As a pastor, I never know exactly what each day holds. Sure, I have a schedule and some regular appointments, but God also brings me many unexpected interruptions. For instance, there are emergency hospital visits, unexpected deaths, and crisis counseling that often arise.
In addition to these events, I get asked a lot of unforeseen questions. When someone stops me in the hallway and says, “Pastor, can I ask you something?” I never know what’s about to tumble out of his lips. My usual response is, “Ask away.”
In my few years as a pastor, I have been confronted with some very interesting theological questions. In all honesty, I love it. It’s like being on a game show. The clock is ticking. The pressure is on. I only have a few seconds to mentally Google my brain’s concordance of the Bible to determine what God has said about a certain issue. Instead of winning millions of dollars, though, I get to help people increase their faith in Christ. That’s a win-win if you ask me.
Some of these queries, however, are unusual. For instance, someone inevitably asks, “Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?” (Yes), “Who did Cain marry?” (He married his sister.), “Isn’t that kind of gross?” (Well, I wouldn’t marry my sister if that’s what you mean.), and “If God is all-powerful, can He make a rock so big that even He can’t lift it?” (I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.)
Recently, though, I was asked a question that I have never been asked before. A church member, who was beginning to make plans for her estate, stopped by my office and asked…
…”Pastor, what does God think about cremation? Is it a sin? Or is it ok? Do I have to be buried? What does the Bible say about all of this?”
She even concluded, “I’m willing to do whatever God wants. I’m just not sure what that is.” By the way, that’s the best attitude anyone can have when discerning God’s will.
As her question hung in the space between us for a second, I sat back in my chair, scratched my chin, and searched my brain. I quickly opened my Bible and pieced together some relevant verses that came to mind. I offered her the best answer that I could with such short notice.
Since then, I’ve had more time to reflect on the issue. While my answer is the same, my thoughts are now much more organized. So, for those interested, here is my response to her question.
1. The Bible gives no clear instructions about the postmortem treatment of the body.
This really is the bottom-line. What we do in our flesh (while we’re alive), matters a great deal to God. What we do with our flesh (once we’re dead), does not. The Bible records instances of both burial (mostly in caves, not graves) as well as cremation (1 Sam 31:8-13). Those passages, however, are descriptive (what did happen), not prescriptive (what should happen). In the end, there is no verse that says, “Thou shalt not be cremated.”
What we do with our bodies at death, then, is a matter of conscience and Christian liberty. Paul tells us that a believer should never, ever violate theirconscience. (Romans 14) At the same time, we should not force our conscience, about these gray issues, onto others. Don’t turn the gray areas into black and white ones. We should respect each other’s liberty and freedom of choice in such issues.
2. The ultimate difference between cremation and burial is time.
Some people assume that a body that has been embalmed remains in that picture perfect, funeral home form forever. That is not true. Though he was speaking more poetically than scientifically, Solomon rightly observed,
“[At death] the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” (Eccl 12:7).
In time, even embalmed bodies begin to oxidize. The molecules begin to break down and the flesh and bones start to decompose. Cremation does the exact same thing. It is just more rapid.
Whether it is buried or cremated, a lifeless body eventually breaks down. At a graveside service, the preacher can often be heard saying, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” He’s right. Either way, the body winds up in the same condition – time is the only real difference.
3. If God can create a man out of dust, rest assured, on resurrection day, He can also re-create a man out of dust.
When God made Adam, all He had to work with was dirt. Nevertheless, God powerfully animated it into a human being. Genesis 2:7 says,
“Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”
Trust me, if God can do that with dust, ashes will be no problem for Him.
Revelation 20:13 tells us that, one day, everyone’s body will be raised for Judgment Day.
“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.”
The term “death”, here, can arguably mean “the grave” or “the tombs.” Notice, however, that some will be raised from “the sea.” Understandably, those who have died at sea have likely not been laid in a velvety, cushioned casket for traditional burial. They were simply tossed overboard where their bodies became fish food. However, God will powerfully raise them as well.
As morbid as this sentence sounds, Revelation 20:13 reminds us that God is more than powerful enough to resurrect the buried, cremated, drowned, maimed, exploded, eaten, and decayed remains of men and women on resurrection day.
No matter what happened to your body at death, it will be reassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. We serve an incredibly powerful God! In the end, your body will be ready for God’s judgment. The question remains: will your soul be ready too?
Personally, if I have my druthers, I want to be buried. Since Jesus was raised bodily and I believe that I too will, one day, be raised in His likeness, I’d like to be buried with that in mind.
I think churches need cemeteries. We need to be reminded that, at the sound of the trumpet, those tombs will one day crack open and be vacated once and for all. Ultimately, though, no matter what happens to our flesh and bones at death, our hope remains the same, as Jesus said,
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies…Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)