Although Christians have never universally condemned cremation, burial has long been their accepted practice — as it has been for Jews. The Jews neither burned nor embalmed the bodies of their dead. In their practice, bodies were washed (Acts 9:37 ), anointed with aromatic spices (2 Chronicles 16:14 ; Mark 16:1 ), wrapped (Mark 15:26 ;John 11:44 ), and entombed within a period of 24 hours (Genesis 23:4 ;Deuteronomy 21:23 ; Matthew 27:57-60 ;John 11:17,39 ).
Perhaps the main reason cremation was not customary among Jews and Christians was its connection to pagan ritual. Further, the belief in resurrection held by Christians and orthodox Jews may have led to some superstitious dread of destroying the body. (Obviously, resurrection wouldn’t depend on the condition of the body after death.)1 It appears, however, that cremating a body was not viewed as a denial of belief in a bodily resurrection. Bodies were cremated during war or plague due to the danger of disease and contamination. The men of Jabesh Gilead burned the bodies of Saul and his sons, and then buried the bones (1 Samuel 31:12 ), possibly because they had begun to decompose after having been hung on a city wall by the Philistines. This example alone provides a clear indication that cremation is not an issue of ultimate spiritual importance. (Jonathan, whose body was burned along with Saul’s other sons, was one of the most remarkable and morally upright Old Testament figures.)
The reason that the treatment of the human body after death is such a sensitive issue for both Christians and Jews hinges on the significance of human life. Human beings are a little lower than the angels ( Psalm 8:4-5 ) but created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27 ). Today we possess a body that is both a corruptible “shell” (1 Corinthians 15:42-49 ) and the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19) which serves as the medium for the expression of our personal identity in this life. We are destined to live forever in real resurrection bodies that carry over our identity from the one we leave at death (1 Corinthians 15:50-55).
It follows that Christians believe that the body should be treated with appropriate dignity. A decision to have one’s body cremated should not be made lightly. Agreement among family and loved ones should be sought by the persons responsible for the decision. If carried out without adequate preparation and forethought, cremation could have serious emotional complications for loved ones.
1 . See the ATQ article, How Can a Decomposed Body Be Resurrected?
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The New Testament doesn’t give a detailed description of what has been called “the intermediate state” of those who die as Christians. The focus of the apostle Paul is on the wonder and joy of the resurrection ( Romans 8:18-23; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ). However, he said that to die is gain because it is to “be with Christ” ( Philippians 1:21-23 ), and that to be away from the earthly body is to be “at home with the Lord” ( 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 ). Another significant passage is Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross that when he died he would be with Him in “paradise” ( Luke 23:43 ).
It’s likely that even in the intermediate state we will have some kind of body. Paul said that at death “we have a building from God” ( 2 Corinthians 5:1 ). Man was created to be whole only as a being with a body.
These strong assurances that death brings us into the immediate presence of God are comforting. They clearly imply that Christians who have passed on are enjoying a conscious state of blessedness in God’s presence.
A body buried in a wooden casket would normally be entirely decomposed after a few hundred years, depending upon the conditions of the soil. Similarly, a seaman buried at sea would leave no traces. (Not a trace seems to remain of all of those who went down with the Titanic, for instance.)
The apostle Paul made it clear that our new body, though possessing some identity with our mortal body, will be a new “spiritual body” ( 1 Corinthians 15:35-44 ). God will not need to gather up the scattered molecules of our earthly bodies. (Remember that the bodies of many Christians have already decomposed, been completely destroyed by fire, or have been devoured by animals.) Therefore, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 doesn’t refer to a bizarre scene in which the ashes in funerary urns or decayed bodies in earthly graves are suddenly reconstituted. Rather, the resurrection is the wonderful occasion in which believers who have died will again be granted full bodily form, this time in a glorified heavenly body that can never again die or experience decay.
Life often confronts us with tragic situations that make us wonder about God’s willingness or ability to help us. Why would a good God allow such things to happen? Doesn’t He care?
This question is addressed by the Book of Job. In this amazingly relevant story, God allows His best example of a “righteous” man to suffer terribly. Job’s faith is stretched almost to the breaking point, while well-meaning friends accuse him of having done something to deserve his suffering. Job’s struggle continued until it was finally broken by the evidence of God’s infinite wisdom and power.
It is impossible for us to fully understand the ways of a God who puts our faith to such strenuous tests. Yet the story of Job reminds us that God can take evil deeds done by others and work them into the fabric of His plan for our good.
God doesn’t shield His people from all of the wickedness and suffering of a fallen world. But He alone has the power to use pain, persecution, and even death as part of His plan for our ultimate good ( Romans 8:28 ).
Another example of how God brings good out of human evil is the story of Joseph ( Genesis 37-50 ). Despite being sold by his brothers into slavery, Joseph eventually became God’s instrument to spare the lives of multitudes in Egypt, including the members of his own family. Although his brothers acted wickedly, God used their evil deeds for His good ends. When his brothers feared he would seek revenge after their father’s death, Joseph said, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:19-20).
One of the wonders of God’s providence is His unfailing power to demonstrate His goodness even through the intentionally evil deeds of His creatures. What a comfort to know that no evil can thwart the good intentions of our sovereign God!