By Philip S. Powell, Oct 28 2014
Each year on 31st October and in the weeks leading up to this day, in Britain and in most parts of the Western world, we now celebrate Halloween. Shop windows are filled with traditional macabre symbols and artefacts – skeletons, skulls, gory facemasks, witches, cobwebs and scary spiders, and of course carved pumpkins. There are also special seasonal sales of Halloween cards, horror-themed DVDs, party costumes, charm amulets and curse tablets. From a marketing perspective, it is another opportunity to increase sales. From the perspective of wider culture, it is an occasion for children to dress-up and play ‘trick-or-treat’ and for adults to have a themed costume-party. Celebrating Halloween is now an integral part of our society: it has become culturally normalised. But why has Halloween become so popular in our culture and how should Christians think about Halloween from a biblical perspective?
Christian attitudes toward Halloween are very diverse, from outright condemnation to sympathetic affirmation. One reason for these diverse views is because the relationship between the Christian faith and Halloween is rather complicated. The word ‘hallow’ actually means to make holy, to sanctify or consecrate. The word Halloween is a contraction of ‘All Hallows’ Evening’, meaning the evening before All Saints’ Day on 1st November. In traditional churches, All Hallows’ Eve is marked by a special night vigil with fasting and prayer. Protestant churches celebrate Reformation Day on 31st October because it marks the anniversary when Martin Luther in 1517 nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, knowing that large numbers of people would gather there for the All Hallows’ Eve service.
Some believe the origins of Halloween are more complicated and go back to Celtic shamanism and Festival of the Dead celebrations with pagan roots; as the Church became the dominant social institution in Europe, this pagan festival was later co-opted, converted and Christianised. In fact, All Saints Day, the ritual of praying for the dead saints, was introduced in the year 609. In 835 Pope Gregory IV changed the date of All Souls Day from 13th May to 1st November, and 31st October became All Hallows' Evening.
From a cultural perspective it is important to understand Halloween as a window into where people in our society stand with regards to belief and practice. Let me mention three things that the celebration of Halloween points towards, beyond mere commercial opportunism.
Firstly, Halloween has become a way for people to do community in our very individualistic, atomised society. On the evening of Halloween it is acceptable for children to gather together, knock on neighbours’ doors and receive free goodies. Halloween is a brief escape from ‘leave your neighbour alone’ to ‘enjoy being a neighbourhood’. Secondly, in a secular, consumer-driven society, Halloween is an acknowledgment and a reminder that there is a real connection between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The material-physical world and the invisible spiritual world beyond matter intermingle. As Christians we can affirm this truth.
Finally, Halloween is a visually overpowering, timely reminder that evil in our world is real. As we read in the Bible, the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Jesus prayed for his disciples, and for us, not that we would escape from the world but for our protection from the evil one within the world (John 17:15). Many people in our society live in bondage to the fear of evil. They hang crystals outside their door and wear magic amulets and charms to ward off evil. As Christians this is an opportunity for us to share the liberating life-saving message that Jesus has overcome the devil and defeated death. Jesus came into this world not to destroy it but to save it (John 3:17) and to end the works of darkness (1 John 3:8). It is good to remember that the works of darkness go beyond macabre images of vampires and witches to include everything in our world that contradicts and distorts God’s original goodness in creation.
May this Halloween season be a timely reminder for us as Christians that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord of history, and that because we are hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3) we enjoy his special protection from all evil and are called to be his light (Matthew 5:16) to people in our society trapped in darkness with no hope.
To read and explore further the subject of witchcraft and demonic power I would like to refer you to our Cambridge Paper Covert power: Unmasking the world of witchcraft by Jonathan Burnside.