Ever watch Sesame Street? Remember the old jingle "Which One Doesn't Belong?" They'd put up on the screen a picture of a beach ball, basketball, and football, and then they'd put up a box. Then they'd sing the song "Which One Doesn't Belong?" The kids are supposed to figure out which one doesn't fit.
Well, when we look at our calendar, there are a ton of holidays on there. Picture Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter. Now, picture in your mind Halloween. Which one doesn't belong here? Is it weird or not that most of the holidays on our calendar seem to represent something positive and good? Some of them are even deeply religious, reflecting the tenets of our faith: the Incarnation, or thanksgiving and worship, or the resurrection of Christ. Then we've got this one weird day, October 31. I don't know what you pictured. I picture rubber skeletons hanging from doorsteps, pumpkins, phony cobwebs, and plastic spiders. That's just a weird day—you've got to admit it.
God created 'holy days'
Now, I know what some people think about holidays in general. The super-spiritual here want to get rid of them altogether. They all have pagan roots anyway, right?
Well, I like the day off, for one. That's not my primary reason, but I do enjoy the day off. Secondly, if you look in the Bible, holidays were God's idea. You ever thought about that? They were God's thought on the calendar—he thought there ought to be certain days that are special and holy, thus the name. "Holiday" comes from our Middle English. It means the "holy day." The holy days on the calendar are just different days. They're special days, and they ought to be days to represent something special.
In Old Testament Israel, we can look as God spells out the kind of calendar Israel should have. They were supposed to have the Feast of the Passover. You may have seen pictures of this feast, and they may look deeply serious, but it was really a party. As a matter of fact, the Passover was followed by seven days of feasting. The Passover was a special meal prepared in celebration for the memory of the Exodus, when Israel was delivered from Egypt, then they feasted for seven straight days. Can you believe that? They got day one off, and they got day seven off, and they got the Sabbath off wherever that fell in the middle of it. Starting on fourteenth day of Nisan, they had seven days of partying, feasting, and celebration, with three days off in the process. That was a great deal.
They had other feasts as well: the Feast of the Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, and the Feast of Tabernacles. All these were different parties because God said, "It would be good for you guys to stop the mundane and do something special."
Now, if you look at Halloween, it's something that I think all of us would recognize is a little different. But we as Christians, making a claim to godliness, ought to stop and say, "Well, what should our relationship with this be?" I think there are some simplistic answers, but I want to look at it from a biblical perspective and try to get a wise biblical response to this.
What is Halloween?
Let's first stop and take a look at a brief history of Halloween. Now, the history doesn't condemn it, and it doesn't make it worthy; it gives us a little background as to where it came from. "Halloween" also comes from Middle English. "Hallow" means "holy," and "een" or "eve" is added on to make "the holy eve," or the special evening before something special.
We know another holiday that is an "eve": Christmas Eve. Well, we know what Christmas Eve is because it's the day before Christmas. What's "the holy eve," then? What's that about? It was the evening before a specific date: specifically November 1. Some calendars still mark November 1 as "All Saints' Day." All Saints' Day was really the focus, and it's where Halloween got its name.
What's All Saints' Day? It started around the sixth century, when the church said there should be a day on our calendar where we celebrate, remember, and memorialize those who were great Christians of the past. That sounded like a pretty good idea, and it is a good idea. Before it got all twisted and contorted and you picture people burning candles and incense to statues, that's not what it was about. It was a day to celebrate that there are some great Christians in the past who would serve as great role models for us in the church today.
Why did they choose November 1st? Well, because in the Roman Empire—prior to the sixth century—there was a very popular holiday called Samhain in Europe. Samhain was a Celtic holiday that began to develop under the leadership of their holy men, and the holy men of the Celts were the druids. The druids were the holy class of leaders among the Celts in ancient Europe, and these guys would take the culture through an indoctrination or a teaching about the importance of this day.
November 1 was the day on the calendar when winter began, and they thought it was an important turning point. The druids, who believed in all this wild superstition, said and taught that the spirits of the departed would roam around on the earth, and when it came to wintertime, they had to be confined, and they would find a resting place.
So what would happen was the eve before this, beginning on November 1 (which, by the way, was the New Year's Day for ancient Europe), they would say, "We are going to start this new year, and the roaming spirits have to find a home." So the druids taught that we needed to appease the departed spirits of the people who have died. They would teach the people to put out food on their front porch so that the spirits wouldn't come and haunt their home and torment their family. We appease them—they don't haunt us. We give them some treats so they don't trick us.
This concept was established even before the birth of Christ, though it fell out of vogue and it wasn't all that popular. Still, in Europe, when the church began to dominate and Constantine decided he was going to make the Roman Empire a Christian empire, these practices were still happening in some areas in Europe, particularly in Scotland. The church said, "We don't like that little thing going on November 1 and October 31, so what we're going to do is create a new holiday—All Saints' Day. The church is not going to celebrate roaming spirits and all that superstition, but we're going to celebrate those who have already passed on, who are godly people, who made an impact on the kingdom, who were influential in the church, who we want our kids to remember and model their lives after."
The church took a bad day that focused on a lot of superstition and negativity and turned it into a positive day, and for many centuries in between then and now, they celebrated this with a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. Sometimes it turned into a lot of inappropriate things, but for the most part, it was a changing of a cultural day into something that was positive.
What about now? In twenty-first century American western culture, what is Halloween? Well, just rewind the tape. What was it like for you as kids? For most of us, it's a day to score on candy. You get the pillowcase, you put a little fake blood on your face, and you go door-to-door. You don't walk; you run. In those days, parents didn't escort you—you took off down the street at around twilight and you started going for it, collecting all the candy you could. It was a fun day. Then, if your parents were really into it, they would help you decorate the porch, and we'd put up our little paper skeletons and maybe a little ghost and some phony cobwebs and a little plastic spider. We'd get a pumpkin and put a scary face on it. That was—and is still, for many people in our culture today—the normal Halloween holiday.
What do we make of the cultural practice of Halloween? I'm not saying we shouldn't worry about that, but let's worry about our culture in general. There is this kind of playful, fun, good-humored involvement in something kind of bad. I mean, skeletons are normally something you don't want to hang around the house, and what buying your kids some ugly-looking mask to put over their head with a little phony hatchet coming out of it? On a normal day, that's not something we do, but on October 31, we kind of celebrate that, and it's fun to look at the dark side of things. Right? That is probably a pretty good thumbnail of what happens on October 31 and the weeks prior to it, as people decorate, have their little parties, and buy their costumes.
By the way, if you think it's just a kid's holiday, you're wrong. Sixty percent of all the costumes that are rented and sold at Halloween are sold to adults. Did you know that? This is a big, cultural party for people to get their fill on the exciting, fun, interesting side of evil. All the bad stuff: we're just going to have our little party and do our little thing. That is my assessment, at least, of what's going on during October 31.
What are we, as Christians, to do in response to what's going on in our culture every October 31st and the weeks prior to it? In my opinion, as I look at the situation, we've got four choices. Let's look at those four choices and look at four passages of Scripture; let's try and make some sense of what our choices are and how appropriate and wise those choices would be to make as Christians making a claim to godliness in the twenty-first century.
Fully participate in Halloween?
Our first choice would be to fully participate in our cultural exercise of Halloween. By that, I mean get totally involved in this thing. I'm not talking about the black cats and human sacrifice: I'm talking about the norm in our culture. Buy your rubber skeleton; get your strobe light, your black light, your spiders, your cobwebs; get a real scary looking pumpkin; and rent a horror flick.
Now this is the hard part of the message, because most are still smiling at this point, but I'm going to ruin Halloween for you all. Let's ask ourselves: is this a really wise choice for Christians to make—to fully go all out at Halloween?
Let's see what Paul has to say in Philippians 4. The context of this passage is focused on the topics of rejoicing in Christ, worry and anxiety, and how to battle those things. But Paul ends this whole discussion with a statement that begins with the word "finally" in Philippians 4:8. After all is said and done in talking about the issues of focus and mind: "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."
Do you see the fact that God would want the focus and attention of Christians to be on true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy things? Then we picture going to the supermarket and picking out the great little mask with the hatchet in the head. Is there a problem with that? If we are Christians trying to follow the Bible and focus on what is good, praiseworthy, excellent, then those things at best seem hypocritical.
I know the first reaction of a lot of people is "It's so fun!" A lot of things are fun that the Bible is really clear about that we ought to avoid. If we're trying to say, "I want to live my life for God and do what he wants me to do," I'm seeing an inconsistency here. To say we are Christians and focus on these things—and then say, "By the way, we're going to have a neat party: Would you all dress up as gross, gory, ugly, weird, and as sickening as possible? Come to my house; that would be great." Something is inconsistent about that.
Paul, picking up on this idea again on the focus of the Christian life, says in Ephesians 5:8, "For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord." In the dark, you have all these things related to life apart from God, but now you're light in the Lord: "Live as children of light." What does that mean? Paul defines it for us in verse nine: "For the fruit of light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth. And find out what pleases the Lord, and have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness but rather expose them." If you were to take that verse and meditate on it, and then plan your porch decorations for October 31st, I would say that the average porch on October 31st is inconsistent with this concept from Scripture.
So the question for us is: is it a wise thing for us to fully participate in our cultural, fun, jovial attachment or celebration in the gory, the gross, the sickening, and the despicable at Halloween? Is that a good choice for us as Christians? Answer: No. Full participation doesn't make sense.
We could, instead of fully participating, selectively participate. That's what many of us have chosen to do. Selective participation takes out everything that's not consistent with the good, the lovely, the pure, the admirable, the right, the praiseworthy, and all that. You dress your daughter up like a ballerina instead of making her face look like it's half-eaten off and blood's coming out. Instead of our porch being full of cobwebs and plastic spiders with mean looks on their faces, we'll make spiders with smiles on their faces, and our pumpkins won't be scary—they'll be happy. You are sprucing up Halloween a little bit.
That, I think, is an option many of us have taken. We tiptoe around all the negative, and we try and celebrate this thing with a positive outlook on it. Instead of the real bad horror movies, we watch the PG-rated kind of horror movie. We ratchet everything back.
Let's see what Paul has to say about this in 1 Corinthians 8. I want to show you that this problem in our culture is really not a new one, it has been going on for centuries in the church. People have tried to make decisions about things that really, in and of themselves, we could argue are not big deals. Is it a big deal if your kid carries a sack around in the neighborhood with a costume on, and you have pumpkins on your porch and little pictures of haunted houses that aren't quite all that scary, and your skeletons have smiles on their faces too? And the answer to that, biblically, is no. It is not intrinsically, inherently bad. The problem is that it is risky. This is a risky option for Christians to take in relation to things that have an association with something evil or bad.
1 Corinthians 8:4 says, "So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols … " Now, that's not something we hear about all the time, so let me remind you of what's happening in the first century. There was an idol, temple, or a little place of worship on almost every corner in a metropolis, a big city in the Roman Empire. These Christians, just like in Old Testament Judaism, were confronted with the fact that when people came and sacrificed animals to their god, there was leftover meat. The problem was that, just like you may have a problem throwing food away today, they had a problem throwing food away. If it was a sacrifice, then certainly in Old Testament Israel there was a prescription in the Bible as to how that was to be divvied up: "Feed the families of the priests and the Levites, and do this and this and this with all the portions of meat that aren't burned up and used in the sacrifice." In the Roman Empire, the same thing was going on. Instead of these temples supporting nations, these temples were little money-making operations for a lot of folks, and some were sincerely religious institutions for the Roman Empire. But nevertheless, in their sacrifices there was leftover meat. What to do with the leftovers?
If you lived in Ephesus, there would be the temple to Diana, and in that temple they would sacrifice animals to the goddess Diana. If there was a really good deal on meat over there, you would have to decide what to do. This was particularly a new problem for a lot of early first-century Christians, because all the dietary restrictions were pulled away. They were getting a taste for bacon and pork chops, and there they were in a place where all kinds of different meats were sacrificed to all kinds of different gods and the best deals in the marketplace were probably those that were sacrificed to idols.
Now Christians were going around thinking, I can be a good steward about this and just go ahead and eat that. Other Christians were saying, "How dare you eat that meat? That meat was sacrificed in a temple, and those temples are not God's: they're false gods. As a matter of fact, you can make a case that if it's a false god, then Satan is behind all that, and it's like sacrificing meat to demons. We shouldn't have anything to do with that." This debate was raging in the early church.
It's not that far of a stretch to think about what we're dealing with here. It is simply something that has an association to something that is evil. In that meat, in and of itself, there was nothing wrong with it. But there was an association, and that's what Paul is dealing with in this letter to the Corinthians.
Paul goes on to say in verse four, "We know that 'An idol is nothing at all in the world' and that 'There is no God but one.'" In other words, what in the world is Diana? Nothing. There is no such god: These are mute, deaf, and dumb little statues in little buildings over there. He recognizes in verse five that "there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many 'gods' and many 'lords')"—because people are serving them and exalting them, even though they're not real. They have no power, but people are recognizing them as gods. Verse six says, "Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live."
Now, if you think of it that way, who cares what kind of meat I'm slamming into my body, right? It doesn't really matter. Here's the problem: There's an association. Verse seven says, "But not everyone possesses this knowledge." Or to put it another way: Not everyone has this kind of perspective on it. Not everyone is as singularly minded on the one God who really is the one God, who created us. Not everyone is that focused. Verse seven continues: "Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled." The food, though, if we really step back and look at it, "does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do" (v. 8). It is just a piece of meat. Just like that mask that your kid may buy is just a piece of rubber or latex, the meat is nothing. The blood that you help him put on that streams down the corners of his mouth? It's just a little food coloring and gel; it's nothing. Are little demons going to jump through the pores of his skin because of that blood? No, it's nothing. But if we do it, we run a risk.
Paul then says in 1 Corinthians 8:9: "Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak." We already defined who the weak are. The weak see the connection so strongly that they can't handle it, and if they were to do it, their consciences would be violated. Paul then says in verse 10, "For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol's temple … " He's going so far as to say, "You even said, 'I'm not going to wait and eat this at home; I'm going to eat the burger right here in the lobby of the temple of Diana.'" You can almost picture the apostle Paul downing a hamburger there, waving to the other disciples or whoever is strolling by the church leaders in the temple lobby. And Paul says, "I could do that. There's no problem here. In reality, those things are nothing, it's just a piece of meat. We're no better if we eat it; we're no better if we don't eat it. It just doesn't matter."
But if someone sees that and they sense that connection, and in their mind there is an association that's strong, he says what will happen: "[W]on't that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?" (v. 10). In other words, this person is going to be led to say, "Well, Paul is doing it, or that Christian is doing it, or that person is a Christian and their doing it." So the Bible says a person may choose to involve themselves in this; they'll be encouraged to do so and have more strength and an excuse to do so. "So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge" (v. 11). That's a big jump. But that means, in doing it and defiling their conscience, that is such a big thing in God's Word that Paul says it is like destroying this person. You have violated their conscience because you helped them and emboldened them to do a behavior they wouldn't otherwise do. They see you doing it so they get involved, and the association in their mind is so strong they can't handle it.
Verse 12 says, "When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ." For instance, if I told you I drink a beer from time to time, most people would say, "We can do that, no big deal; the Bible just says don't get drunk." But you know what? If I stood at the door every week with a big, tall Budweiser in my hand as I said good-bye to you all, there is an association there that is strong in my mind. You may go home and, for the first time since you've been a Christian, crack one open, and your conscience would be violated. The Bible says I would be sinning against Christ. Therefore, I have forsaken alcohol in my life and said I will never drink it—not even a glass of wine at dinner, because I don't want to be a part of putting a stumbling block in anybody's path. Do I have the freedom? Yeah. But you see, like Paul said later in this book, everything may be permissible if it's not absolutely violating a scriptural command, but not everything is constructive, not everything edifies, not everything is good for me to do, because it may put stumbling blocks out there.
Question: Will you ever find my wife and I dressing up Junior in a werewolf outfit and sending him off to trick-or-treat in our neighborhood? Will you come to our humble home and see our porch filled with rubber skeletons and pumpkins with smiley faces on them? Answer: No, because I find that the risk is too great. The association that those things have traditionally had with the bad—those things that aren't lovely, aren't noble, aren't admirable, aren't right—is too strong in the minds of some. You may come over and say, "Cool, love your decorations, Pastor Mike." But some people will drive by and say, "Wow! What? He's into that? Well, you know, honey, maybe we ought to buy our rubber skeleton, and you go out and do it." Then you think I'm promoting death and evil. I have caused you to stumble, and the Bible says I have sinned against Christ. Therefore, I believe option number two—to selectively participate in Halloween—is too risky: because guilt by association, in my mind and in that particular vein, is too risky. People see that in my home and my life. Because I am promoting that, I run the risk of people associating me with things that are bad and evil.
Option C: We could boycott Halloween. We're going to pretend like it never happens. We're not going to dress our kids up in horrific costumes; we're going to put them in nice pajamas on the 31st. We're not going to put any candy out; we're going to put a little barrel out there with gospel tracts in it. No scary music: We'll put a little worship music out on our porch. We'll turn all the lights on. We'll watch a Christian movie and we'll sit around and praise God and sing good songs and put our minds on good things. Just straight-up boycott it.
Is there a problem with that? Well, for you, it's a good thing, but the decisions in the Christian life are often between better and best rather than good and bad, aren't they? Here's the point: Even if you choose to avoid the risk of option B, if you choose to involve yourself in option C, you do no one any good but you and your little clan. I have problems with Christians involving themselves in retreat. We've done it for too long.
Jesus has something to say about this in Matthew 5. Some of you are real familiar with this passage in Matthew 5, where Jesus is giving a sermon, sitting on the mount just down the way from the Sea of Galilee. He talks about how they should view their influence in society. In verse 13, he said this to those who were sitting, listening to him preach: "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot." If Christians retreat, they're no good to preserve or do anything positive. As a matter of fact, they're no good for anything except to be thrown out.
Or take light, in verses 14-15: "You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl." We take a lamp and say, "I am now a follower of Christ, a child of light representing the fruit of light, consisting in all good, righteousness, and truth, but you know what? I am going to hide."
Jesus says that no one does that. If someone is smart, then what they're going to do is put the light on a stand so it will give light to everyone in the house. "In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven" (v. 16). Boycotting Halloween, in my opinion, is a waste of our October 31.
This leads me to our fourth option. I think that we, as Christians, have the opportunity to redeem the day. We can redeem October 31 from our culturally negative, gross, gory, bloody calendar. It happened once in the church. One time, the church said, "This druid holiday of spirits roaming that is so stupid and unbiblical and negative and fear-driven—you know what we're going to do? We're going to take this thing and turn it into a party. People get the day off, and we get to celebrate lives of great Christians in the past."
Question: What prevents us from doing that a second time in history? It's been done once. You know what Genesis 18:14 says? "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" He can do everything. I think that a church could decide that we're not going to put up with this negative stuff anymore; we are going to do something positive.
I think we could redeem the day and turn it into something even better than what they had in the sixth century. We've got so much now that we can do. You want to dress your kids up? Why don't you dress them up like Zwingli or John Huss? If you don't even know who those guys are, then I guess we need this holiday, don't we? We could look at the church in the past and say, "Who was there that I would never want my kids to forget, that I'd want them to study and research and even dress up like?" Then we can explain to them that this person made a dent in this world for God and is an admirable role model for Christians. I can be inspired to do great things in my city, in the twenty-first century, by reading a life of Jim Elliott, Judson, or William Carey. Or maybe even someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood up against some huge opposition. Or Martin Luther, or Augustine—you name it.
But most of us don't even know those people; they're names we've heard in church or in college at one time. I'm saying we could take this day that we've already started to transform in our community. We could start here, and it could explode into a cultural transformation.
You know what the problem is, though? The problem is it has to be a grassroots movement. To put it a different way: the task is huge. If you didn't notice, I'm not Constantine. No one's looking to me for the edicts of the empire. We're a bunch of people who have no political clout or power. I'm not the mayor of the town. If we're going to transform our culture, if people a generation from now are going to begin to say in our town, "What is that guy with his little skeleton? Ah, don't worry about it; that's the way people used to celebrate Halloween," then we're going to have to say this is something we are passionate about: that the best thing that happens in our town is going to be right here in our parking lot.
Now this is not a big commercial for you to bring candy so we can have a big party for the kids on October 31st. This is, in my mind, a radical idea to see if we as a church can make this thing called Halloween no longer an evening of ghouls and goblins, but rather something where we celebrate our great heritage as Christians. Is that too wild for you? Are there any takers here who may think, Man, that's a good idea? Here's my thought: The Bible says in 2 Chronicles 16:9 that "the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth." He is scanning the planet with his eyeballs, looking for people who are committed to him fully so that he might get in there and strongly support them.
You want to see God flex his muscle? Let's get locked on to doing something great. Let's pray to God and say, "God, help us transform our culture." Let's change this thing, and let's have a huge party, a holiday on our calendar, where we move from just taking the gore out of it to making it some celebration of significance. I may be a loner on this one, but my prayer today would be that I could generate some excitement in some people to say, "That's an idea." Because I don't like full participation, and I realize selective participation is risky, and boycotting does nothing but keep me from harm. And you know what? Maybe redeeming the day is the way we ought to go.
Mike Fabarez is the founding pastor of Compass Bible Church in Aliso Viejo, California. Pastor Mike is heard on hundreds of stations on the Focal Point radio program and has authored several books, including Preaching That Changes Lives, Lifelines for Tough Times, and Praying for Sunday.