One of our readers asked whether the cremation of the human body is permissible for a Christian when he or she dies.
The question arises out of the reality that some Christians face in countries with large populations and small land masses. In some of these countries, land is at a premium and cemeteries seem to be a waste of space. This is the case, for example, in Singapore. This independent country, which consists mostly of one island, is about 274 square miles in area. Currently, it is inhabited by some five million people, of whom about three million were born locally. It is a financial and banking centre in Southeast Asia and there are many foreign firms with offices or plants within its boundaries. This makes the country crowded. Land is expensive, there is little room for cemeteries and funerals are costly.
While the Singaporean government does not forbid burying bodies in cemeteries, it encourages cremation. And the time may not be too far in the future when cremation is mandatory.
It is doubtful that one can say, on the basis of Scripture, that cremation is wrong under all circumstances. Certainly cremation does not prevent the resurrection of the body, either of the wicked to damnation or of the righteous to glory. Too many of God’s people have been burned to death. Some were burned accidentally and their bodies cremated in structures in which they had found shelter. Others were burned to death by their persecutors. It is written of Nero, the first-century Roman emperor, that he lit his nighttime, garden banquets with burning crosses on which hung Christians. Burning at the stake was a common method of administering the death penalty in the Middle Ages onwards when the Roman Catholic Church fiercely persecuted faithful people of God who refused to deny the truth they loved. We need only think of Jan Hus, Guido de Brès, Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley.
The mighty power of God through Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of Christ preserves every body of the elect, no matter what is the manner of their death and no matter how long they have been dead. God will raise them in the final resurrection. Even the bodies of Adam, Abel, Seth, Methuselah and all the saints who died before the flood that tore the earth and everything in it to shreds, God has preserved.
But, at the same time, the emphasis of Scripture lies on the burial of the human body at the time of death. One reads nowhere of a godly person cremating the body of one he or she loved; one does read repeatedly of burying human bodies; and Scripture teaches that the burial of the body is an act of faith.
The Christian respects the human body. It is created by God, preserved by God and will be saved by God along with the soul. The Christian is happy to confess in the first Lord’s Day of the Heidelberg Catechismthat he has a comfort that embraces the body: He belongs with body and soul to Jesus Christ. Paul even reminds the Corinthians that their bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit: “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (I Cor. 6:19-20).
As a parenthesis, the respect for the human body that characterizes the life of a Christian is not the idolatry of body worship, a fundamental part of ancient Greek pagan religion and increasingly a part of Western culture. Nor does a Christian allow the body to be mutilated by tattoos, cuttings and piercings of various kinds.
When the burial of the body of a loved one is an act of faith, the believer follows the example of Abraham, who buried his wife Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah, which he purchased from the sons of Heth in the land of Canaan (Gen. 23). It is profitable to read this chapter; I have always found it a very moving description of the burial of Sarah.
This burial by Abraham was an act of faith. It was an act of faith, first of all, because it expressed Abraham’s conviction that although he had to purchase the land, nevertheless, one day in the future God would give his seed Canaan for their inheritance as He had promised.
It was an act of faith, secondly, because Abraham did not fix his faith on the land of Canaan as a treasure to be acquired for its own sake, but, as Hebrews 11:9-16 tells us, he saw in Canaan a type of heaven. And so he buried Sarah in the hope of the resurrection of the body and the inheritance of heaven.
We too bury the bodies of our loved ones in the ground, because we know that this earth in which the bodies of our loved ones are buried will also be changed to be like the heavenly and, when this earthy is made heavenly, our bodies buried in the earth will also be made heavenly.
There is another point to be made. In I Corinthians 15:36-38, Paul compares the burial and resurrection of our bodies to the planting of a seed, which must die in the ground before it can bring forth new life. This is a picture of the resurrection.
We put the bodies of God’s people in the grave, because it is in and through the grave that these same bodies rise again to a glory and blessedness that is part of the new heavens and the new earth, which we shall inherit.
We bury God’s people in the hope of the resurrection and in the faith of the inheritance of a new heavens and a new earth.
We ought to bury our bodies and not cremate them.
- Volume: 13
- Issue: 23
Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)
Ordained: October 1955
Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965
Emeritus: 2001Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof._Herman_Hanko
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