The use of cremation services is on the rise in the United States. According to a 2017 National Funeral Directors Association report, cremations accounted for just over half of all funeral services in 2016, and was up for two years in a row. The expectation is that the use of cremation services will continue to rise “over the next 20 years.”
As Christians are faced with making these kinds of death-care decisions, is there guidance from the Bible? Here are several observations:
- Mankind was made in the image of God.
Genesis 1 records that God made mankind (male and female) in his own image. That is, mankind represents God in the Creation and is like God in some way. (Though there are a variety of interpretations as to what the image of God in man is, this is the most basic understanding of it.)
The Bible teaches that God is a spirit. This means at least two things. First, He exists without physical form. Second, there is no physical, visible representation that could portray Him. However, throughout the Bible, physical human attributes are ascribed to God. For example, God is said to have “hands,” “eyes,” and “feet” (to name a few). But those are anthropomorphic: human terms used to describe characteristics of God that help us better understand Him. Therefore, the human body should be considered an aspect of the image of God since He created it as it is (and the Creation does teach us about God), and since God Himself frequently references its parts to illustrate characteristics about Himself.
- Mistreatment of the human body is viewed as violating the image of God.
Genesis 9 institutes capital punishment based on the fact that mankind bears the image of God. (Note that the image of God in man was not lost after the Fall.) Taking the life of an image-bearer is striking at the image-giver. Capital punishment is a small part of the Noahic Covenant. This is a “contract” God made with mankind which institutes capital punishment for murder, permits the eating meat, and confirms that the earth will never be destroyed with a global flood again.
In Amos 1 and 2, gentile nations are receiving messages of judgment from God for how they have violated the Noahic covenant. Excessive cruelty in warfare, slavery, human trafficking, and the mistreatment of the human body are all addressed in these announcements of judgment. Probably the strongest passage against cremation is found in Amos 2:1-3. There, the prophet Amos announces judgment against the nation of Moab for how they had mistreated the body of the King of Edom (a rival nation): they had desecrated it by burning. Therefore, not only does murder strike at the image-giver, but mistreatment of the human body (here, by burning) strikes at Him too.
- When the Bible records the burning of the human body, it is always in a negative context.
Besides the judgment of Amos 2, the Bible records other instances of burning the human body. The dead bodies of King Saul and his sons were desecrated when the enemy hung them on their city wall. This was done as a way of gloating over their defeat. Israelites came to the city, removed their bodies, and cremated them in order to prevent further desecration (I Samuel 31). Achan’s sin led to the stoning and burning of his family (Joshua 7). Nadab and Abihu were judged directly by God and were consumed by fire (Leviticus 10). None of these situations is desirable. The Bible consistently paints the burning of the human body in a negative light.
- The normal pattern of the Bible is burial.
The overwhelming pattern of the Bible for handling the dead is burial. It was considered decent and respectful (see II Kings 9:34 where even Jezebel was to be offered a burial). The patriarchs were buried. Joseph, who died in Egypt, was buried in Canaan centuries later (and those were just his bones). Kings were buried (some notably, some not so). Jesus was buried. Even Abraham, who had been promised the land on which he traveled, purchased a piece of ground to bury Sarah, and was himself buried on that plot as well. As far as we know, the only piece of purchased property in Canaan (prior to its conquest) was a place of burial (that is significant!). Following the battle of Gog, men will find employment burying the dead, even so far as burying bones found long after the fact (Ezekiel 39:11-16).
- The promise of a future resurrection is a bodily resurrection.
The pattern of the Bible being burial of the human body after death is consistent with the teaching that the human body will be resurrected at a future time. In First Corinthians 15:35-44, Paul uses the illustration of planting seeds to explain how the resurrection (and consequently the resurrection body) works. The body is “sown” but is not raised the same body.
Furthermore, the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus is the precursor and pattern to our own resurrection. “Now is Christ risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept [or that have died]” (First Corinthians 15:20). The “first fruits” were the first products of a ripening crop. Usually they give an indication of what the rest of the crop will be like. So, Christ’s resurrection (literal, bodily) is the precursor to our resurrection.
Paul goes on to say that, “as we have borne the image of the earthy [our human bodies, like Adam’s], we shall also bear the image of the heavenly [our resurrected bodies, like Jesus’s]” (First Corinthians 15:49). Again, our bodies (present to future) is the emphasis.
As our culture slips further and further away from Judeo-Christian values and a Christian worldview, it is important that both our life-choices and death-choices communicate a conviction about what the Bible actually teaches.