Monday, November 30, 2020

Anonymous Asks (121)

“Is cremation biblical?”

When Israel’s first king and three of his sons were killed in battle with the Philistines, the men of Jabesh-gilead took their bodies back home, cremated them as best they could, then buried their bones. The writer of 1 Samuel does not comment on the morality of cremation, but gives credit to the men who treated the bodies of royalty with dignity at risk to their own lives.

When Jacob the patriarch died, his son Joseph had him embalmed over a forty day period in the manner of Egyptian royalty. The writer of Genesis likewise makes no comment on the morality of embalming a body.

Being Biblical

Both of these are “biblical”, in the sense that they are historic events recorded in our Bibles, and they model for us the possible extremes in dealing with the dead. One method does its very best to preserve as much of the human body as possible for as long as possible, flying in the face of the natural processes of decay; the other reduces the body to the tiniest of particles, in effect speeding up the work of nature.

The Holy Spirit has nothing to say about either method. No instructions are given to Christians in the word of God about how we ought to deal with our dead. At best, readers of scripture are left to draw inferences from the documented practices of others — a questionable strategy when we have no direction from God as to whether these practices were good or bad — or extrapolate from their own theology. As with other debatable subjects, we find groups of Christians on both sides of the argument.

The Greek Orthodox and Others

So, for example, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America voices a preference for what they call a “Christian burial”:
“Because the Orthodox Faith affirms the fundamental goodness of creation, it understands the body to be an integral part of the human person and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and expects the resurrection of the dead. The Church considers cremation to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of what God has made and ordained for us. The Church instead insists that the body be buried so that the natural physical process of decomposition may take place.”
You will probably notice no scripture is quoted and the logic of the Archdiocese’s position is questionable. After all, if the natural process of decomposition is a moral imperative, wouldn’t it be better to bury the dead without caskets in order to let nature do its work as speedily as possible?

Other groups of Christians also expect the resurrection of the dead, but are not offended by the practice of cremation. We have a God who created light by speaking a word and who will one day destroy all Satan’s might with the breath of his mouth and the appearance of his coming. Since our God can do all that with just a word, there is little reason to imagine it’s a huge task for him to reassemble the atoms of the dead whether they are recent or ancient, intact or blown to smithereens. When the sea gives up the dead that are in it on the last day, it is likely most of them will be in pretty terrible shape. This does not appear to pose a problem for God.

Testing God and Being Loving

The argument is made by some that Christians ought not to put God to the test, but putting God to the test is more a matter of attitude than action. The agnostic who plans his own cremation just in case there turns out to be a God and a final judgment is definitely putting God to the test, and will find to his regret that our God passes it with flying colors. I am not so sure that is what a Christian son or daughter is doing when they have a beloved parent cremated in full confidence that the Lord Jesus is able to call him into a reconstituted, glorified state with a single cry of command. Where exactly is the test?

On the other hand, insisting on cremation could potentially be wrong if it is done without consideration for the feelings of others. Dead bodies are almost invariably accompanied by grieving relatives, with whom we ought to weep both because Christ did and, through the apostles, instructed us to do so also. So to choose to treat the bodies of the dead in a way that would offend Christians from other cultural backgrounds … well, I can’t see a good reason for a Christian to do that, even if he has no concern about such things himself.

A Matter of Intention

In the end, intention is a very important part of this question. The mere presence of fire as a means is not the issue. As a matter of fact, Christians have been giving up their bodies to be burned for the sake of Christ for two thousand years now. Take, for example, John Lambert. He perished in the fires of Smithfield, accused of heresy for denying the doctrine of transubstantiation, and with his dying breath, he cried out, “None but Christ! None but Christ!”

We can say with confidence that fire was not the end of John Lambert. The Lord knows those who are his.

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