Why Cremation Is Unscriptural
Are there counter-examples?
Whilst the Jewish and early Christian practice of burial is plain to all, there are a few Old Testament exceptions which need explanation. For example, in several cases men were burned with supernatural fire, but as a token of Divine displeasure. So in Numbers 11:1-3 we read that "the fire of the LORD burnt" and consumed those that complained. In Numbers 16:35 two hundred and fifty men who offered incense in the Korah, Dothan and Abiram rebellion were destroyed by fire from the Lord. Again, in Leviticus 20:14 we are shown the awful end of a man, his wife and his mother-in-law who violated Divine laws governing human relationships. In Leviticus 21:9 death is decreed by burning for the daughter of a priest who profanes herself and her father by playing the whore.
In Joshua's day the death of Achan the troubler of Israel, and his family was by stoning, followed by the burning of their bodies with fire, after which we read: "So the LORD turned from the fienceness of His anger" (Joshua 7:25,26). Centuries later, when Jeroboam commenced goldencalf worship in Bethel and Dan, a man of God out of Judah denounced the King's act and prophesied that men's bones would be burned upon the idolatrous altar at Bethel (1 Kings 13:1,2), an act that would render it an abomination to all godly people. Fire from heaven burned up the two companies of fifty which were sent by the ungodly Ahaziah to take captive the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:10-12).
But what of the isolated incident in 1 Samuel 31:11,12 which appears to be referring to the cremation of King Saul and his sons by the men of
Jabeth? The rendering in the AV has been challenged by Hebraists such as S. R. Driver (past Professor of Hebrew at Oxford University) who contend that here "burnt" (Heb. saraf ) should read 'anointed with spices' (Heb.
sarap) (ZAW1 66,1954,314-15). Thus 1 Chronicles 10:12 records that their bones were buried. Koehler Baumgarten
(ZAW supplement 175) agrees with this. See also 2 Samuel 21:14, which refers to David burying their
|The reference to burning in respect of Asa in 2 Chronicles 16:14 can be seen from its context as referring to the burning of spices prepared by the apothecaries, and not to cremation. Further reference to this practice can be seen in Jeremiah 34:5.
To summarize we have clearly seen that the teaching of the Old Testament is that the burning of a human body is only allowed when a sin peculiar for its evil or hideousness is awarded a penalty designed by God to show the hatred with which that sin is regarded by our Creator Himself.
Even in Ezekiel 39:12-15 there is no suggestion for the need to cremate the dead of the hosts of Gog and Magog. Rather, after the tremendous slaughter here narrated, it takes the victors seven months to bury the bodies of those slain.
Amos records special Divine indignation against Moab: "Thus saith the LORD.
For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof, because he burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime: but I will send a fire open Moab . . ." (2:1,2). God requires behaviour befitting His moral law,
even from a nation that would not recognize it. The burning of an enemy corpse rendered honorable interment impossible. Accordingly such a practice as cremation, when a furnace reduces a corpse into about four pounds of lime dust and the calcined bones are ground, appears reprobate. Even when Moses himself was to die by the hand of God we read that "He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab" (Deut. 34:6).
New Testament symbolism
What then of the New Testament? Except in certain cases, as in Revelation, where a burning signifies the judgements of God and the final destruction of human beings, systems and influence (for example, Revelation 18:8 and 19:20), the only reference that can be misconstrued as supporting the burning of the human body occurs in 1 Corinthians 13:3, where the Apostle Paul declares: "though I give my body to be burned..." Obviously the apostle would be aware of the Greek practice of cremation; but it is not that to which he is referring, as can be seen from the context. Rather, here in this verse the Apostle Paul is advising that, whatever the desire of one to make personal sacrifice, it can be misplaced, and is not to be compared with one's actions which me to be motivated by a genuine love, a reflection of God Himself (1 John 4:19).
That Christ was buried is an essential part of the gospel message, and accordingly loving hands anointed our Lord for this purpose (John 12:7,24, Mat. 26:12). The Apostle Paul summarized this for us when he declared that "Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day" (1 Cor. 15:3,4). This burial was a fulfilment of prophecy: "he made his grave with the wicked" (Isa. 53:9). How appropriate therefore are our Master's words: "I ... have the keys of hell [Gk. hades, the grave] and of death" (Rev. 1:18)! A grave does not exist without a body, nor for those who have been cast to the flames, which is a travesty both of God's wishes and of the example of our Lord.
When we personally come to die, is it not accordingly fitting that we seek burial? If others do to us otherwise and contrary to our wishes, and mingle us with the dust of the earth, or scatter our remains to the four winds, or we meet death in the fires of martyrdom, this does not and cannot defeat the will and purpose of God. For assuredly there will be a resurrection both of the just and the unjust (Acts 24:15). However, the word 'cemetery' means 'a place of sleeping', and, following the spirit of the Word of God, our bed should be the grave.
Symbolism and its meanings play an important part in Scripture, as for example the bread and wine on Sunday morning. How beautiful is the idea that the faithful sleep in the earth till the resurrection! Thus Daniel says: 'many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake" (Dan. 12:2). Of the responsible it is declared: "Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise" (Isaiah 26:19). The psalmist expresses this as a time when God will "quicken me again", and will "bring me up again from the depths of the earth" (Ps. 71:20).
Such a pattern of thinking is consistent throughout the Bible. Of David it is said that he slept with his fathers, and was buried" (1 Kings 2:10). Remember how that, after Christ's own resurrection, "the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves" (Mt. 27:52,53).
How apt, therefore, in the New Testament is the Greek word 'koimnomai' meaning 'to lie down to sleep'! This reminds us of the use of this word in regard to Lazarus: "Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep"; and then that moving episode: "he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth" (John 11:11,43).
These figures of speech are deliberately there in the inspired Word, and encapsulate our hope for the future. Thinking carefully of the implication, one may well ask whether the deliberate and hastened obliteration of our bodies is right. We need to remind ourselves of the beauty and power of the truth that, like as with Daniel, thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days" (Dan. 12:13).
Continued... Why Cremation Is Unscriptural - Part
Author: Paul P. Maher
Source: The Testimony - February 1997
1. ZAW is an abbreviation for the journal of Old Testament studies, "Zeitschrift fore die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde des Nachbiblischen Judentums".
2. No doubt God's use of fire is a symbol of the worthiness of complete and utter destruction in those cases. -S.G.