In 1994 I took a trip to one of the most beautiful countries in the Americas … Guatemala. I had never seen a volcano, before, but flying into Guatemala city I saw a whole line of them sticking up above the clouds like islands. It was Semana Santa, Holy Week, and the streets of the towns were filled with processions. I was asked to participate in one of those processions in the mountain town of San Andres Itzapa. It was Good Friday, and about 40 of us were asked to help carry the andas, a heavy wooden platform on which stood a life size statue of Jesus carrying the cross. The path we were to follow was decorated with alfombras, or carpets, beautiful creations of different colors of sawdust and pine needles and flowers, laid out in intricate stenciled designs. The heavy weight pressed on my shoulder. I stumbled over the cobblestones in the road and gasped in the thin air. Behind us a band played, old men playing ancient instruments, playing the mournful sounds of “the dead march.” We passed by the stations of the cross, teenagers in costume acting out the scenes of the passion. And then we came to something that startled me. We walked under a ramada, poles holding up a leafy canopy, and from that canopy all kinds of strange things were hanging. A duck. A deer’s head. A rabbit. I looked and I puzzled. And then the rabbit kicked. It was strung up alive.
It was a strange addition to the Christian drama. And that week I heard of other strange things. Chickens sacrificed on church steps. A bizarre cult devoted to St. Judas Iscariot, also called Maximon—an ancient Mayan idol dressed up with a cowboy hat, a bandana, and offered cigars and alcohol.
In all of these things I was seeing a blending of pre-Christian Mayan beliefs with Christianity. What happened was the missionaries who came with the Conquistadors five hundred years ago didn’t teach the Christian faith fully to the people they baptized. They taught them some basic prayers, some rituals and ceremonies. But the heart was still unconverted. The worldview was still Mayan. They still clung to their ancient beliefs about life and death and how the world goes around.
This has happened in many cultures around the world. It first happened nearly 2000 years ago, when Christians first went out into the Greek world.
The apostle Paul was the first missionary to the Greeks, and of course he was very careful. He used their language and started conversations with Greek philosophers using their own concepts—but he didn’t compromise. Acts 17 tells the story of his trip to Athens. He went up on the Areopagus, Mars Hill, where he saw a statue to an “unknown god”—he tells the gathered philosophers, “That’s the one I’m tell you about,” and he proceeds to preach Jesus. He quotes one their philosophers, but to his own purpose: “For in him we live, and move, and have our being”—but he meant Jesus.
Paul was careful—he just used these little bits as conversation starters, to show he could speak their language. And he was bold in his proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. But some who followed him weren’t so careful. They didn’t just speak with Greek philosophers, they became their students. They didn’t want the world to think them ignorant. They reasoned that God spoke to all men, and that even in pagan philosophy there was wisdom They drank deeply from that well, and they lost their bearings. They could no longer distinguish between what was Greek and what was Christian—and they didn’t really care. And those they baptized didn’t know the difference—they didn’t teach them the difference.
It’s critical that we understand the difference. We must understand what is essential to the Christian worldview, and how it is different from the worldviews of other religions.
It starts with how we understand creation, and matters of life and death.
When we read the creation story in Genesis, we see that God is creator; all things made by him, and distinct from him. We are not God. We are creatures formed from the dust.
Genesis 2: 7—“And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
We are material beings, with the breath of God keeping us alive. We can relate to spiritual things, to things of God, but we are of this earth. When we die, the breath goes back to God, and the body goes back to the earth. 1 Tim 6:16, “God only hath immortality.” When we die, we sleep. Solomon tells us, in Ecclesiastes 9:5, “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing,” and v. 10, “there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” But that’s not all. Daniel 12:1-3 speaks of the time of the end:
And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.
And that eternal life has a condition. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
That’s the Biblical worldview: we are separate from God, created by him, and at death we will sleep until our body is raised at the last day. We cannot talk to the dead. We have no fellowship with them until that day when, if we believe in Jesus Christ, we are raised at his return to live eternally with him.
The Greek view was different. It’s based on a dualism between spirit and matter; God is spirit, and that is good. Matter is not so good. We are a little bit of both, said the Greeks, we’re part matter, part spirit. The spiritual part is good, it’s what is divine in us, and it is immortal; the material part is not so good—we need to break free. At death, the body may die, but the spirit lives on. It is set free from its bodily prison. It cannot die.
Where did this idea come from?
Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
Here’s the source of the idea that we are really spiritual beings who cannot die. Here’s the dividing line between the Biblical worldview and all those worldviews we call pagan—all the different polytheistic and animistic traditions. These other religions divinize man, and make him naturally immortal. The Biblical worldview maintains a distinction between the creature and the Creator, and says we have life only in him.
But the ideas got mixed. Christians embraced the Greek worldview, and began to teach that the soul is immortal, just as Plato did. They said some go to heaven immediately, and bask in the presence of God; these they called saints. They got another idea from Plato—the idea that some aren’t quite ready for heaven, and are purified after death; they called this “purgatory.” They got a third idea from Plato—they taught that those who are thoroughly evil are thrown immediately into hell, where they will be tormented forever and ever and ever. [For more info on this, and for documentation, go here.]
The next step was that Christians were taught that you can communicate with the dead–you can pray to saints.
Three years ago I went to Rome. I went to St. Peter’s basilica, where I climbed all the way to the top of the great dome built by Michelangelo, and I also went on a special tour of archaeological excavations way underneath. St. Peter’s is built on an ancient Roman cemetery that was next to Nero’s personal race track, called a circus. Catholic tradition claims that the apostle Peter was crucified by Nero in that circus, and then quickly buried in the cemetery next door. That cemetery was quite extensive; it was a necropolis, a city of the dead. And many of the tombs, and the streets in between, have been excavated.
It’s like going back in time. The Roman tombs have some interesting features. You have niches in the wall where the bodies would be left to rot; and when they were just dust and bones, they would be buried in a hole in the ground, and covered with a slab with a hole in it. On the anniversary of the person’s death, their friends and family would come to visit. They’d bring a bottle of wine, drink a toast in honor of their loved one, and then pour some of it down that hole so their dead friend could share it, too.
That was the pagan custom. The Christians didn’t do that. They buried the whole body in a stone casket, because they still believed that the body would be raised at the last day to rejoin the soul. But they picked up the pagan Roman idea of gathering at the tomb on the day the person died, especially if that person was a martyr. They didn’t pour wine into the ground, but on the person’s tomb they would celebrate the mass. They would ask the saint to pray for them.
When Christianity became legal, and large churches were built, they took the bones of the saints out of the catacombs, out of the cities of the dead, and put them inside the altar. They continued to honor the day the saints died, and celebrated those days by bringing out the bones of the saints for all to see, by carrying a statue of the saint around in procession—just as idols had been. They said you should pray to St. Anthony if you lose something, to St. Blase if you have a sore throat, to St. Jude if nothing else works—each saint in charge of a certain group of people, or a certain illness, or a certain request. They got this from the pagan religions, too, from the idea that different gods had different jobs and responsibilities and concerns.
They realized they might be missing some, so a day was established to remember All the Saints, November 1. They next day was All Souls Day, a day to pray for all those in purgatory.
All Saints Day had another name in England—All Hallows Day. They kept the Biblical idea that days begin at sunset, so All Hallows Day began in the evening, which they called, All Hallows Evening, from that we get, Halloween. And just like I had seen in Guatemala, people in the English countryside still kept up lots of folk tales from pagan days, they had stories of fairies and goblins; they still believed certain wells and caves had magical properties, and some pagan traditions crept into the celebration of All Hallows.
Here in the Southwest we’re aware of other traditions from Mexico. There, All Saints Day and All Souls Day were merged together with Aztec customs in a great remembrance of the dead, Dia de los Muertos. The Aztecs believed the souls of the dead return each year to visit the living—they would visit the graves, and decorate them, and take the best food and drink and have a celebration. That continues today, even though now the people doing it consider themselves Christian.
This blending of Christian and pagan ideas is called syncretism, and you find it in many places. You can find it in HEB or Fiesta any day of the year. Look at the section of religious candles—next to candles featuring saints like Joseph, Jude, Martin of Tours, and Francis of Assisi, you find some for good luck, some for money, some praying to the Mexican bandit, Pancho Villa, and some to do harm to your enemies.
It’s a confused mix in which superstition and paganism and Christian ideas blend together until the people practicing them don’t know which is which. And this isn’t limited to the ignorant–Hans Urs von Balthasar, a leading conservative Catholic theologian, friend of Ratzinger and of John Paul II, wrote a favorable introduction to a book of Meditations on the Tarot. This shocked me–as did the nonchalant reaction of Catholic apologists. I was working for the Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston at the time, and this was one of the key things that jolted me awake and forced me to restudy and evaluate my Catholicism.
Among liberal Catholics and liberal Protestants there are other forms of syncretism, including the neopaganism of C. G. Jung, use of New Age spiritual practices such as the labyrinth, and feminist advocacy of goddess worship.
Scripture, however, is quite clear on this question of blending the Christian and the pagan, whether it be in adopting pagan attitudes toward death or blending Christianity with occult practices.
2 Corinthians 6:14-18 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.
The Bible’s answer is clear—don’t do it! Keep them separate. Don’t confuse the word of God with the teachings of men. Don’t confuse truth and error.
Conservative Protestants aren’t immune. We are immersed in a culture that has gone even further over the line; our culture is permeated with supernaturalism and spiritualism, and the same lie that you won’t die, that you are divine. From ghost stories told around a camp fire to books and cartoons and movies and TV programs with supernatural themes to Oprah Winfrey pushing the latest New Age bestseller—we can’t get away from it.
And there’s been an increase in this stuff over the years. And a change in tone.
In the 30s they made movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman. Stuff that might scare a five year old. Then TV came, and up through the 1960s we watched comedies like “Caspar the Friendly Ghost.” “The Munsters.” “Bewitched.” and “I Dream of Jeannie.”
Something started to change in the late 60s and early 70s. Hollywood took a darker turn, and began a preoccupation with the devil—“Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Omen,” “The Exorcist” and countless sequels. Today, there’s so much of it no one could keep up with it all.
Have you noticed that Halloween has changed, too? When I was a kid it was a fun holiday. Everyone would be out trick or treating. We dressed up as firemen, Superman, cowboys, Indians, princesses, nurses, doctors, and clowns. Then, in the early 70s, things began to shift—here, too, we saw a shift to much darker images. More frightening. Now you go to the costume stores and the blood, the gore, the violent, the Satanic, dominate—along with the sexually suggestive.
All these things of which we’ve been speaking are symptoms of the struggle that has characterized human history. A struggle between good and evil—what we call the great controversy between Christ and Satan. It’s a history of deceit, of compromise, of good people being blind to the true nature of what they were embracing, of evil only revealing its true nature when it was too late.
Now, in our day, it seems clear we are building to a climax. The struggle between light and dark, between good and evil is intensifying. Things that once seemed innocent, amusing, have turned ugly.
Come on, some one may say. You’re taking this too seriously. It’s just make believe.
Is it? Or is the supernatural real? Are there dark spiritual forces arrayed against us, who are trying to capture our minds and hearts? Paul tells us there are. He says in Ephesians 6:12 that “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.”
And the climax of the battle is drawing near.
Revelation 12:12 woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
You don’t even need to be a Bible believer to realize it. Even some of the authors in today’s pop culture realize it, and admit it.
Consider Philip Pullman. He’s the author of a series of three books, a series called, “His Dark Materials.” The series starts off with The Golden Compass, and goes on to The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. The theme of the series is startling—war on heaven. You don’t see it in the first book; it only gets explicitly mentioned in the second—and then in the third, there is open warfare.
In the first book we’re introduced to a girl, Lyra, whose uncle, Lord Asriel—really her father—looks for a way to jump from his world to a parallel universe. She’s told the reason in the second book:
“he’s aiming a rebellion against the highest power of all. He’s gone a-searching for the dwelling place of the Authority Himself, and he’s a-going to destroy Him.”
Lyra befriends some witches, who are siding with her father’s struggle—and against the church. Not just the bureaucratic church ruling her world, but every church in every world. The witch queen tells her,
“… every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling. So if a war comes, and the Church is on one side of it, we must be on the other, no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound to.”
Lyra then meets a pair of fallen angels who have been assigned to protect her. They are a pair of homosexual lovers (and this in a children’s book!). One tells her:
“The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie. One of those who came later was wiser than he was, and she found out the truth, so he banished her. We serve her still.”
Everyone realizes war is coming. One character describes it this way:
“There is a war coming, boy. The greatest war there ever was. Something like it happened before, and this time the right side must win. We’ve had nothing but lies and propaganda and cruelty and deceit for all the thousands of years of human history. It’s time we started again, but properly this time …. There are two great powers, … and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.”
And war does come. Fallen angels and men from every nation besiege God and his angels when he descends to the earth in a cloudy chariot to rule directly over men. They surround his city and storm the walls … and, in this version, they triumph.
It’s an amazing story. It is the Great Controversy, told from Satan’s perspective. It shows how people of disparate beliefs and philosophies can be united in hatred and rebellion against God. It depicts very well, I think, how Satan’s deceptions are going forward and will go forward in time to come.
This war is real. And we have to choose sides. We can no longer imagine we can be neutral.
What of you? Which side are you on? Is it clear in your life, in your beliefs, in the things you enjoy?
Perhaps you are entangled in things that you should not be involved in. Perhaps you were raised with some traditions that you know are not Biblical, but you haven’t been able to shake them because they were so important to your family, or your culture. Perhaps you’re just caught up in the culture of this world, and have enjoyed certain books or movies or music. Perhaps you have dabbled in the occult, or fortune-telling, or superstition.
You need to hear the Word of God:
Revelation 18:1-4 And after these things I saw another angel come down from heaven, having great power; and the earth was lightened with his glory. And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird. For all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies. And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.
Babylon isn’t just a church or a group of churches that have embraced error—though that’s part of it. It’s this whole society that has embraced the lies of Satan, that lives by delusion, that exalts self in the place of God. Come out, warns the Bible. Stay apart.
Parents have another challenge.
Halloween is coming in a few days. What will you do? What will your kids expect? What will you tell them?
Here’s a place to start. Especially if they want to rent a horror movie, or they want to go check out the gory costumes and props in the costume shop. Invite them to recall Paul’s words to the Philippians:
Phil 4:8 whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
If they must have a party or candy, consider this. Have them invite their friends over. Let them wear a costume of something beautiful or good. Put some music on praising God, or a Bible story video. Pray for those tempted by darkness. And when the neighborhood kids knock on the door, open it.
Realize that this is the one time of the year when lots of people knock on your door asking you to give them something. Go ahead. Do it. Give them a piece of candy or two … and a tract, or a Bible Study card, or perhaps just a little note with the webpage of the Voice of Prophecy on it: kidsvop.com, and perhaps this message: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
In this time of ever increasing darkness, do all you can to let some light shine.