Recently a friend asked me if it was okay for a Christian to be cremated. My usual flippant reply is, “If God created us to begin with, I don’t think He’ll have any problem putting us back together later.”
But really, I think his question deserves a thoughtful answer.
The Bible does not directly address the matter. The common practice among the Israelites was burial in a tomb, cave or in the ground. For example, the Old Testament Patriarchs Abraham (Gen. 25:10), Sarah (Gen. 23:19), Isaac and Rebecca (Gen. 49:31) and Jacob (Gen. 50:13) were buried in the Cave of Machpelah. The kings of Judah were buried in Jerusalem (See e.g. 1 Kings 11:43; 14:31; 15:8; 15:24). However, the Mosaic Law does not specifically condemn cremation nor pronounce any curse or other judgment upon one who is cremated or cremates another.
The New Testament similarly fails to give any direct instruction. Early believers did have concerns about just how the resurrection would work. The Apostle Paul answered a question from the Corinthians concerning the resurrection of our bodies:
But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven. I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed– in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. 1 Cor 15:35-58.
So, what if the natural, earthly body of a deceased believer no longer exists? The point of this passage is that our resurrected body will be a new, spiritual body, in glory and power, imperishable and immortal. The point is not that we, like ancient Egyptians, must ensure the survival of our mortal remains.
Look at history. Early Christians blazed as torches to light Nero’s garden parties. Through the centuries countless martyrs burned at stake. Followers of Jesus vaporized in Twin Towers. Will God abandon these believers who died for the faith because their bodies were not preserved?
Romans 10:9-13 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. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
That passage does NOT say, ”and oh, by the way, you must preserve your dead body until Jesus comes back.” If that were necessary, the Bible would say so. But it doesn’t.
We should certainly be respectful of the dead and treat human remains with honor. The manner in which that is done will be affected by cultural norms which may change over time. Even the Roman Catholic Church now permits cremation.