Right or Wrong?
Some friends of mine are planning to be cremated. Isn't there something in the Bible that says we shouldn't do that? How we face death and how we treat the dead are some of the most painful, but telling, issues in all of life. For many reasons, cremation is a practice gaining in popularity as grieving family members choose how they will honor a loved one. Does Scripture say anything about this one way or another?
Some say the Bible forbids cremation. We need to be cautious here. Could it be that cultural conventions or the lobbying of the funeral industry do more to form our perceptions concerning our treatment of the dead than does Scripture?
The only passage that might even come close, though, is where Moab was condemned for burning “the bones of the king of Edom to lime” (Amos 2:1-2). Commentators admit, however, that the precise nature of the crime condemned here is uncertain.
While no verse prohibits cremation, there is a larger issue that for many raises questions concerning the practice. The Christian hope is not of some disembodied state in which immaterial souls float among the heavenlies. Rather, according to the Apostle Paul, the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead is heralded as the “first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). As the offering of the first fruits in ancient Israel was the expression of confidence in a full and bountiful harvest, so is the resurrection of Christ from the dead the sign and certainty of the bodily resurrection of believers in him. Does the reduction of the body to ashes overwhelm God's ability to raise the body in glory? To put it that way is almost sufficient to dismiss the question itself.
But Paul says more, specifically about the relationship between our present bodies and what is to come. “That which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be” (15:37). While there is continuity between our present bodily condition and that which is to come, there is enough discontinuity for Paul to say, “It is sown perishable, it is raised imperishable; 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.” The recurring “it” of these verses speaks of continuity: We are raised. But expectation of the eternal glory of a spiritual body speaks of a radical discontinuity that cautions Paul against speaking in too much detail.
In any case, Paul does not express any concerns for the relative condition of that which was sown one way or the other. One translation of 1 Corinthians 13:3 has Paul saying, “If I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” The problem for Paul is not that his body might be burned–in persecution perhaps?–but that his offering might be motivated by something other than love.
Whether 1 Corinthians 13 has the prospect of persecution in mind or not, persecution certainly has happened over the years, and believers' bodies have been burned. If cremation is itself a problem in light of the hope of the resurrection, then all those Christians burned at the stake by the Romans are in serious trouble. Certainly that cannot be the case.
I think Paul might respond to the whole question concerning cremation like this: “Neither cremation is anything, nor un-cremation, but what is most important is one's faith in the power of the resurrection presently at work through love” (see Galatians 5:6).
Jeph Holloway, associate professor of religion
East Texas Baptist University
Right or Wrong? is sponsored by the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University's Logsdon School of Theology. Send your questions about how to apply your faith to email@example.com.