Is Cremation Really an Option for Christians?

cremation-urn-2Cremation in North America has been on the rise for decades. In 1985 the percentage of deaths cremated was only 15%. In 1995 the number shot up to about 20%. By 2005 the percentage increased to just over 32%. By 2015 the projected figure is almost 45%, and in 2025, 55%.

For centuries, however, Christians have mostly rejected cremation as an acceptable treatment of the remains of loved ones. A biblical reason for this was that the patriarchs and prophets, priests and kings, princes and peasants, were buried in graves or tombs. Cremation was seen as a punishment or curse, not a common treatment of mortal remains (Gen. 38:24; Num. 11:1; Deut. 12:31; Josh. 7:25; 2 Kings 17:17; Ps. 106:18; Isa. 33:12). A theological reason for this was a belief in the bodily resurrection, in which what remained of mortal bodies would be raised anew, glorified, and transformed immortal, never to die again (John 6:28–29; 1 Cor. 15:52; Phil. 3:21; 1 Thess. 4:16). So the burning of remains was often associated with Eastern and Pagan religious traditions that viewed the physical body as an inferior, evil substance to be escaped or overcome rather than a part of God’s original good creation and a partaker in His future redemption.

Yet today many Christians are overcoming the traditional biblical and theological gag reflex associated with cremation by embracing it as a legitimate option. A number of factors contribute to this. First, cremation is significantly cheaper: cremation costs can be between 50% to 80% less than traditional burial, depending on the kinds of services involved! Second, many point out that both decomposition and combustion eventually lead to the same thing: dust and ashes. It’s just that one takes centuries, the other minutes. Third, some insist that cremation is more “green” . . . or at least it takes up less green space. And “green” is all the rage nowadays. Fourth, some Christians regard the body as just so much trash that needs to be discarded. And since some trash is buried and other trash is incinerated, why not do the same with bodies? After all, they reason, “The real me is in heaven with the Lord; I don’t care what happens to my rotten ol’ body.”

I’ll admit, the first reason seems, well, reasonable. Or at least fiscally responsible. The second reason is true: though the chemical processes are a bit different, the end result is more or less similar. The third reason makes sense in a part of the world where land is a premium and the potential for unsanitary burial is high. The final reason, though, is absolute rubbish. The view that the body is insignificant and irrelevant is not a Christian perspective. Period. (See my essay, “Don’t Walk on Those Graves!” for a biblical, theological, and historical explanation of the Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection.)

So, what do we do? On the one had we have traditional biblical and theological reasons to favor burial . . . on the other hand we have, well, let’s be honest—financial and pragmatic reasons (plus one quasi-heretical view of the physical body). It kind of seems pretty clear that the biblical and theological should outweigh the financial and pragmatic, doesn’t it?

Well, not so fast. The truth is, Jews and Christians buried their dead primarily as an act of their belief in the nature of the material body and its future in God’s redemptive plan. They did this explicitly in contrast to religions and cultures that viewed the body as useless trash or believed the body was just borrowed matter that should become one with the physical universe, just as our spirits would be absorbed into the mindless cosmic soul. Christians distinguished themselves in their belief that God will one day raise up the material bodies that had been animated by their immaterial souls, that those bodies originally created good would one day be restored and transformed into glorious bodies that would live forever in a renewed world free of death and corruption. By burying instead of burning, Christians aligned their actions with their beliefs—by their practice they confessed that God would one day win the victory over death through resurrection.

I believe Christians can continue to confess their belief in the resurrection of the body and practice cremation, because it’s not the form in which the mortal remains are preserved that is most important but that the mortal remains are preserved. Christians can distinguish themselves from pagan pantheism and materialistic atheistic by preserving the identity of the remains, whether they are buried or cremated. By maintaining the identity of the departed saint, we confess a belief in the future physical resurrection of his or her remains.

This leads to three practical points for those who choose cremation over burial.

First, avoid any actions that would confess a pantheistic “becoming one with the universe” theology. Scattering ashes in the wind, dumping them in the sea, fertilizing a lawn or garden, or otherwise mixing them with the world is an action that says, “Joe’s body is no longer Joe. It’s just dirt.” Wrong! Joe’s body is half of Joe! One day God will take Joe’s mortal remains, reconstitute and transform them, and reunite Joe’s soul with Joe’s glorified body! So scattering ashes is probably not a good picture of our belief in the bodily resurrection.

Second, maintain the identity of the remains. Yes, name them. Preserve them. Place them in a marked grave, or label them with a name plate—something that indicates that they are of significance and value both to you and to God. By doing so, you’re saying, “This is Jill. Yes, her spirit is with the Lord, but one day God will redeem Jill’s mortal remains, reversing the curse of death, and declaring victory over it forever.” Through our actions we will confess those final lines of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe . . . in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

Finally, make your wishes—and especially the theological reasons for your wishes—clear to your loved ones. If you believe in the proper place of your physical body in God’s redemptive plan, make sure your loved ones know that you desire for your remains to continue to confess your faith in the gospel promise long after you’re gone. Don’t let your children or grandchildren dispose of your remains as if they were just emptying an ashtray!

Yes, I believe cremation is an option for Christians. God can and will raise up bones, dust, or even ashes on that Great Gettin’ Up Morning. But in the meantime, your desire to maintain the identity of your remains can communicate to others your belief that the darkness will one day give way to dawn, that the sun will break over the horizon, and you’ll answer Christ’s trumpet call to awake from your sleep.


Help! The Earth Is Melting! (Or Is It?)

In 1616 the Catholic Church condemned the views of Copernicus for taking the radical scientific view that the Earth revolved around the sun. Against precise mathematical calculations and empirical data, the church based their dogmatic rejection on the “clear” reading of Scripture, theology, and experience. Case closed. The Catholic Church wasn’t alone in resisting the Copernican revolution. Luther is reported to have said in response to news about Copernicus’s new theory, “Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.”

Within a couple generations the conservative, Bible-believing Christians—Catholic and Protestant—had to swallow their pride and admit that Copernicus—that rascal!—was right. And in 1999 the Pope even apologized . . . sort of.

Fast forward a century or so. In the midst of the liberal political and religious philosophies of English gentlemen like John Locke, a new concept of tolerationism, pluralism, and democracy began to gain support. The problem, of course, was the absolute, divinely-ordained rule of the King of England and other monarchs. The conservative theologians defended the divine right of the Monarchy and appealed to Scripture and theology to denounce the liberal philosophies churning in the colonies. The political conservatives found themselves on the side of the King—and of political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes. “Liberals” like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington rejected the doctrine of divine monarchy in favor of a concept of divinely-endowed inalienable individual rights (which, on last check, still cannot be found in the Bible).

Within a couple generations, however, the liberal political philosophy of Locke and Jefferson became the fabric of American patriotism and were suddenly found to be in perfect agreement with the revelation of Scripture. In fact, those liberals are now regarded as our conservative Christian forefathers!

A hundred years later conservative Christians appealed to the Bible to battle a new threat to social and religious order—the movement among “liberal” New England Congregationalists toward emancipation of the slaves and abolition of slavery. The conservatives appealed to the sanctioning of slavery in Scripture (both in the Old and New Testaments) as proof that the progressive movement to free the slaves was unbiblical. Denominations split over the issue—Northern and Southern Baptists; Northern and Southern Methodists . . . both sides appealing to Scripture, but the “progressive” or “liberal” view sounded the radical cries for freedom.

Within a couple generations the conservatives began reading those passages in the Bible differently and the evils of modern slavery were finally seen for what they really were: evil.

A century later the civil rights movements in the United States were spearheaded by liberals—religious and social progressives who were attacked by conservatives who appealed to a diverse line of arguments to defend institutional and corporate bigotry and hate: the distinction between Jews and Gentiles . . . Old Testament laws regarding foreigners and women . . . “clear” passages of Scripture that forbade women to even speak in church . . . the curse of Ham . . . the biblical principle of social order and peace. All of these were part of the conservatives’ arsenal against liberals who wanted justice and equality. Sadly, conservative evangelical colleges and seminaries were slow to admit women and minorities into programs for theological training.

Within a couple generations the conservatives came to regret their policies and actions and the narrow, bigoted way they read God’s Word in favor of their own misguided agendas.

As you can see, conservative Christians may have a great track record of preserving and defending the fundamental marks of orthodox doctrine, but they have a disturbing history of missing the mark on many scientific and social issues. Not all, of course, but some. They were critical and wicked when they should have been supportive and righteous (as in the case of slavery and civil rights). Or they were foolish and extreme when they should have been prudent and wise (as in the case of Y2K or the “New Order” conspiracy theories about the end of the world).

This brings me to my point.

What issues today are conservative Christians going to regret in fifty years? Will our children or grandchildren shake their heads and cluck their tongues at some of the things we evangelicals took a firm stand against? Or will they be embarrassed about some of the things we enthusiastically promoted? Some things, of course, we must stand against (heresy and sin) and some things we must promote (sound theology and morality). These things have never changed and have always been under attack. These things we have always defended and never regretted. (Though, of course, we may reg0ret the unloving, un-Christlike ways in which we promoted and defended the truth.)

But what about, say, global warming? Seriously, what do most evangelical Christians and conservative Republicans really know about the science of global warming? What qualifies right-wing talk show hosts to objectively sift through scientific data and determine that it’s all bunk? And why do evangelical Christians allow big businesses, ritzy politics, and glorified DJs to lead them around by their noses?

I’m no scientist. I honestly can’t tell you one way or the other if Al Gore, the Democrats, and all those Scandinavian scientists are right about the world “melting.” But as a historian of Christianity, I can tell you one thing for sure: when it comes to issues other than classic orthodoxy and Christlike morality, we conservatives have a rich and interesting history of being found on the wrong side.

There’s nothing biblically, theologically, or rationally unsound about the idea of global warming. (Unless you say the whole earth is going to flood.) In fact, with my dim view of humanity, I’d almost expect us to be destroying ourselves and our world through greed, selfishness, laziness, ignorance, and apathy. Just take a look at people’s eating habits at fast food restaurants and tell me these same fallen humans wouldn’t melt the planet rather than give up their SUVs. Again, I have no idea if the world is warming. I hope not. But I’m not going to be one of those people my grandchildren point to and say, “Why was grandpa such a dumb Christian?”

Heliocentrism . . . divine monarchy . . . slavery . . . civil rights. Next time you dismiss the possibility of global warming as loony poppycock or liberal propaganda, run this list through your mind. Then use that same mind for the reason God gave it: to think. I don’t know if climate change scientists and global warming advocates are off their rockers. Maybe they are jumping to conclusions. Maybe not. Maybe they’re more right than wrong. Or maybe they’re off their rockers. But then again, Copernicus, Locke, Lincoln, and MLK, Jr. all appeared to be a little “off” in their own days, didn’t they? So, until the issues of global warming and man-made climate change is thoroughly explored, debated, and settled, I’m going to suspend judgment. And unless you’re God or a purely objective scientist who can perfectly and simultaneously process all the data and guarantee a right answer . . . you best shut up, too.

Sufficiency of the Five Senses: An Epistemological Problem for Non-Theistic Evolution?

If you had access to the external world only through the sense of smell, how would you perceive reality? Your entire universe would be nothing but a series of weak and strong odors; some pleasant, others putrid. If you encountered other beings in the universe, you would distinguish them only by their unique scents—if, that is, they had any discernible scent at all. A person with only the sense of smell may not have enough data to establish his or her own spatial or perhaps even temporal location; certainly they would have no concept of corporeality. In short, the sense of smell alone is insufficient for a being to construct a complete, accurate, or functional picture of the external world—or even one that is at least sufficiently close to complete, accurate, or functional.

Now what if a person only had the sense of hearing? The situation for such a person would only be slightly better than for the person granted the sense of smell alone. Instead of a series of odors, the hearing being would experience a string of loud and soft sounds, some pleasant to the ear, others harsh. Communication might be possible only if he or she could get control of the tongue and vocal chords without the sense of touch, and thus respond to sounds from others with his or her own sounds. Certainly, the hearing person would still have an incomplete, inaccurate, and poorly functional experience of the external universe.

The same thing can be said about all of the five senses—sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing. If any of these senses is missing, a person’s perception of the world would change. He or she may be able to function and communicate in the world, but the subjective experience of the external world would differ drastically from a person with all five senses.

Now, if I were a person with only the sense of hearing and I encountered another being who told me about his own sense of seeing, which I lacked, I would have no category within which to understand a concept like “sight.” Nor would I be able to understand ideas like bright, dark, red, or blue. A seeing being would have no way of explaining what my missing sensations were like, nor would I be able to imagine the kind of world such a person experiences. Though I could be made intellectually aware that I am deficient, I would have no way of knowing what that actually meant. Not really. I would, in fact, continue in my current state of perception as I always have.

If a person with, say, only three senses—the senses of touch, smell, and taste—endured for a lifetime without any knowledge that there were other senses available, that person would have no reason to think there were such things as sight and sound. A person with only these three senses may believe that three and only three senses are sufficient to grant him or her complete, accurate, and functional access to the external world. Such a person would, of course, be wrong, but left alone he or she would be unaware of the error.

Granted, modern humans have used technology to expand their ability to acquire data about the universe. Though hidden to our sight, we can detect infrared and ultraviolet light, radio waves, and radiation. We can examine tiny organisms as well as remote bodies through the use of microscopes and telescopes. But all of these forms of technology work within the existing five senses—enhancing and improving, not supplementing or adding to, the senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. These means of measuring otherwise invisible or inaudible things in our world have, indeed, altered the perception of reality for modern humans, but these means themselves depend entirely on our five senses. In a similar vein, theoretical physicists can hypothesize about the existence of numerous dimensions beyond those of our limited perspective, but in that case they have no way of imagining or experiencing such theoretical dimensions. They are aware of such possible dimensions through mathematical calculations and “picture” them through analogies and illustrations bound by experiences of their five senses. It is, in short, impossible to conceptually break from the constraints of the five scent perception of the external world.

This brings me to my point.

How can humans have any confidence that additional senses beyond our five would not radically alter our perception and experience of reality? If three senses are better than two, and four better than three, and five better than four, why wouldn’t six, seven, or eight be better than five? We cannot simply respond to such a question by saying, “I can’t imagine what those additional senses would be,” because a person who has only one could not imagine a second, and person with only two could not imagine a third.

So the question remains.

Could there be additional senses, which, if we had them, would radically alter the way we perceive and experience the external world? Would the hypothetical extra senses grant us access to a world similar to ours but more complete, fuller, deeper? As rational beings, we must acknowledge this possibility. But what about its probability?

This is where things get quite messy. Is it probable that we human beings have evolved the precise number of senses to completely and accurately perceive the world around us? Or is it probable that our sensory organs provide us with enough data to at least approximate reality? We know of small, primitive beings that do not possess the five senses we have, and people typically place such life forms into a category of less-evolved beings. But on what basis do we conclude that natural selection would develop five senses with a quality to provide an accurate perception of reality when their data are synthesized by the mind into a coherent whole?

The answer? From a purely naturalistic perspective, humans have no reasonable basis to have confidence that our five senses are sufficient. In fact, it seems more probable that naturalistic evolutionary processes would take the easiest route, as survival of the individual and propagation of the species—not epistemological accuracy—is the result of unguided evolution. Of course, we rational beings would naturally hope that our five senses were not merely all that was necessary for survival (functional sufficiency), but that they were adequate for providing a complete or nearly-complete experience of the external world (epistemological accuracy). While our five senses may provide a functional experience of reality sufficient for the purpose of survival, within a naturalistic view of evolution, our five senses cannot be trusted to provide an accurate (i.e., dependable) experience of reality.

However, I can posit an alternative understanding of the sufficiency of our five senses to provide an accurate or near-accurate experience of the external world. But for such a presupposition to be accepted, one must believe that human beings were designed for the purpose of accurately perceiving the external world, not merely evolved toward the function of survival and propagaion. If humans were designed to live in this particular universe, it is possible to believe that the designer equipped humans with no more and no less senses than are necessary to accurately perceive the external world. And depending on the character of that designer (good, powerful, truthful), one might conclude that such a presupposition about the ability of human beings to accurately experience the external world through their five senses is probable. Of course, a theist must acknowledge that there may be things in the world that go beyond what the designer intended for its creatures to perceive, but in any case the five senses would be sufficient to provide an accurate or nearly-accurate experience of the external world.

This brings me to my closing point. Any human being who believes that he or she possesses enough senses to draw confident conclusions about the external world on a daily basis is inherently drawing on the presupposition of intelligent design (whether evolutionary or non-evolutionary), not of naturalistic evolution. The former presupposition makes the sufficiency of the five senses a probable hypothesis; the latter presupposition does not. Apart from the hypothesis of an intelligent designer who equipped humans with the appropriate number and variety of sensory organs, the question of the sufficiency of the five senses for accurately experiencing the external world becomes, in my mind, an insurmountable problem. An atheist who appeals to evolution necessarily can have no epistemological confidence in his or her ability to adequately gather and to accurately analyze data about the world as it really is. The empirical sciences that form the foundation of their worldview seem to require a presupposition about the nature of sense perception that argues against their methods and conclusions. Only by appealing to an intelligent designer who equipped humans with sufficient senses for accurately experiencing the external world can a person reasonably engage in the empirical sciences.

[NOTE: Originally posts on July 9, 2008, at For a more technical treatment of a similar argument as mine, see Alvin Plantinga, “Is Naturalism Irrational?” in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader, ed. James F. Sennett (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 72-96. I readily admit that my own popular expression of this argument differs from Plantinga’s in its expression, scope, and quality.]

Thinking About Leaving Your Local Church? Think Again…

In our fast-food culture of leased cars and changing telephone companies, many local churches have not fared well. Church shopping, hopping, and dropping have become normal—so normal that many people reading this probably haven’t thought very much about it. Certainly, this cavalier attitude toward local church membership is common among evangelicals today. But have we paused to consider whether it’s biblical?

Some get bored and wander off to a more exciting church. Some get angry and stomp off, taking several members with them. Some change their minds about a particular doctrinal issue and realign themselves with a church that seems purer. Some people are just in a rut of discontent, staying for a few months or years then straying on to something, well, new. But when we contrast this modern epidemic of forsaking our membership in a local church with the two positive and two negative biblical examples of leaving church and the long history of church commitment, we probably ought to re-think this issue.

First, on the positive side, Christians in the Bible changed churches because of physical relocation. In Acts 18 Aquila and Priscilla changed from one local church to another when they moved to a new city. Second, people left churches for ministry opportunities. Ministers and missionaries departed local churches to serve elsewhere—always with the blessing of the sending churches (Acts 10:23; 15:40; 2 Cor. 8:16–18). On the negative side, the New Testament presents examples of people leaving the church because of discipline (Matt. 18:15–17; 1 Cor. 5:11–13), always with the hope that the disciplined believer would repent and return to fellowship. Also, false teachers and heretics left in apostasy, departing in willful rebellion and often taking followers with them (1 John 2:18–19). [Some have pointed to the surprising skirmish between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:37–40 as an example of separation due to differing ministry strategies. But this incident had nothing to do with leaving a local church—both departed from Antioch with the church’s blessing. And besides, this text described an unfortunate event; it did not prescribe how to handle conflict.]

Relocation . . . ministry . . . discipline . . . apostasy.

These four biblical examples—two positive, two negative—are legitimate departures from local congregations and serve not to weaken, but to strengthen, both the local church and the universal body of Christ. And these examples make one thing clear: the common reasons Christians give for forsaking their covenant with a local church just don’t measure up. If believers take the Bible as the guide and love as the rule, they should never simply stomp out of their churches in anger or slip quietly out the back door.

Of course, we can’t assume that the Bible covers every legitimate reason for leaving a church. Sometimes churches become so corrupt or doctrinally impure that the marks of a true or healthy church are lost. Other times God may want certain believers in certain places to accomplish certain things. However, we must always remember that local church commitment is necessary for spiritual growth (Heb. 10:24–25; Eph. 4:4–16). And we must recall that we entered into church membership as a covenant relationship—as serious as marriage. If we keep these facts in mind, we’ll have the right heart for considering a godly decision about whether or not to leave, and how to do it appropriately.

Some practical principles can point us in the right direction as we consider God’s mind about leaving church.

First, communicate and seek counsel. Discuss your options with the church leadership. Ask trusted Christian friends or mentors whether your reasons for leaving are legitimate. The issues leading you out of the church likely can be resolved—to the benefit of everyone. Perhaps your confidants will help you discover that the Lord is, in fact, leading you to another ministry elsewhere. However, simply stomping off in a huff is rude and immature. And keeping your real reasons for leaving a secret is usually a sign that your conscience isn’t clear.

Second, be prudent and discerning. Don’t make an emotional or quick decision. Just as in natural families, people hurt people in churches. You can count on it. But my reaction to a harsh word or other offense reveals as much about my own spiritual immaturity as it does about the immaturity of the offender. Don’t make a decision based on anger, fear, resentment, or pain, but on the principles of God’s Word. And don’t turn everything into a “doctrinal issue.” Everybody disagrees on some interpretations of Scripture, but not every doctrinal disagreement is worth rushing for the door. In fact, I can count the absolutely essential marks of orthodoxy on two hands; if your list of “fundamentals” is much longer, you may have slipped into exaggerated dogmatism. Keep your eye on the center—the gospel of Jesus Christ— and show grace in the dozens of disputable matters.

Finally, seek God’s will. Even though God wants us to be faithful to our local churches and to contribute positively to its ministry, we can’t limit God’s direction in our lives. Though my tone may sound absolute, the truth is that occasionally God may want people elsewhere for his own purposes. However, we must still make transitions cautiously—communicating with leadership, exercising prudence, and seeking counsel. To hop from church to church without earnestly (and honestly) seeking the Lord’s will in the matter shows contempt for the temple he loves and can even result in discipline from God (1 Cor. 3:16–17).

In light of God’s high view of local church commitment and the clear teaching of Scripture (Heb. 10:24–25; Eph. 4:4–16), we should prayerfully consider each decision we make regarding our local churches—from membership and attendance to our level of involvement and decisions regarding departure. If we seek to honor him and demonstrate genuine love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Lord will guide us in wise, prudent, and godly decisions regarding our involvement in the local church.

So, are you thinking about leaving church? Think again.


[This essay is excerpted from chapter 7 of RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). © Michael J. Svigel, 2012. Originally posted March 18, 2012 at]

The Early Church: Christianity or Christianities?

Apostles SquareDId Christianity begin as a tangle of squabbling followers putting their own spins on Jesus’s life and teachings? Did many Christianities with different “Jesuses” strive for dominance? Did one form of Christianity achieve victory, only to squash its opponents and rewrite its own history?

Dr. Darrell Bock and I recently discussed this theme in a Dallas Seminary Cultural Engagement Chapel. In this brief presentation we barely scratch the surface of this topic. You can watch the dialogue here.

[My basic introductory booklet I mention in the video on this topic is entitled Heroes and Heretics: Solving the Modern Mystery of the Ancient Church, and it’s available here. For those few of you interested in a detailed discussion of historiographical presuppositions involved in the debate, check out my essay, “‘You got to know when to hold ’em’: Trumping the Bauer Thesis.“]


The PowerPoint Slides in the video are available here: Christianity or Christianities PowerPoint Slides

This and many other important topics will be discussed at The Table conference, “Presenting God to Those Who See Christianity Differently,” to be held on April 19-20 at Bent Tree Bible Fellowship.