Monday, March 7, 2016

Can Christians Be Cremated?

Hey everybody, before I get started I want to confess to dropping the ball on this one. I was asked this question last year, and I worked out a response, but for some reason I never wrote an article. I still don’t know how it slipped through the cracks. Fortunately, someone else asked me recently, so I have a chance to try again. But I just wanted to apologize to the person who brought it up first.

So with that said, here’s a question that does occasionally come up when people pass away. Christianity is a religion that teaches the resurrection of the body (or at least, that is the orthodox faith). Since that is the case, is it right for Christians to have themselves cremated? What does the Bible say about it?
First off, let’s be clear on what is not being asked. It is not the case that Christians who are cremated are somehow denied resurrection as a result. This is not a question about salvation, but about right and wrong. It is not an unforgivable sin, if it is a sin at all, so maybe the right wording for the question is, is it uncouth?

Cremation in the Bible

Now if Christians are going to look for information on this Christian issue, we are going to turn to the Christian Bible. That is what I wish everybody would do for every issue that matters, but in this instance, at least, I do not think anyone would even suggest we start anywhere else.
But as obvious as it is where we have to start, we will not actually find that much there. Cremation is only sparsely mentioned in Scripture, and in ways that do not precisely spell out its implications. We can perhaps start to gain some principles by looking at them, though.
When the Bible talks about cremation, it does not give specific moral direction. In Leviticus 10:2, two rebellious priests were burned to death by God, but they were not actually cremated and were still buried. Joshua 7:25 records the cremation of idolatrous Israelites after they had been executed by stoning, which is probably the story that gives the greatest negative connotation to cremation. In 1 Samuel 31:11–13, King Saul of Israel and his sons are cremated after their bodies were recovered from the enemies who had killed them. In that case, it was most likely done because of how their bodies had been desecrated by the Philistines, and no punishment is in view. Amos 2:1 describes cremation in terms of an insult, while promising similar punishment from God on those who perpetrated it. However, Amos 6:10 talks of cremation as merely a convenient way to dispose of large numbers of bodies killed by plague or famine. Taken together, cremation’s appropriateness just seems to depend on circumstances.

Fire in the Bible

While the Bible may not have much to say about cremation, is does have a bit more to say about fire. Leviticus 18:21 and 20:1–5, 2 Kings 23:10, and Jeremiah 32:35 all condemn the process of “passing through the fire to Molech.” Molech was a Canaanite god, one of the idols that the Lord commanded His people to keep from worshipping. However, many of them disobeyed Him. And one of the practices of Molech worship was to sacrifice children to him by burning them to death. Fire, in this case, was an abomination and a cause for condemnation. In fact, in 2 Kings 23:15–20, it was one of the reasons that the righteous King Josiah had false priests and prophets burned, whether  those who were living or the bones of the dead ones.
Of course, fire is no more clearly associated with punishment than in the Bible’s description of the place of judgment. In Isaiah 66:24, the last verse in that book, the Lord describes the eternal destiny of those who have rebelled against Him as a suffering where “their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched.” Jesus calls hell the “outer darkness” in Matthew 8:12, 22:13, and 25:30, but He also quotes Isaiah 66:24 to describe it as a place of fire in Mark 9:42–48, and He further says it is full of flames in Luke 16:24. Finally, Revelation 19 and 20 tell of a “lake of fire burning with brimstone” into which all those who do not obey God will be thrown in the last judgment.
We do not know exactly what this all means, of course, since the fires of the physical world do not harm the spirit. However, the implication is at least obvious enough for us to get the point. We all know what it feels like to be burned. We also know that fire is cleansing, and that it strips away everything that is worthless. Whatever its nature, the fires of hell are a form of judgment in which those who choose it instead of the Lord will be in ceaseless pain and in constant reminder of what they have made themselves. Clearly this is nothing to celebrate, which is why those of us who have escaped it through Jesus Christ should do all we can to show others how to avoid it, as well.

Burial in the Bible

As far as the implications for cremation go, however, they are still a bit spotty. Fire is associated with hell, but is not equivalent to it. Cremation is nowhere outright condemned, and therefore it is my opinion that it can be permitted. However, there are still a few more things to consider.
Through most of this article, we have been discussing the nature of cremation in an attempt to show why it might or might not be wrong. But that is not exactly the right track to take. We also need to consider what might be better.
In the Bible, the most common form of preparation after death is burial. The instances of it are too numerous for me to list here, from the patriarchs of Genesis to the kings of Judah and Israel, and early saints whom the Apostle Paul describes as having “fallen asleep.” However, no such burial means as much as the central event of history that occurred in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In His death, Jesus took the eternal weight of our punishment on Himself. But in His resurrection, He conquered it and provided the way for us to be united with God forever. His burial was the state in between. It was where he waited for victory.
This, in turn, brings us back to Paul’s term of “sleep.” In 1 Corinthians 15:50–58, after describing the centrality of resurrection to the Christian faith and the many proofs of Christ’s coming back to life, Paul discusses what we can expect when the resurrection occurs. All those who have died in Christ will rise again, waking out of sleep, as it were. That is why burial has always been Christian tradition. We follow the pattern of our Savior, and even in death, we declare the hope of His coming.

Christian Tradition

We see this opinion also in the writings of the Church Fathers, the Christian leaders of the first few generations following the apostles. The Roman culture around them believed cremation was the most honorable form of disposal, but the early Christians insisted on burial. Tertullian wrote,
I on my side must deride [cremation] still more, especially when it burns up its dead with harshest inhumanity, only to pamper them immediately afterwards with gluttonous satiety, using the selfsame fires to honor them and to insult them.
So cremation was viewed as insulting, especially when accompanied by the wild Roman feasts. He also wrote that some do not cremate because they think there is a small residue of the soul in the body, but a better way to put it was to say,
It is not meant to favor the relics of the soul, but to avert a cruel custom in the interest even of the body. For, being human, [the body] itself does not deserve the same end that is inflicted upon murderers.
Cremation’s association with punishment was another reason, then, that early Christians avoided it. The body, as the former home of the soul, was deserving of a modicum of respect, which Christians did not think cremation accorded. But again, this was not a matter of there being something intrinsically wrong with cremation. Rather, as Mark Minucius Felix explained,
We do not, as you [pagans] believe, fear any loss from cremation. Rather, we adopt the ancient and better custom of burying in the earth.
With the history of the church thus in view, burial would seem to be the correct form of preparation for the dead. A final counterargument could be offered for cremation, though. Burial, though it can be viewed as representing sleep, is clearly not the same. In death, the body breaks down. In Genesis 3:19, God tells us we were taken from the dust (though not ashes) and will return to it. Does it really matter how we get there? Cremation and burial accomplish the same end result, and neither is an impediment to the power of the resurrection. The new body will rise from whatever state the old one may be in.


I believe, ultimately, it comes down to a matter of opinion. Mine is that I would want to be buried because it does symbolize waiting for Christ's return, but that is my preference. A symbol is not always a necessity. You do what you have to. There is nothing in the Bible to plainly suggest that cremation is sinful.
As one last caveat, however, there are ways to make it sinful. What it really comes down to is motivation. If you are considering cremation, why? You know that in many cultural contexts, and particularly among Christians, it is something of a taboo. Do you feel it is your only option because of money? Do you have some type of revulsion to the idea of land waste that goes with burial? Are you afraid of being buried? Do you want to insult family members who are uncomfortable with the idea? Are you trying to prove a point by forcing God’s hand in pulling your ashes together?
Some of those are good reasons, or at least, they are reasonable. Others less so, but there can certainly be compassion for them and they can perhaps be gotten over. But the last few cross the line. They are provocative, either of others or of God. And in that case the motivation is sinful, rather than the cremation itself. Carefully consider what is leading you to choose it, and whether it can be done in good conscience. If it can’t, you have some serious reevaluating to do.

Answers vs. Discussion

Cremation is one of those things that goes to show the true purpose of this ministry. It isn’t always about providing answers, because sometimes there simply isn’t one right one. But it is about having the discussion, and moving as close to the truth as we can.
I cannot say whether a Christian should be cremated or not. It has to be case by case. The one thing that always stays the same, though, is we need to know why we are choosing whatever we choose. We are supposed to be moving toward the light. Though we are on the road together, that looks a little different for each of us. Still, the direction is supposed to be the same. So keep your eyes open so you don’t start down a path that leads to darkness.
I do hope this helps somewhat, either in assisting you to make a decision or just in providing some added insight. But I know I can’t cover everything, and I don’t mean to end the discussion. If you have more questions, or if you’d like to add something, leave a comment here or on our social media. This isn’t necessarily the last word. The Quest is all about seeking meaning together, after all!

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