In last week’s Messenger, I wrote about the fact that Jesus’ Resurrection was whole-person, including his literal body. This seems to be very important to the New Testament writers. The Apostle John says that the litmus test of true Christian belief is the testimony that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:1-3). The equally mportant corollary of that statement of faith is that Jesus Christ also left with his human flesh. Jesus birth is called the “Incarnation.” “Carne” in Greek means “flesh,” just as it does in a Mexican butcher shop. When Jesus came into this world, God connected himself with humanity in its lowest, most corruptible aspect — the flesh. And the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, the fact that the tomb was empty, was proof to his followers that he was not going to disconnect himself from the humans he came to save.
One of the earliest heresies the church had to deal with was “Gnosticism,” which denied that God ever stooped so low. How could he? It was against his nature? God and flesh are diametrically opposed and cannot coexist. In Jesus, the Gnostics taught, God only appeared to enter human flesh. And if the Incarnation was an illusion, the Resurrection amounted to liberation from that illusion. In the Christ Event, God was only doing a fly-by. For over two thousand years, Gnosticism has been consistently rejected as a legitimate expression of Christianity.
At the end of last week’s article, I wrote, “Your resurrection will also be whole-person, body, soul and spirit,” and I suggested that this means we should value and respect our bodies. Two different readers of the article raised the question of what this means for the choice whether, as Christians, we should be buried or cremated after we die. I decided that this is an important enough issue to warrant a second look. The earliest Christians believed that Jesus was coming back soon.
When one of them died, family and friends buried the person, believing that they would wake up again when Jesus shouted in triumph. Even when a few generations passed and he had not yet returned, they continued to bury their dead, in intentional contrast to the Roman practice of cremation. It was part of their testimony that Jesus had risen bodily from the tomb, and Jesus had promised that his followers would also experience bodily resurrection. The hundreds of miles of underground tombs carved into the catacombs around Rome show how important this was to them.
Many Christians throughout history have felt that we today are required to follow their example and have denounced cremation as a denial of our resurrection hope. However, the cost of modern burials has forced us to take another look.
There are a few realities that have caused some of us, my wife Judy and I among them, to conclude that cremation is permissible for Christians; maybe even good stewardship of our resources. The truth is, the body doesn’t stay intact very long after we bury it. A magical belief in the preservation of a dead body through burial has never made much sense. As much as the ancient Egyptians studied to perfect the art of mummification, their attempts at preservation of tissues have not successfully prevented decay. The early Christians didn’t embalm dead bodies, and they knew they would soon deteriorate. When they witnessed some of their friends be torn apart and eaten in the Roman Colosseum, they trusted God to reassemble the pieces in his own way. Christian sailors who died while at sea have routinely been committed to the ocean water and the creatures who live there for their disposal. Fishermen may have caught some fish that lunched on a sailor’s remains, brought them to shore and sold them in the market to other hungry Christians. Some of the molecules of the sailor may have later become part of someone else.
I believe God will be able to overcome these obstacles in the Day of Resurrection, and I think he can deal with cremation as well.
I promise to talk about something a bit lighter next week.
— Pastor George Van Alstine