Questions from the Community: Life after death, is there scripture that says that a person should not be cremated? When scripture talks about bones rising, what about people who have died in fires or explosions?
17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.Philippians 3: 17-21
…48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we[g] bear the image of the heavenly man.
50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. …1 Corinthians 15: 48b-53a
1 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.2 Corinthians 5: 1-5
Continuing our series to begin the new year, the question or topic that I’m addressing today has to do with the resurrection. I’m paraphrasing here, but the submission basically had to do with “What kind of body will we have?” or “What is the nature of the body that we will have in the resurrection?” And some of the specific details of the inquiry had to do with cremation or damage to the body suffered in this lifetime.
Now the train of thought that led to this submission is pretty common. For example, I met with the pastor of the Orthodox church the other week and he noted that in the Orthodox Church, cremation is generally avoided, though there are some cases where this might be unavoidable (or even necessary?). However, as a rule, in the Orthodox Church it is preferable to not be cremated (or so I understand).
I didn’t press for details or explanations, and I don’t want to put words into the mouth of my pastor friend. But speaking for the broader Christian population who follows this train of thought, the thinking is usually something along the lines of, “If our bodies are going to be resurrected, then shouldn’t we make sure that our bodies are in the best state to be resurrected?” or something similar.
Now before we delve into my personal thoughts and opinions about this issue, I want to take a quick look at some of the scripture passages related to this idea. One of the first that comes to mind has to do with Jesus’ own resurrection. And this is important because Jesus’ resurrection sets the precedent. So, in Luke 24, we read:
1 On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5 In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7 ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” 8 Then they remembered his words.
9 When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.Luke 24: 1-12
Now what this shows us about the nature of the resurrection (passing over the eschatological significance of it) is that Jesus’ actual body was resurrected. This wasn’t a solely “spiritual” resurrection as some might suppose (i.e. the Corinthians), but a bodily one. And it is the same body that Jesus inhabited on earth that is now resurrected. The tomb was empty and the strips of linen which had been used to wrap Jesus’ body were “lying by themselves.” He was not there. He had risen.
In a similar vein, in John’s account, after Jesus’ resurrection, He reveals Himself to the disciples. Thomas, in particular, is skeptical. Here, we read:
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”John 20: 24-29
This account is noteworthy because Jesus is again clearly in the same body as demonstrated by the wounds He suffered during His crucifixion. That is, the body that died is the body that rose.
All of this helps us understand why some folks have concerns around things like cremation. If Jesus’ body still had scars, wouldn’t the cremated still be ashes (or something like that)? Of course, the issue isn’t so quite so straightforward. For example, continuing immediately after the Luke account that we just looked at, we read Emmaus road account. We know that two of the disciples were walking and Jesus began walking with them. But they did not recognize Jesus until the end of the account, when they are breaking bread with him. This seems exceedingly odd – that His disciples wouldn’t recognize Jesus. On this note, there are several other scripture passages we might take into account. For example:
20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.Philippians 3:20-21
48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall webear the image of the heavenly man.
50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.1 Corinthians 15: 48-53
1 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.2 Corinthians 5: 1-4
Now of course, we are skipping over the immediate context of each of these passages. But all of them seem to indicate that the body will be raised – we will be resurrected physically – but that the bodies that we have will be new, somehow changed bodies. It may be that this is why Jesus’ disciples didn’t immediately recognize Him in his resurrected state.
With all that said, addressing the original question/submission, “Is there a scripture that says a person should not be cremated?” and “What about those who have died in explosions, fires, or in some other traumatic way?” what can we understand from the various scripture passages?
In short, unless I’ve missed something, there is not any scriptural passage that specifically forbids cremation. Scripture does seem to point to our resurrected bodies being in some way the same as the bodies we had in life, but at the same time, those bodies will be changed, restored, or renewed. How exactly, and to what extent, we do not know. But, for example, if one were cremated, there is no reason to believe that God could not raise the ashes (so to speak). If one’s body is destroyed, there is no reason to think that God could not and would not restore us from whatever state we find ourselves.
So I hope this answers the actual question that was asked, and addresses the actual concerns that were held. However, as I reflect on this, I am inclined to think that there is more to the issue than was actually submitted – that is, perhaps there was something lying underneath the question? Even if there were not, it certainly raises questions or thoughts for me, some of which I will share with you.
One thing that arises for me is the human tendency to want to know – to need to know – what is going to happen. In some folks, that may arise out of fear (of the unknown, for example); in others, it may arise out of a desire for power or control (where knowledge is treated like a commodity, or something we hold over others who lack it); however, it may also arise simply out of genuine curiosity. The scriptures (and therefore the teachings) are not clear, and certainly not comprehensive, about this issue (among many others); though they are clearly communicating something, we know not exactly what.
And what I would simply like to say about all that is that we don’t know (fully) and we likely don’t need to. Our call as Christians is not to know everything but to have faith. What we need to know is that God is faithful, God is loving, and God is good. What we need to know is that death is not the end, but that it has been defeated by Jesus’ work on the cross. And in Him, we share in that victory.
And we know that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and all that God created was very good. We have no reason to believe that the new heavens and the new earth would be any less good, any less perfect.
So on that note, the other thing that arises for me is that the resurrection will be complete. That is to say, we know that all of creation will be redeemed, will be restored. When we talk about resurrection, we typically frame or understand it in terms of “my resurrection,” or “our resurrection.” Which is not by any means wrong.
But along with our own resurrection, we know that the whole of creation will be restored. We read in Revelation:
1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”Revelation 21: 1-5
Further, we know from the creation stories in Genesis – or rather, the account of the fall – that the consequences of sin are broken relationships with God, with one another, and with the rest of creation. So the restoration of creation, the restoration of the created order, surely means a restoration of all of these relationships.
Resurrection, then, is not just a thing that happens to my body. It’s not just a thing that happens to me. It’s a thing that God is doing in and for all of creation. And we get to be a part of that.
The final thought I have has to do with the fact that, as we’ve said, in resurrection, Jesus bore the scars of His crucifixion. Now I don’t know that we can take that to be a exactly a precedent for our own resurrections, but I’m more inclined to think it likely than unlikely (i.e. if Jesus had scars, why wouldn’t we have scars?). Now does that mean that if we need glasses now, we’ll need glasses in the resurrection? Does it mean that if we broke a bone in this life, it will still be broken in the resurrection? If we’ve lost a limb (for example) in this life, will it still be lost?
Again, these are questions that we simply don’t have actual answers for. However, I’m inclined to say that no, I don’t believe that we will carry our woundedness with us. To still lack a limb, for example, would be a continuation of woundedness. And I don’t believe that we will or can continue to be wounded. However, I wonder the extent to which our scars, our sufferings, are a part of us.
Some time ago, someone I worked with asked me about the nature of identity in the resurrection. I’m abridging here, but his thinking was, if in the resurrection all our sins are completely done away with, as if we had never sinned, and a lot of our life experiences are wrapped up in those sins, or sinful behaviours, what will happen to our identity when those things are simply deleted? That is, if our memories and experiences are gone, will we simply be different people?
And to this, I want to refer us to something that C.S. Lewis writes about in The Great Divorce. Lewis says that:
“Son, ‘he said,’ ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
Now Lewis is speaking about something slightly different (and of course, what Lewis says is not scripture), but for our purposes, the idea that Lewis introduces is that God doesn’t delete our sinful past, He redeems it. Or, we might say, God doesn’t eliminate our scars and our wounds, he doesn’t disappear big chunks of our lives, He redeems them. In other words, all the parts of our past, all of the experiences of our lives, the good and the bad, are a part of us. But in Christ, all of it is redeemed for His glory. In the resurrection, God will restore the whole of us.
At the end of the Advent/Christmas season, we considered the words of the angel who announced Jesus’ birth. The angel said, “… ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.’” (Lk. 2:10). And we pondered the question, is what we share, “good news that will cause great joy”? Is what we believe, “good news of great joy”? Is that what we are living?
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve talked to people who expressed something along the lines of, “God can’t love me – I’m too broken.” “God can’t love me – you don’t know what I’ve done.” Or simply, “God can’t love me because I’m unlovable.”
Similarly, there are many people who simply cannot let go of past wounds; those whose woundedness defines their identities. The question here is not whether God can love them, but whether the promises of God can outweigh the sorrows of their pasts.
And what scripture tells us is that there is no wound so great that God can’t heal it. There is no one so broken that God can’t restore you. There is no one so fallen that Jesus cannot and will not raise them from the dead and into eternal life.
So this is what we proclaim. This is what we long for and live for. I’m not saying it’s easy – either to believe or take hold of. It’s not easy, but it is true.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”Revelation 21: 3-4