Dr. Randy White
What happens when a person dies? Fortunately, the Bible is clear. 1 Thessalonians 4:13 says “we do not want you to be uniformed about those who are asleep….” Paul then proceeds to tell us what happens to a person when they die.
The answer is two-fold, one answer for the soul, another for the physical body.
Concerning the soul (the spiritual part of life, including the mind, emotions, and will) goes immediately to its judgment. Hebrews 9:27 says “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” The sins of the believer have been completely removed in Christ and the righteousness of Christ fills the soul of the believer (see 1 Corinthians 5:17-21), therefore the judgment is “well done, good and faithful servant.” This judgment is based on Christ’s work, not our own. This is why faith in Jesus Christ is so foundational.
Paul teaches that “those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” will return “with Him” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Since we know they are going to return “with Him” then we also know that they are currently “with Him.” This is why Paul says that our grief is not like “the rest, who have no hope.”
But, quite obviously, the body does not go immediately to heaven. The body becomes an empty vessel, the person is “absent from the body” while the soul is “present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). So what happens to this body which is absent its resident? The body begins to decay (you were created from dust and to dust you shall return—Genesis 3:19), but this decay process is only temporary. The body is planted like a seed, and shall rise again (1 Corinthians 15 gives more background material for the resurrection of the body, based on the resurrection of Christ).
When does the body of the believer rise again? We are taught in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 that when the Lord descends and the trumpet is sounded, that the “dead in Christ shall rise first.” At that time, “we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them.” We get the word “rapture” from the Latin translation of “caught up.” So, at the rapture, when the souls of the dead in Christ descend with Christ, their bodies are resurrected and rise “to meet them in the air” and there is a glad reunion of body and soul.
So, at the cemetery, be reminded that soon (it could be any day!) the trumpet will sound, the dead in Christ shall rise, and believers in the Lord Jesus will be caught up and be forever in a glad reunion with Christ and those we love who “have fallen asleep in Christ Jesus.”
Burial or Cremation?
As a minister, I often find myself reminding grieving persons that their loved one who has died in Christ now lives on in the presence of God. I remind them, “Though their body remains, their life has been transferred to a better place.” Sometimes I will refer to the body as “just a shell” or “an empty home from which the owner has moved out.” While this may be of some comfort (and certainly carries a degree of truth), it also communicates a degree of untruth: that what is left behind is merely a body. Is the body exclusively a shell, a home? It certainly is these things, and the Apostle Paul even refers to the Body as “a tent” (2 Corinthians 5:1). However, the Bible is unambiguous in teaching that the body is so much more, to the extent that it is to be reverenced and respected.
For example, the body is, “a temple of the Holy Spirit”, and when a man is immoral it is a sin “against his own body,” and that we are instructed to “glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). This is a remarkable wealth of information about God’s view of the body: in a physical form, it is to be a spiritual blessing!
Additionally there is the Biblical fact that God is not finished with the physical body even after the spirit departs from that body. Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). This confused the Jews, who were reasoning that Jesus referred to Herod’s Temple. John clarified, saying, “But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture…” (John 2:21-22). Jesus’ resurrected body was used as authentication of Scripture. We are taught that Jesus is the “first fruits” of the resurrection, thus we know that our bodies will be resurrected in the same manner as the body of Jesus. (See 1 Corinthians 15 for a comprehensive Biblical teaching on the resurrection.)
Since the physical body has a future purpose and since we are to “glorify God in your body,” I believe that burial best communicates the future purpose of the body. Burial gives the idea that we are safeguarding the body for its future purpose, while cremation could convey that the body is no longer needed, its purpose having been fulfilled.
Let me close with the strong reminder that it would be precarious and without purpose to be dogmatic on this issue. While the Bible assumes burial at death, it does not instruct burial. Moreover, the activities of man will not prevent the purposes of God. One of Christianity’s finest missionaries, Lottie Moon of China, was cremated. On the resurrection day, God will gather the ashes and resurrect the body of that saint, whose soul is currently safe in the arms of Jesus!