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WHAT ABOUT CREMATION?
One of the effects of a reduction in the quantity and quality of doctrinal preaching is the obscuring haze that has settled over many contemporary issues. Many Christians find it difficult to correlate modern day challenges with the Word of God in general, and the Gospel of Christ in particular. Such tend to view the Scriptures as a manual of human conduct. Thus, when a practice is not specifically condemned in Scripture, it is considered to be a viable option.
However, the Spirit teaches right and wrong by contrast as well as specificity. Some things are wrong because they contradict the nature of spiritual life and the fabric of salvation. Thus, when declaring things that will ultimately be removed from the body of Christ, the Spirit mentions “spot, or wrinkle, or ANY SUCH THING” (Eph 5:27). Without a working knowledge of Kingdom manners, these words have little meaning. Also, after providing a rather extensive list of things erupting from “the flesh,” the Spirit mentions “such things,” indicating it is the NATURE of the things declared that exclude those doing them from the Kingdom (Gal 5:21).
There is a spirit to Scripture as well as a verbal body. There is also a direction to “sound doctrine” as well as locution. The perception of this spirit and direction is wholly dependent upon one’s fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3). Thus, those who live at a distance from God become confused about matters requiring “spiritual understanding” (Col 1:9), while those in close experiential proximity to the Savior tend to see them more clearly. I understand this arrangement to be Divinely deliberate. It is why the Scribes and Pharisees could not associate Jesus with the promises of a Messiah (Mark 2:16-17). It is also why Philip, for example, was able to make that association immediately (John 1:43-45).
THE SUBJECT OF CREMATION
Cremation is a matter that is to be discerned, not explained academically, or from the standpoint of Law. It is to be compared with the manner of spiritual life, and the implications of the Gospel of Christ. The Scriptures do not deal with specifics here, just as they do not deal with serial killers, palm-readers, slaves to heroine, and locking little children in basement closets. The child of God must be able to associate this subject with the nature of spiritual life.
While this is largely a matter of conscience, there are many and strong reasons for not being cremated. First, the practice has its origin among the heathen.
THE ACADEMIC VIEW
The following statements reflect the academic point of view. “ In the funeral customs of the Hindus of India, cremation is used almost exclusively . . . Cremation is forbidden in Orthodox Judaism . . . Neither Jews nor Christians ever practiced cremation, or gave the slightest approval to it.” GROLLIER’S ENCYCLOPEDIA
“There is in the New Testament no instance of cremation, Jewish, heathen, or Christian, and clearly the early Christians followed the Jewish practice of burying the dead.” INTERNATIONAL STANDARD BIBLE ENCYCLOPEDIA
“The pagan Scandinavians favored cremation, believing that it helped free the spirit from the flesh and also that it kept the dead from harming the living. These pagans practices paralleled the Greek and Roman epic cremations. After the Icelandic conversion to Christianity in AD 1000, cremation was rare in western Europe until the 19th century, except in emergencies. During an outbreak of the Black Death in 1656, for example, the bodies of 60,000 victims were burned in Naples during a single week . . . By about AD 100, however, cremations in the Roman Empire were stopped, perhaps because of the spread of Christianity. Although cremation was not explicitly taboo among Christians, it was not encouraged by them because of pagan associations and because of the concern that it might interfere with the promised resurrection of the body and its reunion with the soul . . . In India and some other countries where the custom is ancient, cremation is considered very desirable. It is the wish of all devout Hindus to be incinerated in Varnasi . . . Cremation ceremonies in Bali are colorful and gay. On a “lucky” day, bodies of a number of worthies, which had been temporarily buried or embalmed, are carried to a high and decorative tower made of wood and bamboo and cremated. Forty-two days later a second tower, with effigies instead of bodies, is burned to assist the soul on its journey toward the highest heaven. The ashes of the towers, like those of the bodies, are scattered on the water.” BRITANNICA ENCYCLOPEDIA 2002
The purpose of this article is to confirm WHY burial is the historical practice of those who believe on Jesus. It is also to confirm the heathen origins and associations of cremation, which are of no small significance. This is NOT intended to be the cause of division in the body of Christ, or a means of enforcing something upon the consciences of those who fail to see this reasoning. Rather, it is to show that there is sound logic for rejecting the practice of cremation, and unsound reasoning for accepting it. Here is a matter where the Apostolic injunction applies: “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Rom 14:5). As in all other areas of life, faith, not doubt, must reign over our reasoning. Is it not written, “But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” NRSV (Rom 14:23). Those who practice cremation MUST do so because they are motivated by faith. That is how those in Christ live -- “by faith” (Rom 1:17; Heb 10:38). I am challenging the notion that this is even possible.
THE BURIAL OF JESUS
The “burial” of Christ is part of the Gospel. That situation requires some elaboration on the matter of burial. Today, in the Western world, burial is being abandoned in favor of cremation — even among believers in Christ. Reasons for the preference of burning to burial are offered. Some of them include, “It makes no difference what we do with the body after the spirit has departed from it.” “It is more economical to cremate the body.” “Why should we make a big thing out of how we handle a dead body?”
All of these remarks melt in the light of God’s Word. They are wholly the product of fleshly reasoning, with not a spark of the life of the Spirit in them. When it comes to how we speak of the body, words defending cremation are not “words which the Holy Spirit teaches” (1 Cor 2;13) — and He has spoken about the body.
If we had no other Scriptural insight than the fact of Jesus being “buried,” that should settle the matter for us. Not only is His burial a vital part of the Gospel, it is something in which we participate when we are baptized into Christ — “buried with Him . . . “ (Rom 6:4; Col 2:12). Thus Christ’s burial has a twofold significance. If it is countered that Christ’s body was going to be raised from the dead, therefore necessitating His burial, it must be remembered that we too will be raised from the dead. But there is more.
One of the things declared wherever the Gospel is preached, is the account of a woman who anointed Jesus, by His own word, for His “burial” (Matt 26:12). Believers should ponder the propriety of anointing a body for cremation, and how such a thought blends with the Gospel of Christ.
THE CASE OF ABRAHAM
Abraham was called “the friend of God” (James 2:23). It is of interest to note how the Lord spoke to Abraham of his impending death. “And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be BURIED in a good old age” (Gen 15:15). One might choose to believe the language is inconsequential. We will find, however, absolute consistency in Scripture in the matter of the death of the righteous.
Prior to his own death, Abraham’s wife Sarah died. Even though godless societies (from which he himself had been extricated) practiced cremation, Abraham buried Sarah’s body. “And after this, Abraham BURIED Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre: the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan” (Gen 23:19).
In fulfillment of the Word of the Lord, Abraham was buried. “And his sons Isaac and Ishmael BURIED him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre” (Gen 25:9).
GOD BURIED MOSES
How did the Lord handle the death of His faithful servant, Moses? He certainly had a variety of options open to Him. He had burned up the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). He had also consumed the wayward sons of Aaron -- Nadab and Abihu -- with fire (Lev 10:1ff). However, these were judgments, not to be compared with the Lord’s disposition toward Moses. “And He [God] BURIED him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulcher unto this day” (Deut 34:6).
One of the telling things said by Ruth, when she chose to stay with Naomi and be identified with her God, was “Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried” (Ruth 1:17).
SAUL AND JONATHAN
When the bones of Saul and Jonathan were “buried,” David sent messengers to those responsible for the burial, declaring they had shown “kindness” by burying Saul (2 Sam 2:4-5).
AN ACCENTED POINT
The Spirit makes a point of mentioning the burial of His people. I have already mentioned Abraham, Sarah, and Moses. The following is a small sampling of references. They include Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse (Gen 35:8), Rachel (Gen 35:19), Isaac (Gen 35:29), Jacob (buried in Canaan, Gen 50:13-14), Miriam (Num 20:1), Aaron (Deut 10:6), Joshua (Josh 24:30), the bones of Joseph (Gen 24:32), Eleazar (son of Aaron, Josh 24:33), Gideon (Judges 8:32), Samuel (1 Sam 25:1), the bones of Saul and Jonathan (1 Sam 31:13), David (1 Kings 2:10; Acts 2:29), Solomon (1 Kings 11:43), John the Baptist (Matt 14:12), and Stephen (Acts 8:2). There are over thirty other Scriptural references to specific people who were “buried.”
How could such an impressive number of references be made to something inconsequential? Is this God’s manner, to clutter the minds of men with accounts that have no relevance, minister no understanding, and through which we do not learn of Divine manners? The interment of the body was so important to Joseph, that he instructed the children of Israel not to leave his bones in Egypt, but to carry them out with them when they left the land of bondage (Gen 50:25). No person favoring cremation would have made such a request.
Those supposing that the manner in which we handle the bodies of those who have passed on is inconsequential, need to consider what God Himself did with Moses’ body—something that has been revealed in Holy Scripture. In fact, the devil disputed with Michael the archangel about the BODY of Moses — something he apparently did not do concerning Nadab and Abihu, whom God cremated. Also ponder that a critical aspect of the Gospel itself is the BURIAL of Jesus. I hardly see how something could be unimportant that is directly related to Jesus, the Gospel, and our own identify with Him.
For some, this is a sensitive subject—particularly because of current trends favoring cremation. While it is not my intention to cause offense, or to impose rules upon people God has not imposed, it IS my intention to declare what has been said on this subject. Your view of the matter is your own responsibility. I am endeavoring to provide a Scriptural context in which personal decisions on the subject can be reached. However, the decision you embrace is your business, not mine. I am not sitting in judgment, but declaring what is written.
EXAMPLES OF CREMATION
Aachan and his family (Josh 7:25). They were stoned and “cremated.” This is certainly not a suitable precedent for believers to follow! Aachan was judged for breaking the commandment of the Lord.
Saul and his sons (1 Sam 31:12-13). Technically, this was not a cremation. The bones were preserved (something not always done in cremation) and buried in keeping with the manner of the people of God.
The Priests of the high places (2 Kgs 23:20). Again, this cannot be adduced as a precedent for those who have embraced the Lord by faith. This action was related to cursing, not blessing. It also was completely dissociated from hope.
The burning of the bones of the king of Edom (Amos 2:1). The Lord denounced Moab because they burned the bones of the king of Edom. “Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because he burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime” (Amos 2:1). Something of the Divine mind is certainly revealed in this word. It ought not be ignored. Not a single person favoring cremation would have viewed the action of the Moabites as God did.
A GREAT BURNING FOR ASA
When Asa died, Scripture says “a very great burning” was made for him. However, this was not a cremation, but a burning of spices, for Asa’s body was “buried in his own sepulchers” (2 Chron 16:14).
PAUL’S ALLUSION TO BURNING THE BODY
As to Paul speaking of giving his body to be burned (1 Cor 13:3), he was referring to submitting to martyrdom, not to consenting to the burning of his tabernacle after he was absent from it.
A CONSISTENT MANNER
Throughout Scripture, burial is always the norm—and there are no exceptions. Historically, wherever the Gospel has been received, the people chose to bury their dead rather than cremate them. During the first century, under the powerful influence of the Gospel of Christ, Rome abandoned cremation in favor of burial. The same thing happened in Scandinavia during the eleventh century. In cultures where God is not known, cremation is common. In our own country, the practice arose only when the knowledge of God became sparse and fragmented. That is because the truth of the resurrection is not adequately known among them. Like the Athenians and Stoics, the “resurrection of the dead” is counted as a strange thing among them (Acts 17:32).
Suffice it to say, no person, however astute can defend the act of cremation from the Word of God. Any and every person seeking to defend this practice resorts to human reasoning. Such logic is wholly inappropriate for the believer! Such wisdom is earthly, and causes dissension and confusion (James 3:15-16). In my judgment, a person cannot request cremation in the name of the Lord, giving thanks to God for it (Col 3:17).
While the manner in which the disposition of the body is handled is not the determining factor in obtaining eternal life, it does reveal a type of thinking totally unknown in Scripture. No patriarch, Moses, nor any prophet—not Jesus, nor any Apostle every provided the slightest hint that cremation was, or ever would be, practiced among those embracing the hope of the resurrection. This is an observation that simply cannot be contested.
Scriptures represent burial as an act of faith. It is done in hope of the resurrection. “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: 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. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44). Just as Christ’s mission was not completed until He rose from the dead, so our salvation is not complete until we too rise from the dead. As it is written, “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23, NIV). How marvelous! Our “adoption” is here equated with the resurrection, or redemption, of our bodies! We are composed of “spirit, soul, and body” (1 Thess 5:23). Salvation addresses us in our totality—spirit, soul, and body. The experience of salvation is not complete until we are raised from the dead. Until that time, we have “the firstfruits of the Spirit.” In that condition, we yearn for the completion of our adoption. The burial of the body blends with this stance. Cremation does not.
At the time of its origin, cremation was an act of hopelessness, not hope. Believers throughout the ages, however, have “planted” the bodies of generations in hope of the resurrection. It makes as much sense to burn seed corn in hopes of a harvest as to burn a body in hope of the resurrection!
Your thoughts, which are between you and your Lord, should be as much in harmony with the Word of God as possible. Even in your death, you should seek a view that is compatible with the ancients, who enjoyed Divine visitations and looked forward to the resurrection. Whatever reasons may be offered for cremation, not a single one of them comes from the Word of God. They are, without exception, founded upon human reason. There is not a syllable in the entirety of Scripture to support them—not a word that would lead one to embrace them.
All of the arguments about the insignificance of the body fall to the ground in the blaze of the Word of God. The Scriptures are clear on this subject. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be! (God forbid, KJV)” - 1 Cor 6:15. Under no circumstances may our bodies be used as though they did not belong to God, or were in consequential. Our bodies do not belong to us — they have been purchased by God (1 Cor 6:19). While they are by no means the primary part of our constitution, they have been purchased by Christ, and will yet be redeemed by Him in the resurrection.
The resurrection of Jesus confirmed His Sonship (Rom 1:4). It also confirms the resurrection of believers when He returns. In the above text, Paul argues this point forcefully. “Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats: but God shall destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body. And God hath both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by his own power” (1 Cor 6:13-14). Again, it is written, “Knowing that He which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you” (2 Cor 4:14). If our bodies are “the members of Christ,” and if God is going to raise them “up,” we have no right to disregard the Lord in the disposition of them. While this is not to become a point of contention among believers, it is to be laid upon the conscience of us all.
As insignificant as it may appear, burial stands in stark contrast to cremation in Scripture. Apart from the clear teaching of the Word of God on this subject, the burial of the body of Jesus sanctifies the thought for His disciples. If that were all we knew about the interment of the body, it should be enough to constrain us to view it with the utmost respect. God saw fit to record the intentions of holy women of old who had regard for the buried body of Jesus, themselves not realizing He was to rise from the dead (Luke 24:1). We are even told that Jesus was buried “as the manner of the Jews is to bury” (John 19:40). Rest assured, the Holy Spirit is not commenting on social customs, or fading practices. No word of God is void of power or without profit.
For those having difficulty with this rather elementary subject, the question is not whether God is able to raise a body from the sea, the grave, or a pile of ashes. The question is whether God’s people can justify the deliberate choice of a practice that does not blend with the manner of God’s people through the ages, nor harmonize with the hope of the resurrection. The very subject of cremation has the taint of the world upon it. The fragrance of the heathen penetrates every aspect of it. Only the wisdom of the world can make an attempt to justify it. There is neither honor nor hope in it. Faith cannot justify it, and a “pure conscience” will question it.
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