Should Christians celebrate Halloween? (part 2)

trick-or-treatSo, we’ve seen that the history of Halloween is not as neat as we might have thought, and that we can’t blame all the macabre elements of Halloween on the pagans. But, as Christians living here and now, how do we deal with Halloween? Let’s look at some biblical principles and how they might relate to this issue.

In the world, but not of it

Jesus said that he wants us to be in the world, but not of the world (John 17:14-15). Some Christians avoid Halloween because they say it has pagan origins. But (assuming this is true) to consistently live out this standard, we must also get rid of most of our Christmas traditions (which have pagan origins). We would need to stop using most of the names of the months, and stop referring to our English names of the days of the week, etc. We definitely couldn’t worship on “Sunday” because of its pagan origins. The problem in trying to follow this approach is that God intentionally put us into this fallen, pagan world, and we shouldn’t seek to remove ourselves from it. We are to be in this world without being of this world. And working out the balance of this requires wisdom.

In the 1st century church, some Christians were concerned about meat that had been “sacrificed” to idols. (Meat was routinely presented to idols and supposedly blessed by the god or goddess.) Some felt this meat was now unacceptable because it had been tainted by pagan association. In  passages such as 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, Paul shows that this pagan blessing by some “god” was meaningless, that there was nothing inherently wrong with the meat, and nothing wrong with Christians eating the meat. But, he added, they should be sensitive to Christians who had a weaker conscience in this matter and not encourage them to sin by doing something they believed to be wrong. This shows us that an alleged pagan association is not a solid reason, by itself, to avoid something.

Respecting matters of personal conscience

In Romans 14, Paul addresses disputable issues that are a matter of personal conscience, and also the liberty we are to give each other regarding these issues. In the Bible, there are some things believers are clearly instructed to do and other things that Christians are unambiguously instructed not to do. But, for many issues we have no clear, scriptural guidelines. How we handle these matters is between each of us and God—and we are to respect the freedom God has given his people in these areas.

So: Should Christians watch TV? Should Christians listen to secular music? Should Christians drink alcohol? Should Christians dance? If you answered “yes” or “no” to any of these questions, you’re missing the point. Biblically, these are not yes or no questions. If we try to answer these questions for all believers, we are taking away the liberty that God has given us to make these decisions (between each of us and God). We are replacing the authoritative place of the Word of God in the life of Christians. The Bible doesn’t give believers a clear answer to these questions, so we take it upon ourselves to come up with answers—and by doing this we make ourselves the authority for others. We take on ourselves the role of God.

Establishing rules beyond what Scripture establishes is called legalism. Legalism isn’t wrong just because it’s harsh or unpleasant. Legalism is fatal to Christianity because it changes the gospel into something else, and because it becomes idolatrous—giving ourselves authority that only God rightly possesses. Should Christians celebrate Halloween? This isn’t a yes or no question. It is not an issue we can decide for our brothers and sisters.

Avoiding evil

Let’s clear up a common misunderstanding. Some people quote 1 Thessalonians 5:22 (from the King James Version) that we are to “abstain from all appearance of evil” and say this means we must avoid anything that even appears evil. But this isn’t what the text is saying. We’re to stay clear of everything that is genuinely evil. Christians disagree whether some things are evil. Some feel that television and dancing are inherently evil; some do not. Some feel reading Harry Potter books is evil; some do not. This is why these kinds of issues are called “disputable matters.”

zillow-halloweenSome Christians can’t understand why a believer would celebrate anything on October 31. Others think it’s fine for kids to enjoy alternative church parties, but not to trick-or-treat. Other Christians feel it’s okay for their kids to trick-or-treat dressed up as cowboys or princesses, but not as witches or ghosts. Others point out that ghosts and vampires are no more real than fairy princesses, and their kids’ witch costumes have more in common with The Wizard of Oz than they do real witches. For centuries Christians have disagreed about whether we should fear and shun the darkness, or laugh at it and have fun at its expense. As with other matters of personal conscience, we don’t have the authority to establish one official Christian approach to Halloween.

The greater danger

I’ve known many Christian families who have taken different approaches to Halloween. But I’ve never met anyone who was drawn away from the Christian life because they went trick-or-treating as a child (even those who dressed up in scary costumes). I’ve talked to many people involved with witchcraft; I’ve never heard of a Christian child being attracted to witchcraft because of a Halloween costume or party.

However I have known many people who were raised in a religious culture of overly oppressive rules and regulations, who ran from their faith as soon as they could. For many, they weren’t offended by the Bible’s moral teachings per se, but the way Scripture was twisted and taken out of context to support the extreme ideas of certain groups, churches or families. Yes, some people reject the authority of God and his Word. This is true. But what is tragic is that many whose hearts are soft to God become confused and estranged from the church because of modern day Pharisees who take on authority that belongs to God alone and seek to define for all Christians what is acceptable and unacceptable.

What kind of spirits?

Many people become obsessed with the spooks and spirits associated with Halloween. But what about us? What kind of spirit do we have? Do we have a condemning spirit?

After Jesus’ baptism, he spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting, praying and resisting the temptation of the devil. That must have been an incredibly spiritual experience. What’s the next thing he did? He went to a wedding celebration (John 2:1-12). And when the guests had drunk all the wine, he provided more for them by turning water into wine. Was Jesus looking for things to condemn? Or was he seeking opportunities to bless?

How about us? Are we obsessed with seeing Satan and demons behind every corner? Or are we busy looking for how God is at work, revealing his love and truth even in surprising ways? Are we looking for evil, or for what is good? Is our first instinct to condemn . . . or to bless? Are we looking for reasons to reject people and activities . . . or reasons to participate (unless we simply can’t with a good conscience)? Do we accept everyone and everything, unless we cannot as Christians? Or do we reject everything and everyone, except what Scripture says we must accept? Which approach is more like Jesus, and which is more like the Pharisees?

Halloween is the one time of year strangers willingly visit our homes.

best-trick-or-treating-cities-ftr

What kind of reception do they receive from Christians?


So should I (or my kids) celebrate Halloween?

By now, you hopefully understand why I can’t answer this question for you. And neither can anyone else. We are to be in the world, but not if it. And, for a great many questions, we each have to work out the wisdom and balance of this for ourselves and our children. I hope these posts help you make an informed decision (rather than a superstitious or merely traditional one). It’s fine for us to discuss these things and even compare how we approach various issues. But the answer to how you should approach these disputable issues is between you and God alone.

Should Christians celebrate Halloween? (part 1)

800px-friendly_pumpkin‘Tis the season for these kinds of questions. And there are sincere Christians who would give us very different answers. Unfortunately, much of the discussion seems based more on personal preference and opinion than on solid biblical principles. So I’ll present (in the next post) some principles I think directly relate to Halloween and similar topics. But first, some historical context:

A brief history of Halloween

Many people have a vague idea that Halloween was an attempt to “convert” a pagan holiday, similar to the “conversion” of December 25 into the Christian Christmas. The reality is a little more complicated. As the early church developed more of a focus on ritual and tradition, they began to hold an annual feast in remembrance of the martyrs who had died for the faith. This slowly evolved into a day commemorating all the saints, known as “All Saints’ Day,” “All Hallows’ Day” or Hallowmas. As with many other feast days, this was preceded the evening before by a vigil, known as “All Saints’ Eve,” “All Hallows’ Evening” or (in Old Scottish) Hallowe’en.

The people in different areas celebrated this feast on different days. Eventually, November 1 was designated as the official day to celebrate All Hallows’ Day (making October 31 All Hallows’ Eve). This day was intentionally chosen in order to convert or co-opt pagan folk festivals that celebrated the end of harvest season and the impending “death” of winter. Now, one might guess from all this that the holiday name may have come from Christian tradition but everything else came from pagans—but that wouldn’t be quite right.

Christians historically shared a fascination with death and the deceased that many today would find morbid. You can still see in many medieval churches artwork depicting the Danse Macbre, with people from every station of life (often including children) dancing with skeletons. This reminded the people that death is inevitable for everyone, even emperors and popes.

bernt_notke_danse_macabre

Bernt Notke, 15th century, St. Nicholas’ Church, Talinn, Estonia.

The Danse Macabre became a common pageant performed in towns and villages. They naturally held these pageants during All Hallows’ Eve, their time to remember those who had died. The intense images were intended to scare the people into renewed faithfulness, but it seems the people began to enjoy the holiday and the fun of dressing up and scaring one another.

Pagans believed that during the transition from harvest to winter (life to death), the spirits or fairies could cross over to this world. The people would build massive bonfires and carry torches outside to protect themselves from the spirits, and they would hold grand parties inside and play games. Pagans and Christians held similar superstitions regarding the souls of the dead wandering the earth until this particular day of the year.

Some Christian feasts involved groups of people slowly going from house to house. The owners of the houses would invite them in for refreshments or sometimes entire meals. Some Latino countries still observe these kinds of practices during the Christmas holiday season. The tradition of Christmas caroling—and the reward of hot chocolate, cider or desserts—comes from these earlier customs. On All Hallows’ Eve, many Christian children would go out souling. The women would bake special “soul cakes,” and then give them to the children as they stopped by the different houses. In exchange for the soul cakes, the children would pray for the departed family members of the homes they had visited.

Over the years, many of these traditions were blended together into a holiday that gradually lost its religious significance and became more of a common, festive event. With the increasing involvement of American corporate marketing, the holiday has become incredibly commercialized and sensationalized (and loved by children).

So, how should Christians respond to this cultural phenomenon? We’ll discuss this next.

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

In our search for the historical Jesus, we’re first examining the most broad challenges of the critics. These claims—if true—would be devastating to the biblical Christian faith, and so we want to consider them carefully. Last week, we saw strong evidence that Jesus was a real, historical person. Except for a few on the radical fringe, all Jesus scholars—Christians and non-Christians—accept the historicity of Jesus as firmly established.

This week, we’re looking at another common claim. From time to time you’ll hear someone say: “The pagan religions at that time had many ‘Christ’ myths. The early Christians copied the story of a resurrected god from these other religions.” Is this true? Let’s find out.

Consider the source
We should first notice from where these claims are (and are not) coming. We don’t hear these ideas from reputable scholars; we mostly find them touted by people who aren’t widely respected in the academic community. This should give us pause. If the most respected critics of Christianity don’t avail themselves of this claim, is there maybe something faulty with it?

Examples from history (and today)
Sometimes religions do borrow from one another. Many years ago, I attended a community function in the Bay area of California. This event was held at a local Buddhist “church.” I was more interested in this Buddhist church than I was in the event itself! I was surprised by the many similarities to Christianity I saw there. These Buddhists had “bishops” who were referred to as “Reverend” and who dressed in vestments as one would find in a liturgical church. Their literature spoke of “salvation” and “accepting the principles of Buddhism into your heart.” Apparently, they thought using these traditionally Christian trappings and terminologies would help them reach people who were culturally accustomed to them.

In the early 4th century, the Roman church leaders decided to designate December 25 as the birthdate of Christ. Many historians believe this date was originally a pagan holiday, but that the Roman church “converted” it. Our Christmas holiday today contains elements that predate the celebration of Jesus’ birth, such as yule logs, giving gifts and decorating trees. Many scholars also believe much of the grandeur of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches is partly the result of early attempts to compete with the pageantry of pagan temples and ceremonies. So copying from one religion to another does happen . . . but did it happen with the story of Christ?

A timeline problem
We can find evidence of copying between Christianity and other religions. The question is: Who copied from whom? For instance, if you do some searching, you can find descriptions of the newborn, Hindu god Krishna receiving gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The only problem is these stories developed in just the last few years. Because this happened so recently, it’s very easy to determine that some Krishna devotees copied from the stories of Jesus’ birth.

So did the early Christians do the same thing to enhance the image of Jesus, or did the pagan religions copy from Christianity? When we examine the historical sources, the pattern becomes very clear. All of the pagan similarities to the Christian faith were recorded after Christianity became widely followed, not before. For example, the worship of Mithra was a popular religion in the ancient Roman empire. We can find in descriptions of their beliefs where Mithra is called the “Son of God” and the “Light of the World,” and where it’s claimed he was born on December 25, was buried in a rock tomb and then came to life three days later. This sounds much like Christianity, doesn’t it? But these descriptions were written hundreds of years after the Gospel stories about Jesus were written. What did the story of Mithra sound like in the first century?

Mithra was born (not resurrected) when he emerged from a rock. (No date is given for his birth.) He was carrying a knife and a torch, and wearing a Phrygian cap. He battled first with the sun and then with a primeval bull, which was thought to be the first act of creation. Mithra slew the bull, and this became the ground of life for the human race. This may remind us of ancient mythology, but it has no similarity at all to the story of Jesus Christ.

If you do the homework, you’ll find the same to be true of other alleged precursors of the Christ story. In every case, the seemingly uncanny similarities to Christianity were introduced after the widespread propagation of the Christian faith. We’re historically very confident the pagan religions copied elements of the story of Jesus, not the other way around.

“Similarities” that aren’t really similar
Some critics claim there’s a long pattern, predating Jesus, of gods who die and are resurrected. When pushed for examples, they appeal to fertility cults where the sun “dies” in winter and “rises again” in the spring—only to die again the following winter (and so on, and so on . . .). This bears little similarity to claims that a literal, historical person was publicly executed, came back to life and was worshiped as divine by his followers. These critics can’t show any direct parallels because there are none. These accounts are completely dissimilar. This seems almost to be a desperate clutching of straws for people who want to find an alternative explanation . . . any alternative explanation . . . for the story of Jesus Christ.

Hardly any non-Christian scholars question the historical existence of Jesus or try to attribute the unique aspects of his story to early Christians copying from pagan religions. They don’t do this because it’s just not good scholarship. So where does this leave us in our quest? We can be confident Jesus existed at the time and place the Gospel stories describe, and we can’t dismiss the accounts of Jesus as stories his followers borrowed from other religions. Where do we go next? Next week, we’ll begin looking at the original sources that claim to tell us about Jesus. Which accounts can we trust, which ones do we reject, and why? We’ll discuss this next week.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions? [see above]

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?