“And when Abraham rose from before the face of his dead, he spoke to the Sons of Heth, saying, ‘I am a stranger and an alien in your midst, place in my possession a grave in your midst and I will burry my dead from before my face.”
This is the first recorded account of an actual burial in the Bible. God had spoken of burial to Abraham before (Genesis 15:15), but it was more of a passing reference than a description of how to treat the dead. Yet, here we have a specific account of the corpse of a loved one being placed in the ground (in this case, in a cave) and sealed up, “away from sight.” It should also be noted here that since the act of burying the body is casually spoken of with no explanation or divine fiat, it should be surmised that burial was the normal procedure for treating the dead.
It is significant to make note of this because here marks the basis for the Christian and Jewish traditions of burial. Because we anticipate a resurrection, we place the body whole into the ground for keeping until that time when Christ comes again to raise us all — believers to eternal life and unbelievers to eternal destruction.
In the west, the process of cremation has been becoming more popular within Christian circles and rarely is it asked, is this a good thing or is this not a good thing? Surely, the God who created the universe can raise a body from the ashes just as easily as he can raise a long dead and decayed corpse to life, but is that the right question to be asking?
The tradition of burning the bodies of the dead can be traced back to pagan sources, not to Judeo-Christian ones, and that ought to at least raise an eyebrow. The basis of this practice was the pantheistic view that all living things are part of the divine within creation and thus when one’s flesh is burned and returned to the dust of the earth, one’s physical essence continues as part of “Mother Earth’s” life-cycle. And while Christians who are seeking cremations certainly have not subscribed to this pagan way of thought, should we not be concerned about the symbolism that our acts communicate? Then again, perhaps this falls into the realm of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny where certain levels of “socially acceptable” paganism are incorporated into the Christian life…
So, where do we go from here? My counsel would be to think through the question of symbolism, because every action we take can either point others to God or away from God. Indeed, if one is cremated, one need not fear whether our God can raise that person from the ashes…indeed he can! And it should be noted that sometimes there is no other option but cremation (for example in island nations like Japan where there is not enough real-estate to establish large graveyards as we have here in America or where people’s bodies have been turned to ash by bombs). That being said, when we have the option, my suggestion is that the traditional Judeo-Christian model of burying our dead is the best model to follow. It communicates the dignity one has for the corpse as well as the hope of a resurrection far more clearly than through burning the body and burying a pile of ashes. And certainly, Christians ought not choose to scatter their ashes as that communicates an attitude that says, “I do not care about” or “I do not believe in” a resurrection. Such an attitude is not consistent with what we know from scripture to be true.
In the case of Abraham, a specific place for Sarah’s burial is sought out. This will be a place located in the land God promised to the people and that will be kept in memorial for generations to follow. May this model of Abraham guide us in our own model as well.
I suppose that I should make one qualification up front. And that is that I personally know a number of non-Christians who are very thankful people and who thoroughly enjoy the celebration of this American holiday. There can be no doubting the deep Christian roots of this event, but regardless of one’s faith (or lack thereof), there is much in life to be thankful for as Americans. I should also state up front that many people (Christians included) live out their lives holding to a variety of inconsistencies without paying them any mind or suffering as a result of said inconsistencies — such is the natural end of living in a post-modern world. My intent here is not so much to argue the merits of a thoroughly consistent worldview, but rather to raise the question of Thanksgiving for the atheist, assuming the value of a consistent worldview.
To begin with, there are several categories by which we may mark our thankfulness. The first, we could think of as “personal thankfulness,” which would reflect a certain sense of satisfaction for having made choices or having done something that brought benefits to your life. “I am so glad that I chose such-and-such a restaurant for dinner” or “I am thankful that I chose to strive for this goal” are the kinds of mental thoughts that would accompany this kind of thankfulness. This thankfulness is good and important, but I would suggest that it makes up a smaller percentage of the state of our thankfulness than one might initially think. Simply put, often that restaurant was suggested by a friend or we were helped to the particular goal by others and the timing was perfect for you to be successful. Thus, this kind of thankfulness often is at least partially dependent on events or persons outside of you as an individual.
And that, then, leads us to the second kind of thankfulness: thankfulness toward others. This reflects the kind of thankfulness that is directed towards another human being who has done something that has benefitted you. It might be a nice gift, but it also might be found in the form of advice, counsel, or even a rebuke. As I look back on my life, I am very thankful toward certain friends of mine who had the integrity to tell me that I was about to make a stupid mistake if I took this or that action. I might not have felt thankful at the moment, we seldom do when people speak truth to us, but over time, once my ego stopped swelling and my self-defense mechanisms returned to their proper place, I realized the wisdom of what was told to me and was thankful to have such friends.
Yet, again, this kind of thankfulness, while common to our experience, likely does not make up as large a proportion of our total thankfulness as we might think. The reality is that even in cases like this, there are still elements of providence (the atheist would likely call them coincidence) that are outside of the control of either you or the person toward whom you are thankful. For example, there are chance meetings that brought about conversations that led to the advice (or whatever) you happened to be given. And how did you make such a friendship? The singular friendship that I have maintained from my years at the University is that of a lady with whom I happened to get lost on campus. It seems that the two of us were given wrong information as to where a certain English class was to meet and we both ended up in the wrong corridor together at the same time. The typo on our course-lists, the fact that neither of us had received the correction (when most of the class did), and the timing by which we bumped into each other were all elements that were outside of our direct or indirect influence. I am thankful for all of these events because she and I have kept up correspondence over the years and have encouraged one another as we have both gone our separate ways in life. If we are honest as we survey the landscape of our experience, there are numerous such events that can be traced in our lives for which we are surely thankful. Again, some would call these things coincidence, from a Christian perspective, I choose to use the term “providence.”
Thus far, at least in the immediate sense of personal satisfaction and thankfulness to someone for kindness, there is no contradiction between the atheistic worldview and said thankfulness. In fact, were an atheist choosing not to be thankful for these things, one would have to draw the conclusion that something was wrong with the person’s thinking. Yet here is where the consistency comes to an end, for how is it that someone can direct their thankfulness toward someone (or something) in which he does not believe? Let me explain.
If I am given a gift, while I am thankful for the gift, I will typically express that thanks toward the one from whom the gift came (to do otherwise would be considered rude). That is easy enough to do when a friend or neighbor gives something to us, but what about when providence shines its face upon our lives? To whom (or to what) does the atheist express his thanks? Arguably, one of the reasons that ancient man began worshipping idols was to solve this dilemma. At least in the stone representation of that which his imagination dictated was the source of good things, one could then direct one’s thanksgiving. Yet, the atheist does not set up idols of wood or stone.
The likely answer to this dilemma that the modern atheist will bring to the table falls into one of two categories. One view is to argue that all things are determined by a sequence of cause and effects and thus these things took place and they could not have not taken place. This worldview is referred to as “fatalism” and is a form of deterministic approach. The atheist who holds to this view ought, then, be thankful for nothing (for what happened logically must have happened and could not have been otherwise) or recognize that their thankfulness also is simply a result of chemical interactions that are a result of causes (and again could not have been otherwise), thus making the idea of thankfulness devoid of meaning (it is simply an experience). Any discussion of thanksgiving, from a fatalistic perspective, reduces itself to meaningless absurdity and is thus neither internally consistent nor helpful if one is trying to be consistent with their worldview.
The second, and arguably more palatable, solution of the dilemma as to whom shall we express our thankfulness is to argue that what I am referring to as “providence” is nothing more than pure random chance and thus, I am not thankful to chance, but thankful for chance, in turn, never directing one’s thanksgiving toward someone or something. Yet, how can one be thankful for something that is purely random? Even the craps-shooter praises “Lady Luck” for his good-fortune with the dice. It is not that which is random that we are thankful for, but we are thankful for that which guides or superintends that which is perceived to be random. Granted that the atheist will likely counter that we simply perceive someone guiding “chance events,” but our perception is little more than a figment of our own imaginations. Certainly, the question as to whether God is a figment of our imagination or not is a discussion to be pursued, but not here because this response of the atheist is meant to do little more than to distract from the question at hand: can an atheist be thankful in a meaningful way while still being consistent within his atheism. The answer to the matter must be “no,” for thankfulness must be directed outside of oneself, particularly for the events and circumstances that we have no control over. I am thankful, for example, that I was born and raised in the United States of America in a middle-class home with a family who loved me. This very fact has afforded me opportunities that I would not have had were circumstances different. Yet there is not one aspect of these circumstances that I can say that I had any control over. I might thank my parents for loving me and for their choice to reside in America, but their choice to do so was also based on events that were outside of their sphere of influence (where there were jobs, etc…).
So, where does that lead us? No, I do not expect a run of atheists coming into the church, giving up their unbelief, and accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior because their worldview has inconsistencies. Sure, it could happen, but that would be a work of the Holy Spirit, not the work of a logical argument. In addition, it should be noted that Christians are not the only ones who can appeal to this kind of argument, any religious institution that envisions their gods interacting with the lives of men can appeal in similar ways. My purpose is to appeal to what I believe is an inward desire that we each have — and that is to have a worldview that is consistent with experience, reason, and itself. I have had atheists say to me, “I am thankful for my inconsistency,” but deep down, is that a very satisfying way to live? Is intellectual inconsistency either satisfying or something to thank oneself for? I would suggest it is not and would counter that intellectual consistency is not only satisfying, but it is something we desire deep down (and ought to because we are made in the image of a God who is perfectly consistent with himself).
Let me paint a picture for you of a culture where the Senate ruled over the people and the “commoners” had little say over what laws were enacted in the land. The culture that I am describing was one where many flocked to the cities of jobs, though they would only earn poverty level wages. Healthcare was available, but only for those who had the wealth to afford it; most suffered under whatever folk remedies happened to be available. Infectious disease was rampant in the poor sections of the cities and the government did little more than turn a blind eye to their situation. About the only thing that the society could expect in terms of assistance was a little bit of free grain and free tickets to an occasional arena even — “bread and circuses.”
I am trusting that this description sounds fairly familiar, but I am not talking about our own society, but am instead talking about the first century Roman empire. For the elite, it was a comfortable time in history: there was art, culture, relative order in the empire, abundant access to wealth, and there was rule of law to keep the “rabble” in their place. For the poor, it was a life of hard labor, starvation, and death. The bread was meant to keep the poor working and the tickets to the games was meant to keep the poor from revolting — the ancient precursor to television, one might argue. And it is into this world that God chose to send his Son, taking on flesh and living not amongst the rich, but amongst the poor.
It has been said that compassion is a character trait that is learned, not one that is natural to us. Our default is typically to take care of “ol’ number one” first and others second. If that is the case, and I think that there is merit to the idea, then the ultimate teacher of compassion is God himself. In both Hebrew and Greek, the same word is used to describe both compassion and mercy, and that is what God was doing when he sent his Son to come into this world, to live amongst us, and to die to atone for our sins.
But the question of compassion must not end with the compassion of God. We need to ask the question as to whether or not we have learned compassion from His example. You see, compassion cannot be modeled by the pagan gods, which are made of wood and stone — they neither move nor see nor hear, so how can they extend compassion to any? Compassion cannot be modeled by the gods of nature, for nature is cruel and only the strong survive. And compassion is not modeled by the god of the atheist, for their god is their own mind and reason, thus any action taken will be self-serving. If the God of Christianity, then, has modeled compassion to us, shouldn’t then we who have received the compassion of God also be the most compassionate people in the world?
In ancient Rome, that became the case. One of the first things that Christians did in ancient Rome was to establish hospitals that welcomed all, rich and poor. These hospitals were staffed with doctors, pharmacists, teachers for the children, caretakers for orphans, nurses, people to care for lepers, surgeons, cooks, priests, laundry women, and pallbearers. Never in the history of the world had such institutions been established and the Roman elites looked at the Christians and just did not understand why believers were doing what believers were doing. And Christianity thrived even in an empire where professing Christians were persecuted and sentenced to death within those circuses that everyone attended.
Something has happened though. Today, it would seem, Christians are often seen as self-serving and insulated from the pain and misery of the world around them. Pagans no longer shake their heads in disbelief at the compassion we are willing to show to the poor and suffering, but describe Christians as being just as “self-seeking” as the next group of people.
So what is the solution? The solution is not to win more political elections and gain power to enact laws to protect the “Christian way of life.” Such laws are not bad, but legislation cannot transform a culture. The early Christians turned Rome inside out without ever getting a seat in the Roman Senate. The early Christians turned Rome on its head by sacrifice and compassion for those in need. If we, as modern Christians, desire to see America turned on its head, this is the model that God himself has set for us — radical compassion, grace, and mercy. Such is what God demonstrated when he sent Christ to us as a baby in that manger and such is the kind of compassion that we ought to emulate as we live our lives amongst a people who reject the truth for which we stand.
“I have made your name known to the people whom you gave me out of this world; they were yours, even so, you gave them and they have guarded your word.”
Jesus has made the Father’s name known. What a remarkable statement this is! Often we find agnostics speaking of their pursuit of God; philosophers of ages past have sought to understand the nature of the invisible God behind the universe—yet these always rely on their own strength. God even goes as far as to pronounce that he will be hidden from his enemies (Genesis 4:14; Matthew 11:25), yet revealed in the Son alone. Thus, John earlier records:
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the Path, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.’”
The Apostle Paul even goes as far as to write:
“To me, the least significant of the saints, this grace was given, to proclaim the good news of the incomprehensible riches of Christ to the nations, and to illuminate that which is the plan of the mystery which has been hidden from eternity in God who created all things in order that the multi-faceted wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places.”
In other words, the plan of God to reveal himself in his Son has intentionally been kept hidden from the world until God revealed his Son, Jesus Christ. In turn, God has also given the church the task of making this great truth known to a world that has been kept in darkness, awaiting the preaching of the Gospel. No matter how hard the philosopher or the agnostic “searches” for God, he will not find God apart from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But for those who hear the word preached, there is eternal life.
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
(1 Corinthians 1:18)
Many are rather uncomfortable with just how “exclusive” the claims of Christ are—Jesus leaves us with no room to suggest that there is any other way to genuinely know God than through Him. Now, it is true that God reveals enough about himself in the natural world as to leave mankind without an excuse (Romans 1:18-20). Yet, as we have been discussing, He remains veiled apart from his Son, Jesus Christ. It is like being caught in a maze. The very existence of the maze points to a creator and the logic of the maze implies that there is an exit; yet the only exit door by which you may meet the Creator and enjoy life is the Creator’s Son, Jesus Christ. Apart from him, you become more and more befuddled and feebleminded by the complexity and darkness of the maze.
Yet, loved ones, note the joy with which Paul proclaims that it has been given to him to preach the good news of the “incomprehensible riches of Christ” to the unbelieving nations. This task, which we call the Great Commission, belongs to you and to me as well. Let us indeed rejoice in this task, but let us also engage the world as we live out this great and wonderful responsibility, for Christ has revealed the Father to a world that is dark and filled with unbelief. Let us reveal Christ so they might have light and hope.