Ask Me Anything - Is Cremation Acceptable For A Christian?
October 23, 2019
By popular demand, this new Passages study on Wednesday nights has been added to the podcast. Listen as Pastor Brad bravely answers questions turned in by members and attenders, no holds barred.
Ask Me Anything
Is Cremation Acceptable for the Christian?
For the first time in American history, a majority of Americans (50.2 percent) have chosen cremation rather than burial (48.5 percent) after their death. The National Funeral Directors Association expects the trend shifting from burial toward cremation to continue over the next 20 years, with the projected rate of cremation reaching 78.8 percent of deaths by 2035.
The two major reasons for the trend are cost and convenience. Cremation is considerably less than burial, and since there’s no casket, vault, and the like, services can be held pretty much anytime, anywhere such as a backyard or a ball field.
Cremation has been around since ancient times, but, historically, Christians, going all the way back to the beginning of Christianity (and the Jews before them as well), have exclusively used traditional burials. One of the defining markers of early Christians and a factor in the massive explosion of Christianity was the way they cared for the dead. Romans burned their dead while Christians treated bodies with respect and care.
It’s fairly certain that in the church burial wasn’t optional but expected. In fact, one historian, using ancient records and writings, demonstrates that a primary feature of the early church was its function as a kind of “burial club.” The whole faith community participated in the process.
Does the Bible mention cremation?
The first mention of cremation in the Bible is found in 1 Samuel 31. Saul had went to war against the Philistines and was killed in battle along with his sons. The Philistines discovered their corpses and used them as ornaments on a city wall…
1 Samuel 31:11–13 (ESV) — 11 But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12 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 Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. 13 And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days.
They burned their bodies rather than bury them because it was more acceptable in the situation (desecration and the inability to perform proper burial rights) and possibly a sanitary issue.
Cremation is mentioned briefly in the book of Amos in regress to war as well as in Leviticus where it has to do with the punishment of law breakers. That’s a minute amount compared to the 200 OT mentions of burial in the traditional way. All the burials mentioned in the NT are traditional as well (ossuary then grave).
Cremation was the exception (only employed in rare circumstances and usually involving negative circumstances) while ground burial was the rule.
Is cremation a sin?
A heavy hitter by the name of John MacArthur says no. He has said, “the state of what remains of the old body is unimportant” and that we need not focus on “how to dispose of our earthly bodies… Obviously any buried body will eventually decompose (Eccles. 12:7), so cremation isn't a strange or wrong practice—it merely accelerates the natural process of oxidation.”
[The consensus among most Christian traditions—including evangelicals—is that because the Bible does not directly forbid cremation, it is not a sin. As Timothy George says, “While the weight of Christian tradition clearly favors burial, the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns cremation.”]
The case for making cremation a sin is difficult for sure, and I feel safe saying the answer to the question of its sinfulness is no. But is it acceptable for the Christian, is it proper? Is a Christian free to choose cremation or burial or does God have a preference?
Is cremation appropriate?
To answer that we have to figure out why the biblical norm for saints was burial in the ground when the culture around them leaned towards cremation. It most certainly had to do with the importance of the physical body and the hope of the resurrection.
That first part — the physical body — ties into what we’ve been learning in the End Game series. Contrary to what we’ve been taught or unintentionally picked up, the physical, material world is not inherently evil.
Almost subconsciously we think that the goal of life is to break free from the physical (our bodies, this earth) because its evil and live in the spiritual, non-material realm which is good.
But if we go back to the beginning…
Genesis 1:1 (ESV) — 1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Genesis 1:26–27 (ESV) — 26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:31 (ESV) — 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Had we not fallen, would we still be in physical bodies and a physical place? YES. That was God’s intent from the beginning. But sin came in and corrupted all flesh and all creation.
God’s end game is about setting things back to rights, redeeming not just mankind but the heavens and earth. What did his plan involve? Jesus, the second person of the trinity, becoming a physical man and living as the perfect and faithful second Adam.
After he was crucified he was BURIED. And after he arose he came back in a PHYSICAL body as the firstfruits of the resurrection.
1 Corinthians 15:12–49 (CEV) — 12 If we preach that Christ was raised from death, how can some of you say that the dead will not be raised to life? 13 If they won’t be raised to life, Christ himself wasn’t raised to life. 14 And if Christ wasn’t raised to life, our message is worthless, and so is your faith. 15 If the dead won’t be raised to life, we have told lies about God by saying that he raised Christ to life, when he really did not. 16 So if the dead won’t be raised to life, Christ wasn’t raised to life. 17 Unless Christ was raised to life, your faith is useless, and you are still living in your sins. 18 And those people who died after putting their faith in him are completely lost. 19 If our hope in Christ is good only for this life, we are worse off than anyone else. 20 But Christ has been raised to life! And he makes us certain that others will also be raised to life. 21 Just as we will die because of Adam, we will be raised to life because of Christ. 22 Adam brought death to all of us, and Christ will bring life to all of us. 23 But we must each wait our turn. Christ was the first to be raised to life, and his people will be raised to life when he returns. 24 Then after Christ has destroyed all powers and forces, the end will come, and he will give the kingdom to God the Father. 25 Christ will rule until he puts all his enemies under his power, 26 and the last enemy he destroys will be death. 27 When the Scriptures say that he will put everything under his power, they don’t include God. It was God who put everything under the power of Christ. 28 After everything is under the power of God’s Son, he will put himself under the power of God, who put everything under his Son’s power. Then God will mean everything to everyone. 29 If the dead are not going to be raised to life, what will people do who are being baptized for them? Why are they being baptized for those dead people? 30 And why do we always risk our lives 31 and face death every day? The pride that I have in you because of Christ Jesus our Lord is what makes me say this. 32 What do you think I gained by fighting wild animals in Ephesus? If the dead are not raised to life, “Let’s eat and drink. Tomorrow we die.” 33 Don’t fool yourselves. Bad friends will destroy you. 34 Be sensible and stop sinning. You should be embarrassed that some people still don’t know about God. 35 Some of you have asked, “How will the dead be raised to life? What kind of bodies will they have?” 36 Don’t be foolish. A seed must die before it can sprout from the ground. 37 Wheat seeds and all other seeds look different from the sprouts that come up. 38 This is because God gives everything the kind of body he wants it to have. 39 People, animals, birds, and fish are each made of flesh, but none of them are alike. 40 Everything in the heavens has a body, and so does everything on earth. But each one is very different from all the others. 41 The sun isn’t like the moon, the moon isn’t like the stars, and each star is different. 42 That’s how it will be when our bodies are raised to life. These bodies will die, but the bodies that are raised will live forever. 43 These ugly and weak bodies will become beautiful and strong. 44 As surely as there are physical bodies, there are spiritual bodies. And our physical bodies will be changed into spiritual bodies. 45 The first man was named Adam, and the Scriptures tell us that he was a living person. But Jesus, who may be called the last Adam, is a life-giving spirit. 46 We see that the one with a spiritual body did not come first. He came after the one who had a physical body. 47 The first man was made from the dust of the earth, but the second man came from heaven. 48 Everyone on earth has a body like the body of the one who was made from the dust of the earth. And everyone in heaven has a body like the body of the one who came from heaven. 49 Just as we are like the one who was made out of earth, we will be like the one who came from heaven.
Christians buried their dead in the ground like Jesus — the firstfruits — in the hope (sure kind) that their bodies would be like planted seeds waiting for the harvest, when Jesus returns to give them a glorified body just like his, fashioned out of their old physical body.
This belief was so pervasive it became a gauge for calculating the spread of Christianity from early church times through medieval times. When archaeologists unearthed bodies oriented East to West, they knew they were Christians. That comes from what Jesus said about his second coming…
Matthew 24:27 (ESV) — 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
Interring a saint East to West, with their head oriented West, allowed them to be raised up facing the easterly direction in which Jesus returns.
Burying saints in the ground was much more than just a means of body disposal, it was an act of faith, a symbol, much like baptism, displaying the hope of the resurrection.
That and more is why Russell Moore counsels Christians to reject cremation:
He makes the point that the question is not simply whether cremation is always a personal sin. The question is not whether God can reassemble “cremains.” The question is whether burial is a Christian act and, if so, then what does it communicate?
Of course God can resurrect a cremated Christian. He can also resurrect a Christian burned at the stake, or a Christian torn to pieces by lions in a Roman coliseum, or a Christian digested by a great white shark off the coast of Florida.
But are funerals simply the way in which we dispose of remains? If so, graveyards are unnecessary, too. Why not simply toss the corpses of our loved ones into the local waste landfill?
For Christians, burial is not the disposal of a thing. It is caring for a person. In burial, we’re reminded that the body is not a shell, a husk tossed aside by the “real” person, the soul within. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6–8; Phil. 1:23), but the body that remains still belongs to someone, someone we love, someone who will reclaim it one day.
So to cremate or not to cremate. How do we decide?
David Jones, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, outlines three questions we should consider:
1. What Moral Norm(s) Apply in This Situation?
2. Which Method Best Demonstrates Love of God and Love of Neighbor?
3. Which Method Would Bring the Most Glory to God?
Jones explains how to think about these questions and concludes:
Despite the church's historic preference for burial, not all deaths afford loved ones an opportunity to choose the method of interment. Factors such as the location and manner of death, nation-specific legal parameters, as well as the resources of the surviving family will bear on funerary practices and decisions. However, if given a choice, contemporary believers open to cremation would be wise to carefully consider the practice and evaluate it in light of God's Word.
After all, within the Christian tradition funerals aren't simply ways 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.
Closing thoughts on those who can’t afford contemporary burial costs…
In the United States, the Funeral Rule, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), makes it possible for a person to choose only those goods and services they want or need and to pay only for those they select, whether they are making arrangements when a death occurs or in advance. Included in the options that all funeral homes must offer are direct burial and natural burial.
A direct burial service includes a modest wood (or cardboard) container, no embalming, and immediate burial in a cemetery within 24 hours. No state law requires either embalming or the use of a casket for burial, so a body can be directly interred in the earth, in a shroud, or in a vault without a casket.
Almost every state also allows for a natural burial, which allows the body to be interred without having to pay the cost of a vault.
Because the average grave spot (i.e., funeral plot) costs $1,000 and the digging of the grave costs $1,000, the cost of burial can be about equal to the cost of cremation. The cost could be reduced even further, though, if more churches would reinstitute the practice of using a portion of their land to be used for a church cemetery. If more grave spots were located on church properties, they could be provided for free to Christians unable to afford a burial plot.
NEXT TIME: Can Jews who don’t accept Jesus be saved?
Parts of this study were adapted and or quoted from the following:
Content Copyright Belongs to Pleasant View First Baptist Church