Noting some discussion of this topic elsewhere on the Web recently, I thought I would post this brief article by Dr. William Childs Robinson. Dr. Robinson was a long-time professor at the Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, and as a solidly evangelical and Reformed Christian, he played a huge role in the lives of many seminary students there who later went on to become some of the founding fathers of the PCA.
Cremation Is Not Of Christian Origin
By William Childs Robinson
[excerpted from The Southern Presbyterian Journal 11.10 (9 July 1952): 6-7.]
This is not written to upset loved ones who may have inadvertently acted unwisely in this matter, nor to disturb soldiers who have seen the bodies of buddies destroyed in the horrors of war. Nor is it intended to put limits on the power of God. Certainly, the martyrs who were burned for the faith, are to be resurrected. But it is written to urge our people to conform to the faith and the practice of the Christian Church. An analogy to our position here may be found in that of baptism. God can save a believer without baptism as he saved the penitent thief; but that does not mean a believer is free to neglect or to substitute something else for the sacrament of God.
The forms, provided for burial in The Book of Church Order and in The Book of Common Worship, state that the graves of the saints are sanctified by Christ’s rest in the tomb. This thought is a fair summary of the teaching of the New Testament. Each of the Gospels tells of the burial of Jesus and that constitutes the background of Peter’s words in Acts 2:23-32. Some deny that Paul refers to the tomb of Christ, but a careful reading of the Greek in I Cor. 15:3-4, Romans 6:4 shows that the Apostle does have before him the entombment of the Saviour. Moreover, his thought is that we are entombed with Him. Christ is the head of the elect, our substitute and representative. What occurred to Him is to be, at least in part, parallelled by what occurs to us. Christ and His people belong together in death, entombment, and resurrection.
While the Apostles’ Creed never speaks of the immortality of the soul it twice mentions the resurrection. And in the earliest commentary on the Creed, Rufinus insists that our resurrection will be after the manner of Christ’s Whose Resurrection opened the gates of life. The Gospels and Acts represent Jesus as eating and drinking with the disciples after His Resurrection. Luke records His command to them to handle Him; Matthew tells how the women took hold of His feet; John gives Jesus’ word to Mary .20:17) which many of the best scholars are now translating “Release Me,” “Cease clinging to Me.” First John says that our hands handled the Word of Life, apparently refer-
ring to Christ’s appearances as recorded in the Fourth Gospel. In speaking of the Spiritual body. Paul means not a ghost, but a real body controlled by the Spirit—even as “a natural body” is in the Greek a psychical or psychologically controlled body.
In the second century, the Church held to this faith in the resurrection of the body against every effort of Gnosticism and Platonism to decode the faith into a mere survival of the soul. Ignatius records how Jesus came to those who were with Peter saying, “Lay hold, handle me, and see that I am not an incorporeal phantom.” Irenaeus insisted that God created earth as well as heaven, that the Word took a human body as well as a human reasonable soul, that Christ suffered in the flesh and rose in the body, and that there shall be a new earth as well as a new heaven.
Accordingly, the early Church followed the Jewish custom of burying the dead and rejected the pagan practice of cremation. The Bible gives no encouragement to cremation. The bodies of Saul and of his sons were outwardly burned to purify them from the defilement caused by days of hanging yet their bones were not destroyed but buried and re-interred later—I Sam. 31:11-13; I Chron. 10: 11-12; II Sam. 21:12-14. When the plague became so severe as to make burning necessary, the people were forbidden to make mention of the Name of the Lord, Amos 6:10.
The Roman persecutors tried to ridicule the Christian faith in the resurrection by burning the martyrs. In reply, John presents the souls of the martyrs living and reigning with Christ for a thousand years, Rev. 20:4. The martyrs who gave their bodies to be burned, thereby witnessed to their faith in Christ. When we die natural deaths, let us commend our bodies to loved ones to be placed in the grave in the posture of sleep, that they may witness to our blessed hope of rising to meet Christ Coming in His Glory. The bodies of believers, “being still united to Christ” and resting “in their graves till the Resurrection” bear testimony to Christ, to His Resurrection and to His Return.
We put no limits on the power of God. He is most free, most absolute, all-sufficient. But let us follow the faith and the custom He has given us in His Word and in the life and practice of the primitive Christian community.
[Three weeks later, Dr. Robinson’s wrote another brief article on this same topic, titled “Your Bodies Are Temples Of The Holy Ghost: Another Word Against Cremation”