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Question #51

51. Does the Bible prohibit cremation?

It is interesting how often I've been asked recently about cremation. I have no idea what sparked the recent spate of questions on that subject, but here's an answer.

At the very least, man is comprised of two parts: body and spirit/soul. Many scholars would argue man is comprised of three parts: body, soul, and spirit. I take the passages listing all three as "collective passages." That is, they list all of the terms together but in my view spirit and soul are used interchangeably, especially in the New Testament.

In the Creation account, Moses tells us God created man from the dust of the ground, breathed into his nostrils and he became a living creature (Genesis 2:7, English Standard Version - the King James says he "became a living soul). No matter, there is nothing at stake between the bipartite (body and soul/spirit) or tripartite (body, soul, and spirit) views. It is important to see, however, that humans are not flesh only as some suggest (Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and those who hold annihilationist views).

Death means separation. According to the Bible, there are two deaths. One is spiritual death, which is that which separates us from God, the source of all living (Ephesians 2:1). The other was promised to Adam as the specific punishment for sin: physical death (see Genesis 3:19). When an individual dies, the soul/spirit separates from the body and goes to be with the Lord. A person's physical remains are consigned to Sheol or Hades (the pit or grave) or to the abyss (burial at sea) where it returns to the components from which it was made. Ancient Jews usually buried their dead in natural caves, such as the cave Abraham purchased for Sarah, himself and subsequent generations. Others were "caves" carved out of the rock, such as Joseph's garden tomb where loving followers buried Jesus. As Christianity spread, it buried the dead in artificial caves carved into the walls of the catacombs. Others buried their dead in more conventional graves. Others consigned the body to a sepulcher or above ground burial vault. No matter, all bodies with few exceptions deteriorated and returned to the dust of the ground.

The questioner's concern is regarding how the body should be treated after death. I know of no biblical instruction on the specific care of the human body after death. There are biblical examples of how various cultures treated the body, but I know of no commandment or instruction on how to deal with the remains. I can say, however, that even after death the body should never be treated with disrespect. It is an error to say that the body "is merely the shell, the real person is gone." The body is an integral part of what it means to be fully human.

There are, however, a couple of things to recognize about the human body after death. First, it is consigned to "the pit" where it remains until resurrection morning (1 Thessalonians 4:16). I must say here, that Paul's description here pictures what will take place for Christians when Jesus returns. However, Matthew 25 pictures the post-resurrection scene when all humanity, including the risen unbelievers, is brought before God. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul describes this present body as a "tent" (temporary dwelling) in which we live awaiting a new more permanent dwelling. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul describes the reality of the resurrection (again for Christians), and says the body is "sown corruptible and raised incorruptible." In that passage, he compares the body to a kernel of wheat (corn) that is placed in the ground and brings forth the wheat. The wheat stalk is "different from" but in "continuity with" the kernel. The one brings forth the other. It is my judgment, God is able to bring forth the new from the old regardless of the condition of the body at the time of resurrection.

What about cremation? It would seem to me that the only thing cremation does is hasten the natural processes that return the body to dust. In most cases, the cremains are taken and placed in a vault in a grave or burial place. On occasion, some families retain the cremains in their homes. In some cases, the cremains are, at the decedents request, sprinkled over a specific site.

Is God not powerful enough to keep his word regarding the future resurrection regardless with what happens to the body? My wife and I recently returned from a visit to Johnstown, PA, the site of the great Johnstown Flood of 1889 where more than 2,209 people died. Many who survived the floodwaters were deposited with the debris at the stone bridge. That debris caught fire and those who survived listened to those who perished in the fire. Can God not bring forth those who perished in the fire be resurrected in spite of the destruction of the body? On September 11, 2002, more than 2,800 perished in New York's twin towers. Most of the remains have never been found. Will they not be brought forth at the resurrection? Granted, those circumstances are different from the willing cremation of a body, but the results are the same.

Until I see a specific "thus saith the Lord" regarding the prohibition of cremation, I will state clearly it is a matter of opinion and should be maintained as such. Man's reasonings are many, God's Word is specific on issues of importance. Do not be fooled by those who would seek to take you captive to their opinions.


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