Is cremation a legitimate option for Christians? It’s a question being asked in our day more than ever before. Fifty years ago, it wasn’t like this. In those days, the vast majority of Christians in America buried their dead and didn’t give much thought to burning them. According to statistics provided by the Cremation Association of North America, in 1965, only 3.87% of deaths in America resulted in a cremation. By 1999, that figure had reached 24.8%, and by 2014, it had jumped to 46.7%. With funeral costs rising and cremation becoming an increasingly common practice in American society, more and more Christians are considering cremation when their loved ones die.
The subject of how Christians should care for their dead is essentially ignored in modern American pulpits. For this reason, biblical ignorance on the subject has become fairly rampant. Most believers I talk to have a vague sense that burial may be the right way to go. They understand that burial was the practice of biblical times and have concerns that cremation may not be proper. But because they have little or no biblical grounding on the subject, they are easily persuaded that burial is, in the end, simply a tradition, one they are free to observe or ignore, depending on conscience, preference, and financial considerations.
“The Bible has nothing to say about this issue. It just doesn’t matter.” Statements like this sum up the attitude of a great many American Christians about cremation. Some become quickly irritated when the subject of burial vs cremation is raised. They do this because they have been led to believe that the Bible is silent on the matter. Their perception is that the way Christians care for the bodies of the departed is strictly adiaphora, a thing indifferent. Accordingly, they regard those who argue that burial is the correct Christian practice as legalists, advocates of man-made tradition rather than biblical truth.
Is this a valid perspective? Is it “legalistic” to say that Christians ought to bury their dead? By no means. Rather, good and necessary consequence from the Scriptures compels Christians to bury their dead, and not cremate. The biblical, theological, and historical evidence for this position is substantial:
1. Burying the bodies of the dead is a declaration of the believer’s hope in future bodily resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:42-44). Jesus Christ is coming from Heaven on the last day to call forth all who are in their graves, and to raise them from the dead (John 5:28-29). In anticipation of this event, Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:42-44, “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It (the body) is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.” As the apostle looks forward to the day of resurrection, he describes the Christian practice of planting a mortal body in the Earth, in hope that an immortal body will come out of the Earth. As he concludes, “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.”
Paul teaches elsewhere that Christians who die are “asleep in Jesus” (1 Thess. 4:13-14), referring to the bodily rest of death, in hope of bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15:18-20ff). Just as those who sleep at night awake at daybreak, so also those who “are asleep” (i.e., who rest bodily in their graves, 1 Thess. 4:15) will wake bodily on the Day of the Lord (1 Thess. 4:16; 1 Cor. 15:52; Job 19:25-27; John 5:28-29). Burying the bodies of the departed faithful is an expression of this hope; destroying their bodies in fire is a denial of it.
This is consistent with the historic Christian hope confessed in Heidelberg Catechism Question 57:
Q: What comfort do you receive from the resurrection of the body?
A: That not only my soul after this life shall be immediately taken up to Christ its Head, but also that THIS MY BODY, raised by the power of Christ, SHALL BE REUNITED WITH MY SOUL, and made like the glorious body of Christ.
2. The image of God is not just our spirits, but our bodies also. God made Adam, all of Adam, in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). It wasn’t just the soul of Adam, but the whole man, body and soul, who was the image of God. The invisible God was imaged in visible man.
Some object to this notion because God has no physical body. But the fact that God has no body is exactly the point. The invisible God who has no body is witnessed in what has become visible. The first man Adam was created in the image and likeness of God, and though that image and likeness was in some sense lost when he rebelled against God, mankind retains the divine image. As Bavinck writes, “According to Scripture, the image of God is larger and more inclusive than the original righteousness. For, although this original righteousness has been lost through sin, man continues to carry the name of the image and offspring of God.” (Herman Bavinck, “The Origin, Essence, and Purpose of Man”)
Jesus Christ, the obedient and physically resurrected Son, is the new Image (Colossians 1:15). Christians have been “predestined to be conformed to the image of (God’s) Son,” (Romans 8:29), and our conformity to Christ’s image will not be complete until we are clothed with physical resurrection glory (“these He also glorified,” Romans 8:30). “As we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.” (1 Corinthians 15:49)
In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus notes that “everlasting life is the perfect restoration of the image of God, with eternal joy and delight in God, heavenly glory, and the full fruition of all those good things which are necessary to a state of perfect happiness. In a word, it is the perfect conformity of man with God, consisting in the true and perfect knowledge and love of God, and in the glory both of the soul and body of man.”
As Bavinck argues, “Even the body is not excluded from the image of God. True, Scripture expressly says that God is Spirit (John 4:24), and it nowhere ascribes a body to Him. Nevertheless, God is the creator also of the body and of the whole sensuous world. All things, material things too, have their origin and their existence in the Word that was with God (John 1:3 and Col. 1:15), and therefore rest in thought, in spirit. . . . Hence all those activities which we accomplish by means of the body, and even the physical organs by which we accomplish them, can be ascribed to God. Scripture speaks of His hands and feet, of His eyes and ears, and of so much more, in order to indicate that all that man can achieve by way of the body is, in an original and perfect way, due to God. He that planted the ear, shall He not hear? He that formed the eye, shall He not see? (Psalm 94:9). To the extent, therefore, that the body serves as tool and instrument of the spirit, it exhibits a certain resemblance to, and gives us some notion of, the way in which God is busy in the world.” (“The Origin, Essence, and Purpose of Man”)
How can a dead body retain the image of God? A physically dead body retains the image just as a natural man (1 Corinthians 2:14) retains the image of God (Genesis 9:6) despite being spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1). Accordingly, after the spirit departs at death, we ought to show respect for the human body, because it is God’s image. Do we show such respect when we put the image of God in an oven and reduce it to powder? No. We show respect for the image of God by placing it intact in the Earth, in hope of future resurrection (Job 19:26-27).
3. Our Lord was buried and therefore sanctified the grave for His people. Thus the grave is no longer a place of cursing, but a place of rest and hope for bodily resurrection. This Gospel comfort is one of the reasons why the early Christians, living in a Roman culture where cremation was the norm, chose burial as the way to care for their dead, often at great sacrifice. Burial instead of cremation reflected the belief of those early Christians that they had been redeemed by Christ “body and soul, both in life and in death” (Heidelberg Catechism Q1).
As Paul wrote, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21)
What is it that Jesus will transform? “Our lowly body.” On the other hand, when a human body is reduced to bone fragments, and those bone fragments are ground into powder (the “ashes”), there is no more “body.” Christians plant the bodies of the faithful in the Earth as a testimony of their hope that those bodies remain united with Jesus even in death, and that the Lord will bring forth glorified bodies at His return (1 Corinthians 15:42-55; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18). In this we self-consciously follow Christ, whose mortal body was buried and whose glorified body was raised. We follow Him in death (burial of our bodies) as we do in life (suffering of our bodies), in hope that we will also be raised from the dead when He returns (glorification of our bodies).
In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus notes one of the reasons Christ was buried. “That we may be confirmed in the hope of the resurrection, as we, after his example, shall also be buried, and shall be raised again by his power; knowing that Christ, our head, has opened up the way for us from the grave to glory.”
4. Burying the dead was the universal practice of God’s people throughout biblical times, and also in the first 1900+ years of Christian church history. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, virtually all the kings of Israel/Judah, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, etc., were all buried. Abraham, our father in the faith, never owned any land in Canaan, except for a burial site that he purchased at great cost (Genesis 23:12-18).
Early church fathers like Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Lactantius, and Chrysostom all argued that burial is the proper way for Christians to care for their dead. Augustine summarized the thinking and piety of the early church: “Our Lord Himself, too, applauds, and commends our applause, the good work of the religious woman who poured precious ointment over His limbs, and did it against His burial. And the Gospel speaks with commendation of those who were careful to take down His body from the cross, and wrap it lovingly in costly cerements, and see to its burial. These instances certainly do not prove that corpses have any feeling; but they show that God’s providence extends even to the bodies of the dead, and that such pious offices are pleasing to Him, as cherishing faith in the Resurrection.” (City of God, chapter 13)
There is powerful, really indisputable evidence that the church throughout the ages has been united on this matter, and has seen great theological significance in the practice of burial, primarily because of faith that man is made in God’s image, and that all men (the righteous and wicked together) will one day be raised bodily from the dead. As Jesus taught in John 5:28-29, “the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”
5. God Himself practiced burial. We read this in Deuteronomy 34:5-6: “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And He (God) buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Peor; but no one knows his grave to this day.” What is the method of bodily disposal that God practiced? Burial. As John Calvin notes, the likely reason God buried Moses in an unknown location was to prevent superstitious veneration of his body by the Israelites. Yet the peculiar focus of this discussion is the method of bodily disposal that God chose for the faithful departed, and that was was burial. When we bury the bodies of our dead, we imitate God. Matthew Henry: “God himself buried (Moses), namely, by the ministry of angels, which made this funeral, though very private, yet very magnificent. Note, God takes care of the dead bodies of his servants; as their death is precious, so is their dust, not a grain of it shall be lost, but the covenant with it shall be remembered.”
6. Burning bodies is a frequent expression of God’s judgment against the wicked, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. As David wrote of God’s enemies, “You shall make them as a fiery oven in the time of Your anger. The Lord shall swallow them up in His wrath, and the fire shall devour them” (Psalm 21:9).
Under the Old Covenant, sacrificial animals and grain offerings were often burned (God’s judgment directed against the sacrifices instead of the people), cf. Leviticus 4:12, 21; 6:22-23; 8:17. Similarly, the bodies of people under God’s curse were also burned, as also witnessed in the New Testament. Many examples of this can be cited:
(1) Achan and his family were burned because they stole from the booty of Jericho (Joshua 7:24-26).
(2) In Numbers 11:1-3 and 16:35, “fire from the Lord” consumed His disobedient people.
(3) In 2 Kings 1:9-12, “fire came down from heaven and consumed” Elijah’s enemies.
(4) In Leviticus 10:2, Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, were burned with fire from the Lord for their disobedience.
(5) Under the OT Law, burning by fire was the prescribed form of capital punishment for certain extreme forms of wickedness (Leviticus 20:14; 21:9).
(6) Paul says that Christ is coming “in flaming fire, taking vengeance on those who do not know God” (2 Thessalonians 1:8).
(7) John the Baptist warned that when Christ comes in judgment, “every tree (i.e., Israelite) which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” and that the Lord “will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:10, 12).
(8) Jesus spoke of branches (i.e., people) being thrown into the fire and burned, another plain reference to God’s judgment against those who reject Him (John 15:6).
(9) In Revelation 20:9, “fire” comes down from God in Heaven to consume Christ’s enemies.
(10) Hebrews 12:29 says, “For our God is a consuming fire,” a clear warning of the fiery judgment coming against those who refuse Christ.
(11) Jesus warned people to “fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). God’s eternal wrath against individuals is demonstrated in the burning of their bodies.
(12) God created a lake of fire as the place of eternal judgment for Satan and the demons, the same place where God’s resurrected human enemies will be sent to burn forever (Daniel 12:2; Matthew 25:41; Revelation 14:9-11, 20:15).
When God first appeared to Moses in the burning bush, what fascinated Moses was that the bush was not consumed (Exodus 3:3). Exactly! God’s supreme glory and holiness was manifested, but did not consume — a perfect way for God to witness to Moses that He was coming to save His sinful people and dwell among them, and not destroy them. When the God who is a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24; 9:3; Hebrews 12:29) is manifested in a fiery way (as in the pillar of fire, Exodus 13:21) and does not consume His people (as in the wilderness wanderings), it is a picture of His forgiveness, mercy, and grace toward sinful people who would otherwise be liable to judgment.
Similarly, when the Levitical priests offered bulls as sin offerings, the animals were taken outside the camp and burned with fire (Exodus 29:14; Leviticus 4:12; 8:17; 9:11; 16:27). Consistent with many other Scripture passages, the fire represented God’s burning judgment against sin, directed in this case at the animals outside the camp rather than the people inside the camp. Fiery demonstrations against sin within the camp, in the midst of those who were under God’s covenant mercies, would have been inappropriate, so the animals were removed from that place. (This also foreshadowed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which was done outside of Jerusalem, Hebrews 13:10-13). What’s interesting about this is that when the Exodus generation rebelled against God, fires (representing God’s judgment) broke out among the people, on the outskirts of the camp (Numbers 11:1-3)!
Because burning bodies is plainly representative of God’s judgment against the wicked (Psalm 89:46), it was unthinkable for the Israelites to burn the bodies of their brethren. It should be equally unthinkable for Christians to burn the bodies of their brothers and sisters who have been delivered from divine judgment. The practice of cremation is in essence a repudiation of our Christian faith that we are forgiven of our sins, and that we will be raised bodily from the dead.
7. Cremation has historically been the practice of religions that reject belief in bodily resurrection. When we cremate, we do not imitate God. We do not imitate God’s people. We imitate Hindus, Buddhists, occultists, and others who do not hold to the truth about God. God will obviously have no problem resurrecting believers who have been burned, drowned at sea, eaten by wild animals, died in explosions, etc. That is not the point. This debate is not about what God can do, but what Christians should do. It is about how Christians are to lay the dead to rest under normal conditions, as an expression of their faith.
It’s important to note that cremation doesn’t actually turn a body into ashes. It reduces the human body to 3-9 pounds of charred bone fragments, which are then ground into powder — the “ashes.” If it is unthinkable for us to destroy the bodies of our loved ones by other means, it should be equally unthinkable to submit those bodies to the violence of 1800 degree flames, reduce them to piles of charred bone fragments, then pulverize those fragments.
The increasingly common perception among Christians is to view cremation as a dignified and respectful way to care for the bodies of their loved ones. Much of this perception is due to people not witnessing the actual act of cremation, nor thinking too deeply about what happens. Nevertheless, cremation is in fact a violent and destructive act committed against the image of God. As a method of bodily disposal, it is in no way dignified or respectful, but barbaric and pagan.
When we give up burial for cremation, we forsake our Christian minds, our history, and our theology. And we imitate the godless.
What did the Reformers believe concerning burial vs cremation?
The Protestant Reformers restored the Scriptures as the supreme authority in the Christian Church, and it was their conviction that those Scriptures “command” burial as the only prescribed way for believers to care for the bodies of the dead. This is summed up in the 2nd Helvetic Confession, Chapter 26:
“THE BURIAL OF BODIES. As the bodies of the faithful are the temples of the Holy Spirit which we truly believe will rise again at the Last Day, Scriptures command that they [bodies] be honorably and without superstition committed to the earth, and also that honorable mention be made of those saints who have fallen asleep in the Lord, and that all duties of familial piety be shown to those left behind, their widows and orphans. We do not teach that any other care be taken for the dead.”
This conviction is consistent with other Reformed confessions. For example, Question #1 of the Heidelberg Catechism confesses the underlying theology of burial — that our bodies belong to Christ and are thus united with Him, even after death:
Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil….
And again, Question #57 is very clear:
Q: What comfort do you receive from the resurrection of the body?
A: That not only my soul after this life shall be immediately taken up to Christ its Head, but also that this my body, raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul, and made like the glorious body of Christ.
The Westminster Larger Catechism also confesses the Christian hope that even after death, the bodies of believers continue to be united with Christ:
Q. 86. What is the communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death?
A. The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death, is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day they be again united to their souls….
Q. 87. What are we to believe concerning the resurrection?
A. We are to believe, that at the last day there shall be a general resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust: when they that are then found alive shall in a moment be changed; and the selfsame bodies of the dead which were laid in the grave, being then again united to their souls forever, shall be raised up by the power of Christ. The bodies of the just, by the Spirit of Christ, and by virtue of his resurrection as their head, shall be raised in power, spiritual, incorruptible, and made like to his glorious body; and the bodies of the wicked shall be raised up in dishonor by him, as an offended judge.
Don’t we need a specific command from Scripture to require burial and forbid cremation?
Does the 2nd Helvetic Confession go too far when it says the “Scriptures command” burial? Must we have a positive command from Scripture (e.g., “Thou shalt bury and not cremate”) in order to justify such a position?
“Good and necessary consequence” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6) is a sound and well-established principle of biblical interpretation. It has to do with those areas of Christian belief and practice that are not expressly set down in Scripture, but which are nevertheless important and even necessary for us to believe and do. I have intended to demonstrate in the above arguments that the Bible, by good and necessary consequence, compels us to burial as the prescribed way we are to care for the bodies of the departed faithful. The early Christians and Reformers obviously agreed.
Jesus taught this principle. When the Sadducees contended with Him about the resurrection (cf. Matthew 22:23-33), the Lord used the methodology of “good and necessary consequence” to prove His case. Jesus referred to Exodus 3 and the burning bush — a passage that has nothing directly to do with the coming resurrection — and said, “But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” The fact that Abraham and the other patriarchs are alive and will be ultimately raised from the dead is evidenced by God’s name. Jesus used good and necessary consequence to silence ignorant speculation and prove that the righteous will be raised.
See also Matthew 22:41-46, where Jesus uses good and necessary consequence from Psalm 110:1 to prove that the Son of David is also the Lord.
If someone objects, insisting that a positive command of Scripture is required to prove the case, then I suppose we should not require Christians to believe in the Trinity (since that is nowhere expressly commanded in Scripture), nor should we allow women to receive the Lord’s Supper (since that practice is nowhere expressly commanded or exemplified). Certainly the Bible teaches both the Trinity and that women are to receive the Supper. All orthodox Christian churches agree on this. The point is that each of those beliefs are derived by good and necessary consequence from the Scriptures, not by a single verse that says, “God is a Trinity,” or “Thou shalt serve Communion to women.” We must not argue childishly, demanding that the Bible must speak a certain way or else we will not listen.
That said, I believe the following statements by the apostle Paul constitute sufficient proof in themselves that the Bible compels us to bury our dead: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption [i.e., buried], it is raised in incorruption [resurrected]. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.” (1 Cor. 15:42-44).
Christians don’t bury their dead out of tradition or superstition or custom. We bury bodies primarily because of our belief that man is created in the image of God, and Christ is coming to raise the dead. We ought not cremate the bodies of believers (who have been delivered from God’s wrath) because burning a human body is a sign of God’s wrath against the individual. Burial is a statement of our faith, just as it was for the early Christians. Imitating the example of our Lord and His people, we plant our dead in the Earth like a seed, in sure hope that Jesus will one day come and call forth those bodies from their resting places to resurrection glory.
Are there any examples of cremation in the Bible?
There is only one example in the Bible of what we might call “cremation” (the modern practice of submitting a human body to 1800 degree flames, reducing that body to 3-9 pounds of charred bone fragments, and grinding those bone fragments into powder, the so-called “ashes”). At the least, it’s the closest thing we find in the Bible to the modern practice.
It’s found in Amos 2, where the Lord pronounces condemnation on the king of Moab “because he burned the bones of the king of Edom to lime” (Amos 2:1). For this act, the Lord said He would “send fire upon Moab” and “consume the citadels of Kerioth.” “And Moab will die amid tumult” (2:2).
Matthew Henry, commenting on Amos 2:1-2: “It is barbarous to abuse human bodies, for we ourselves also are in the body; it is senseless to abuse dead bodies, nay, it is impious, for we believe and look for their resurrection.”
For obvious reasons, it is problematic for cremation defenders to cite this example, especially since God refers to the burning of the body as “transgression” (Amos 2:1).
Wasn’t King Saul’s body cremated?
What about King Saul and his sons? Weren’t their bodies burned (1 Samuel 31:11-13)? Didn’t King David speak approvingly of the men who did this (2 Samuel 2:4-7)? Some have made more of the burning of King Saul’s body than is warranted, to the point of finding in the event as an implicit endorsement of cremation as a viable means for Christians to dispose of their dead. However, to derive such a conclusion from the text is unjustified.
After King Saul’s death, his body and the bodies of his three sons were mutilated by the Philistines. Saul’s head was cut off, and all four bodies were fastened to a wall in Beth Shan for public ridicule. Brave men from the city of Jabesh Gilead who were loyal to Saul came and removed the four bodies from the wall. They then burned the bodies, certainly an unusual act, and we aren’t specifically told why they did this. The most likely explanation is that the Philistines had made pagan religious markings on the corpses as a sign of their contempt for Saul, and that fire was used to purge the bodies of those images.
It is important to note that the men of Jabesh Gilead did not cremate Saul and his sons (at least in the modern sense), for their bones (not ashes) were then buried. Also, the Bible never says that King David specifically approved of the burning of Saul’s body, only that he was pleased that he had been buried (2 Samuel 2:4-7).
To derive authorization for Christians to cremate their dead based on the exceptional events recorded in 1 Samuel 31:11-13 and 2 Samuel 2:4-7 is unfounded to say the least, especially given that burning bodies is a sign of divine judgment (Leviticus 10:2; 20:14; 21:9; Numbers 11:1-3; 16:35; Joshua 7:24-26; 2 Kings 1:9-12; Psalm 21:9; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; Matthew 3:10, 12; 10:28; 25:41; John 5:28-29; 15:6; Hebrews 12:29; Revelation 14:9-11; 20:9, 15). Saul’s death was itself a divine judgment against him (1 Chronicles 10:13-14), and the burning of his body was a peculiar circumstance that marked the tragic end of his unfaithful reign. Given the context, the burning of Saul and his sons is arguably best understood as an additional sign that the king had been judged and found wanting, and that his sons would not take the throne of Israel after he was gone (1 Samuel 28:16-19).
Some object as follows: “Our bodies will turn to dust either way. ‘Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.’ Since our bodies won’t be intact when Jesus returns, what difference does it make how we dispose of those bodies?”
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” first appeared in the funeral rites of the 1549 edition of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. (The full expression is, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”) This saying has since found its way into other Christian burial rites, and has become so well known that Christians now cite the expression in defense of the practice of cremation.
The problem is that the statement, “ashes to ashes” is not found in the Scriptures, nor is the concept representative of biblical theology. Some cite Genesis 2:7 (“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground”) and Genesis 3:19 (“For dust you are, and to dust you shall return”) as justification for the saying. But this is eisegesis, since “ashes” are not mentioned or referenced anywhere in either context. Adam was formed from the dust of the Earth, not from the remains of a fire.
Besides the fact that “ashes to ashes” does not appear in the Bible, the objection misses the point. The issue at hand is how Christians are to care for their dead, as a rule, under normal circumstances, as an expression of our theology and faith. Again, the debate is not about what God can do, but what Christians should do. Does the Bible speak to that issue? Yes, it does, and emphatically in favor of burial.
Some say, “Ashes are simply the human body in another form.” On the contrary, ashes are bodies that have been destroyed in a fire. They are a different form in a chemical sense, but they are not bodies.
Some have said, “Jesus was actually entombed. If we really want to follow Jesus in this regard, we should all be placed in crypts. Or better yet, in caves.” This objection also misses the point. The issue isn’t where Jesus was buried, but that He was buried, with His body intact, following the example of generations of godly believers that preceded Him. The writers of the creeds used the word “buried” (Apostles’, Nicene), even though they obviously understood the body of Jesus was “laid . . . in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mark 15:46). We ought not miss the significance of the word “buried,” which pictures intact bodies being laid in the Earth. “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:4)
One of the most common objections against burial has to do with its high cost. People say, “Some folks don’t have the financial wherewithal to buy a cemetery plot. Cremation is all they can afford.” I understand finances are a concern for many Christians. It’s impossible to answer every nuance of that concern in a single article. But just to say, there are low cost ways to bury the dead that make the burial option financially competitive with cremation. For example, there are companies that make caskets that look like the “real thing,” and yet are made of compressed cardboard. The cost of such caskets is approximately $400-$700, which generally includes the padding, hardware, and other essentials one would expect in a casket costing ten times as much. This is one example of how the costs of burial can be significantly reduced, if money is a factor.
That said, it’s true that even lower-cost burial options may not be quite as inexpensive as cremation. Yet if we’re convinced from the Bible that burial is what Christians are to do, and we understand that we are often called to make sacrifices in the observance of our faith (Romans 12:1-2), we can find a way to make it work, just as Abraham did when he bought a cemetery at great cost to bury his beloved wife Sarah.
It is only recently, in the doctrinally chaotic age in which we live, that Western Christians have begun practicing cremation. I believe this is because the contemporary church has lost its biblical, theological, and historical bearings. Neglect of the Scriptures and faithful preaching are the chief causes, and because of this, most believers have been set adrift in a sea of privatized, utilitarian religion, where every “choice” regarding care for the dead is considered equally valid, and every man is quick to affirm the right to do what is right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6). The Christian mind on the subject of burial that previous generations of the church took for granted has been almost entirely lost. As a result, burial vs cremation seems to be a complete non-issue for many Christians. The Western church has given up its Christian theology, history, and practice, seemingly without a fight. It’s a scandal, a shame, and ultimately an offense against God, who clearly points His people to burial as the prescribed way to care for their dead.
Christians need to return to the practice of the Bible and the historic church: burial and not cremation.
I recently (2/22/2015) preached a sermon on this topic, which you can listen to here: