I know of people who have been skeptical toward Christianity because they don’t see how there can be a correspondence between our future resurrected body and what happens to our physical state after we die. The argument is simple: bodies decompose and become part of other elements. Because of this, we cannot have our physical selves truly resurrected. Cremated bodies become part of the air and ash and buried bodies become part of the ground and plant life. They all eventually integrate into other things, including, in some cases, other people. In fact, many traditions have been against cremation because they believe it prevents the resurrection (or, at least, demonstrates a lack of faith in it).

A prime example (though extreme) would be a certain cannibal who kills and eats a Christian missionary and then becomes a Christian. How is the Christian missionary physically resurrected and who or what is resurrected in the case of the cannibal?

The Problem Stated

The problem surrounds the fact that Christians are to be raised from the dead (actually, all people will be eventually) and the description of this event speaks in terms of “graves” being “opened” and giving up their dead or people “raising” from their current physical placement. As well, we are told that Christ, who is the first-fruits of our hope, was raised from the grave and his tomb was empty (suggesting the same exact body, not just a similar body, was raised). The entire Christian worldview hinges on whether or not Christ was physically dead and then appeared alive in the physical body that was previously deceased.

Here are a few relevant Scriptures that teach the physical resurrection of the body:

Acts 24:15
Having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.

Isa. 26:19
Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.

1 Cor. 15:52
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

1 Thes. 4L15
For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.

Dan. 12:2
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

Continuity of Discontinuity?

The issue really comes down to the level of continuity we see between our future body and our present body. Does the body we have when we are resurrected share any or all of its current physical ontology (stuff) that it currently has? Does there need to be anything in the grave in order for our grave to be opened?

I do believe this would be a problem if the Christian worldview necessitated a one-to-one correspondence between the two bodies. However, I don’t believe this is the case. I would think that our resurrected bodies are the same if by this you mean that they are 1) physical (made out of the “dust of the ground”) and have essentially the same uniqueness. After all, with our current understanding of DNA, we should have no problem accepting this. Our DNA is a blueprint to who we are. God could just use the same blueprint he used at the very beginning. All of our genetic code (at least the part of which was not affected by sin) will remain unique and individual to us on the New Earth as it is today.

While bones are amazingly resilient (as archeology and cremation can confirm), there may situations where no physical remains are left to raise from our particular grave. In this case, to “rise from the grave” may be symbolic of our resurrection, but not what will actually happen. This is interesting considering that most tombs in the Western world have always faced east so that when we rise we will be facing toward Jerusalem.

Another important thing to consider (and, maybe, the most important) is that we are physically not the same person we were just ten years ago. If you have ever said “I am not the person I was” you don’t know how scientifically right you may be. Every seven to ten years the cells of our body go through complete rejuvenation. Even our memory cells are often different than they were when the memory was made (how is that for a brain-twister?). They are all replicas. Are they the same DNA? Most certainly. Are they ontologically correspondent? No. If this is the case, we all believe that the actual body that we were saved in is different than the one that will be in eternity (so long as it is seven to ten years older). Therefore, I don’t think that God is too concerned about getting us in the exact same model at the resurrection.

If This is the Case, Did Christ’s Tomb Really Have to Be Empty?

Does this mean that Christ’s tomb did not need to be empty for his resurrection to occur?

Interestingly, the evidence that our resurrected bodies may not share ontological continuity with our pre-resurrected bodies causes prominent professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary to have his doubts about the empty tomb of Jesus, even though he does not deny the physical resurrection of Jesus (Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters, 219-28). If our future bodies are not going to be identical to our current bodies, why did Jesus’ body have to be? I answer a couple of ways:

  1. This may get me in a bit of trouble here, but I am not sure that Jesus’ resurrected body had to be ontologically identical to his body at death. I suppose that God could have physically resurrected Jesus using the same DNA and left the old cells in his tomb. Theologically, we don’t need his body to be the same (that I know of), just physical.
  2. In this case, the purpose of the empty tomb would be the same as the purpose of the stone being moved when Jesus was raised. Jesus probably did not need the stone to be moved out of the way before he could get out. It was moved not so he could get out, but so others could see in. It was apologetic in orientation. If this is the case, then Christ’s exact body being raised may, primarily, have apologetic purposes as well. His body was no longer there because God wanted us to know, with certainty, that he was raised.
  3. Finally, Christ’s body was only three days old. Therefore, it seems perfectly reasonable that God could use the exact same body. He did not need to replicate it. (Although, I could be wrong. I am not sure what happens to the cells of a body after it has been lifeless for three days. Maybe God immediately replicated the cells of his body when he rose and the old cells just disappeared.)

Conclusion

Whatever the case, today’s scientific understanding of the body should cause us to be more confident that God can resurrect our bodies, even when cremated, eaten by cannibals or other animals, or integrated into an apple tree. As well, we can be entirely confident that we will be the same people at the resurrection that we were while here on earth. The body was never meant to be the stable principle of identity, that is the job of the soul. Though some may choose to believe that somewhere on earth there is always a physical piece of you that still exists that God will raise from the grave, I find this theologically unnecessary as well as creating unnecessary apologetic hurdles for us to jump.

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C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    2 replies to "Is There Any Future Resurrection for the Cremated?"

    • Jeff Clough

      It’s interesting what we Christians will get wrapped around the axel about. Thank you, Michael, for your measured perspective and clarity on this subject. It’s so easy to fall into the pattern of supposing, at least subconsciously, that God is either 1) somehow subject to the constraints that He Himself imposed on all of creation, or 2) a trickster genie in a bottle rather than the all-powerful embodiment of love who regards each of His children with nothing but favor.

      • George W.

        Amen brother!

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