blue and red lights, are nevertheless afraid.

Perhaps you might retort that there are plenty of police officers who would never think of committing such heinous crimes as what we have seen replayed over and over again for the past several years. And you would be absolutely correct! I am thankful for those wonderful officers who have dedicated their lives to the peace and protection of their communities (sometimes even sacrificing their lives for those communities). But, the recognition remains that even if there is only a rotten number from among the whole, it is enough to give pause, to inspire fear of injustice, and it is certainly enough to merit peaceful protest for the betterment of our country.

Is it fair that law enforcement as a whole should be labeled as racist? No. Is it fair that people of color should live in fear of being unjustly targeted by law enforcement? No. Are there changes that need to be made in this country concerning the relationship between law enforcement (among other aspects of our society) and minorities? Yes. And that is why peaceful protest is called for. Indeed, that is why peaceful protest is a right given to every American citizen, regardless of color, religion, or social standing.

Injustice is not a political issue; injustice is a moral issue. The Republican who seeks to hide behind his supposed “conservatism” while espousing the idea that the problem is not really a problem fuels the fires of injustice. The Democrat who hides behind his “liberalism” in support of the violent riots, suggesting that the unjust destruction of the property of others is justified, likewise gives fuel to the fires of injustice. How much injustice has been done in this country under the hellish monikers of “Republican” and “Democrat” (or any other political party that bids one check their conscience at the door)! It is enough to condemn this nation a million times over!

The Scriptures bid us, rather, to exercise our consciences according to the revealed will of God! “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” (Rom. 12:9). “O you who love the LORD, hate evil!” (Ps. 97:10). God is just! And, as He is the Source of all that is good, we must recognize that injustice – no matter where we find it – is evil, and it is hypocritical to claim that one loves God and neighbor when one does not hate the evil of injustice.

A wise mother once told her kingly son: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Prov. 31:8-9). Right now, our nation is boiling over because the rights of the poor and needy have not been defended, because those who were meant to be representatives of law and order have not judged righteously (that is, they have not judged with justice), and because the rights of the weak and destitute have often not found an authoritative voice to speak for the voiceless in the halls of our government, and that at every level.

This is why peaceful protest is necessary. And this is why I stand with those who are peacefully protesting. I also stand with those police officers who work hard every day defending law-abiding citizens and enforcing the law and who have sadly been lumped in with the wrongdoers. I believe that every part of our justice system needs to be evaluated so that equal justice is indeed given to all citizens of this nation. I believe that justice in our government honors God, and as a voting citizen in a republic, I believe that as far as I am lawfully able, I should see that my country’s government does not dishonor God through injustice.

God alone is Lord of the conscience; I cannot and would not seek to persuade anyone to act against one’s conscience. But, inasmuch as my conscience has been informed by the teachings of the whole of Scripture, I believe that if I truly love God, if I truly love my neighbor made in His image, I must hate injustice! And, if through lawful means I might speak on behalf of the voiceless, it is my duty to do so. I am not an adherent of the “social gospel”; I do not believe we can legislate or revolutionize man to godly perfection. From first to last, the issue at hand is sin, make no mistake, and that is only dealt with truly by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on behalf of sinners and the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, just because I believe that the time is coming when perfect justice will be done, the Day when Christ brings His kingdom at the great consummation, it does not mean that I, or any who look forward to His coming, should be unconcerned about social ills in the here and now. Quite the opposite! Because Christ is coming back and bringing complete and perfect justice to this world, let us seek always to do justly and be advocates of just doing, or else we ourselves will be condemned on that Day with those who have unrepentantly practiced injustice.


 

On Monday, 8 June 2020, our church, along with many other churches in the EPC, will be recognizing a day of lament, prayer, and fasting, seeking God’s help in the midst of this crisis. A guide for prayer will follow in the coming days. Please consider joining us as we lift our country, our leaders, our police, and those who have experienced injustice up to our gracious God and King in prayer! The Lord bless and keep you, beloved!