Should Christians be buried or cremated?

coffin 2A not-to-be-named website claims, “Cremation is devil worship by profanely desecrating the human body which is a good gift from God.” Recently I attended a conference and one of the speakers stated that is was his “very strong conviction” that Christians should not be cremated, but buried in the ground.

I thought his reasoning for favouring burial was unhelpful for the following reasons:

1. Unhelpful interpretation of Old Testament

The speaker referred to Leviticus 18:21 which says,

You shall not give any of your children to offer them (literally, make them pass through [the fire]) to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.”

This passage does not deal with how one should or should not dispose of bodies, but appears in the passage where the Lord is challenging his people not to imitate the detestable practises of the Canaanites (cf. Leviticus 18:1-4), which includes child-sacrifice.

When we as Christians read the Old Testament we need to think carefully about how we can apply the various laws to us today in the light of the gospel. Applying the individual case laws literally and woodenly to our society will create major challenges. We would have to wear tassels on the end of our robes (Deuteronomy 22:12) and never wear two kinds of cloth at the same time (Leviticus 19:19).

Rather, I would argue, we are to take the bigger principles behind the laws and apply these principles to our era in the light of the gospel. In Leviticus 19 the principle behind two kinds of cloth is that Christians are not to imitate our surrounding culture but be set apart for Christ, even in the way we dress. Leviticus 18:21 which forbids child-sacrifice is an implication of the sixth commandment not to murder. The principle is that we are to value the lives of children. A valid application of that principle would be to pass legislation making abortion illegal or sponsoring child-safe car seats for low-income families. A literal reading of Old Testament case-law will either lead to a kind of rigid legalism (so many laws to be obeyed) or a brand of antinomism (no laws that speak to my specific situation).

2. Unhelpful use of imagery

The speaker pointed out that fire is mostly a picture of judgment in the Bible (cf. Isaiah 66:15, Jeremiah 5:14, Hebrews 10:27 etc). The coffin going into the oven to be cremated would in that case depict entry into hell and judgement where the “fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). I would argue that darkness and descending into the grave can also can picture judgment in the Bible (Job 17:16, Nahum 1:14, Luke 10:15, 2 Peter 2:4 etc). A coffin being lowered into a dark hole could depict the damned going down into the pit where the “worm never dies” (Mark 9:48). Cremation, on the other hand, could be seen as depicting the believer entering the presence of God and the light of glory!

3. Unhelpful reflection on future resurrection

Some anti-cremation teaching assumes that if a body has been destroyed by fire, it is difficult for it to be resurrected later. The Gospel Coalition article takes a more moderate and balanced view and says, “From biblical times until the middle of the 19th century, the church was nearly united in the view that burial brings the most glory to God. Believers have reasoned that burial best reflects proper stewardship of the body and the divine value in the material world, most visibly depicts the gospel message, most clearly communicates the hope of future bodily resurrection, and most plainly expresses the promise of an eternal physical existence…burial reflects a distinctly Judeo-Christian worldview.” In similar vein, my conference speaker mentioned the fact that the Bible refers to the dead in Christ “rising” (1 Corinthians 15:42, 1 Thessalonians 4:16). Being buried, it is alleged, is a Christian testimony or witness to the resurrection – where our bodies will be “raised”.

Another more hard-line ministry goes even as far as to say, “Due to Jesus Christ’s victory over sin, death, the grave, and hell, believers only go to sleep in Jesus when their bodies die. Though their bodies may decay, they will be raised and changed into glorious spiritual bodies at the resurrection. Why in the world would another Christian want to burn a fellow believer while he sleeps? Death is not the end of the body!”

Zombie apocalypse?

Properly understood, the Bible does not advocate a zombie apocalypse where resurrected bodies will one day literally claw their way out of graves in cemeteries around the world. The believer who has died is not asleep in his dead body, but very much alive and conscious in God’s presence (Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 5:8). God will give us new bodies, not magically re-unite and re-form destroyed or decomposed body parts.

1 Corinthians 15 uses the language of bodies “rising” because it is likening the believer’s resurrection to a seed being sown (our present body) and a much more glorious plant growing or “rising” (our future body).  The plant does however have some continuity to the original seed.  Our future resurrected bodies will bear some resemblance to our present bodies but be much better, just as Jesus’ resurrected body was recognisable but was able to ascend into heaven.

1 Thessalonians 4:16 describes the return of Christ and what will happen. The verse also uses the word “rise”, but it seems the best way to translate this verse is,

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will be resurrected (literally “will rise”) first.” (cf. Acts 17:3) 

Instead of the believers, who had died, missing out on the resurrection and the future kingdom of God, as the Thessalonians were worried about, they would receive their resurrection bodies first.

Many martyrs in church history were eaten by lions and burnt to death. Christians have died in terrorist attacks where their bodies have been destroyed by explosion or vapourised. Christians have been lost to sea where their bodies have been eaten by fish and crabs. Christians have been eaten by cannibals, sawed in two and ridden over by steam rollers in North Korea. Does this mean they will all miss out on the resurrection? By no means!

4. Unhelpful confusion between personal opinions and theological convictions

Our speaker stated that burial is a “much more honourable” way of disposing of the body as opposed to the allegedly “pagan” practise of cremation. I agree that the body should be treated with dignity and honour as we are created in the image of God. The Bible teaches that our bodies are important and good. We can still treat the body with great dignity at a cremation while holding out the hope of the gospel. We could also treat a body with little honour during a burial. Our personal convictions about what is honourable in our culture should not be confused with what the Bible teaches or does not teach.

Resurrection reloaded

When a believer dies they go to be with the Lord Jesus Christ in what Jesus described as “paradise” (Luke 23:43). On the grand day of Christ’s return with the Father’s glory and the holy angels we will receive new, glorified bodies.  Our new bodies will be able to live forever with Christ in the New Heavens and New Earth.

Our present bodies should be treated with respect and buried with dignity.  We must remember that these bodies are just temporary, a “tent” (2 Corinthians 5:1-5), and we await our new, permanent, resurrected bodies. A Christian may be buried or cremated, may donate their organs for transplant or donate their bodies for medical research.  (In the case of medical research, I would ask for an assurance that the body would be treated with honour and disposed with dignity.)

Whether we are buried, cremated or otherwise, in the end, we all return to the dust; and if we belong to Christ we will receive renewed, reloaded, resurrected bodies.