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.

 

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 www.retrochristianity.com. 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.]