It’s late October, the time of fallen leaves, chilly breezes, and traces of frost. You’re sitting at home in your easy chair one evening when the doorbell rings. Out on the front step, you see a collection of odd little creatures: princesses, animals, fairies, cowboys, ghosts under white bed sheets—a menagerie of imaginary characters.
No, you haven’t been transported into a George MacDonald fairy tale. It’s just the annual beggars’ night when children dress up in costumes and traipse door-to-door through the neighborhood, hoping to be given some candy.
The trick-or-treaters are mostly adorable, and you ooh and ahh and ask, “And what are you tonight?” as you drop miniature candy bars into their plastic pumpkin baskets.
However, you also realize that these little beggars have no idea from whence comes the custom they’re taking part in.
the seasons of the church
Centuries ago, when most people lived rural, agricultural lives, each season in the temperate zones of Europe and North America had familiar activities and challenges. Winter in these climates is long and could be arduous, with short days, cold temperatures, and heavy snow. Spring marked an awakening: flowers, nesting birds, animals giving birth, and seed sowing. Summer was the time for working the land and being outdoors. Autumn, in rural parts of Europe and North America, was devoted to gathering the harvest in preparation for another long winter.
The Christian church in earlier centuries stamped the seasons with appropriate religious celebrations. Though Jesus probably wasn’t born in midwinter, the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) reminded Christians of how Jesus’ birth brought His light into a dark world. Spring was celebrated with a remembrance of the joyous news of His resurrection. Autumn included harvest feasts like Thanksgiving. We still, even in a world that isn’t mostly agricultural anymore, recall this time by decorating our yards and front porches with pumpkins and colored Indian corn.
Yet some pagan practices—yule logs, evergreen trees, eggs, and bunnies—got “grandfathered in” to these celebrations. Many were harmless, though one of the autumn religious celebrations introduced a notion into Christianity that isn’t Christian at all.
In the waning days of the year, animals go into hibernation, plants die, and trees lose their leaves. At this time, it’s probably natural that people would remember their friends and family who have died. The medieval Christian church marked this time with All Saints Day on November 1, a celebration to remember Christians who had passed to their rest.
It’s important to add here that the Bible doesn’t teach that saints are only spiritually gifted people who do miracles. And it certainly doesn’t teach that they’re up in heaven hearing your prayers and interceding for you, as some Christian churches have taught. When Paul wrote, “To all that be in Rome . . . called to be saints,” he was writing to all the church members there who loved Jesus Christ and accepted Him as their Savior (Romans 1:7, KJV).*
Nor is there harm in remembering, at any time, our own dear loved ones who have passed on.
Yet All Saints Day, also called All Hallows Day, didn’t manage to quite root out some pre-Christian beliefs inherited from pagan religions. One of these is that the dead are free to come back and haunt the living for one night a year. All Hallows Day was when people remembered the dead at rest. So the evening before All Hallows Day—All Hallows Eve, contracted to Hallowe’en—was believed to be a time when the ghosts of the dead roamed about freely! In folk religion (though not in official Christian teaching), Halloween became the night of ghosts and hauntings.
where are the dead?
The Bible doesn’t allow for the dead to haunt the living world—nor does it allow for even the possibility that they are conscious. Jesus, when brought to the bedside of a dead girl, said she was in an unconscious sleep (Luke 8:52). The Hebrew people believed something similar. The author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “The dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
Furthermore, several passages describe in some detail the resurrection from death to life. For example, Paul said that “the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). But what is the point of resurrection if the dead are already alive somewhere?
Many in traditionally Christian cultures apparently aren’t completely convinced, though. According to a 2015 Pew Research poll, one in five Americans claims to have seen a ghost, and nearly a third say they’ve been in contact with someone who’s dead. In many other places where Christianity more recently supplanted pagan religions, such as Africa, superstitions about ghosts and the influence of dead ancestors coexist uncomfortably with Christianity.
The Bible cautions strongly against such beliefs. God warned His people against anyone who practices “divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD” (Deuteronomy 18:10–12).
It’s dangerous to involve oneself with such matters, as Saul found out when he defied this rule and asked the so-called witch of Endor to bring Samuel back from the dead (1 Samuel 28:7–20). An apparition did appear, but it wasn’t the spirit of Samuel—and it spoke evil tidings that hastened Saul’s downfall. Far from a manifestation of a spirit of a dead person, many Christian scholars see in this story Satan appearing to deceive Saul. For, as Paul would later warn, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but . . . against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
Paul showed that the unconsciousness of the soul in death is even demonstrated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ Himself. “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
God is powerful
These modern holidays have little connection with their medieval origins. Only a few pleasant customs survive from those pre-Christian cultures. Who would begrudge one burning a big log in the fireplace or bringing into the house a fragrant evergreen bough on a dark, bitterly cold, winter night? And what’s the harm in painting eggs in pretty colors in the springtime?
Similarly, children dressing up as firemen, fairies, and cowboys won’t inevitably lead to a belief in ghosts or demon worship. Some novels, movies, and television shows conflate Satanism and Halloween to create fiction that they hope will get an audience. It’s just as well to avoid such entertainments.
As for Halloween itself, by the 1600s, belief in hauntings had been replaced by the costuming and treat-begging we see today. Fear was pushed aside in favor of fall fun.
However, some children do still dress up as ghosts when they trick-or-treat, and people do still hang ghosts and fake human skeletons on the trees in their front yards at Halloween time. While these things aren’t real, they evoke memories of these evil concepts and practices. Thus, we should avoid participating in anything that smacks of the demonic. We are reminded of Paul’s advice “not [to] give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:27).
As for evil spirits, in His earthly ministry, Jesus readily defeated even the most blatant manifestations of Satan (Luke 8:26–39). By His death on the cross, Christ sealed His triumph over him. Paul insisted that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38, 39).
We must remain alert and vigilantly oppose those who would tempt people to flirt with spiritualism. The devil is no one to play with! But let us never forget that God is far, far more powerful. “The Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:3). As long as you aren’t spurning God and inviting Satan into your life, Satan can’t push beyond God’s protective power. Wise Christians realize that we’re far more likely to succumb to more common temptations such as anger, pride, and impure thoughts than to any visible manifestations of demons.
All this might suggest that when you meet a five-year-old princess at your front door, your best response is to give her some candy, not a lecture on the history of Halloween and the state of the dead!
* Bible quotations marked KJV are taken from the King James Version.
Ronel de Blois is a pseudonym.