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Can cremation—rather than historical burial—be an option for the believer? This is a question often asked by Christians. Whereas historically cremation was mostly a non-issue, it has become somewhat controversial today. But as we will see, this issue is not directly addressed in the Word of God. Ultimately, choosing to be cremated is a personal decision, and in no way affects one's salvation. If you are "saved" when you die, nothing done afterward to your body has any bearing on your status with God.

While some contend that the biblical precedent favors burial, it is actually culture that typically dictates how the deceased are handled. Just because burial was the accepted practice in ancient Israel and throughout much of the Middle East does not make it somehow sacred. Burial was the accepted practice due to cultural influences, not as a result of biblical ordinance.

By way of illustration, consider today's handshake. A handshake is the culturally accepted way of greeting one another. In New Testament times, Christians greeted one another with a "holy kiss" (Rom. 16:16; etc.). Does this mean handshakes must be avoided today and replaced with a kiss? Of course not. It is fine to follow the cultural norm as long as it does not conflict with any of God's revealed laws.

And culture changes over time. Burial has long been the accepted practice in America for many decades. But today, cremation is growing in popularity for various reasons.

Does the Bible Command Burial?

Some who contend that cremation is strictly pagan point to the fact that no passage of Scripture speaks of a Christian being cremated. Again, this is because burial was the cultural norm for Palestine throughout Bible times.

But did God actually command the children of Israel to bury their dead? Some point to the following passage: "His body shall not remain all night on the tree. But you shall surely bury him that day (for he that is hanged is accursed of God), so that your land may not be defiled, which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance" (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Any dead body left overnight hanging on a tree (after execution) was believed to defile the land. The issue here has nothing to do with burial as opposed to cremation. Thus, in no way can this verse be taken as a command to bury.

A Biblical Precedent?

Throughout the Bible we see that Israel utilized burial. This practice continued to Jesus' time and was the accepted custom of the early church. Here are some examples:

            Genesis 23:19-20                         Abraham purchased a burial place
            Genesis 49:31                              Abraham and Isaac were buried
            Deuteronomy 34:5 -6                   God buried Moses' body
            Job 19:25-26                               Job expected to be buried

            This same biblical precedent for burial continued into the New Testament era:

            John 11:38-39                                Lazarus was buried
            John 19:40                                     Jesus was buried

But nowhere is it commanded in the Old or New Testaments to utilize burial; nor is cremation forbidden. The biblical precedent of burial merely reflects the custom or tradition of the day.

Notice John 19:40 closely. "Then they took Jesus' body and wound it in linen cloths with the aromatics, as is the custom among the Jews to prepare for burial." It was not by command or compulsion that the Jews buried their dead—it was custom.

Burning People Does Picture God's Judgment

Burning is a biblical symbol of judgment and destruction—with the purpose of cleansing the land of evil. For example, Deuteronomy 7:25 involves the burning of idols, and Leviticus 20:14 and 21:9 involves the burning of the wicked.

            It is apparent that God uses burning by fire as a type of the judgment of the incorrigible via the future "lake of fire"—signifying the total destruction of that which is abominable to God.

            But a dead loved one is not an abomination to God. And cremating him or her is not a sign of God's judgment on them. It is simply another method of safely handling the dead.

Conclusion

The Bible is silent on the matter of how to properly dispose of the dead. Yet burial is the biblical example. However, this is because of culture and tradition, not because of biblical mandates.

Burning a body in cremation in no way affects God's ability to resurrect the believer or the non-believer.

Christians must always look to the Word of God as our authority in all things. When the Bible is silent on a matter, we must not presume to "speak for God." Rather, we must use common sense and wisdom as led by the Spirit of God.

In non-salvation matters such as this, it is best to "bear with one another in love" (Ephesians 4:2), and not set ourselves up as our brother's judge.

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