Article of the Month
by Loraine Boettner
I. Physical Death
1. The Certainty and Reality of Death
Death and the future state are by their very nature mysteries incapable of solution apart from the revelation that has been given in Scripture. There is a tendency on the part of many people to avoid any serious discussion or even thought on the subject of death. Yet every person knows that in the normal course of events sooner or later that experience will happen to him. Every community has its cemetery. Nothing is more certain about life than the fact of death. It may be long delayed, but it will surely come. All human history and experience point to that conclusion. It has been demonstrated a thousand times in the lives of those about us who have been called from among the living. Heart attacks and other diseases, accidents, wars, fires, etc., have taken their toll. Death is no respecter of persons. It may come to any one, young or old, rich or poor, saint or sinner, at any time or any place. And when God calls none can escape, nor excuse, nor alibi that appointment.
Divine revelation solemnly states that, “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment,” Heb. 9:27. Truly life is short, death is sure, and eternity is long.
We set out on the journey of life with high hopes and soaring ambitions. Life seems rosy and death seems far away. Year after year life runs its accustomed course, smoothly and serenely. We read of thousands dying from starvation in India, and of other thousands that drown in China; but those places are far away and the people are not known to us. A neighbor down the street dies. That causes us to stop and think. We send flowers and feel sorry for the family. But still it does not affect us directly, and we soon continue with our work and play. There develops within us a sense of immunity to tragedy and death.
Then suddenly the bottom drops out of our world. Perhaps a mother or father, or some other relative or friend, is taken, leaving an aching void. Many of us have already had that experience. We have watched the changing face and have listened helplessly to the shortening breath. We have spoken or looked the last good-bye, and then, in an instant, the departing one has passed out of sight and out of hearing, into the world of the unknown. The body which, perhaps only yesterday, was so full of life and animation now lies before us an insensate piece of clay. A short time ago the one we loved was here, going about his work or speaking to us; and now, perhaps in one moment, he is gone — gone so very, very far away. What baffling thoughts rush in upon the mind in those moments pressing for an answer! But there is no answer in either reason or experience. The Bible alone has an answer1 for the thoughts that come with such perplexity and insistence.
At such a time it may be that, as has been said in a recent helpful booklet, “The stricken father loses his faith, or the broken-hearted mother cries out, ‘Why did this have to happen to me?’ It is hard to answer such questions to the satisfaction and comfort of those who ask it, for the simple reason that at such a time those who ask it are not normal. It is difficult for the mind that is shocked beyond comprehension to be reasonable. The breaking heart wants none of your logic. It wants comfort and peace. Above all, it wants to turn back the page, to recall the life that has sped and this cannot be. Death is so permanent. There is no recall. It comes to you and yours as it has come to millions of others — it is inevitable. It may come as a thief in the night, or it may approach slowly after ample warning. It may come early in life, or after years of happiness. But come it must. The only way to escape it is never to be born.”
Vital statistics inform us that the world’s population is about two and one-half billion (United Nations statistical yearbook, 1954), and that of this number approximately thirty million die every year. That means that on an average one person somewhere in the world dies every second. Think of it! Every time the clock ticks some one dies! 60 die every minute, 3600 every hour, and 86,400 every day. And except for a very few each of those leaves some heart torn and mourning. Your appointed time, and mine, has not come yet. But it will be somewhere on that timetable.
The Apostle Peter expresses this general truth with a melancholy eloquence: “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory thereof as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower falleth: but the word of the Lord abideth for ever,” I Peter 1:24,25. We would point out that not only individuals but even nations and civilizations have their periods of growth and dominance, and of decline and oblivion. History is quite clear in showing that one nation after another has temporarily dominated the world scene, and then disappeared. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Napoleon’s French Empire, the Third Reich, one by one these have had their day of glory and then have become merely historical names. Arnold Toynbee in his great work, A Study of History, points out that from the dawn of history until the present time there have been twenty-one distinct civilizations, only seven of which survive as world forces.
The poet Shelley, in one of his writings, describes an oriental ruin bearing this inscription:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
2. The Penalty for Sin
The essential truth that we should keep in mind about death is that it is the penalty for sin. Repeatedly the Bible drives home that teaching. It is not just the natural end of life. It holds its awful sway over us and we are doomed to die because we are sinners. When man was first created he was placed on a test of pure obedience. He was commanded not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the penalty for disobedience was announced in these words: “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,” Gen. 2:17.
Adam deliberately and wilfully disobeyed God’s command, and in so doing he in effect transferred his allegiance from God to the Devil. Having thereby shown that he was not a loyal and obedient citizen, but a rebel, in the kingdom, there was no alternative but that the threatened penalty should be executed. The Bible thus makes it clear that death is a penal evil, that is, an evil inflicted in accordance with law and as a penalty. This teaching is repeated in the prophets: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die,” Ezek. 18:4; and in the New Testament it is connected with the fall in Adam: “As through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin; and so death passed unto all men, for that all sinned,” Rom. 5:12; “In Adam all die,” I Cor. 15:22; and again, “The wages of sin is death,” Rom. 6:23. Death therefore does not come merely as a result of natural law, as the Unitarians and Modernists would have us believe. Rather, had there been no sin, there would have been no death.
How grateful we should be that God has given us some revelation concerning the cause and effect of death. Not everything is revealed that might be required to satisfy our curiosity, but enough is revealed that the mysterious aspects concerning it are largely cleared up and the dread in large measure removed. We have read various explanations of death, but we are convinced that there is none so true and accurate as that given in the Bible.
The sentence imposed as a result of Adam’s sin included much more than the dissolution of the body. The word “death” as used in the Scriptures in reference to the effects of sin includes every form of evil that is inflicted in its punishment. It meant the opposite of the reward promised, which was blessed and eternal life in heaven. It meant, therefore, the eternal miseries of hell (which is also the fate of the fallen angels or demons), together with the foretaste of those miseries which are felt in the evils that are suffered in this life. Its nature can be seen in part in the effects of sin which actually have fallen upon the human race. Its immediate and lasting effect was to cause sin rather than holiness to become man’s natural element so that in his unregenerate state he seeks to avoid even the thought of God and holy things. The Scriptures declare him to be “dead” in “trespasses and sins,” Eph. 2:1, in which state he is as unable to understand and appreciate the offer of redemption through faith in Christ as a physically dead man is to hear the sounds of this world.
The whole Christian world, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic alike, has believed that in the fall Adam, as the divinely appointed head of the race, stood representative of the entire race, and that he brought this evil not only upon himself but upon all his posterity. Dr. Charles Hodge has expressed this connection very clearly in the following words: “In virtue of the union, federal and natural, between Adam and his posterity, his sin, although not their act, is so imputed to them that it is the judicial ground of the penalty threatened against him coming also on them. ... To impute sin, in Scriptural and theological language, is to impute the guilt of sin. And by guilt is meant not criminality, nor moral ill-desert, nor demerit, much less moral pollution, but judicial obligation to satisfy justice.”2
Paul sets forth this doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin and also the kindred doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us when he says: “For as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous,” Rom. 5:19; and again, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive,” I Cor. 15:22.
In accordance with this we find that even infants, who have no personal sin, nevertheless suffer pain and death. Now the Scriptures uniformly represent suffering and death as the wages of sin. God would be unjust if He executed the penalty on those who are not guilty. Since the penalty falls on infants, they must be guilty; and since they have not personally committed sin, they must, as the Scripture says, be guilty of Adam’s sin. All those who have inherited human nature from Adam, that is, all of his descendants, were in him as the fruit is in the germ, and have, as it were, grown up one person with him. In the system of redemption that God has provided we are redeemed through Christ in precisely the same way that we fell in Adam, — that is, through a Substitute who stands as our federal head and representative and who acts in our stead. It is utterly illogical to believe in salvation through Christ without believing also in the fall through Adam.
In regard to the connection between sin and death Dr. Louis Berkhof, Professor Emeritus of Calvin Seminary, has well said:
That the penalty threatened upon Adam was not primarily physical death is shown by the fact that he did not die physically for some 930 years after the fall. But he did die spiritually the very moment he fell. He died just as really as the fish dies when taken from the water, or as the plant dies when taken from the soil. He was immediately alienated from God, and was cast out of the garden of Eden.
But even in regard to physical death, that also in a sense was immediately executed. For though our first parents lived many years, they immediately began to grow old. Since the fall, life has been an unceasing march toward the grave.
3. Three Kinds of Death: Spiritual — Physical — Eternal
1. Spiritual death means the separation or alienation of the soul from God. It is in principle the condition in which the Devil and the demons are, but since in this world man’s descent into evil is restrained to some extent by common grace, it has not yet proceeded to such a degree of depravity as is found in them. This was the primary penalty threatened against Adam in the Garden of Eden. Since man can only truly live when in communion with God, spiritual death means his complete undoing and the continual worsening of his condition. It means that while man may still perform many acts which are good in themselves, his works never merit salvation because they are not done with right motives toward God. Spiritual death, like a poisoned fountain, pollutes the whole stream of life, and were it not for the restraining influence of common grace ordinary human life would become a hell on earth.
The opposite of spiritual death is spiritual life. It was this to which Jesus referred when He said to Martha: “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth on me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth on me shall never die,” John 11:25, 26. And again, “He that heareth my word, and believeth him that sent me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgment, but hath passed out of death into life,” John 5:24.
2. Physical death means the separation of the soul from the body. This, too, is a part of the penalty for sin, although, as indicated in the preceding section, it is not the most important part. In contrast with the angels, man was created with a dual nature, a spirit united with a body. He receives information through the avenues of sense. His body is the organ through which he makes contact with other human beings and with the world about him. When he dies he loses that contact, and, so far as we know, the spirits of the departed have no further contact with the living nor with the world about us. We do not know what the process is by which angels, who are pure spirits, communicate with each other, but presumably it is direct communication without intervening means, similar to what we refer to as thought transference or intuitive knowledge. At any rate the Bible gives no reason to believe that the dead can communicate with the living, but quite the contrary. (The alleged communications through spiritualistic mediums will be discussed in a later section.)
At death man’s body, which is composed of some thirty different chemical elements, returns to the earth from which it was taken. This phase of death, too, was conquered by Christ when He made atonement for the sins of His people, for they eventually receive a gloriously restored resurrection body.
3. Eternal death is spiritual death made permanent. “This,” says Dr. Berkhof, “may be regarded as the culmination and completion of spiritual death. The restraints of the present fail away, and the corruption of sin has its perfect work. The full weight of the wrath of God descends on the condemned. Their separation from God, the source of life and joy, is complete, and this means death in the most awful sense of the word. Their outward condition is made to correspond with the inward state of their evil souls. There are pangs of conscience and physical pain. ‘And the smoke of their torment goeth up for ever and ever.’ Rev. 14:11.”4
The first death is physical, and it awaits every human being. The second death is spiritual, and it awaits only those who are outside of Christ. It is the eternal separation of the individual from God, and it results in the eternal punishment of those whose names are not written in the book of life (Rev. 20:12-15). In another connection the Bible speaks of a new birth, which in reality is a spiritual rebirth: “Ye must be born anew,” John 3 :3,7. Those who are born only once, the physical birth, die twice, a physical and a spiritual or eternal death. Those who are born twice die only once, the physical death. These latter are the Lord’s redeemed.
Looked at merely in itself and from the standpoint of the world death is, as Dr. Hodge says, “the event of all others the most to be dreaded.” He goes on to say that,
The only possible way by which the terrors of death can be diverted is for the person to be freed from his burden of sin. But God cannot merely issue a pardon for sin and set it aside as if it were of no consequence. In the beginning He made the law that the penalty should be death. That was no idle threat. It was rather a statement of the moral law, and was based on His own nature. It is in fact a transcript of His nature, and is therefore immutable and inexorable. The demands of His law are the demands of His holy nature. But how, then, are those demands to be met? To that end men have sought to earn their own salvation by sacrifices, by asceticism, by good works and self discipline, by prayer and fasting and church rituals, but to no avail. Man in himself simply cannot pay the debt of sin.
But what we could not do for ourselves God has done for us. As our Substitute and for our salvation Christ became incarnate, took our human nature upon Himself, took our place as the offender before His own law, and by His own suffering and death upon the cross, bore the penalty for sin that was due to us. This we call His “passive” obedience. Also as our Substitute and by His perfect obedience to the moral law He lived a sinless life during the thirty-three years that He was on earth and earned for us the blessings of eternal life. This we call His “active” obedience. Each of these phases of His work was necessary for our salvation. And because He was Deity incarnate and therefore a person of infinite value and dignity, His obedience to the law and His suffering were of infinite value, and were therefore the means by which God might save as vast a multitude as He saw fit to call to Himself. The moral relationship between God and His people was ‘thus restored, and as a consequence His people are cleansed of their sin and transformed by the Holy Spirit into His image.
As a result of the redemption accomplished by Christ the death of the body becomes for His people the gateway to heaven, a transition by which they move out of the body and into the presence of the Lord. It has lost its sting. “Death is swallowed up in victory,” I Cor. 15:54.
4. The Christian Still Subject to Physical Death
A further problem arises concerning the suffering and death of believers, and it is this: If their sins have been atoned for, why is it still necessary for them to die? Why is this part of the penalty still executed? Why are they not transferred from earth to heaven in somewhat the same way that Enoch and Elijah were taken up? It is perfectly evident that even the best of God’s people do suffer and die, their sufferings sometimes being far in excess of those which befall others who are notoriously wicked.
The answer is that the suffering and death that falls on believers is not, strictly speaking, penal, — that is, it is not suffering inflicted as a punishment for sin. All true punishment for their sins was borne by Christ. These sufferings are rather disciplinary measures or chastisements, sufferings designed for the moral and spiritual advancement of those who experience them. The death of believers also serves as a warning to all those still in this life that the time of their death is also approaching. The death of the wicked, however, is truly penal, a consequence of and a punishment for sin. The death of the believer and that of the unbeliever may appear outwardly to be the same, but from the divine viewpoint there is a great difference.
Dr. Robert L. Dabney, an outstanding Southern theologian, has set forth this problem quite fully. Says he:
Thus while sickness and death in themselves remain natural evils for the righteous and are dreaded by them as such, they are nevertheless in the economy of grace made subservient to their spiritual advancement and to the best interests of the kingdom of God.
But for the wicked death remains as much a penalty as it ever was. For them it means the end of their false sense of security, and an overwhelming, sudden destruction which they cannot escape. What utter loneliness must seize upon the unbeliever who has to leave friends and old associations in this world and go all alone into that mysterious future! How awful to go down into the valley of death without a Saviour!
Another point to be remembered in connection with either the penal or disciplinary character of death is that since we all are members of a fallen race God has the sovereign right to inflict that discipline or execute that penalty at whatever time He sees fit. He may, and often does, inflict it upon infants. If He delays the sentence until early youth, or middle age, or perhaps until old age, that is purely a matter of His mercy and grace. Without regard to moral character or personal achievements one life may drag on for many years in misery and disease while the Reaper tarries, while another no better nor any worse lives in health and wealth and meets an easy death. The very inequality and irrationality of death should teach us the gravity of our sin and the absolute sovereignty of God in executing the penalty whenever He chooses. It is not for us to say when our time shall come. When one is taken we should be thankful that the lives of so many others who were in the same condition have been spared. It is our duty to be prepared for that event whenever it may come, knowing that sooner or later it is sure to come.
5. The Christian Attitude Toward Death
“And I heard a voice from heaven saying, Write, Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth: yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; for their works do follow them,” Rev. 14:13.
“But I am in a strait betwixt the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ; for it is very far better; yet to abide in the flesh is more needful for your sake,” Phil. 1:23.
“Being therefore always of good courage, and knowing that whilst toe are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord (for we walk by faith, not by sight); we are of good courage, I say, and are willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord,” II Cor. 5:6-8.
“Precious in the sight of Jehovah is the death of his saints,” Ps. 116:15.
“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” Phil. 1:21.
“For we know that if the earthly house of our tabernacle be dissolved, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens,” II Cor. 5:1.
In his old age Paul wrote: “For I am already being offered, and the time of my departure is come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge shall give to me in that day; and not to me only, but also to all of them that have loved his appearing,” II Tim. 4:6-8.
Death holds no terrors for the true Christian. He sees it rather as the boundary line between this world and the next, or as the portal through which His Lord entered to prepare the way and through which he now follows. He is prepared, watchful, sober, knowing that his appointed salvation is sure, and that when his Lord comes it will be for the purpose of leading him into his inheritance. The day of his death becomes in fact his coronation day. It means leaving a world of sin and sorrow, of pain and disappointment, of toil and hardship, and entering into a far better world, a world of holiness and blessedness, of happiness and freedom and accomplishment, and of direct fellowship with God. In comparison with the present world the future and eternal world is by all odds to be preferred. In fact so great is the contrast that we may even say that the terrestial life, as compared with the celestial, is of no value at all.
Paul’s comforting description, “absent from the body . . . at home with the Lord,” seems to mean that death is a moving out of the earthly tabernacle of our physical body and into a heavenly abode. For Jesus death meant returning to the Father: “Now I go unto him that sent me,” John 16:5. It is therefore not the end of life, but rather the beginning of a far more wonderful and glorious existence than can possibly be experienced here. The grave is no longer seen as a blind alley that blocks all human progress, but as a thoroughfare through which man advances to a far better world. He no longer seeks for the living among the dead, no longer thinks of his deceased loved one as lying there in the casket or in the grave, but as having departed completely from the old body and as being alive for ever more.
Commenting on the words of Paul to Timothy (quoted above), Dr. Samuel McP. Glasgow says:
For the Christian there are two aspects of death that must always be kept in balance. On the one hand, death has been so transformed by the atonement wrought by Christ that its sting has been removed and it comes now as the last earthly discipline, preparing him for that which lies ahead. In many cases it brings the sufferer into a state of mind in which he is not only ready but willing to leave this world. Through the atonement provided by Christ the believer gains far more than he lost through the fall in Adam, for in the incarnation human nature has been, as it were, taken into the very bosom of Deity, and a closer relationship established between God and man than that which exists between God and the angels. Because of this relationship man’s life is ultimately made much richer and fuller than was that of Adam before the fall, even his physical body finally being transformed into the likeness of Christ’s glorious body. Paul says: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit,” II Cor. 3:18. And in I John 3:2 we read: “Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that, if he shall be made manifest, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.”
On the other hand, death is never to be thought of as in itself a blessing. Except as it is overruled for good in Christ, it is an enemy, cruel, relentless, bringing grief and misery in human hearts. It is a violent and unnatural rending apart of soul and body. It is something that under normal conditions should never have entered the world, and that would not have been allowed except as it became necessary as a punishment for sin. The Bible is uncompromisingly honest about death. It does not sentimentalize. It informs us that death is the penalty for sin, and that its infliction on the human race was an awful calamity. It says, “The last enemy .... is death,” I Cor. 15:26. When the soul is torn away from the body, and all the tender affections and sweet associations are broken in a moment of time, even the most godly cannot look forward to this mysterious change without a strange and uncanny feeling. The soul without its body is incomplete.
This is the view presented in both the Old and the New Testament. Many times the Old Testament saints cried out to God against death. David spoke of the valley of the shadow of death. Paul describes it as a terrible foe with an awful sting like an adder. And again he said, “We ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body,” Rom. 8:23. It is an enemy because it is the work of THE enemy, Satan. It is in fact the fullest and climactic work of the enemy. It is an alien invasion of God’s creation by the power of evil, a thing absolutely contrary to the nature of God. Christ Himself, as He stood with the sorrowing relatives at the grave of His friend Lazarus, wept as He saw the grief of His friends and felt in His own soul a sense of the awfulness of this work of the great enemy. But there is a remedy, not of human but of Divine origin; for Christ has paid the redemption price for His people, and now possesses the power to overrule even this great calamity for their good.
While death, then, is no longer to be feared by the Christian it nevertheless remains a dreadful experience. Paul expresses something of this when he likens the loss of the body by the soul to a state of nakedness. In II Cor. 5:1-4 he says: “For we know that if the earthly house of our tabernacle be dissolved, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens. For verily in this we groan, longing to be clothed upon with our habitation which is from heaven: if so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For indeed we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened; not for that we would be unclothed, but that we would be clothed upon, that what is mortal may be swallowed up of life.”
Here Paul expresses concern or a reticence about entering into the disembodied state. He seems to say that if we could receive the resurrection body immediately, that is, without an intervening disembodied state or a period of soul nakedness as he expresses it, then the change would certainly be welcome. It is at any rate clear that in his teaching the physical body as well as the soul is an object of redemption, and precious both to the Lord and to the believer. There are some today who teach the heresy of the resurrection of the soul only. But such a calamity seems never to have entered the mind of Paul.
In verse eight of this same chapter Paul expresses himself as “willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord.” In other words, we are taught that while death is in itself an evil, yet the joy that comes through entering into the presence of the Lord is so glorious and attractive that we should be willing and ready to leave the body and to be present with the Lord whenever the call comes.
Paul longs for relief from the burdens of life. As Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield has expressed it,
Paul further declares himself “in a strait betwixt the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ; for it is very far better: yet,” says he, “to abide in the flesh is more needful for your sake,” Phil. 1:23,24. In accordance with this our attitude toward death should be that as long as we are given health and strength we are willing and even desire to remain in this life and accomplish as much as possible for the advancement of the kingdom and for our own growth in grace, but that when our time comes we go willingly and gladly. A faithful soldier at his post of duty resists all attempts to persuade him to leave until his task is accomplished. But when his duty has been performed and he receives orders to return he obeys gladly. “I am not tired of my work,” wrote Adoniram Judson, the great Baptist missionary to Burma, “neither am I tired of the world; yet when Christ calls me home I shall go with the gladness of a school boy bounding away from school. Death will never take me by surprise; I am too strong in Christ.”
Here we are reminded of an event reported concerning John Quincy Adams. It is said that one day in his eightieth year as he walked slowly along a Boston street he was accosted by a friend who said, “And how is John Quincy Adams today?” The former president of the United States replied graciously, “Thank you, John Quincy Adams is well, sir, quite well, I thank you. But the house in which he lives at present is becoming dilapidated. It is tottering upon the foundations. Time and the seasons have nearly destroyed it. Its roof is pretty well worn out, its walls are shattered, and it trembles with every wind. The old tenement is becoming almost uninhabitable, and I think John Quincy Adams will have to move out of it soon; but he himself is quite well, sir, quite well.” And with that the venerable statesman, leaning heavily upon his cane, continued his slow walk down the street.
Another illustration of what death should mean to the Christian:
Indeed, if we are Christians why should we be afraid of death? Why should we fear to meet our Saviour who has done more for us and who loves us more than any one else in the world, and to enter into a higher form of life and service? Unfortunately, even casual conversation with mourners at the time of death in a family reveals that many professedly Christian people do have such a fear, and that they have only the vaguest ideas about the state of the dead and the future life. But it is not intended that we should be afraid. We have been given a special promise to take care of that fear: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Death is in reality only a translation from one phase of life to another. Far from marking the end, it marks the beginning of a fuller and more wonderful life than can ever be known on this earth. But while we may be afraid of death now, the experience of others has shown that when the end comes if we are Christians we will not be afraid.
“Our citizenship is in heaven,” Phil. 3:20. Heaven is our home. Life in this world is only the preparatory school, the staging ground, as it were, to get us ready for the much greater life that lies ahead. God does not want us to become satisfied with life in this world. To that end He sends an appropriate amount of sorrow, suffering and disappointment to each of His children, in order that their anticipation of and appreciation for the heavenly life may be the greater.
6. Comments by John Calvin
John Calvin had much to say about the attitude that the Christian should have toward this life, present possessions, and death, as viewed in the light of Scripture, and his comments are worth quoting at length. He says:
Calvin goes on to say, however, that the good things that come to us in this world are of God’s giving, and that we must not be ungrateful for them.
7. Every Person’s Life a Completed Plan
It often seems to us that a person is taken from this life before his work is finished. Particularly is this true when a father or mother is taken from a family, or when a promising young person, or a much needed Christian leader or official dies. From the human viewpoint no life ever seemed so unfinished as did that of Jesus when at the early age of thirty-three He met death by crucifixion. How desperately the world needed His continued teaching and preaching and His miracles of healing! How desperately His influence would be needed in the new Church! But His real work was not that which human minds thought it to be. The night before He was killed He said, “I have glorified thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which Thou hast given me to do,” John 17:4. As He hung on the cross, dying for the sins of others, He said, “It is finished.” From the human viewpoint it looked as though His ministry had just begun. But from the Divine viewpoint He had accomplished that which He came to do. The human viewpoint saw only the external side of His work which related to the people immediately around Him. But from the Divine viewpoint He had accomplished the redemption of His people, which was His real work.
From the human viewpoint how desperately the continued preaching and guidance of Paul was needed in the new churches! But he, speaking by inspiration, could say, “I have finished the course.” And how they needed Stephen, and James, in the early Church! We would have said, “Unfinished,” But God said, “Finished.” And how often today when a young father or mother or boy or girl is taken we cry out, “Unfinished.” But God says, “Finished.”
Clearly, accomplishment in life cannot be measured in terms of years alone. It often happens that those who die young have accomplished more than others who live to old age. Even infants, who sometimes have been with their parents only a few days, or even hours, may leave profound influences that change the entire course of the life of the family. And undoubtedly, from the Divine viewpoint, the specific purpose for which they were sent into the world was accomplished. It is our right neither to take life prematurely, nor to insist on its extension beyond the mark that God has set for it.
Some speak of the “problem” of death. For the Christian there should be no more a problem of death than there is a problem of faded flowers or of a clouded sky. God has made this so clear in His word that there can be no grounds to question it. It is only when we fail to think soberly about life that we have the feeling that it should be all sunshine. Undoubtedly death has been for many the one way of release from burdens and pains that had become too great to be borne, as with the hopelessly incurable, and the aged. For others it has meant escape from suffering or disappointment that would have come to them in later life. As this world is constituted there must be shadows as well as light, night as well as day, pain as well as pleasure, a departure from life as well as an entrance into it. That richer life, which is the soul’s true destiny, can be attained only by passing through the portals of death.
A further point worthy of notice is this: — There seems to be a widespread belief even among evangelical Christians that to die before the coming of Christ is a misfortune, and that it would be a special blessing to be a member of that last generation which shall be on earth and which shall be translated at the Lord’s coming. That there should be a natural shrinking from death at all times is understandable. But the fact is that those who die in the Lord have the inexpressibly high privilege of living and sharing with Christ in the Messianic Kingdom. Surely that is a most valuable experience which will not be the privilege of those who are alive and who are raptured at His coming. In this sense we may distinguish between (1) the Messianic Kingdom, or the Kingdom of Christ, which relates to time, and (2) the eternal Kingdom which follows those events.
8. Making Preparation for Death
How would you want to spend the time if you knew that tomorrow would be your last day on earth? Would you need to spend it asking for that forgiveness of sin which you should have asked for long ago? It is, of course, infinitely better to make a death-bed repentance than not to repent at all. But many who put off until the last moment the matter of getting right with God find themselves unable to repent at that time. A wise counsellor, Dr. Charles Hodge, once said: “It is important that when we come to die we have nothing to do but to die.” Such a one can wait calmly the coming of death, knowing that his sins are forgiven and that all will be well.
John Wesley was once asked, “If you knew that you would die at twelve o’clock tomorrow night, how would you spend the intervening time?” “Why,” was the answer, “just as I intend to spend it. I would preach tonight at Gloucester and again tomorrow morning. After that I would ride to Tewkesbury, preach in the afternoon and meet the society in the evening. I should then repair to friend Martin’s house, as he expects me; converse, pray with the family, retire to my room at ten o’clock, commend myself to my Heavenly Father, lie down to sleep and wake up in glory.”
The fact that the young as well as the old, and that the righteous as well as sinners, die, should make every one aware that his own time is very uncertain. The Christian should be ready for his Lord’s coming at any time. “Therefore be ye also ready; for in an hour that ye think not the Son of man cometh,” Matt. 24:44. In the parable of the Ten Virgins, five made preparation and were ready; five neglected to prepare and were not ready. “And . . . the bridegroom came: and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage feast: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know not the day nor the hour,” Matt. 25:10-13.
Reports come from various sources concerning the manner in which the righteous and the wicked die. Many approach that infinitely important event without any adequate realization of its meaning, and many are in such a physical state that they cannot think clearly in their last moments. But those who have taken a stand either for or against Christ often reflect that attitude as the soul takes its departure. For the Christian death should come as quietly as the twilight hour with its cool peace and its embracing rest. “Let me die the death of the righteous, And let my last end be like his,” Nu. 23:10. For those outside of Christ death is a terrible thing. Their fears are fully justified. For them it means, “after death the judgment.” With nothing more substantial than the speculations of philosophers and naturalists or the musings of poets and novelists, they are utterly unprepared to face the future. These are the lost. What emotions other than terror can possibly possess a person when he finally is given an insight into the ultimate reality of things and who with his sins unforgiven goes out into a Christless eternity?
We sometimes hear it said that death through cancer, tuberculosis, or some other disease in which the person may be sick and perhaps suffer for a period of time is a horrible way to die. We believe, however, that for most people such a death, rather than one that occurs suddenly, as in heart failure, drowning or accident, at least affords a final period of preparation both as regards the person’s spiritual well-being and his earthly affairs. This, too, is true of those who attain to advanced years. As one has said,
’t is meet that we should pause a while,
One of the most painful thoughts about death is that of having to leave behind so much that we value or hold dear, — positions we have attained, earthly possessions, past accomplishments, unfinished projects, etc. But Rev. 14:13, after pronouncing blessed those who die in the Lord, and declaring that they rest from their labors, says: “For their works follow with them.” That means that every good work that we have done will go with us and will be our possession over there. Even our material possessions, while they cannot be taken with us, can be sent on ahead, — if invested wisely in the Lord’s work, exchanging earthly values for heavenly values. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal,” Matt. 6:19,20. That assures permanent possession. In the light of Scripture teaching, the only money that we really have is that which we have wisely given away. That is the way, and in fact it is the only way, in which we can take our possessions with us. Christ admonishes us to do that. Christian giving and Christian spending involve a real test of faith.
Most people are reluctant to give serious consideration to the reality of death until it is forced upon them. This, however, is not the part of wisdom. The Bible frequently confronts us with the fact of death. We read there of the careers of many and great men. But no matter how long they lived, the repeated comment is, “And he died.”
Sooner or later death is sure to come in the experience of each of us. When it does come the most sensible course is to meet it squarely. Unfortunately, in some homes children receive no proper teaching concerning its meaning. The subject is scarcely mentioned, and the children may even be forbidden to attend funerals. But some day those children, perhaps alone and without warning, will be forced to stand by the death-bed of mother, father, brother or sister, or perhaps face it on the battlefield in its cruelest form. What then will be their reaction? Nothing is more certain than the fact of death; nothing is more uncertain than the time at which it will come.
Surely it is the part of wisdom to be prepared for this certain attack. Modern psychology is showing that the most effective way to deal with a situation that causes intense distress or grief is not to suppress it or drive it down into our subconscious mind where it continues to harass and upset us, but to meet it openly, discuss it with others, and, so far as possible, seek to understand it. If we try to suppress it or ignore it much damage may be done to our minds, bodies and souls. A recent article, “The Death We Face,” by Dr. John R. Richardson, illustrates this point quite clearly. Says he:
9. What Happens at Death
The Scriptures represent death as primarily a separation of soul and body. “The dust returneth to the earth as it was, and the spirit returneth unto God who gave it,” Eccl. 12:7. “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead,” James 2:26. Death is a transition from one realm to another, and from one kind of life to another. For the Christian it means the cleansing of the soul from the last vestiges of sin and an entrance into the mansions of light. This is well expressed in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, where, in response to the question, “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?” (Q. 37), the answer is given: “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.”
Human life is a boundless adventure which is to continue on through all eternity. The present life is but the first stage of a long career. What we call death is not the end, but only the entrance of the soul into a new and more wondrous world. By its very nature this transition must be mysterious and awe-inspiring. To some people there is given in this life a long series of fascinating and thrilling adventures, involving perhaps many great accomplishments. But we may be sure that the first five minutes after death will bring experiences for the soul far more remarkable and awesome than anything that ever has been experienced in this world. Picture even faintly, if you can, those first moments in glory land. Undoubtedly the person first of all sees Christ his Saviour, the One by whose redemptive work he has been brought to salvation, and whose he is. And may we not believe that he also sees his Christian loved ones who have gone before and who now come to welcome him? We know that they are with Christ, for He Himself has said, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I come again, and will receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also,” John 14:2,3. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus we are told that the angels carried Lazarus to the place of rest. That would seem to indicate that a heavenly escort awaits the Lord’s people at their death and leads them in triumph from earth to heaven. And this would seem further to be entirely appropriate since the Lord, by His redemptive work, is rescuing souls one by one from the kingdom of Satan and transferring them to the kingdom of heaven where they shall be forever associated with Himself and His people.
Also, we think of death as a homegoing, and of heaven as our eternal home. In the Old Testament we have this description of death: “Man goeth to his everlasting home, and the mourners go about the streets,” Eccl. 12:5. Paul says that we are “willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord,” II Cor. 5:8. The most distinctive feature about home is that it is where our loved ones are. It is a great privilege just to go home and renew the old family ties. Some of the happiest moments of our earthly lives have been those when we turned our faces toward home. Many of us no doubt have memories of those events that we can never forget.
We know but very little about what transpires on the other side of the grave, but of this much we may be sure, that suddenly, at the moment of death, all things appear in a new perspective. The one who is called exchanges comparative darkness and limited knowledge for new light and knowledge commensurate with his new estate, — “For now we see in a mirror darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known,” I Cor. 13:12. The things that the person thought important, — his business affairs, the season’s crops, tomorrow’s tasks, his success in pleasing those around him, — all of these no longer matter at all. All of earth’s cares and problems suddenly are left behind. And in their place the things to which he perhaps had given but little attention stand out as all-important, — his attitude toward Christ, his Christian witness to those about him, his prayer life, the motives which underlay his public and private actions. He will then see that the important thing was not how much he did or how much he gave, but with what motives or with what purpose he acted. He will wonder, not how much of his money he should have given to the Lord, but why he withheld so much of the Lord’s money for himself. He will see that no material possessions really belonged to him, but that all of the money and lands and other possessions really belonged to the Lord, and that he was only a steward to whom their management was entrusted temporarily.
Five minutes after he is in heaven he will be overwhelmed by truths that he had known all along but somehow had never fully grasped. He will wish with all his heart that he could recall just the one-hundredth part of the time that he let slip through his fingers, that he could recall the lost opportunities that presented themselves for the Lord’s service and for better living, — that from the fields that were “white already unto harvest” (John 4:35) he had led many more souls to salvation. He will wish that he had gained a much fuller knowledge of divine truth as it is set forth in the Bible, for that is the knowledge that he will then live by; and he will wish that in his Bible study he had made a much fuller acquaintance with the Old Testament and New Testament saints in whose company he will find himself. Many will be saved no doubt “so as through fire,” saved, but entering heaven practically bankrupt, their life’s work, like wood, hay, stubble, having been burned up (I Cor. 3:12-15). There will loom up before him the endless possibilities of the heavenly life, and there will blossom forth within his own being (which was created in the image of God) a thousand new talents and powers all unsuspected, these to develop and grow and to be his possession for ever and ever.
10. Christians Not to Sorrow As Those Who Have No Hope
When a believing loved one is taken it ill becomes a Christian to give himself over to unrestrained grief, or to express resentment toward an act of divine providence. Such conduct does not commend the faith that we profess. It is but natural that at such a time we should be acutely conscious of an aching void. We know that we shall no longer experience the kind words of love and helpfulness from the departed one. The widow is left to mourn the loss of her husband as she tends her fatherless children; the parents miss the cheerfulness of youth when a son or daughter is taken. We sorrow over the loss of our friends. We would be less than human if we did not feel that loss. But we rejoice that they have gone to the heavenly home. The loss is ours, not theirs.
Weeping is not out of place at a Christian funeral. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. The Bible sanctions mourning and a respect for the bodies of those who have departed. Periods of mourning were authorized in Scripture, depending upon the character and station of the dead. But surely the black clothing, the long veil and such dismal signs of mourning as once were the general custom are entirely out of place. It often happens that our funerals are too black, and that we act as though we had but very little faith. We should always remember that we bury only the body, not the soul, of our loved one, that the soul has gone to be with the Lord.
Nowhere more than at a Christian funeral should the world see the blessings of faith. At that particular time when hearts are more receptive than usual a special opportunity is presented to witness to the saving power of Christ and to point others to Him. The Christian doctrines concerning the immortality of the soul, God’s redemptive love for His people, and the certainty of future rewards and punishments probably can be more effectively presented at that time than at any other.
We are told that in the early days of the Church the pagans were often amazed at the calmness of the Christians in the hour of death. There was something about their noble and fearless bearing that pagan philosophy could not explain. That attitude seemed strange then, and still does, to the man of the world, for he cannot understand how it is possible for anyone to view death mildly and calmly. Christians who have been enlightened from the Bible concerning death and spiritual things do not fear death. But it is unfortunately true that many faithful saints have not received much instruction on this subject, or at least have failed to grasp its full meaning, and that they still share with the world the fear of death. It should be our duty to help them toward a fuller understanding of this truth, that they may come to possess the spiritual peace that is rightfully theirs.
That this is the teaching set forth in Scripture is clear enough. Writing to the Thessalonians Paul said: “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that fall asleep; that ye sorrow not, even as the rest, who have no hope,” I Thess. 4:13. In preparing the disciples for His own death Jesus said, “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful,” John 14:27. And again, “If ye loved me, ye would have rejoiced, because I go unto the Father,” John 14:28. The disciples did not rejoice, because of their incomplete understanding of what was involved; nor is it easy for us to rejoice when a loved one is taken from us, even though we know that he is saved. But certainly the Apostle John when, in apocalyptic vision, he saw a great multitude that no man could number, standing before the throne, clothed with white robes, bathed in the dazzling splendor of light inaccessible, and heard them cry with a loud voice, “Salvation unto our God who sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10), could not have grieved when he knew that his loved ones were there.
To show resentment at such times is to sin against God. It is in effect a challenge to His providential control. It means further that we are cutting ourselves off so that we have to bear our grief alone. Such actions create a great gulf between God and ourselves. Nor are we deliberately to run away from grief and seek to lose ourselves in an orgy of senseless activity. That is like taking an opiate to relieve pain, affording at best only temporary relief, and in the long run leaving us in a worse state than before. The only way for a Christian to meet sorrow is to meet it as his Master did, calmly and courageously, with implicit faith that whatever our Father in heaven does is right, — “Not my will, but thine be done.” The glorious thing about this is that even the weakest and most ignorant among us can have this faith if he will but keep open the channel of communication between himself and his heavenly Father.
When our loved ones are called and we are left behind, that means that God still has work for us to do. Whether that work be in behalf of others or in the further development of our own spiritual nature, He expects us to adjust to the new situation and to do that which needs to be done. We have His promise of sufficient help: “And as thy days, so shall thy strength be,” Deut. 33:25. As we busy ourselves in the tasks at hand new interests are developed and perhaps a whole new field of service is opened up. It is well to remember, too, that time is a great healer, and that as the days come and go and we are further removed from the event, the sense of loss, while still very real, becomes much less painful.
Though from our own viewpoint the loss of a loved one seems to be a tragedy, we know that for him this has been his coronation day. We know that ere long we too shall pass through that same portal. Except for the sense of personal loss we should rejoice when that supreme blessedness comes to a loved one, and be willing to bear the loneliness and separation for his or her sake, as a mother does when her daughter marries and goes far away to the happiness of her own home. Too often our thoughts are only about ourselves, and our tears flow only because of selfish motives which we feel may now be frustrated. If we were really thinking of the welfare of our friend we would wear a beaming countenance and rejoice at his promotion to the heavenly kingdom. The best description of this change still is found in Paul’s words, “Absent from the body ... at home with the Lord,” II Cor. 5:8.
Furthermore, those who have passed on undoubtedly would not want to come back to this world, with all of its sin and suffering, its injustice and limitations, even if that were possible. To return to this world after experiencing even briefly the heavenly life would be as inappropriate as for a college graduate to go back and enroll again in the first grade, or for one who has become President of the United States to resign that high office and hire himself out as a factory worker or farm hand for such work as he may have done in his early years. If our vision could penetrate the veil that separates this world from the next, so that we could really comprehend the beauty and glory of that realm, we may be sure that we would be far less given to tears, that we would indeed rejoice greatly when our loved ones are called home. Christians sad and sorrowing in this world are like
“New-born princes crying in their cradles,
The present writer has found the following illustration quite helpful in class work to show what our attitude should be toward the departure of loved ones. Suppose a relative or friend is given a trip around the world with all expenses paid, all hotel accommodations and sight-seeing tours arranged, and in association with a very desirable group of friends. Suppose the trip includes a tour of our Rocky mountain and Pacific coast states, a luxury liner or airplane across the Pacific to Hawaii, Japan, Australia, India, Egypt, Palestine, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, England, and back across the Atlantic. Such a trip would be considered a great privilege. It would mean temporary separation, but we would be happy that our friend should have such a privilege, and we would look forward to seeing him after the trip was over. The experience of death is somewhat like that, — the breaking of personal ties, temporary separation, then permanent reunion in that better land. Even in this world when friends come together after years of separation, the intervening time seems to fade away as if there had been no separation at all.
Furthermore, in time of bereavement we find great comfort in our belief that God’s providential control extends over all these things, even the sinful acts of evil man being foreseen, permitted and overruled for a greater good. Our limited vision oftentimes does not permit us to understand why certain things happen. But undoubtedly if we could see all events from the divine viewpoint and understood God’s purpose in bringing them to pass, we would see that every event has its appointed place in that plan as a whole, and that it is designed for our good. We have Paul’s statement to that effect: “We know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose,” Rom. 8:28. We readily grant that it often does not look that way now. From our viewpoint it often looks as though there, was much more to be accomplished before the person’s life course would be complete. But undoubtedly from the divine viewpoint the work appointed for each individual is completed before he is called.
Some years ago Dr. Clarence E. Macartney expressed this very clearly when in speaking of God’s providential control of all events he said: “The misfortunes and adversities of life, so called, assume a different color when we look at them through this glass. It is sad to hear people trying to live over their lives again and saying to themselves: ‘If I had chosen a different profession,’ ‘If I had taken a different turning of the road,’ ‘If I had married another person.’ All of this is weak and unChristian. The web of destiny we have woven, in a sense, with our hands, and yet God has had His part in it. It is God’s part in it, and not ours, that gives us faith and hope.”
And to the same effect Blaise Pascal, a celebrated French mathematician and writer, in a wonderful letter to a bereaved friend, instead of repeating the ordinary platitudes of consolation, comforted him with this doctrine, saying: “If we regard this event, not as the effect of chance, not as a fatal necessity of nature, but as a result inevitable, just, holy, of a decree of His providence, conceived from all eternity, to be executed in such a year, day, hour, and in such a place and manner, we shall adore in humble silence the impenetrable loftiness of His secrets; we shall venerate the sanctity of His decrees; we shall bless the act of His providence; and uniting our will with that of God Himself, we shall wish with Him, in Him and for Him, the thing that He has willed in us and for us from all eternity.”
11. Prayers for the Dead
We believe that it avails nothing to pray for the dead. That practice is followed in the Roman Catholic Church, where it is closely connected with, and is a logical consequence of, their doctrine of purgatory. The high Anglican Church, which holds a position about half way between the Roman Catholic and the representative Protestant churches, also follows that custom. But practically all other Protestant churches reject it.
Prayers for the dead imply that their state has not yet been fixed, and that it can be improved at our request. We hold, however, that there is no change of character or of destiny after death, that what the person is at death he remains throughout all eternity. We find an abundance of Scripture teaching to the effect that this world only is the place of opportunity for salvation, and that when this probation or testing period is past only the assignment of rewards and punishments remain. Consequently we hold that all prayers, baptisms, masses, or other rituals of whatever kind for the dead are superfluous, vain and unscriptural.
As for the righteous dead, they are in the immediate presence of Christ, in a perfect environment of holiness and beauty and glory where their every need is satisfied. They have no need of any petitions from us. They lack nothing that our prayers can satisfy. Their state is as perfect as it can be until the day when they and we receive our resurrection bodies. To petition God to change the status or condition of His loved ones in glory, or to suggest that He is not doing enough for them, is, to say the least, highly presumptuous, even though it may be well intended.
As for the wicked dead, their state too is fixed and irrevocable. They have had their opportunity. They have sinned away their day of grace. The uplifting and restraining influence of the Holy Spirit as directed towards them has been withdrawn. It is understandable that remaining relatives and friends should be concerned about them. But the determination of their status after death is the prerogative of God alone. The holiness and justice of God are all-sufficient guarantees that while some by His grace will be rewarded far above their deserts, none will be . punished beyond their deserts.
It is very significant that in Scripture we have not one single instance of prayer for the dead, nor any admonition to that end. In view of the many admonitions for prayer for those in this world, even admonitions to pray for our enemies, the silence of Scripture regarding prayer for the dead would seem to be inexplainable if it availed anything.
12. Burial or Cremation?
What is the right method for disposal of the body? In the final analysis it is no doubt correct to say that the manner of disposal is not a matter of vital importance. We do not believe, for instance, that in the resurrection there will be any difference between those who are buried in the graves of the earth and those whose bodies were destroyed by fire, or devoured by wild beasts, or drowned in the sea, or blown to bits by the explosion of bombs. Certainly the martyrs who were burned for the faith and whose ashes were scattered by the winds shall arise in the resurrection, and their bodies shall be not one whit less glorious than those of others who received burial. There is no limit to the power of God. He who in the first place made the body from the elements of the earth can bring again the body that has been disintegrated by whatever means. The identical particles are not essential to a resurrection. A sailor buried at sea rises as surely as if he had been expensively embalmed and buried in the family plot.
But this does not mean that there is not a great difference between burial and cremation. Certainly under normal conditions we show much more respect for the bodies of our loved ones if they are tenderly laid away in the earth, under the coverlet of green, in the posture of rest or sleep, and in as good a state of preservation as possible. The body is as really and eternally a part of man as is his spirit, and the resurrection of the body is an indispensable part of his salvation.
We cannot bring ourselves deliberately to take the body of a dear one, only less precious than the soul that it enshrined, and give it to the flames for violent destruction, even though we know that the spirit has departed. If we attach a sentimental value to a Bible or an article of clothing or other keepsake, how much more should we treat reverently the body that has been so much more intimately associated with the person. No matter with what refinements cremation is carried out, it still carries with it the idea of violence and destruction.
In the Bible fire is the type or symbol of destruction, complete and without remedy, the condemnation due for sin. In the sacrificial offering the animal was regarded as bearing the sins of the person, as being under condemnation, and therefore it was consumed upon the altar. In a few cases the bodies of criminals were burnt, to indicate the greatness of their sin and the severity of their punishment. After Achan had brought defeat upon Israel by taking “the accursed thing” that God had forbidden, we read: “And Joshua said, Why hast thou troubled us? Jehovah shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and they burned them with fire, and stoned them with stones. And they raised over him a great heap of stones unto this day,” Joshua 7:25,26.
Another case somewhat similar is that of King Saul. After he had disobeyed God, he was defeated in battle by the Philistines and died a shameful death that was practically suicide. His three sons died with him, and the armies of Israel fled. The Philistines cut off the head of the king, hung his armor in their heathen temple, and “fastened his body to the wall of Bethshan.” We read that “when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard concerning him that which the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Bethshan; and they came to Jabesh, and burnt them there. And they took their bones, and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days,” I Sam. 31:10-13.
The narrative shows that the procedure followed in regard to Saul was an abnormal and desperate measure. One Bible commentary says: “This was not a Hebrew custom. It was probably resorted to on this occasion to prevent all risk of further insult .... Burial was the usual Hebrew mode of disposal of their dead,” (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown).
The example of the method that God Himself followed in disposing of the body of Moses should be noted. We read that when “Moses the servant of Jehovah died there in the land of Moab,” that “he (God) buried him in the valley in the land of Moab over against Bethpeor; but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day,” Deut. 34:5,6. God’s method was burial, not cremation.
Abraham purchased a cave in which to lay his beloved Sarah. Jacob buried Leah and Rachel. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon, etc., were buried.
In the New Testament the same teaching is continued. We have particularly the example of Jesus, whose body was reverently embalmed with precious spices, wrapped in a clean linen cloth, and tenderly laid in a tomb. Surely the divine precedent in the burial, not the burning, of His body should be the authoritative example for all Christians. Christians need no other reason for burial than that. The body of John the Baptist was buried, as were also those of all the other New Testament saints whose records are given.
Cremation was thus not the practice of the saints of God in either the Old Testament or the New. Rather it was of heathen origin. The early Christians followed the Jewish custom of burying the dead, and repudiated cremation, which was customary in the time of the early Roman Empire. The church historian, Philip Schaff, writes, “The primitive Christians always showed tender care for the dead, under a vivid impression of the unbroken communion of the saints and the future resurrection of the body in glory. For Christianity redeems the body as well as the soul and consecrates it a temple of the Holy Spirit. Hence the Greek and Roman custom of burning the corpse (crematio) was repugnant to Christian feeling and sacredness of the body.”
Dr. Wm. C. Robinson, of Columbia Theological Seminary, writing on this subject says: “Following the Jewish custom, the Christians washed the bodies of the dead, wrapped them in linen cloths, sometimes embalmed them, and then, in the presence of ministers, relatives and friends, with prayer and the singing of psalms, committed their deceased bodies as seeds of the resurrection bodies to the bosom of the earth. Generally those burials were in sepulchral chambers with square-cornered recesses (loculi) in the walls as burial places. The corpse was wound in wrappings, without coffin, and the openings were closed with tiles of brick and marble. The Christian catacombs, as visible witness to the hope of the resurrection, carried their weight with the Roman people. Indeed, even Julian the Apostate traced the rapid spread and power of Christianity to three causes: benevolence, care of the dead, and honesty.
“The Christian custom was sustained by several texts from First and Second Corinthians. In opposing fornication, the Apostle wrote: ‘Know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, which is in you which ye have from God? and ye are not your own; for ye were brought with a price: glorify God therefore in your body.’ In opposing inter-marriage with unbelievers he reminds the Christians: ‘What agreement hath a temple of God with idols? for ye are a temple of the living God.’ In warning against dividing the congregation, he says: ‘Know ye not that ye are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man destroyeth the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, and such are ye.’ In the great resurrection chapter he finds an analogy between our sowing seed and having them sprout into a living body and our looking for its resurrection in incorruption — glory — power — a spiritual body.”
Dr. Robinson then draws this conclusion: “Brethren, weigh these texts, before you exchange the Christian custom of burying or entombing the bodies that are temples of the Holy Ghost for a custom which primitive Christianity universally rejected. The graves of the saints are sanctified by Christ’s rest in the tomb; and the bodies of believers being still united to Christ do rest in their graves until the resurrection.”12
We can only conclude that the practice of cremation, which in our day seems to be becoming more common particularly in the larger city mortuaries, is anti-Christian and should have no place in the practice of the believer. It has no support in Scripture. The early Church rejected it as a heathen custom, as dishonoring to the body, and as suggesting the denial of the resurrection. Most of those who advocate it in our day are religious liberals or humanists who have little or no faith in the literal resurrection of the body, and not a few of them have either discarded Christianity or never gave serious allegiance to it in the first place.
Strange as it may seem, the passages in the Bible that are appealed to by advocates of cremation are those concerning Achan and Saul. But surely these two incidents do not commend cremation as a reverent and desirable means of disposing of the body of a loved one. Rather they militate against such practice. But so anxious are the advocates of cremation to find some Scripture support that will appeal to Christians that in the absence of any others they resort even to these.
It need only to be said further that in regard to funerals Christians should avoid the ostentatious show so often seen in modern funerals, and should spend only a modest amount that will in nowise impoverish those who remain behind. It is rather noticeable that as a general rule people tend to have elaborate funerals in inverse proportion to the amount of true religion that they have. True Christians will not attempt to emulate the world, which sees in the funeral service only the end of an earthly life, but in full recognition of the Biblical truths concerning death and the future life will seek to give proper respect to the bodies of their loved ones and at the same time to center the attention of those present on the reality of the future life.
Dr. Boettner was born on a farm in northwest Missouri. He was a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (Th.B., 1928; Th.M., 1929), where he studied Systematic Theology under the late Dr. C. W. Hodge. Previously he had graduated from Tarkio College, Missouri, and had taken a short course in Agriculture at the University of Missouri. In 1933 he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity, and in 1957 the degree of Doctor of Literature. He taught Bible for eight years in Pikeville College, Kentucky. A resident of Washington, D.C., eleven years and of Los Angeles three years. His home was in Rock Port, Missouri.
This article is taken from Immortality, Chapter I, pp. 9-55. His other books include: Roman Catholicism, Studies in Theology, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, and The Millennium.
DISCUSS THIS TOPIC
Please join others who have commented upon this and other topics in our Discussion Group.