Though the Assemblies of God believes strongly in God’s provision of divine healing as evidenced by the fact it is one of the cardinal doctrines of the church, we know from observation and the study of scripture that not all believers are healed when we pray for them. But the truth of physical death is also Scriptural. For the Bible which declares, "I am the Lord that healeth thee,’’ also says, "It is appointed unto men once to die" (Hebrews 9:27, KJV).
Some cult teach that people could live forever if they could only exercise the necessary measure of faith or would make a commitment to a cult leader who teaches the possibility of perpetual life in the here and now. But such teaching is contrary to Scripture.
Because physical death is a fact of life for all people including Christians, it is entirely appropriate to think about and plan for our departure from this life if God’s appointed time for death precedes Christ's return to snatch away all believers "who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:15).
It is commonly held among Assemblies of God adherents that cremation is not the ideal method of interment for the Christian. This feeling is not based on any direct command of Scripture, for there is none, but on the practice established in both the Old and New Testaments in which Christ, His saints, and the Old Testament heroes were all buried in traditional body-preserving fashion. Second, cremation originated as a practice of the pagans (people who believe in different gods, or people who don’t believe in any god). Because of its origin many have felt cremation to be anti-Christian.
It is obvious that both the Old and New Testaments look forward to a resurrection of the body. A common thought in the Christian community is that cremation does not visually show or express a belief that the body will one day be resurrected. Of course such thoughts contradict our belief in the rapture of the Church and those who are dead in Christ. Another common concern is that cremation does not treat our bodies (the temple of the Holy Spirit [1 Corinthians. 6:19], created in the image of God [Genesis 1:27] ) with proper respect. Again, this thinking makes it difficult for Christians to accept cremation.
However, there are often extenuating circumstances that lead to the cremation of a believer’s body. For example: in some countries laws will not permit a body to be transported into or out of its borders without cremation. In other cases plagues and epidemics have sometimes led health authorities to enact specific regulations concerning the treatment of dead bodies. The atrocities of war have often destroyed bodies by cremation and even more degrading practices. In a number of crowded countries limited land space for burial has encouraged the use of cremation. But even if one should choose cremation apart from special circumstances, there is no biblical evidence for thinking a Christian will miss heaven because of cremation.
Within the Assemblies of God the Bible is the primary guide. God’s book speaks to the living; that all should believe, accept, and serve Christ in a manner that is pleasing to God while they are alive.
While some quickly dismiss the cremation issue as unimportant, we recognize it has caused distress and anguish to many surviving family members and friends. When differing interment procedures have been performed on a brother or sister in Christ, it has left some with the troubling question, "Will my loved one ever realize heaven?" It is here that we must rely on Scripture. Jesus’ own words concerning eternal life were, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:25,26)." Romans 10:9 says, "That if you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." There are no additional qualifications to salvation such as the mode of interment (see also: Romans 10:13; John 3:16-18; Mark 13:13; John 3:36; and John 6:51).
A worry voiced among some Christians is: "How will God rapture the dead when their bodies are ashes, and in some cases scattered all over the earth?" The key here is to recognize the power of God. Certainly God, who breathed the world into existence, who parted the seas, who calmed the waters, and who raised His own Son from the dead, can account for our ashes and renew them into glorified beings on resurrection day.
The rising cost of funerals and burial plots is another matter of concern. Some families with limited resources may choose cremation for a departed loved one in order to avoid the added debt that can come from burial expenses. For those with financial stability to criticize such a family demonstrates a greater concern for legalistic tradition than for the well-being of an already hurting family.
We must never put an inordinate emphasis on interment methods. One would logically assume that the complete lack of biblical instruction on burial would indicate burial methods are of little concern to God. The message of the Bible strongly indicates it is one’s personal belief and commitment to Christ in life and not the manner of burial after death that affects one’s eternal reward.
Is Cremation Appropriate for Christians?
Rev. Richard D. Phillips • Question Box
Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia • July 9, 2000
Copyright reserved • Internet access via www.tenth.org
Tonight’s question is about the propriety of cremation for the bodies of Christians after death. The question reads as follows: “I recognize we should respect and care for the body God has given us. Does this rule out cremation for Christians? Is there any biblical teaching or guideline?”
Sometimes Christians worry that if their body is cremated they will be ineligible for the resurrection, mainly on physical grounds. If the body is consumed by fire, how can it be resurrected? The counter-argument is that bodies that are buried also disintegrate. When it comes to the resurrection I freely admit that a vast miracle is needed, and I trust God, who made everything out of nothing, to sort out the molecules. Therefore, I want to begin by stating that there is no reason to worry about the possibility of resurrection after cremation.
We always want to ask what the Bible has to say, and the Bible has an awful lot to say about death. First, I must confess that I find no command in Scripture against cremation. Nonetheless I think a summary of the biblical data will show if not a commandment against cremation, at least a clear hostility to this mode of dealing with human remains.
From the earliest times in the Bible, burial constituted the proper means of dealing with dead bodies. When Abraham’s wife Sarah died – and this is the first formal burial I find in Scripture – burial tombs were used (Gen. 23:4-6). Abraham’s family were all buried in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre (25:9). Many years later, when the first high priest, Aaron, died, we are told that he was buried (Dt. 10:9). The death of Moses is perhaps particularly instructive:
And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Dt. 34:5-6
It was God who dealt with Moses’ bodily remains and he buried him in the ground. In Dt. 21, a stipulation is made that even a capital criminal who is put to death is accorded the right to be buried (v. 22). Of course, the great example in the Bible is the record of the burial of Jesus Christ. Mt. 27:57-59 tells of Joseph of Arimathea gaining permission from Pilate to bury our Lord’s body in a new tomb cut out of the rock.
From very early in the Bible we also find the use of perfumes and spices to prepare the body for the grave. 2 Chronicles 16:14 observes that this happened for the body of King Asa. The intent was not really preservation, as in Egyptian mummification, but purification of the body. John 19:39 tells of the great amount of myrrh and aloes and spices used by Joseph and Nicodemus for the preparation of Jesus’ body. The body, though dead, still warranted love and care.
What about cremation? The Bible does mention it. In Joshua 7, Joshua proclaimed that whoever was found with the dedicated items stolen from Jericho “shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him” (7:15). When it was discerned that a man named Achan was the guilty party, the Israelites stoned and cremated his entire household, including his animal livestock (v. 25). Leviticus 20:14 calls for the burning of a man who marries a woman and her mother. The same was true for any priest’s daughter who became a prostitute (Lev. 21:9). There are other examples, but you get the picture. Burning of human remains spoke of judgment on sin, which also will be, the Bible says, by fire.
It is always the case that our views of the afterlife will influence how we handle the bodies of those who have died. That is true not just of Christians but of everybody else. Our theology will shape the way we approach all of life’s great events, be they childbirth, marriage, the coming of the annual harvest, etc.
Let’s first deal with the theologies aligned with cremation. In the ancient world there were a variety of reasons. Some peoples seem to have feared the dead and so they wanted to get rid of them. More sophisticated people, like the later Greeks and Romans, who greatly favored cremation, seem to have been guided by philosophical views that downgraded the body in comparison to the spirit. Just about all the ancient philosophies had little use for the body. In general, cremation does reflect a low view of the body after death, however one may view the fate of the liberated soul.
What about today? I took the liberty of checking out various websites advocating cremation on the internet and, to my surprise, the only incentive I saw listed was economic. Cremation is cheaper than burial. But I think there is also a new age mysticism that motivates, however vaguely, renewed interest in cremation today.
The other day I ran across a touching story regarding the spreading of a loved ones’ ashes. The man who had died was a mountain climber and his friends carried his ashes to the top of Mt. McKinley, the highest spot in North America. That is no small feat and it surely expressed real devotion. With great reverence, the friends observed a moment of sileence, after which they let his ashes go so that “his spirit could float above the mountains.” Then they turned around and left.
On one level, I am touched by the gesture, but mainly I think it speaks of the despair that attends death apart from faith in the resurrection. The best we can do is 15 minutes of afterlife fame followed by nothing but warm memories and annihilation by dispersion.
Christian burial is motivated by a far different view of life after death. The New Testament describes those who have died as being “asleep” (1 Cor. 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51). This is not a description of the soul or spirit, for those are not asleep but with the Lord in heaven. It is the body that sleeps, and sleep is a temporary condition. The bodies that sleep – yes, I suppose even those that are decomposed – are awaiting their wake-up call on the resurrection morning.
Without doubt, it is the doctrine of the resurrection of the body that has motivated the Christian practice of burial and the Israelite practice before it. Everywhere Christianity has spread, cremation has given way to proper and respectful burial. Christians have a robust view of the body, both in life and in death. One of the great comforts as we face disease and sickness and death in this life is the knowledge that they will not have the last word. No, it is these bodies that are so integrally a part of ourselves that will be resurrected in glory, imperishable and immortal. And though we acknowledge the physics of the grave we are not in alliance with them, nor with death at any level. The apostle Paul writes, in 1 Thessalonians 4:
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him… For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. (vv. 13-16).
Everything about that description tells us to honor, to preserve, yes, even to dedicate real estate to the bodies of those our beloved who having died are with Christ in the spirit, and awaiting the resurrection of their bodies in the morning of the new creation.
Perspectives - Spring 1999
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Ask VST #1 [Cremation]
Selwyn S. Schulte asked the first question for this new feature in Perspectives:
How does God view cremation? Is it acceptable? Does being cremated risk one's chance of eternal life in heaven? These questions were proposed to me by an elderly native friend of mine, and I was hard-pressed to give a definite confirmation, although I could not find anything in the Bible saying not to be cremated or that it is unacceptable to God. Thank you.
The Rev. Dr. Richard G. Leggett, Associate Professor of Liturgical Studies researched this question and answers:
Christians have historically avoided cremation as a means of disposing of the remains of their dead. This aversion, however, has no scriptural or doctrinal roots. Rather, it appears to be the result of an unfounded fear that the cremation of the remains of a loved one may, in some way, prevent the resurrection of that person in the life to come.
In the ancient Middle East cremation was a frequent practice from 4000 bce to 2500 bce. For reasons that are not yet clear, archeologists have determined that around 2500 bce the burial of the dead began to replace cremation as the preferred form of disposal. We know that cremation was deplored by the Egyptians and forbidden by the followers of Zoroaster. Semitic peoples, including the Jews, also preferred the burial of the dead rather than cremation. Nevertheless, there are examples in the Hebrew Scriptures of the cremation of the remains of Jewish dead. After the battle of Gilboa, the remains of Saul and his sons were recovered by "valiant men" from the walls of Beth-Shan. The bodies were then taken to Jabesh, cremated, and the remains buried there (1 Samuel 31.8-13). The prophet Amos, in describing a terrible plague that shall fall upon Israel, indicates that relatives shall burn their dead (Amos 6.9-10). In neither case is there any suggestion that cremation is contrary to the will of God.
While the New Testament provides us with no examples of cremation of Christian dead, we can find numerous examples in the early church. In 156 Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was executed by the Roman authorities and his body burnt. The members of the church gathered up the remains, "more precious than costly stones and more valuable than gold," and buried them. His burial site became a place of worship for the community. Similar stories can be told about other martyrs. While we cannot say that the early Christians chose to cremate their dead, we can say that no writer of that period suggests that the burning of the body was an obstacle to its resurrection. Cremation, as an option for the disposal of the remains of a Christian, came back into our consciousness in the nineteenth century. Since that time more and more Christians have chosen this means as a faithful and caring way of preparing the remains of a loved one for their final disposition. One should remember that cremation is an acceleration of what other natural processes will achieve: the reduction of the body to its most simple elements.
In many ways cremation is an act of Christian stewardship. It avoids many of the chemical processes required for the limited preservation of a dead body and reduces the financial demands on the family at a difficult and emotional time. Whether the remains are placed in a columbarium, in a memorial garden, or scattered (in keeping with civil statutes), the demand upon land is reduced. There are Christians who will continue to bury their dead. This is in keeping with a long cultural history. Those Christians who choose to cremate their dead, however, need not fear that theirs is an act in contravention of scripture or of doctrine. They may, in fact, be acting in a responsible, faithful, and loving way to the earthly temples of the Holy Spirit that are the bodies of the faithful departed.