[Every year around this time I receive questions regarding Halloween (should Christians celebrate it? how should we react to it? etc.). A few years back, I wrote an article to address these questions and since a number of people have asked about it again, here the article one more time:]
Each year at this time questions arise regarding the celebration of Halloween and if Christians should participate in it. Many Christians view Halloween as an expression of Satan-worship (with all its pagan roots and fruits). I’m sympathetic and certainly agree that not every practice connected with Halloween should be tolerated or imitated. Christians clearly, must be careful and thoughtful here and guard against the spirit of the world which does in fact worship Satan (though often unawares). But that’s only half the work. The other half involves refusing to allow Satan to get credit for things that don’t belong to him.
It is interesting how Satan works. He is not creative. He does not invent things. But he is expert in twisting good things into instruments of evil. He is a genius when it comes to perversion — turning things upside down. He loves to take the things of God and twist them into instruments of ungodliness.
The Church’s job in many ways comes down to turning everything that has been turned upside down by sin and Satan, rightside up again. Reconciliation means upturning those things that have been overturned by sin and twisted into instruments of unrighteousness, so that they bring glory to God again. This is precisely what the Church has done in regard to sensuality and sexuality. Over the years the Church has performed the service of re-instructing the world regarding the truth and proper place of the family, the arts, entertainment, business and labor, and many other fields of human endeavor.
But we must not forget that the Church has had to do this because it has itself been deceived and misled by Satan concerning these things. And such is the case, at least in part, with the celebration of Halloween.
It was no accident that Luther made his “95 Theses” public on “Halloween” — “all saints eve.” The word “Halloween” is of course simply a contraction for “All Hallow’s Eve.” The word “hallow” means “sanctify” or “saint.” It is simply synonym for the word “holy” (thus we pray “hallowed be Thy name” when we desire God to glorify and exalt His name in the earth). The church, following the pattern of beginning the celebration of feasts the evening before the actual feast day, began the celebration of All Saints Day the evening before (All Saints Eve, “Halloween”).
All Saints Day is the celebration of the victory of the all saints who, because of their union with Christ have triumphed over the world, the flesh, and the devil. The observance of various celebrations of All Saints arose in the late 300s, and in the late 700s these various celebrations were united and fixed on November 1.
Contrary to modern legend, the origin of All Saints Day and All Saints Eve in European Christianity had nothing to do with Celtic paganism or the Church’s fight against the pagan Druids (and serious questions are being raised now by scholars about what we have been told regarding the Druids. Many are coming to believe that much of what we have been told is actually a myth concocted in the 19th century by neo-pagans).
In any case, with the coming of Christ and the completion of His work, we no longer fight against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against fallen angels who bind the hearts and minds of men in ignorance and fear. Jesus’ work purchased our victory and made it certain, but the war is not yet over. He struck the decisive blow and we have the privilege of carrying out the mop-up operation. And we do battle against these evil spirits with the weapons given to us by the Spirit; the weapons of faith, prayer, joyful celebration, and faithful obedience. By these means we will be victorious in Christ. Thus Paul assures us, “The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly.” So, century by century the Christian faith has rolled back the demonic realm of ignorance, fear, and superstition. The feast of All Saints reminds us of this glorious victory of the Church over Satan and his hosts.
The Christian calendar turns the entire year into a drama. Beginning with the Feast of the Incarnation, the world moves progressively from darkness to light. The death of Winter is turned into the resurrection of Spring which corresponds to the Feast of the Resurrection (Easter). Then comes Pentecost and the time of growth and maturity. We do battle with the effects of sin and the curse upon the ground — we fight the weeds and the bugs to protect the seed until the harvest. When the harvest comes in, Satan, seeing the defeat of his efforts to destroy us again, seeks one last time to achieve victory before the year’s end. October 31 came to signify that day. Satan seeks to destroy the saints, but he is banished again by the victory of Christ and the joy and gladness that now has filled the earth through the Church.
The Church vanquishes the demonic realm by its joyful worship of the risen and conquering Savior. Because Jesus has overcome, we are able to laugh and make merry in the face of evil. Indeed, this is the place for holy mockery. Satan’s great sin (and our great sin) is pride. He has been brought down by the Son of God and has endured a spectacular fall. Thus, we read that Jesus make a public spectacle of him by his work on the cross (Col 2:15). Satan has been exposed as a ridiculous pretender and impostor and has been publicly humiliated.
To drive Satan from us, we ridicule him. This is why the custom arose of portraying Satan as being dressed in a red suit with horns and a tail. No one actually thought that he really looked like this (the Bible teaches that he appears as “an angel of light”) but the idea was to make fun of him because he has been defeated by the victorious Son and he no longer has power over us. He is not to be feared any longer but resisted steadfast and mocked.
This was the original purpose of placing gargoyles on the cathedrals. They symbolized the Church ridiculing the enemy. Gargoyles were not demonic symbols but rather they depicted the attitude of the Church toward Satan and his angels (making faces, sticking their tongues out, etc.). The demonic hosts are no longer any threat to us. The church is invincible against the threats and attacks of the evil one. And thus, we who were once slaves of Satan are now able to laugh at and make fun of him.
So, October 31, the eve of All Saints, came to be associated with the defeat of evil and of all demonic powers by Christ and through Christ, by all His people. And it was for this reason, that Martin Luther chose October 31 to post his 95 theses against indulgences and the wicked practices of the Church on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. He chose this day intentionally, to connect it with the defeat of all things that exalted themselves against Christ and His glorious saving work. And ever since, Halloween has also been the day we mark as the beginning of the Reformation.
And it was for this reason the custom arose of mocking the demonic realm by dressing up children in costumes. The purpose of the costumes was to mock the humiliated Enemy of Jesus. Because the power of Satan has been broken once and for all, even children can mock him. The work of our Savior (who is Love perfected) has banished all fear. Satan has been cast out of his position of authority and rule by the overwhelming, overcoming love of the Son.
Now it is true that the world has lost the original intent of Halloween and they now think of it as a time of mischief and fear of the unknown. But this is not the first time the world has gotten our symbolism wrong is it? Satan still enjoys perverting holy customs and traditions and he has been particularly successful in twisting the meaning of Halloween. So that now this night has in fact become a night of fear and wickedness and debauchery for many as men take advantage of the time to destroy and injure others and carry on perversion. But this only serves as another reason for us to reclaim this day and put it back in its proper place.
Many if not all of the traditions that have arisen had their origins in the gospel and the glorious freedom and life that the gospel brings to us. Children going door to door, collecting candy from neighbors, may not seem like a big deal to us in our society — where candy is a commonplace. But in earlier ages, candy was something rare and precious, simply because bread itself was often a rarity for many in the world. For most people throughout most of history, candy was a special treat that could only be had on very special occasions. For most people in most of the world, children begging in the streets was not a game, but a matter of life and death. Children coming to your door was not viewed as innocent fun, but often viewed as a threat to your own sparse food supply. And usually children doing this were rebuffed in fear and anger.
So what a contrast it is for children to have a night where they can play a begging game and go door to door asking for food and receiving not ordinary food but candy! A night when they would not be chased away in anger, but given special treats that were rare and precious! What can this mean? It means that a new day has come. The old world of death and destruction has been overthrown and now the new world of life and light has come in Christ Jesus.
Reformation Day or Halloween is not a time to look back wistfully at the past. We are not called to pine away for the past or to engage in sentimental dreaming about the “good ole days” (even if they actually were “good ole days”!).
The purpose of commemorative celebrations is to encourage us to move forward — armed not only with the knowledge of the past but with the confidence that history gives us because of what Jesus has done. We do not worship the past, but we do learn from it. One of the great lessons we can learn from the past is that the Church has never surrendered the past to Satan. The church has never retreated from reclaiming the world for King Jesus.
It is certainly understandable that Christians are uneasy and cautious about Halloween (and it seems to me that this is not at all unwise). But our uneasiness and caution must not move us to surrender truth. Originally Halloween was a Christian celebration and that is why we need to celebrate it today. We need to again refocus the world upon the victory of the saints. And thus, All Saints Eve is an important opportunity to demonstrate the victory of Christ over all evil. And it is a victory not just for Protestants, but for the whole world.
This celebration gives us another opportunity to imitate God. The psalmist says that when God observed all the conspiracies and perverse efforts of men to oppose and destroy His purposes, He laughed (Psa. 2). Halloween, All Saints Eve, gives us an opportunity to join in God’s holy laughter and mock the enemies of our Savior — from the least to the greatest. No matter what the world says or does, He is the King, eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God — Lord over all Lords, king over all the kings of the earth. The world may revel in death, but we will celebrate life — life abundant, eternal, and triumphant.
[I'm indebted to a number of articles and essays by various authors for the content here, but especially to James Jordan's article "Concerning Halloween" in the Biblical Horizons newsletter.]