As a writer, I am often writing much more than is publicly visible. Every now and again I write articles which are passed over by those publications I submit them to, which in turn allows me to publish them here. Hopefully, they can still be of value.
“They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them.” – Matthew 23:3
For Christians, very simply put, the Bible is our guidebook. It helps us to live according to God’s plan for our lives and adhere to His commands. Some people imagine that adhering to someone else’s strictures means we lose our freedom – our free will. Rather, I believe that by creating set boundaries within which we are supposed to live God allows us to live lives of freedom beyond that which non-believers encounter. Much as a horse in a paddock doesn’t bemoan the fence that lays out the boundary of its access, we should see the Bible’s commands and God’s plan for our lives as the boundary of access that keeps us from danger.
However, it is important that we do not create man-made rules and boundaries and justify their existence by claiming that they are commands given to us from the Bible.
Over the years that I have studied the Bible and been writing about what I find I have found that not only is it somewhat juvenile to base an entire article on “My response to…”, but it is also relatively unhelpful. I may disagree with someone’s opinion or interpretation, but in most cases the sensible way to have an adult debate about the issue is not to, point by point, refute another’s beliefs. Rather, I feel that it is most helpful to simply put forward what I believe to be true, in as persuasive and unbiased manner as possible, and then step away and allow the Holy Spirit to work.
As such, I have no intention to call out any particular author or organisation for their beliefs. What I will say, however, is that over the years I have come across several instances of articles and sermons intended as a defence of a supposedly Biblical command that is in fact simply the result of inductive reasoning. Issues such as whether Christians should or should not have babies, and whether cremation is Biblical or not, are among the primary examples in my experience of supposed Biblical commands that are, in fact, not a command at all, but simply a reliance upon description over prescription.
Take for example the idea that cremation is not only unbiblical, but a heathen practice. Does the Bible speak about cremation being a sin? No, it does not. Does the Bible repeatedly describe God’s people being buried rather than cremated? Yes, it does. Does this mean that cremation is therefore inherently sinful?
That’s the question. The same example can be found when we look at whether or not Christians are required to have children. Does God tell Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply”? Yes, He does. Do God’s people throughout the Bible have children? Yes, they do. Does this mean that having children is a Biblical command?
The problem, in my opinion, with these assumptions is that they are inherently reliant upon the Bible’s silence. Nowhere in the Bible does God or one of His servants explicitly provide a command that cremation or purposeful-childlessness are evil or sinful, and nowhere does God or one of His servants explicitly command burial or procreating. Those who disagree with me, however, rely on the Bible’s silence combined with descriptions of events to say that the Bible does speak on these issues. However, this takes what is actually a historical description of an event and turns it into a Biblical prescription for how to live – something that Jesus repeatedly and vociferously reprimanded the Pharisees for doing. In Matthew Jesus condemns the Pharisees for tying “up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put[ting] them on people’s shoulders.” (Matthew 23:3) The Pharisees took descriptions and poetic verses and turned them into prescriptions for how to live, subsequently making it virtually impossible for anyone to adhere to all of the many new laws that they created.
What is more problematic is that for the Pharisees, and those today who create man-made laws regarding cremation and procreation, the combination of the Bible’s silence and mistaking description for prescription is inherently reliant upon picking and choosing verses to suit a purpose. With regards to cremation, there can be no denying that there are many instances throughout the Bible where people are buried. Conversely, however, we have this passage from 1 Samuel 31:
“When the residents of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all their brave men set out, journeyed all night, and retrieved the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan. When they arrived at Jabesh, they burned the bodies there.”
There are no doubt reasons for why this happened – expediency, not having to carry the body back, etc – but this nevertheless is an instance in the Bible which describes cremation without recrimination.
Further, and more prosaically, man is inherently made from nothing but dust. In Genesis 2, it says that “the Lord God formed the man out of the dust from the ground” and Job says that “mankind would return to the dust” (Job 34:15) The author of Ecclesiastes agrees, saying that “all come from dust, and all return to dust.” (Ecclesiastes 3:20) Consider also that, even when buried, the body will still return to dust – with some reports suggesting that a body left in an exposed and hot position can be reduced to bones in only 9 days. All of those who were described as being buried in the Bible have returned to the same state that cremation leaves a body – it’s only a matter of how quickly it happened.
There are practical issues as well. If there were an issue with cremation, what of those Christians who were burned at the stake? Consider also that, in this day and age, burial is an increasingly expensive proposition, and there are many families and people who simply do not have the financial resources to choose burial over cremation. Requiring a Christian family to bury someone despite their financial incapability is the very epitome of tying up heavy loads.
Finally, what of the idea that the body is a holy temple because the Holy Spirit lives in us? There is no cause to deny this – Paul explicitly tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 – but it is dangerous to quote only these two verses, considering that they are the coda, or conclusion of Paul talking about sexual immorality. Further, it is not our bodies that Paul is talking about in Ephesians 2, when he says that “God, who is rich in mercy … made us alive with the Messiah” and who “also raised us up and seated us in the heavens”. (Ephesians 2:4-6) The Holy Spirit makes us spiritually alive so that even when our bodies die we will nevertheless be raised up into heaven to live forever with God. (This is not to dismiss Romans 8:11, but rather to understand the idea of bringing our “mortal bodies to life through His Spirit who lives in you” in the context of the whole Bible.)
I do not intend to suggest that those who believe cremation is a sin are therefore inherently Pharisees – Paul, in Romans 14, explains that sometimes a sin for one person is not inherently a sin for another (Romans 14:19-23, please read to understand what I mean). Rather, those of us who teach the Bible should be careful to base our interpretation and opinion on what the Bible actually says and not create man-made additions that only end up tying up heavy loads for people.