It’s October 31, and I had a conversation with someone today about whether Christians should celebrate Halloween. More specifically, we were discussing the ways that Christians tend to argue their case for or against our involvement in the candied festivities.
It seems like most of the Christians we know don’t deny that the holiday has pagan origins, or that a lot of the elements associated with Halloween these days are clearly off-limits for the people of God. And yet, after acknowledging all of that, some still make a case for careful celebration.
One of the most common arguments I’ve encountered in favour of celebrating Halloween tends to sound like this: “If I turn off my lights and don’t answer the door, the neighbourhood kids will be hurt and confused, and their parents will think I’m some kind of a fanatic or recluse. They wouldn’t have a clue why I wouldn’t let my own kids put on a cute costume and go get a bit of candy. If I don’t participate in Halloween, it will really hurt my witness in this community.”
And as I shared with my friend today, after spending the last number of weeks preaching through 1 Peter, this kind of argument just doesn’t make sense to me anymore.
Here’s what I mean: Peter opens his letter by addressing his readers as exiles (1 Peter 1:1). While there’s a few possible backgrounds for this language, the dominant sense we get from reading the rest of the letter is that Peter’s readers found themselves on the outsides of their society due to their Christian convictions. In her fine commentary on 1 Peter, Karen Jobes explains that the word “exile” defines “the relationship between the Christian and unbelieving society.”1Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, ed. Robert W. Yarbrough and Joshua W. Jipp, Second Edition, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic: A Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2022), 67. Elsewhere she explains this exile as the “abandonment of socially acceptable but morally bankrupt practices” which displays their “new identity as God’s chosen, providing the opportunity for society to view them with suspicion, mistrust, and disapproval. Nevertheless, they are not to feel shame or doubt because of the way their society responds to them, for the kind of suffering they are experiencing is God’s will (4:19) and an indication that the Spirit of God rests upon them (4:14).”2Jobes, 48. Jobes goes on to describe how exiles “dwell respectfully in their host nation but participate in its culture only to the extent that its values and customs coincide with their own that they wish to preserve.”3Jobes, 67.
This interpretation is strengthened by Peter’s statement in 1:17 that Christ ransomed them “from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers.” The language for “ways inherited from your forefathers” is roughly equal to our English word “heritage,” and had a similarly positive meaning to the peoples of Peter’s day.4J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter, vol. 49, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1988), 64; Jobes, 119. Cultural and ancestral heritage was the very cornerstone of society for both Jews and Gentiles, and yet Peter, with very little qualification, calls it futile and says that Jesus died to save us from it. This is a teaching that, no doubt, would have created a significant sense of alienation between the Christians and their families, let alone surrounding societies.
In 2:11, we read “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh.” By using “exile” language in this context, Peter seems to be implying that some of the “passions” we’ll need to abstain from are socially acceptable, even socially celebrated. Jobes also suggests that one of these passions is “the worldly desire to be accepted by society, which motivates ungodly behavior even though it is socially acceptable.”5Jobes, 170.
In chapter 4, Peter elaborates on how we can’t join the rest of of our culture in their sinful activities, and in 4:4 he explains the reaction we’ll get: “With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.”
The upshot of this brief survey is that it’s normal and expected for Christians to look strange and out-of-place in their communities. In fact, this otherworldliness is an important part of our Christian witness, prompting questions about the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). It’s not something to run from; it’s central to our identity as we wait for Christ’s return.
So while there may be valid arguments to be made for why Christians can or should celebrate Halloween, “I don’t want my neighbours to think I’m strange” isn’t really one of them. In fact, if your neighbours don’t already think you’re strange, you might need to ask yourself how consistent your Christian witness has been. And at the risk of pushing things too far, I’m almost tempted to suggest that not celebrating Halloween is a golden opportunity to make our “stranger-and-exile” status visible in a culture where it’s all too easy for us to blend in.
There’s a lot more to be said about Halloween, and no doubt it’s a topic where Christians will need to practice respectful disagreement. Wherever we land, lets make sure that we’re willing to follow the Lord even if that means sticking out. Because according to 1 Peter, looking weird to our neighbours is a feature, not a bug, of our Christian experience.