Resurrection, Dust & Ashes

Cremation Is a Counter-Christian Witness

In a recent First Things article (firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/09/resurrecting-the-dead-in-america), sociologist Mark Regnerus reports on a poll he helped formulate for the Relationships in America project, the results of which are based on a sample of more than 15,000. Concerning belief in the resurrection of the dead, Regnerus writes,

A general resurrection of the dead is something orthodox Christians across the centuries have long anticipated. And it's one of those chunks of Christian dogma that must seem unbelievable to a genuine outsider (think second-generation secularist). Our dead bodies will return to dirt, or become fish food, or burnt up, and yet from such dust we will be reconstituted in the flesh—just as Job (19:26) claimed—by our Maker at some appointed future day and hour. Right?

Many of the faithful aren't so sure. Since pastors and priests are quick to remind me that Christians who aren't active in their congregations may think all manner of things, I distinguish between "everyone" and active parishioners, defined here as people who attend services at least three times a month. Overall, 37 percent of Americans believe there will be a bodily resurrection of the dead, compared to 72 percent who express a positive belief that there is life after death.

While most Americans reject a bodily resurrection, solid majorities of many major religious groups affirm it. Belief in the resurrection is highest among the Latter Day Saints, self-identified fundamentalist Protestants, evangelical Protestants, and Pentecostals. Among their churchgoing populations, support for it runs at 94, 86, 75, and 74 percent, respectively. But active attendance doesn't seem to matter a great deal here—a few percentage points. . . . [Nota bene: according to this survey, a quarter of practicing Evangelicals reject the resurrection.]

It's worse, however, among Roman Catholics, who are notably less apt to believe in the resurrection

of the dead. Self-identified "traditional" Catholics are predictably the most supportive, at 58 percent among regular Mass attenders. Moderates are more skeptical (at 41 percent overall), and self-identified "liberal" Catholics are largely pessimistic. Even among those who attend Mass regularly, only 30 percent affirmed a future resurrection.

As I rose from the dust upon hearing these results, I wondered why increasing disbelief in the resurrection of the body among ignorant people who profess to be Christians, most of whom probably believe in "life after death," wouldn't support increasing willingness to cremate the bodies of their dead. There is at least a logical connection here.

The problem is that the importance of the body in the Christian faith is such that, despite many perfectly reasonable arguments in favor of cremation, deliberately destroying it by fire has the historical pedigree of paganism, Christian resistance to the practice, and symbolic overtones of denial, or at least minimizing the importance of the body and its resurrection, not to mention the unavoidable symbolism of a judgment that delivers the dead to the fires of hell. No doubt most of these doctrinally challenged churchgoers believe in the immortality of the soul, which even the pagans did (one finds it in Homer, for example, when Odysseus visits Hades). But the Christian doctrine, inherited from the Jews and fulfilled in the rising of Christ, is the resurrection of the body.

Infected with Pagan Thinking

Typically, paganism of the more pious sort regarded the material body as an inferior element of which the ascending soul desires to rid itself—and what could be more purifying than fire? Rejection of this, and teaching about the positive goodness of the material world, including human flesh, created immediately by God and not confected by mere nature or some demiurgic power, made the faith of Jews and -Christians distasteful to higher-minded pagans. Christianity has often become infected with this kind of thinking, perhaps through the easy failure to distinguish fallen creation from creation as created and redeemed, and has never completely shaken loose from it.

It is hard to emphasize sufficiently, though, how essential it is to our faith that we are resurrected with the same body that has died, now glorified and immortal, as Christ's resurrected body—human flesh, born of a woman and once dead—is now seated, and we in and under him, at the right hand of God the Father. It has been reported that the devils, especially, find the notion off-putting.

The Church has always realized there are instances where a body cannot be placed in the earth as Christ's was, and accommodated itself to this reality, secure in its belief that God is able to remake bodies he has formed from earth's scattered elements in the manner of the First Making. But burial anticipating resurrection in the similitude of its Lord's remains the most faithful witness to what we believe, and is prescribed as normative in the churches closest to the history of Christian doctrine and practice.

—S. M. Hutchens, for the editors

S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor.

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