Cremation, the practice of incinerating corpses, has grown immensely in popularity during the past decades. What was once considered an obscure Eastern practice is now commonplace in the United States; according to Peter Smith, religion writer for "The Courier-Journal," only four percent of Americans were cremated in the early 1960s, while by 2012, the number had risen to 41 percent. As described by Rodney J. Decker of the Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, the Baptist denomination has only recently begun to discuss the theological implications of cremation.
No Clear Position
While several Baptist theologians have addressed the topic of cremation in recent years, most have concluded that the Bible does not contain absolute teachings on the subject. David Jones of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary writes that the question of cremation is an adiaphora issue, or one outside moral law, while Mark Wingfield of the "Baptist Standard" suggests that most people don’t think to ask about it. Rodney Decker points to only three instances of cremation in the Scriptures, including those described in 1 Samuel 31, Amos 2:1 and Amos 6:10, and emphasizes that the narratives should not be considered normative or prescriptive. However, while the Bible may not provide strong opinions on the topic, most Baptist scholars describe several reasons for preferring burial.
First, Baptist theologians look to the history of the Christian church, specifically in the time immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus. New Testament authors described a number of burials, and, as stated in John 19:40, the custom of the Jews was to bury their dead. Jews buried their dead with significant ceremony, according to Rodney Decker, and this may be relevant to understanding the way of Jesus, given the contrast of the practice with the cremation rituals of the surrounding cultures.
Sanctity of the Body
Second, many Baptists see an apparent disregard for the sacred nature of the human body posed by cremation. Ronnie Rogers, senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Oklahoma, suggests that while cremation is not sin, its growing popularity in American culture demonstrates a lack of regard for the reverential view of the human body seen in the Bible. When God created human beings in his own image, he declared their bodies to be good, and so destroying them with fire – a symbol of God’s wrath and judgement in Scripture – seems incongruent.
Hope of Resurrection
Third, Christian orthodoxy teaches the future bodily resurrection of the dead, and so while few Baptists would claim that an all-powerful God is unable to remake ashes into bodies, many theologians stress that burial better testifies to the Christian belief and hope in physical resurrection. Historically, many Christians were buried facing the east, the direction from which Scripture teaches Christ will come at his return. Ronnie Rogers suggests that cremation's destruction of the physical body is perhaps more reminiscent of Platonic dualism, a common, though unorthodox, philosophy in which the eternal, immaterial soul is prisoner of the temporal physical body, and is only freed upon death of the body.
- Courier-Journal.com: Red Casket, Blue Urn: Cremation’s Rise Parallels National Divergence in Religion and Politics; Peter Smith
- Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary: Is it Better to Bury or to Burn? A Biblical Perspective on Cremation and Christianity in Western Culture; Rodney J. Decker
- David W. Jones, To Bury or Burn? Toward an Ethic of Cremation
- Baptist Standard: Questions About Cremation and Resurrection Less Prominent Today; Mark Wingfield
- SBC Today: Cremation: Is it a Pattern that Christians Should Follow?; Ronnie Rogers
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