Christian Burial: A Case for Burial

Article ID: DC765 | By: by Norman L. Geisler and Douglas E. Potter

The following is an excerpt of article DC765 from the Christian Research Journal. The full text of the article can be read by following the link below the excerpt.


Christian Burial- THE CASE FOR BURIAL

Admittedly there is no direct command regarding burial or prohibition of cremation.14 While the act of cremation, as such, is not a sin or an intrinsic evil like murder, burial is the general pattern set down in Scripture.15 Its continued practice is a reasonable inference drawn from biblical truths. Thus we believe the evidence supports the conclusion that Christians, if at all possible, should practice burial. It is more symbolically appropriate to do so. There may be circumstances, however, that make burial unwise, against the law, or even impossible; but rare exceptions should not be used to eliminate the general practice of burial.

There are at least six reasons for holding that Christians should practice burial. Each will be briefly stated. Taken together they offer good evidence for preserving the Christian practice of burial.

Christian Burial- Burial Follows the Example of Christ. Jesus’ interment is described in great detail and was clearly a burial (Matt. 27:57–61; John 19:38–42). The fact that Jesus was resurrected three days later (according to Jewish reckoning), in the same body in which He died, gives assurance to the believer (John 20:1–30; Phil. 3:20–21). Burial not only shows respect for the body but it also symbolically anticipates its future — in the resurrection. Cremation, on the contrary, is more of a picture that death is the end of everything. Just as Christian baptism is symbolized by death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1ff.), so proper Christian burial can be part of the same picture.

Christian Burial- Jesus’ Burial Was According to the Gospel. Paul used Jesus’ burial as part of the Gospel message in 1 Corinthians 15. Burial is an essential part of the “gospel” since Paul defined the “gospel” as involving death, burial, and resurrection appearances. Burial is the seal of death and resurrection is proof that death is not final (cf. Rom. 4:25; 2 Tim. 1:10). Hence, burial is a significant symbol since it portrays a crucial part of the gospel.

Christian Burial- Burial Preserves the Christian Belief in the Sanctity of the Body. Christians believe God created man in His image (Gen. 1:26–27; 2:7).16 Even though God has no body (John 4:24), nevertheless in man this image of God is related to the body for at least three reasons. In Genesis 1:27 God included male and female bodies as associated with the image of God in man. According to Genesis 9:6, it is wrong to kill the body because it is linked to the image of God: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” It would make no sense to have such a curse if the image of God applied only to the soul, which man cannot kill (Matt. 10:28). Jesus Christ in a body is the exact representation of God’s nature. The Son “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb 1:3). If the image of God could be perfectly represented in man apart from the body, then the body would not be essential to resurrection. Finally, the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19–20). The body is important in Christian teaching, dead or alive, because it was uniquely designed to give expression to the image of God in man.

Christian Burial- Burial Symbolizes the Hope of Resurrection. As Paul taught, the very body that is sown perishable is raised an imperishable body (1 Cor. 15:42). This is best symbolized by burial, for it anticipates the final preservation of the body in the resurrection. The image presented of the dead being asleep (1 Thes. 4:13–18) is also preserved through burial. The Christian has escaped the judgment by fire presented in the Bible (Rev. 20:14). Cremation is the wrong picture to remind believers of salvation in the body by resurrection (cf. Rom. 8:11). On the other hand, cremation better symbolizes pantheism, which in its Eastern forms is usually associated with a salvation from the body by escaping the cycle of reincarnation.17

Christian Burial- Early Christian Practice Supports Burial. Believers in the New Testament such as Ananias, Sapphira, and Stephen, were not cremated (Acts 5:6, 10; 8:1–2). To be sure, burial was a Jewish practice, and they were Jews, but they did not hesitate to reject Jewish practices that were contrary to their beliefs, such as circumcision (e.g., Gal. 2–3) and keeping the Jewish law (2 Cor. 3; Heb. 7–8). No such rejection of burial, however, is stated in the New Testament. When possible, early Christians were buried and cremation was looked on with great disdain because fire was often used to kill their martyrs.

Christian Burial- Burial Allows Proper Memory of the Dead. Burial or entombment, as Christians practice it, allows for an important part of the Christian belief — respect for and memory of the dead in the body in which we knew them. Regardless of whether the body is present or absent in a service, the knowledge of their burial puts their life in proper perspective as God made it and will one day restore it. In this way, Christian truth can be properly proclaimed. It is particularly important to promote such doctrines as creation and redemption at such a crucial time as ours in which these defining doctrines of Christianity are being compromised.

Christian Burial- How Important Is Burial versus Cremation? The answer to the question of the importance of this debate depends on what importance one places on a proper practice of what one believes, especially appropriate symbols. In fact, only if one rejects important Christian truths does cremation make sense. This is precisely the position of liberal Christians, and it is a reason why cremation finds wider acceptance in their congregations. Yet Christianity is not left intact after such doctrines as the bodily resurrection are discarded or ignored (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 15:16, 17). To reject symbolism is to say the thing it symbolizes is not important. An attack on the symbol of burial and the anticipated resurrection of the body is an attack on important Christian doctrines. It is analogous to burning a U.S. flag, which is a symbol of our country. To burn the flag is to attack the country it symbolizes. Likewise, to burn the body is to attack the person — and the God who created man in His image (Gen. 1:27; 2:7). Furthermore, it denies the resurrection in a symbolic way by pronouncing death final.

Of course, there are circumstances where burial is not possible. In those cases, we must do the next best thing we can do to preserve the original intent. In the Old Testament when a Jew could not keep the Feast of Passover on the first month because he was contaminated, he was commanded to keep it on the second month (Num. 9:6–13). He was not to neglect doing it altogether. Likewise, even when cremation is called for because of bacterial or viral contamination, it should be done with regret and respect. For example, the ashes should be preserved, not cast to the wind or sea.

Christian Burial- A FINAL THOUGHT

From the Christian perspective, burial is the pattern used in Scripture and has been historically followed by the church. Of course, it should be pointed out that cremation is no hindrance to the act, or event, of the resurrection. God, in His omnipotence, is certainly able, if He so chooses, to collect every atom and molecule, no matter where it is found in the universe, and reconstruct our same bodies in a glorified state. It does not follow from this, however, that cremation is an acceptable general practice. Whereas burial is an important practice and symbol in Scripture, cremation is a poor symbol of scriptural truth. While cremation is not an intrinsic evil, it nonetheless symbolically vitiates some important biblical truths. In this sense, cremation is a hindrance to the promotion of resurrection truth and should not be a regular practice of Christians. We thus conclude that all Christians should practice Christian burial unless extraordinary circumstances do not permit it.