Celebrating Halloween: Why Would I?

Tracy Krebs, a former colleague of mine began a recent blog post this way: “As soon as the leaves begin to turn, the anti-halloween-bloggers start popping up on my fb feed…” It is true that the changing colors of the leaves prompt those both for and against the celebration of Halloween to dust off their opinions and post them anew. It is not a topic I have ever engaged in with effort. When asked, I will share what I think. When challenged, I will respond. And I took the blog post of this former colleague, shared on Facebook, as a challenge. Her post was titled, “Can I love Jesus…and Halloween?” Tracy makes it clear that she thinks the answer is yes. I disagree with her on that. But it is precisely because of some erroneous explanations she gives for her position that I feel the need to respond.

She begins her post with a quick overview of the origins of the holiday we now know as Halloween. She correctly traces the beginnings to the Celtic celebration of Samhain, when the Celts “believed that the veil between the spirit realm and physical realm was at it’s [sic] thinnest and that ghosts of the dead (along with other spirit realm entities) wandered among the living” (Tracy’s words). She goes on to say that the Celtic people lit large bonfires in their fields and put candles in their hollowed-out gourds to guide these spirits and left food and wine on their doorsteps to appease them. Furthermore, they had large feasts “during which they purposely honored their dead relatives; speaking fondly of their memories, appreciation and love for them; and, yes, since they believed they were close by for a few hours, would usually try to commune with them” (again, Tracy’s words).

There are a few problems with this. First, supposing it were an accurate description, this practice is not harmless or biblically acceptable. Deuteronomy 18:9-11 says,

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.

Notice several things from this passage: (1) some practices—read religious practices, holidays, celebrations and traditions—of heathen nations are abominable to God; (2) consulting with the dead—which would include communing with, to borrow Tracy’s word—is also an abomination to the Lord. 1 Chronicles 10 makes it clear that Saul suffered serious consequences from the Lord for consulting with a witch—a medium—to summon the spirit of Samuel. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that communicating, communing or consulting with the dead is permissible, let alone encouraged.

But notice that I said “supposing it were an accurate description,” when referring to Tracy’s overview of the origins of Halloween. The reality is, it is not. History.com, in its overview of Halloween, starts off the same way Tracy does: “Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.” After that, however, it takes a dramatically different route than Tracy does:

In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.

When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

By this explanation, the Celts were not honoring their dead relatives, recalling fond memories or attempting to commune with them. Far from it. They were actually making sacrifices to Celtic deities, dressing up in weird costumes and telling each other’s fortunes, which could be “a source of comfort and direction” during the winter. Notice, as well, that the ghosts and spirits that were believed to return were not stopping by for a friendly visit; instead, they were “causing trouble and damaging crops.”

The problems with Christians celebrating such traditions should be immediately evident. First of all, it is not possible to make predictions about the future with any accuracy or legitimacy. James 4:14 says “you do not know what tomorrow will bring.” Second, fortune telling and other such predictions cannot be counted on for direction or comfort. Scripture makes it abundantly clear, in a plethora of passages, that believers are to find their comfort and direction in and from the Lord and His Word. Third, of course, is the offering of sacrifices to pagan deities, something repeatedly condemned in the Bible. And fourth is the trust that was placed in the flame from the “sacred bonfire.” Psalm 9:10 says, “And those who know your name put their trust in you,” speaking of the Lord. Psalm 20:7 says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” It is not distorting the passage at all to say, speaking of the Celts, “Some trust in sacred bonfires and pagan traditions.”

Immediately after her description of Samhain, Tracy writes:

This is not unlike the many other cultures around the world that have a day of honoring the dead. Is setting aside a day to honor the dead a bad thing? I don’t see how it is. The Catholics religiously honor their dead and pray for them. Ireland, Scotland, England, Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Nepal, the Philippines, and many others cultures current and through history commemorate their dead with a holiday. (Actually, why DON’T we do that?)

Setting aside a day to honor the dead is not inherently a bad thing. We do this in the United States with Memorial Day, in particular, and many individuals and families honor the memory of the deceased relatives on their birthdays or the anniversary of their deaths. But there is a difference between honoring them as in remembering them and honoring them as in worshipping or exalting them. And to the Catholic practice, there is absolutely no point in praying for the dead. Once they are dead it is too late; there is nothing to pray for. Hebrews 9:27 says, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (KJV). Some Catholics, of course, go further and pray to the dead, usually saints, and/or ask them to pray for them, to intercede for them with the Father. This, too, is contrary to Scripture. 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

Tracy continues in her defense of Halloween by writing, “A simple google [sic] search will tell you that when missionaries came to the Celts, the decision was made to join in their pagan holidays to make converting to Christianity less intimidating.” Um, yes and no. The use of the word “missionaries” is a bit misleading here. These were not people who had moved peaceably in amongst the Celts to spread the gospel. Instead, within just a decade or so of the death of Christ, the Roman Empire had conquered the Celtic territory. They ruled the area for 400 years, during which time two Roman celebrations were blended with the Celtic traditions—Feralia, which was a Roman commemoration of the dead, and a celebration of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. History.com even suggests that this blending is what originated the still-extant activity of bobbing for apples at Halloween, since the apple was he symbol of Pomona.

In AD 609 the Pantheon in Rome was dedicated to honor all Christian martyrs and the feast of All Martyrs day was established. Originally celebrated in May, this was moved to November 1 by Pope Gregory III and expanded to include all saints as well as martyrs. However, according catholic.org, “In Ireland, the Church celebrated All Saints’ Day on April 20, to avoid associating the day with the traditional harvest festivals and pagan feasts associated with Samhain, celebrated at the same time.” An intentional avoidance of the pagan holiday is quite different than “joining in.” Then following the Reformation, “many Protestants retained the holy day, although they dismissed the need to pray for the dead. Instead, the day has been used to commemorate those who have recently died, usually in the past year, and to remember the examples of those who lived holy lives” (catholic.org). Even now the Catholic church emphasizes that October 31 is not a holy day; “It is important to remember these basic facts: Halloween is a secular holiday that comes the night before All Saints’ Day” (ibid).

It is worth noting that the Catholic celebrations in most parts of the world outside of the U.S. are not anything a Protestant would want any part of celebrating. Just a couple of weeks ago I was part of a group of people having dinner with a missionary in Mexico. He has experience ministering in some of the remotest villages in the country. There, celebrating the Day of the Dead is a requirement, and Protestants not participating face persecution. The people are kept in poverty—sometimes even in debt—by the amount of money they are expected to spend to celebrate their village’s saint.

What about Halloween in America? History.com says its celebration was “extremely limited” in New England due to the Protestant beliefs in those colonies. It was much more common in Maryland—which fits, given that Maryland was initially founded as a refuge for Catholics. Gradually, the celebration spread:

As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups as well as the American Indians meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing.

Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the Irish potato famine, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally.

With the influence of these various traditions it became common practice to dress up in costumes. Then, in the late 1800s, there was an intention effort to eliminate ghosts, witchcraft and such from the Halloween celebrations and make them more about community. History.com says parents were even “encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything ‘frightening’ or ‘grotesque’ out of Halloween celebrations. This would be similar to what many—including many churches—now call Harvest Celebrations. These are fun occasions with food and games and nothing at all related to the dead.

Tracy asserts that joining in pagan holidays is exactly what the New Testament apostles did in order to reach unbelievers, but she offers no evidence and I would challenge her to explain that statement. I know of no such “joining in” that took place.

She goes on to suggest that whether or not Halloween is celebrated as “the Devil’s holiday” comes down to identity and authority. She acknowledges that these is increased demonic and occult activity on Halloween, but she is not afraid of either because of her identity in Christ. Because she identifies as a Christian, claims the authority of Christ and carries the light of the Gospel, she has no fear of the darkness or evil of Satan and his minions. Tracy writes, “So, back to this being the devil’s holiday… Says WHO?? I didn’t give him the right to have a holiday. But every time you say that, YOU ARE! You are coming into agreement with his play to usurp your authority. STOP IT! Don’t give your authority away to that snake.”

Okay, so she admits that this day sees an increase in demonic and occult activity, but she will celebrate anyway because she does not fear that activity and she knows God is far more powerful than Satan. That does not really make any sense—especially when her celebration includes the décor and costumes commonly adopted by those who are celebrating evil and death. See, whether or not you fear evil, there is zero point in celebrating it. When you dress up as ghosts or goblins or zombies, how are you spreading the Light? Earlier this month the Chicago Tribune published a list of most popular Halloween costumes for 2017—for adults and children—based on the National Retail Foundation’s Annual Halloween Spending Survey. What were they? For adults, they included witch (1), vampire (6), zombie (7), and slasher movie villain (9). For children, witch (6) and ghost (9). Why go there? Even if you, like Tracy, do not fear evil, why celebrate it? Why surround yourself with depictions of it? Why think about it? There is certainly nothing here that would be consistent with Philippians 4:8. 1 Corinthians 13:6 says, “Love does not delight in evil” (NIV). 1 Thessalonians 5:22 says, “Keep away from every kind of evil” (TLB). Isaiah 5:20 says, “Woe to those who call evil good…” (NIV). Proverbs 8:13 says, “To fear the Lord is to hate evil” (NIV). None of these verses seem to leave any room for a harmless celebration of evil.

In addition, Ephesians 6:12 says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood [contending only with physical opponents], but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this [present] darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly (supernatural) places” (AMP). Why, pray tell, would any Christian want to celebrate the spiritual forces of darkness? I agree with Tracy that those in Christ have no fear of being defeated by the forces of evil, but I see no point whatsoever in celebrating them.

To the question of whether or not Christian should stand against the celebration of Halloween, Tracy writes,

Well, what is your commission in the Kingdom? Are you not an agent of Light? An ambassador of the King? Is it not your duty to draw the lost to their Savior? How best would that be accomplished when the lost come out of their homes once a year to walk the streets of your neighborhood? Are you attracting them to their Savior by turning off the lights of your house to let them know they are not welcome? Think about the message you are sending out… “Oh they are ‘Christians’ and they think we are evil and worshiping the devil because we are trick or treating…”

You could argue this point legitimately, I’ll admit. I do know some Christians who turn their porch lights on and welcome trick or treaters to their doors on Halloween. They smile and distribute candy and the children go on their way. I think it is possible to do that without condoning the celebration of evil. At the same time, I think it is equally possible to leave your light off and not participate without sending the message that you think those out and about are Satan worshippers. I also know some Christians who have their light on and give out gospel tracts to those coming to their doors. In my own opinion, this is not an effective means if witnessing, especially if no candy or other treat is given along with the tract. To the recipients this will come across as a trick while they were seeking a treat. It will not prompt them to read the tract and is unlikely to lead to their conversion to Christ. In my opinion, it would be better to leave your light off.

But Tracy has a point when she writes,

For the sake of all that is good, turn on your porch light and WELCOME these people! Put on your best costume and decorate your house better than anyone else! Hand out the GOOD candy bars! Everyone who trick or treats knows that there are a few homes that go above and beyond on Halloween and your night is not complete until you have visited THOSE homes… BE. THAT. HOUSE. Draw them in to you!! You have a unique opportunity once a year to meet, bless and pray for (even if just silently) EVERYONE in your neighborhood on Halloween night. At least turn on your light and be friendly… You are representing ALL of us.  Jesus did not shy away from the lost, He went to them. He engaged. (emphasis hers)

I think there can be merit in this. As I said, if you give out a tract along with candy, you may reach someone. You may at least, as Tracy said, have an opportunity to pray for those individuals or meet neighbors you would not otherwise interact with. Here is where she and I differ, though. I would vehemently suggest that if you do this you decorate and dress in such a way that has nothing whatsoever to do with evil. Be your favorite comic strip character or superhero. Stay far away from the zombies and vampires.

Scripture makes it clear that Christian liberty allows for a wide range of choices. Tracy may be within her Christian liberty to celebrate Halloween. I, and others, are certainly within our liberty to abstain. Scripture also makes it clear that not everything we can do is something that we should do, or something that is beneficial or fruitful. That is where I come down. Celebrating Halloween may not be sin (though I do think it could be, depending on the nature of one’s celebration), but I see little if any good in coming from engaging in an activity that is focused on celebrating death and evil. So, I guess the big question for me is this: even if I can celebrate Halloween, why would I?

(Except where otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version).

Why Does God Allow Tragedy and Suffering?

The question above is one of the most frequently asked questions in the world, I think. Unbelievers ask it of believers, and believers ask it of other believers and of God Himself. It is not an easy question to answer, but there are some relevant biblical passages that I think help to understand.

I am indebted to John MacArthur, John Piper, Lee Strobel and others in developing my own understanding of how to handle this question.

The tragedy and suffering to which I am referring can fall into various categories, I think. Natural disasters and acts of human depravity are the ones we most often think of, and the ones of which this question is most often asked, I think, but the same question can be asked when bad things happen to good people or when wicked people seek to prosper (when good things happen to bad people, in other words). While my answer is aimed primarily at the first two, the principles are applicable to the second two.

Acts of human depravity prompt strong emotions. The resulting emotions are so strong, in fact, that in extreme instances people can remember exact details of where they were when they first heard of the tragedy. Those who were alive during the attack on Pearl Harbor never forgot that news. I can remember my mother telling me of her recollection of getting the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated. I, like many others, remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first learned of the events of 9/11. It is normal to try to make sense of these senseless acts of violence, and it can be difficult, at best, to try to reconcile these events with a belief that God is a loving and all-powerful God.

Before looking at Scripture in an effort to understand why such horrible acts of human depravity can occur if God is indeed a God of love, two background principles are important. First, Jesus Himself promised, in John 16:33, that we will have tribulations as long as we are on this earth. Second, in I Corinthians 13:12, Paul explains that right now, in our finite human minds, we can see only dimly–we know only in part. Like looking through a fog or gazing into a dirty mirror, we cannot get a high resolution image of why things occur. God has that perspective, and perhaps in eternity–if we still want to know–God will grant us that perspective, but we will never be able to grasp sharp, specific answers to any one natural disaster or act of depravity. As frustrating as that may be for me or for you, that’s simply “the way it is.” I do not know why God allowed Hurricane Katrina to wipe out New Orleans, or why God did not stop a young man from chaining doors shut to maximize the loss of life on the campus of Virginia Tech. Furthermore, I would approach with skepticism any person who claims to have a specific explanation for such tragedies. The reality is, we cannot fully know the mind of God in such instances.

But there is plenty that we can know, and I turn now to that.

First, God did not create evil and suffering. In Genesis 1:31 God said, after six days of creation, that the world He created was good. Accordingly, there was no evil or suffering at the end of creation; had there been, God could not have said everything was good. In I Corinthians 14:33 it says that God is not a God of confusion. Regardless of whatever else may occur in the aftermath of natural disasters or acts of mass violence, confusion always results. The panic, the screaming, the smoke and dust, the complete chaos… God does not, and cannot, author such things. I John 1:5 says that in God there is no darkness at all. Habakkuk 1:13 says that “God is of purer eyes than to approve evil or behold evil. He cannot look on wickedness.” And I John 2:16 says, “All that is in the world, all evil categorically, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life is not of the Father.”

However, God had to give human beings a free will in order to give humans the ability to love. Love, whatever else it is or however else it may be defined, is a choice, and without the ability and freedom to make a choice, humans could not love–one another, or God; for if love is a choice, “forced” or “programmed” love is not love at all.

So how did evil enter the world? First, recall that Lucifer was cast out of heaven for wanting to be like God. Isaiah 14:12-14 describes Lucifer’s arrogance and resulting fall. Notice the repeated “I” statements in that passage. Lucifer wanted to be like God. In Luke 10:18 Jesus describes seeing Lucifer fall from heaven like lightening from the sky. Interestingly, Satan, in the guise of a serpent, then tempted Eve the same way in Genesis 3, telling her that if she ate of the fruit, she would be like God.

Sin, then, entered the world through Adam and Eve, and has been inherited by every human being thereafter. See Romans 5:12. Jeremiah 17:9 says that the human heart is desperately wicked. James 1:14 says that each person is drawn away by his own lust–meaning we each have our own unique sin nature and proclivities.

John MacArthur, in his sermon “The Origin of Evil,” says: “Listen to this, to disobey God was to initiate evil. Evil is not the presence of something, evil is the absence of righteousness. You can’t create evil because evil doesn’t exist as a created entity. It doesn’t exist as a created reality. Evil is a negative. Evil is the absence of perfection. It’s the absence of holiness. It’s the absence of goodness. It’s the absence of righteousness. Evil became a reality only when creatures chose to disobey. Evil came into existence initially then in the fall of angels and then next, in the fall of Adam and Eve.”

So, God did not create evil, but He did create the possibility for evil to exist by giving human beings a free will, the ability to choose, and make their own decisions. God could have chosen to make us robots, but He didn’t.

Second, God is omnipotent, and He could stop or prevent evil if He wanted to do so. This is perhaps the hardest part to wrap our minds around and come to grips with, because we, in our limited understanding, cannot fathom having the ability to prevent evil and not doing so. In Genesis 18:14a we see the rhetorical question, “Is anything too hard for God?” The answer, of course, is no. In Mark 10:27 we see Jesus Himself say, “All things are possible with God.” In Job, we see that God limits the power and reach of Satan (see Job 1:12 and 2:6). So no evil takes place that God does not allow to occur, and no evil takes place that God could not stop. Remember, however, that preventing or eliminating evil would necessitate the removal or, at the very least, the partial suspension of free will.

Third, though evil (including pain, suffering, tribulation, persecution, etc.) is not good, and is not from God, God can and does work through evil to accomplish His purposes. In Romans 8:28 we have the verse that is probably too cavalierly used in attempting to comfort and encourage those who are going through difficulties, but that does not change the veracity of the verse: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (NASB, emphasis added). That little three-letter word “all” is really a huge word, because it means that there is nothing that God cannot and does not work through for the good of those who love Him. God is never surprised, and is never left thinking, “Now how am I going to make anything good out of this?” In His omniscience, He knows full well exactly what will happen and when, and how He will work through it.

In Isaiah 46:9-10 we see that God’s purposes will be accomplished–so evil cannot thwart or derail the plans of God. In Genesis 50:20 we see an excellent example. If anyone had lived a life that would prompt questioning God’s goodness and love it was Joseph. He was sold by his own brothers into slavery, then, after working his way to the top of Potiphar’s household was falsely accused of rape and imprisoned, and when he translated dreams for two of Pharaoh’s servants he asked them not to forget him, but they did, for several years. Yet, looking back on all that, Joseph was able to tell his brothers that what they had intended for evil God had used for good. In Philippians 1:12 there is a great New Testament example. Paul had suffered tremendously for the cause of Christ, from beatings to stonings to shipwrecks to imprisonment, and yet he wrote that what had happened had really served to further the gospel. We may not be able to understand why, but for whatever reason, God allows deeds that He hates, and He works through them to accomplish His purposes and to bring glory o Himself.

After all, the greatest example of evil ever perpetrated by man would be the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus was perfect–He had never sinned, never done a single thing worthy of punishment, and yet He was executed on a Roman cross. God could have prevented that evil; Jesus Himself could have refused to allow Himself to be executed. Yet, through that horrible act of human depravity, God worked to accomplish His plan to pay for the sins of humanity and to make possible the forgiveness of sins and the free gift of salvation.

Fourth, it is important that we keep in mind that we can question God–so long as we remember our place, and do so with reverence and respect. Many questions are put to God in the Psalms. Job questioned God. Habakkuk questioned God, too. After asking God whether He was aware of what was going on–and receiving God’s response that He knew exactly what was going on, and was going to address it–Habakkuk was incredulous. God’s solution seemed worse than the problem! By the end of the book though (see Habakkuk 3:16) Habakkuk is well aware of His place. He remembers that God is God, and he is not.

The web site gotquestions.org says, “It is entirely different to wonder why God allowed a certain event than it is to directly question God’s goodness. Having doubts is different from questioning God’s sovereignty and attacking His character. In short, an honest question is not a sin, but a bitter, untrusting, or rebellious heart is. God is not intimidated by questions. God invites us to enjoy close fellowship with Him. When we “question God” it should be from a humble spirit and open mind. We can question God, but we should not expect an answer unless we are genuinely interested in His answer. God knows our hearts, and knows whether we are genuinely seeking Him to enlighten us. Our heart attitude is what determines whether it is right or wrong to question God.”

In other words, there is a world of difference in questioning God out of a desire to understand and questioning God as an accusation. One is a humble acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty and an expression of a desire to know what we can learn, how we can help and how we can grow. The other is based on the position that we know better than God, and is the equivalent of yelling at God, “How dare you!”

Fifth, we must remember–and be encouraged by the fact–that God will eventually conquer evil once and for all. Satan has already been defeated, but God has thus far allowed the battles to rage on even though the war has been won. But Revelation 20 makes it absolutely clear that one day that will change; God will say “enough,” and Satan will be thrown forever into the lake of fire.

Finally, we must bear in mind that our suffering in this life is temporary, and it pales in comparison to what God has in store for us as believers in eternity. See Romans 8:18 and I Corinthians 2:9.

No one wants suffering or trials or tribulations or the seeming triumph of evil in this world. And there is nothing wrong with feeling grief, sadness and even anger over man’s inhumanity to man. There is nothing wrong with humbly questioning God. But the truth is, as long as we exist on this earth there will be evil. God, for reasons only He may understand, allows it, and works through it to accomplish His purposes.

So, what’s the bottom line? Evil exists in the world because God loved us enough to allow for the potential for evil to exist. I realize that does not seem to make sense. And please note that I did not say that evil is an expression of God’s love. It absolutely is not, and God hates evil. But God’s love for humans is stronger than His hatred of evil, and therefore He created a world in which we each have the freedom to make our own decisions–even when those decisions are to commit evil.

When we are faced with evil, we must decide how we will respond. We can turn from God, or we can turn to God. But the good news is found at the end of that verse we started with; John 16:33 does promise that we will have tribulation, but Jesus then says, “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”