October 30, 2016 (KSYC) • Download this post (PDF)
“After one’s own birthday, the two major Satanic holidays are Walpurgisnacht (May 1st) and Halloween.” Anton LaVey, The Satanic Bible, 1969. Anton Lavey was the founder of the Church of Satan. 1
That’s what Satan would say to many people, including evangelicals, on October 31. He would be extremely pleased with the celebrations all over the world on that evening. Why would Satan be delighted? Because it is the night that the whole world celebrates his kingship over all unbelievers, and in some sense, his birthday. From where and when did this celebration originate?
God, through the Apostle Paul’s writings, has the plain answer: from the creative human mind. He says in Romans 1:19-25:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things … and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.
God has hardwired the human mind with a knowledge of the Creator and the law (Rom 2:14-15), but because unbelievers have no knowledge of the gospel of Christ, they create their own gods from natural things knowable from their own senses.
So the ancient Celts and Druids who lived in present-day France, Germany, England, Scotland and Ireland, worshiped the sun, moon and stars by celebrating the seasonal solstices and equinoxes, i.e., changes in seasons. One of these solstices is called Samhain, the end of autumn, which is also the beginning of the dark days of winter, and which falls on November 1. 2
This ancient festival focused on three things: the onset of winter, the end of harvest, and the spirits of the dead, perhaps because it is the beginning of long, dark nights. The festival of the dead started on the night before, October 31, when the spirits of the dead could roam about the physical realm. It was a time of slaughtering livestock as sacrifices that were thrown into bonfires. Pre-Christian Greek and Roman writings spoke of the Druids’ sacrifices, including humans, said to be have been offered to appease the spirits of the dead.
Trick or Treat!
So why do children go around knocking from door to door on a cold, dark night (in cold climates), and greeting everyone, “Trick or treat!” On the eve of Samhain festival, the Druids believed that sinful, lost souls roamed the earth looking for treats of things, food and drink before they go back to the realm of the dead. If they were not treated well by the living, they would play tricks on them, haunting them by assuming the most terrifying, evil appearances. To ward off those trick-bent spirits, the living wore costumes similar to those of the spirits to trick them. They also carved demonic faces into gourds or turnips and lighting a candle inside it to ward off the haunting spirits, hence, the jack-o-lantern.
The Druids also believed that the night of the dead is also the best time for divination concerning the future: marriage, prosperity, health, death, like an ancient version of today’s prosperity gospel. So to assure good fortune, they made offerings of food and drink, performed certain rituals including sacrificing animals and even humans in huge bonfires on hilltops (similar to what the Old Testament called “high places,” e.g., “Your wealth and all your treasures I will give for spoil as the price of your high places for sin throughout all your territory” [Jer 17:3).
When the Christian gospel came to the British Isles as early as the 2nd century, many Celts believed. But just as Paul and the other apostles found out when they arrived in Gentile cities, the Christian faith always collided with pagan culture. Slowly, the eclectic mixing of Christian and pagan symbols and thoughts took root. In the early 7th century, Pope Boniface IV set a day in May to honor Christian martyrs, which was first known as “All Hallows’ Day.” Later, the Catholic Church wanted to supplant the Samhain festival, so in the 9th century, the day was moved to the same day as the Samhain, November 1. The evening before the Samhain was then called “All Hallows Eve,” then “Hallow-e’en,” and eventually “Halloween.” But the resulting commemoration became mixed with Samhain’s pagan rituals and traditions.
Perhaps this observance did not make it to America until the great Irish immigration in the 1840s, many of them Roman Catholics who most likely brought Halloween with them. However, it was not until about 1900 when the celebration spread throughout the country.
Reclaiming All Hallows’ Eve?
What’s a Christian to do? So what if Halloween had pagan origins? I don’t slaughter sacrificial animals or practice divination, and I don’t believe in lost spirits roaming our neighborhood. But the Bible, many Christians caution, is replete with condemnation of the occult, and warns us, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph 5:11); “What fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Satan?” (2 Cor 6:14-15).
Although I always had misgivings about our children participating in this annual ritual, we nevertheless dressed them with Disney, Ninja Turtles, and other cartoon characters, or one time, one of them was a computer! We went to the cabbage patch, and carved pumpkins with faces. Our church also offered a carnival event at church, where everyone dressed up in exciting, colorful costumes. The children had fun and games, and there was no hint of evil spirits, trick or treat, or anything scary. It was, as advertised, a fun fall carnival!
Maybe what’s missing was the original intent of our early church forefathers: honoring the faithful Christian martyrs. So different booths may be set up to celebrate Polycarp, Justin Martyr, the Waldensians, Jan Hus, William Tyndale, Guido de Bres, Hugh Latimer, Lady Jane Grey, the China Martyrs of 1900, and thousands of others.
But most of all, to complement the fun and games, how about commemorating it instead as the day that sparked the Protestant Reformation and the rediscovery of the true gospel? In God’s providence, what happened on that night of October 31, 1517 changed the course of the world.
Martin Luther, a 16th century Augustinian monk, struggled for years with the Roman Catholic church. He saw the corruption, sexual immorality, and lust for and abuse of political and ecclesiastical power from the village priests all the way to the Pope. Finally, he wrote a tract entitled “95 Theses” in which he criticized these abuses in the church, and posted it on the door of the Wittenburg Castle church. He particularly criticized the selling of so-called “indulgences” to save one’s soul, whether alive or dead.
But later, his main opposition to the church was over two doctrines: First, he maintained the authority of the Bible over church tradition. Second, he argued that Christians are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, and not by good works.
He posted this tract to spark a debate, and not to persuade others to separate from the church. But in the end, the 95 Theses and Luther’s later beliefs were wholly rejected by the Roman church. So he concluded that the church was beyond repair. It needed a drastic reformation from within, resulting in the final separation between Catholics and Protestant Reformers. The church had lost sight of the gospel of Jesus Christ because of its view of tradition being more authoritative than the Bible. The church had also lost track of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone, because good works became the focus of salvation, whether it is giving alms to the poor, giving money to the church, a pilgrimage to Rome, or praying to Mary and other so-called “saints.” Luther struggled with the question, “Have I done enough to be salved? What else could I do to earn heaven?” In God’s providence, by studying and meditating on the Bible, he found the opposite: salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone, and not in doing good works.
What should Christians celebrate on October 31? Not ghosts and demons, but Reformation Day! It is the day when the light of the true gospel broke out of this dark world. It was the day when Luther turned the world upside down, exposing the abuses of the church. From that fateful day on, faithful men like John Calvin, John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and many other Reformers brought the church back from the darkness of tradition and good works to the light of God’s Word and salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone as found in Scripture alone, all to God’s glory alone. It sent hundreds of missionaries to as far away as Brazil, the new world, Africa and Asia. It led to the singing of God’s Word, the Psalms. It led to Christ-centered preaching in the churches. And it led to the transformation of whole societies throughout the world.