The sacramental understanding of the historic Church is predicated on, as is all Christian dogma and experience, the Incarnation. Matter matters because the God of matter became matter for our sake. This understanding extends to the human body. Christianity rejects the dualism of Plato, the Gnostics, the Manicheans, and Descartes that would in any way destroy the unity of the human body and human soul/spirit. (I here make no argument as to whether and in what way the human soul and human spirit are two separate things as 1 Thessalonians 5:23 seems to explicitly indicate.) The human body cannot be reduced to mere matter because a human person is the unity of body and soul/spirit. In fact, the Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit in both body and soul/spirit. The reality of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the body of the believer is evidenced by the numerous instances of the incorruption of the bodies of saints. And it is on this reality that is based the historic Christian prohibition against cremation.
The biblical case looks something like this. First, note that the body is referred to as the temple of the Spirit.
Know ye not that ye are God’s temple, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If anyone corrupt the temple of God, God shall bring this same one to corruption, for the temple of God is holy, which ye are. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
Or know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit Who is in you, Whom ye have from God, and ye are not your own? For ye were bought with a price; glorify then God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
That this is not merely a figurative manner of speaking about the relationship between the Christian body and the Holy Spirit is evidenced by 1 Corinthians 6 in which the prohibition against having sex with a prostitute is predicated precisely on the fact that the Holy Spirit really and metaphysically indwells the body of the believer.
Worship occurs in temples, and indeed, we are to worship God with our bodies, in a living sacrifice.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, well-pleasing to God, your rational worship. (Romans 12:1)
Furthermore, the life of Jesus is made manifest in our bodies.
. . .always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we, the living, are always being delivered to death on account of Jesus, that also the life of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:10-11)
And when we are sanctified it is as a whole person, soul/spirit and body.
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you wholly; and may your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is the One Who calleth you, Who shall also bring it about. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)
In fact, the Spirit gives life to our mortal bodies and will redeem them.
But if the Spirit of the One Who raised Jesus from the dead dwell in you, the One who raised Christ from the dead shall also make alive your mortal bodies on account of the indwelling of His Spirit in you. . . . And not only so, but we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly awaiting adoption, the redemption of our body. (Romans 8:11, 23)
In fact, the Spirit is a deposit guaranteeing our redemption.
. . . in Whom [i. e., Christ] ye also, having heard the word of the truth, the Gospel of your salvation—in Whom having also believed, ye were sealed with the Holy spirit of promise, Who is an earnest of our inheritance until redemption of the preserved possession to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14)
One does not normally give back a promise or deposit, but retains it so as to claim that which has been promised or the fullness against which the deposit has been made.
Thus, not only is there no indication that the Holy Spirit leaves the body on death, and that the body ceases to become the temple of the Spirit when it becomes “temporarily” separated from the soul between death and the resurrection, in fact all the Scriptural evidence strongly indicates that the Holy Spirit remains indwelling in the body (as well as the soul/spirit) of the believer and in the resurrection will reunite soul/spirit and body.
Now, some will object to this construction of the biblical evidence.
1. The primary contention will be that there is no explicit Scripture that says unequivocally that the Holy Spirit continues to indwell the body of the believer after death.
But this objection only serves to reinforce the argument being made, for the Bible doesn’t say that the Holy Spirit ever leaves the body, either. One cannot apply this objection to the argument without also falsifying the contention that the Holy Spirit does leave the body on death—for the Scripture does not say that either.
We know that the Bible says the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. We know that the Bible says the Holy Spirit is a guarantee of our redemption. One does not normally give up a deposit prior to the acquisition of the guaranteed result. That’s the point of the deposit. And we know that our bodies will be redeemed by the Spirit.
So, though the explicit words to the effect, “The Holy Spirit stays in the body after death,” are not in Scripture, clearly the Scripture–on a prima facie reading–leads one to make that connection. And since the explicit words to the effect, “The Holy Spirit leaves the body after death,” are also not in Scripture, one cannot appeal to this principle of Scriptural silence to prove that point. For in doing so, one also cuts against one’s own case. Thus both positions must rest on connecting explicit Scriptures to one another to make the respective cases.
2. Another objection is a reductio ad absurdum: If the bodies of Christians consumed by lions or dying out in open fields are transformed into animal and plant food and into excrement and waste, then one is asserting the Holy Spirit resides in animal dung or in a rose or weed.
But this is a category mistake. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just reside in mere matter, he indwells a human body. (This statement should be taken in the context of this present discussion and not in the context of the Sacramaments as a whole.) The humanness of our bodies is predicated upon the fact that they do not come without souls/spirits. This is why we are born as embodied souls, and why our souls and bodies will be reunited in the resurrection after death. Which is to say that simply because the material elements of the human body pass through the gullet of a lion, are converted to food, and pass out as excrement is in no way an indication that the Holy Spirit must reside in lion dung.
The reasons why are as follows:
1) First of all this is tantamount to the dualist heresy which opposes the Christian doctrine of the unity of the person as a soul/spirit and body; i. e., it views the body as merely the material elements of this universe and not as that which it actually is, the home of the human soul/spirit made in the image of God and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. But if the body is the home of the human soul/spirit made in the image of God and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, then clearly there is more than just material reality at work.
As I noted above, the human body is that with which we worship God, that through which the Holy Spirit ministers his life, that which will be redeemed (and not just our soul/spirit), and that through which the life of Jesus is revealed to the world. So if the human body is just merely material elements, then God uses those material elements to make real his Gospel. And if God has claim on our bodies, then there is every reason to suppose that he will not leave our bodies on our death, but will, in ways we cannot fully understand, continue leaving his seal/deposit in them for our future (to us now) redemption.
2) Secondly, for the objection to work, one must first assume that the Holy Spirit never indwells the body (which one must also first prove for it to be a part of one’s argument), or that the Holy Spirit leaves the body at death (which is also something that one might assume, but would also have to first prove for it to be part of one’s argument). But this has been answered in the response to the first objection above.
3) Furthermore, this objection rests on another unproven assumption: the vileness or disgustingness of the conversion of the material elements of the human body into other things (animal flesh, grass or flowers, rose or a weed), and with it the Holy Spirit indwelling those things. But if the reality of the human body transcends its mere materiality, then so to does it transcend this unproven assertion that the Holy Spirit by elemental conversion must reside in animal dung which was once a pre-digested human.
3. A third objection is that the indwelling in our bodies is merely a figure of speech.
I’ve already answered this in relation to 1 Corinthians 6 above, but there is a further response. Here, once again, the principle cuts both ways. If one reduces the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to merely a figure of speech, then not even our souls/spirits have the Holy Spirit, and we are left without any real union with God, which Jesus prayed for in John 17. The Christian faith then simply becomes reduced to a life of good moral living, somehow energized in us through a Spirit that has no contact with us.
4. Another objection contends that if the human person is, indeed, a unity of soul/spirit and body, then the body, upon death and the separation from it of soul/spirit, ceases to be a human body.
This objection ultimately fails because it presumes the loss of the humanness of the body through the lack of being indwelt by the human spirit/soul. But let’s continue with that line of reasoning. Did Jesus’ body cease to be his body once he died? Would it have been appropriate to cremate, dissolve in acid, or grind up into chunks the body that housed the Godhead fully? Why not? On this objection’s reasoning, once Jesus died, his body ceased to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and therefore was no longer human (or, for that matter, divine), therefore we could presumably have done anything to it we wanted. It had no intrinsic value or Holy Spirit indwelling it. Right?
The problem, though, is that our salvation is accomplished in the body of Christ. Through the death of his body our sins were atoned for. Through the Resurrection of his body we have life in his name and bear his image. This does not at all deny the divinity of Christ, nor that he raised himself from the dead. Rather it is to affirm that inclusive of the spiritual aspect of our salvation is the bodily aspect. This bodily aspect of our salvation is predicated precisely on the Incarnation and the work of God done in Christ’s physical and transfigured body. Therefore we could not do just anything we wanted with Christ’s body.
Christ’s body remained his body even in death, nor was that body ever sundered from the Holy Spirit, for it that were ever to have been so, God would have ceased dwelling in a human body, and the Incarnation would have been undone. (And, in fact, this is tantamount to adoptionist heretical Christologies.)
So, if the Holy Spirit continued to dwell in Christ’s body even during his time in the tomb, then it must be the case that the Holy Spirit continues to dwell in the bodies of dead Christians, since Christ is the firstfruits of the Resurrection.
So, the body, if it is a human body, is not simply reducible to its material elements, for it is not merely a material shell housing the soul/spirit and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. It is an irreducible spiritual-physical/soulish-physical reality which transcends though is connected to mere material reality. Death is an abnormal state of affairs for the soul and body, requiring their “temporary” separation. And if the Holy Spirit indwells the whole person, then he indwells not just the soul/spirit but also the body. So in death when the soul/spirit is separated from the body, the Holy Spirit continues to indwell both and will reunite both in the resurrection.