Elder Jonathan Sutton’s Paper Against James B. Jordan on Halloween

While I do not agree with the conclusion of this article, at the request of Rev. Mickey Schneider and his bride Judy, I wanted to honor the late Jonathan Sutton who wrote this short paper against James Jordan’s position. Elder Sutton served as elder of Trinity Presbyterian and James B. Jordan was a resident scholar and musician who also served Trinity Presbyterian for many years. Both were good friends and Jim Jordan had much respect for Elder Sutton. I had the distinct priviliege of knowing Elder Sutton. He was one of the men who laid hands on me at my ordination.

What Are We To Do with Halloween?

Trinity Presbyterian Church

Pastoral Paper — April 2008

Jonathon Sutton

Halloween has long been a problem for Christians. It appears the most pagan of all celebrations, accompanied by an onslaught of horror films and stories of hauntings. Consequently, many will not let their children go “Trick or Treating,” thinking it better to “come out from among them, and be … separate.” Many, however, do let their children participate, seeing it as a harmless bit of costumed fun, with no more occult significance than the tooth fairy. But incidents (or rumors) of candy tampering, along with a continuing nagging discomfort with the imagery involved, have led more and more Christian parents to seek an alternative celebration for their children. They want their children to have joyful, festive lives, and are not willing to sit at home while the neighborhood children go merrily from door to door. What are we Christians to do with Halloween? If we give some thought to the original intent of this ancient holiday, we might celebrate the saints who have gone before us and purpose to reform our ways to better bring glory to our Lord.

What we know as Halloween is a far remove from the origins of All Saints’ Day. From early in the history of the Church, Christians have celebrated, on the day, the memory of the saints who have died and gone to be with the Lord. Costumes were later added as a dramatic element of the celebration. We still have the costumes, but the main purpose of the day has been all but forgotten, and we are left only with a play with a meaningless script.

Jim Jordan has commented on this old Christian custom of celebrating the victory of Christ over Satan on All Saints’ Eve and All Saints’ Day.[1] As he recounts, All Hallow’s Eve (Hallowe’en) observances once portrayed a triumphal mockery of Satan and his minions in celebration of his defeat at the hand of Jesus. Christians began dressing their children as grinning red Satans, complete with pitchfork, or as ugly old witches with pointed black hats, crooked noses, and flying brooms. By doing this, they were using mockery to proclaim Christ’s victory over Satan, pointedly allying themselves with God in holy derision.

He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. (Psalm 2:4)

The culture of those days was one of general acceptance of the spiritual realm of angels and demons. In that day, Satan and witches were acknowledged powers to be dealt with. When confronted with these ludicrous images of the principalities, powers, and rulers of the darkness of this world, the people would understood that much spiritual wrestling remained to be done before the enemy was run from the land. To such a people, the message of a Christ who had achieved victory over these wicked powers was a welcome one.

Ridicule may be an appropriate weapon for the Christian in any age. There is a case for ridicule, a time when one must confront spiritual poseurs by, as Charles Spurgeon said — “cheerfully bear(ing) the criticism of my more somber brethren. I am deeply in earnest, however playful my remarks may seem to be. These follies may be best shot at by the light arrows of ridicule, and therefore I employ them, not being of the same mind as those ‘who think all virtue lies in gravity/And smiles are symptoms of depravity.’”[2] When the ridiculous is accepted as received wisdom, this calls for a grand puncturing. But dressing up in Halloween costumes no longer affronts the ridiculous. In our culture, it buttresses it.

The times have changed. Today, many people scorn any mention of spiritual wickedness, thinking it rank superstition. Others entertain thoughts of the demons and dark powers because of the thrill of fear that they bring, without seriously anticipating any danger to themselves. Almost no one would view the appearance of children at the door, dressed as caricatures of Satan and other dark powers, as holy mockery of the defeated foes of Christ. They would instead think a) “Look at the cute little devil!”, b) “This one makes thirty — If this doesn’t stop soon, I’ll miss (name of favorite television program)”, or c) “Aren’t those the Smiths? I thought they were Christians.” A message of holy derision would be utterly lost in our culture.

For a message to be conveyed, it takes more than a speaker; it also takes a hearer. Biblical mockery leaves no doubt who is being mocked. The priests of Baal knew that Elijah was mocking them as he said “Cry aloud…peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked”(1 Kings 18:27). The modern parallel would be to “call the witches out.” But that is not what the Treat-or-Treaters are doing. Few now living would be able to decode this message of triumphant mockery. If there was an evident, Satan-worshipping element in our community that was seeking to present Satan as glorious and praiseworthy, we could target their message with pointed mockery — telling the community that, despite what they have heard, Satan has no power over God’s people. There is no blatant cult of Satan worship in our society. It is all masked as personal freedom.

Indeed, when we dress up our children as ghouls and goblins, the message our neighbors hear is that all this Satan stuff is no big deal; that the demonic realm is nothing but an uncomfortable joke with an exciting frisson of horror. But the swarm of horror movies and haunted house stories that come out every Halloween tells them a different story. This story says “There is a real demonic realm out there. Strange, unexplained things that you had better hope you don’t get mixed up with.” Many are hearing this story, and taking from it a message of fear. What was at one time mockery of Satan has gradually become mere ghoulish silliness and dabbling with fear. How can we show them that God is greater than Satan? By ridicule and mockery? Jesus ridiculed the Pharisees, calling them whited sepulchers, and revealing their efforts at appearing holy to sewing new patches onto old wineskins. Would he have approved of his disciples caricaturing and lampooning the Pharisees? God does not call us to mock Satan. There is a better way to celebrate Jesus’ triumph. How can we best counter the fear-orgy that is Halloween? How are we to confront the dark powers?

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour; whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. 1 Peter 5:8-9

We are called to be sober, vigilant, and steadfast in resistance, not triumphant and exultantly brash. Martin Luther did this on All Saints’ Day in 1517, by nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He saw the error that had crept into the Church, and revealed the error before the people, reproving the works of darkness (Eph 5:11). In so doing, he sought the purity of the faith for which so many had died. Luther made his stand in accordance with Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 6:12-20:

“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; And for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, For which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” Ephesians 6:12-20

Do we apply this passage about the Christian’s conflict with Satan to Halloween? Should this read “Wherefore take upon you masks and horns, noses and brooms, and mock the rulers of the darkness of this world”? No. We are to stand in faith and truth, and to pray, and to speak boldly, as Luther did.

One way we can do this is to honor those who have lived godly lives. Our American culture knows little of honor. Historical figures are shown to be flawed, present day leaders are all suspect, and there is little hope for the future. But we Christians live a different life. We can show honor to the past, take joy in the present, and have hope for the future. Our tradition can provide a different and better message for our neighbors — one of reflection and thankfulness for God’s continuing care for His people, instead of fear and cynicism. We can craft local celebrations that give honor to our fathers and mothers in the faith by both remembering what they have done and by giving them honor, in joyful obedience to the fifth commandment.

For Reformation Day to be seen by the community as something other than Christian “me-too-ism” — mimicking the world in a dorky fashion, without its native coolness — it must be characterized by distinctively Christian joy and power. Instead of mockery, there should be honor; instead of fear, faith. If we spend the evening at home and have young trick-or-treaters come to our door, we should treat them with loving compassion, not with cold disdain. If we celebrate the holiday together, we should do so with our might and main, planning costumery, games, music, food and whatever else to the glory of our Lord. A different era of Christendom might be celebrated each year, with children and adults dressed somewhat in the dress of the era, and food and games and music chosen to reflect the time. Activities could highlight the accomplishments of Christ in His Church during that era. All Saint’s Day could become for us a holiday of joyful celebration and of renewing our relation to the Church triumphant.

Halloween has lost its way, and is in need of reformation. Satan has indeed made inroads in our church, our families, ourselves. Rather than just saying that Satan has no power, we must take back ground that we have ceded to him by our neglect, rebellion, and lust. Call upon God to deliver us from the evil one (Matthew 6:13). “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). Bring His light into the dark and spooky corners of your heart and the lives of those around you. Instead of being uncomfortable with the traditions of the world, we should forge our own. Let’s use the day to celebrate the work of God’s Holy Spirit in His people in every land, in every age.

[1] James B. Jordan, Open Book Newsletter Concerning Halloween, OPEN BOOK, Views and Reviews, No. 28, Biblical Horizons 1996.

[2] Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 1875, pp. 289-290

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