I’m sure some of our readers have thought about the topic of cremation. To put it simply, cremation is when a dead body is burned with such intense heat all that remains are ashes. I realize that Christians have various opinions about cremation. I don’t want to start an argument here. Not at all. Instead, I wanted to share some of Herman Bavinck’s reflections on the resurrection of the body and what he says it means for cremation. Again, this isn’t meant to spark an argument. I mean it as “food for thought” from a solid Reformed theologian on this somewhat controversial topic.
In this resurrection the identity of the resurrection body with the body that has died will be preserved. In the case of the resurrections that occur in the Old and New Testaments, the dead body is reanimated. Jesus arose with the same body in which he suffered on the cross and which was laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. At the time of Jesus’s death many bodies of the saints were raised and came forth from their tombs (Matt. 27:52). In the resurrection of the last day, all who are in the tombs will hear Jesus’s voice and come forth (John 5:28–29). According to Rev. 20:13, the dead will return to earth from the tombs, from the sea, from the realm of the dead and hades. And Paul teaches that the resurrection body proceeds from the body that has died, just as from the grain that has been sown God raises up new grain (1 Cor. 15:36ff.).
In the Christian religion this identity of the resurrection body with the body that was laid aside at death is of great significance. In this respect it is, in the first place, diametrically opposed to all dualistic theories according to which the body is merely an incidental dwelling place or prison of the soul. The essence of a human being consists above all in the most intimate union of soul and body in a single personality. The soul by nature belongs to the body, and the body by nature belongs to the soul. Although the soul does not itself create the body, it nevertheless has its own body. The continuity of an individual human being is maintained as much in the identity of the body as in the identity of the soul.
In the second place, Christ’s redemption is not a second, new creation but a re-creation. Things would have been much simpler if God had destroyed the entire fallen world and replaced it with a completely new one. But it was his good pleasure to raise the fallen world up again and to free from sin the same humanity that sinned. This deliverance consists in the reality that Christ delivers his believing community from all sin and from all the consequences of sin, and therefore causes it to completely triumph over death as well. Death is the last enemy to be annihilated. And the power of Christ is revealed in the fact that he not only gives eternal life to his own but in consequence also raises them on the last day. The rebirth by water and Spirit finds its completion in the rebirth of all things (Matt. 19:28). Spiritual redemption from sin is only fully completed in bodily redemption at the end of time. Christ is a complete Savior: just as he first appeared to establish the kingdom of heaven in the hearts of believers, so he will one day come again to give it visible shape and make his absolute power over sin and death incontrovertibly manifest before all creatures and bring about its acknowledgment. “Corporeality is the end of the ways of God” (Leiblichkeit ist das Ende der Wege Gottes).
Directly connected with this truth is the care of the dead. Cremation is not to be rejected because it is assumed to limit the omnipotence of God and make the resurrection an impossibility. Nevertheless, it is of pagan origin; it was never a custom in Israel or in Christian nations, and it militates against Christian mores. Burial, on the other hand, is much more nearly in harmony with Scripture, creed, history, and liturgy; with the doctrine of the image of God that is also manifest in the body; with the doctrine of death as a punishment for sin; and with the respect that is due to the dead and the resurrection on the last day. Christians do not, like the Egyptians, artificially preserve corpses; nor do they mechanically destroy them, as many people desire today. But they entrust them to the earth’s bosom and let them rest until the day of the resurrection.
The Christian church and Christian theology, accordingly, vigorously maintained the identity of the resurrection body with the body that had died.
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015