I inhaled as I stepped behind the pulpit, ready for a fight. It was a sermon series on the end times, and I knew there'd be controversy. I looked out at the elderly man in the fourth pew with his Scofield Reference Bible in tow, the woman in the back with her John Hagee book on the Middle East crisis, the teenager in the front with the Left Behind video game on his computer at home.
I expected an onrush of feedback after the service. "I can't believe you don't believe in a pre-tribulation Rapture!" "You mean you don't think the land belongs to the Jewish state?!" "What do you mean you don't think 666 is a microchip in the arm?"
I was wrong.
There was controversy, but it wasn't one of comparing prophecy charts. My hearers were most provoked by what I said, in passing, about an issue we rarely think of as eschatological: cremation.
While speaking of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the flesh, I called my hearers to reconsider what their funeral plans testified about their hope for the future. I reiterated a position — long-held in the history of the church — that burial, not cremation, best pictures the imagery of death as a sleep from which one is awakened at the last trumpet. You would have thought I had tried to lead the service through an invitation hymn to the Blessed Virgin (with every head bowed and every eye closed).
As I talked to my congregants, though, I realized what was controversial was not my position. Many, if not most of them, already knew intuitively that our culture's rush toward cremation should take more careful thought than Christians have given it. What alarmed my people was the thought of people they knew, now sitting in urns on their mantles or scattered across the Pacific Ocean or fertilizing a grove of banana trees in someone's backyard.
Was I suggesting, they wondered, that their friends and family members couldn't be resurrected from the dead — or that they would be resurrected permanently disfigured by the fires of the cremation oven?
Of course that's not at all what I was suggesting. After all, most people who hear the voice of Jesus on resurrection morning will have long before disintegrated into dust, through the natural process of decay. And anyway, it doesn't take any more Spirit dynamic to recompose ashes than to reactivate dead tissue.
There are many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, I noted to my disturbed flock, who have been torn apart by lions in the Roman arenas or devoured by sharks after being cast overboard slave ships or evaporated in wartime bombings. They'll be with us in the resurrection.
I do believe, with the ancient church, that the resurrection body reconstitutes our earthly bodies. It is the same body of Jesus that the women went to anoint with spices that greets them in the garden.
This doesn't necessitate, however, that every fleck or skin or cell is simply carried along into resurrection. You, after all, have the same body you had as a toddler, though your cellular composition and bone mass have changed somewhat since then.
My reassurance that I didn't think a body's state would stop resurrection seemed to settle some minds for a while. Then someone brought out the hymn book. They referred to the lyrics of the great hymn "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name," in which we call one another to "behold" the hands and side of the resurrected Jesus. We sing, "Those wounds yet visible above, in beauty glorified." That's coupled with the revivalist gospel hymn countless Christians have sung together at altar-call time: "Place your hand in the nail-scarred hand."
These hymns resonate with the biblical story. Jesus, after all, demonstrates his identity — and the very meaning of the resurrection of the body — by the familiarity of eating and talking with his disciples, just as he did before, right along with the eerie mystery of such things as appearing dramatically in a locked room.
But he proves himself resurrected most memorably by calling his wavering disciple, Thomas, to feel the spike-marks in his hands, the spear-hole in his ribcage. This is after God has reversed the curse of death Jesus bore on our behalf.
We shouldn't see these crucifixion marks as meaning that God will resurrect us in whatever shape he finds us. Jesus, after all, would have been taken off the crucifixion stake in a far more disfigured condition than simply these wounds. He was beaten, pummeled, bled to death.
He was, the prophet Isaiah tells us beforehand, "as one from whom men hide their faces" (Isa. 53:3). It is telling that Jesus has to indicate to his disciples that there are wounds. His friends have trouble believing he's not a ghost, but they don't see him as some sort of zombie — a living version of the corpse they had left behind.
Our resurrection bodies will be whole and at peace, Scripture tells us. However we die, however we are laid to rest, this is all just the planting of a seed that flourishes into new life in the age to come (1 Cor. 15:35-44). Of course there's continuity. It is your body being raised; everything it means to be you. But what is "sown in weakness" is "raised in power" and what is "sown in dishonor" is "raised in glory" (1 Cor. 15:43).
Jesus' remaining wounds are unique, and the gospel itself shows us how. The Cross and the Empty Tomb aren't blips on the screen of God's redemptive purposes. They represent the gospel itself, the one story that makes sense of all our stories. They are, as the apostle Paul puts it, "of first importance" (1 Cor. 15:3).
This is why, even in the heavenly courts themselves, the redeemed sing of the worthiness of Christ "for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God" (Rev. 5:9). The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, "has conquered," we'll sing together. His piercings show us how he did so. The marks of Jesus' crucifixion are ever-present reminders that the redeemed of all the ages are just that: redeemed. When we've been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun, we will still be ex-sinners, those who were rescued by the love and mercy of God in Christ.
The wounds of Jesus — in beauty glorified — are eternal reminders that the gospel is never past tense.
I still oppose cremation. There's a reason Christians throughout the centuries have committed the bodies of the faithful to the ground, dramatically picturing our trust in the reclamation of these very same bodies when the roll is called up yonder. But I'm careful now to explain that, whatever is the case, cremation isn't forever. Neither is amputation or mastectomies or the horrifying tattoo marks of totalitarian regimes sending prisoners to their executions.
Our God is able to empty urns, to enliven graves, to restore limbs. He is able — and willing — to wipe away tears, and to make all things new. We ought to care for our bodies, and to care about how we honor them before and after death.
But, more importantly, we ought to remind ourselves of our hope, the day when we'll be gathered on the other side of this age of cemeteries. His blessings will be known, far as the curse is found — and that includes the marks of death we bore in our bodies. We'll be home, and we'll be whole.
Only One of us will bear any reminder of the sufferings behind us, and it'll be clear that he is not suffering anymore.
Russell D. Moore is dean of the School of Theology and senior vice-president for academic administration at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as a preaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway).
All Scripture references are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV).
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