"Dangerous Enchantment: Our Fashionable Fascination with the Occult"

Oct.19, 2008 Exodus 7:8-13; 8:16-19

Hauntings & Huron: Mediums Go Mainstream

It's that season again: no, I'm not talking about the snow (thankfully) - or days growing shorter, or the leaves falling from the trees; it's that season when we begin to be inundated with the signs of Halloween. Recently we received a flyer advertising the upcoming Blyth Witches Walk: "Everyone Welcome (at your own risk)". A photo in the newspaper showed volunteers making preparations with skeletons and other ghoulish gear. This week I walked into the pharmacy run by a Christian man; usually what catches my attention is the instrumental Christian music in the background, but this week what grabbed me were the Harry Potter costume items displayed prominently behind the cash register. Then, as if that weren't enough, the weekly flyer bag contained a 56-page guide to "Doors Open - Haunted Huron", an event this weekend taking place at various locales in our county. I suppose a historic heritage can be sufficiently dry that the organizers figured they'd have to 'spice it up' with a scarey side!

Most of the descriptions are innocuous enough. But somehow there's an edge that crosses the line between past and present. The co-ordinator writes of "bringing the spirits of our past to an audience of the present" and "a full slate of spooky and entertaining activities including...ghost walks, psychic readings and even a late-night screening of the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show." Ghost walks? Indeed one presenter, Terry Boyle, "believes in [ghosts] so much that he has traveled across Ontario to research popular hauntings...He also looks up the history of the area to see if he can find out who the spirits are and why they are still there." At Bayfield he'll be sharing "the chilling tale of a past murder and intrigue and the spectre that still haunts the location." Psychic readings? Yes, Bayfield medium Kelly Elson plans to conduct a "'walk-through' reading of the North Huron Museum...[relating] the energies and impressions she is receiving from both the building and artifacts housed there." Meanwhile in Egmondville, "Will the renowned psychic medium Annette Sullivan connect with the spirit of Madame Van Egmond..."? She'll also be offering professional 20-minute psychic readings. In "Mediumship" she'll act "as an intermediary psychic guide to reconnect with loved ones who have crossed over into God's arms." And only $40 for 20 minutes!

Have we really come that far? Decades back, Halloween was a time simply to dress up and go door-to-door with a candy bag and your UNICEF box. Ghosts and witches were the stuff of storybooks; hardly anybody took them seriously. But that was before Christendom faded and pluralism set in; before post-moderns discovered a new interest in alternative spirituality. Now indications of what used to be called the occult are everywhere. A Coffee Break leader was asked whether hypnotism was all right for Christians. Newspapers carry the horoscope as a standard feature just like the comics. Children play with tarot cards at school. We've already referred to the popularity of Harry Potter; author JK Rowling has become something of a folk hero, having "progressed from living on welfare to multi-millionaire status within five years" after selling more than 400 million copies of her books.(wikipedia.org)

There are books - and then there is God's Book. What has the Bible to say (if anything) about Halloween and the flood of interest in occult topics like hypnotism and Harry Potter? Should Christian parents go along with the neighbours and relatives in the usual door-to-door kiddie-canvassing? Or is this buying into something we don't really want?

Spiritism vs.Holy Spirit

The word 'occult' comes from a Latin word meaning 'to hide'. A related word, 'enchantments', is associated with a whole cluster of Hebrew words in the Bible. "Latim" means "something covered," "muffled up;" secret arts, trick. Keshaphim - "muttered spells" or "incantations", "sorceries". Lehashim, "charming," as of serpents. (perhaps that would be the closest equivalent to hypnotism) Nehashim, the enchantments or omens used by Balaam. Heber, "magical spells." Divination is another related field of the occult - trying to foretell the future without seeking God.

The Bible doesn't go into a lot of detail about different methods of witchcraft; it's more concerned that we avoid it altogether. However the occult is referred to enough that we know it was prevalent in the ancient world all around Israel - Chaldea, Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Canaan, Asia, Greece, and Arabia. So even back then people might give the excuse, "Everybody's doing it!" Sorcery figures in several Bible stories. The Egyptian magicians try to copy-cat the plagues at the Exodus. Balaam is hired to put a curse on the Hebrews about to invade Canaan. King Saul under stress pays a visit to the so-called witch (really a medium) of Endor. King Ahab's wife Jezebel was into witchcraft. Manasseh led the southern kingdom of Judah into great sin by his combination of occult practices, triggering its downfall. Ezekiel prophesied about the Babylonian king stopping at a crossroad and using divination to decide whether to attack Jerusalem or the nation of Ammon: Jerusalem lost the draw (Ezek 21:21). Great Nebuchadnezzar had his own cadre of 'magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers (Dan 2:1).

The dark arts carry on in the New Testament world. The apostles encounter a Simon the Great who performs amazing magic. Paul is opposed by a sorcerer called Elymas on the island of Cyprus; then is annoyed by a slave-girl with a fortune-telling spirit in Philippi. In the neighbourhood of Ephesus, 7 sons of a Jewish priest named Sceva went around trying to drive out evil spirits using invocations. So, witchcraft is closer than just at the fringe of the Biblical world: it was commonly practiced in other nations.

But the Lord made a point of prohibiting it strongly even before the Israelites entered the Promised Land. In Exodus 22(18) He told them, "Do not allow a sorceress to live." Then in Leviticus (19:26,31; 20:27), "Do not practice divination or sorcery...Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God...A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads." (Sounds severe - but He was drawing clear limits.)

The most thorough passage about the occult is in Deuteronomy 18. In it we can sense God's desire for His people to be different than those who follow sinful practices - to be sanctified and blameless - and also how offensive the occult is to God. Please open your Bible and follow along, Deuteronomy 18:9-13: "When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, [NOTE THE CONSIDERABLE LIST HERE] 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, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the LORD your God."

With the Palestinian dilemma, one might wonder what gives Israel the 'right' to occupy the land in the first place - on what basis God could justly allocate the land to Abraham and kin in place of the original inhabitants. Here the implication is that the SIN of the nations was so bad, so evil, that they didn't deserve to occupy it (and see God's comment to Abraham in Genesis 15[16] that 'the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure'). Then when Israel fell into idolatry and started practising sorcery, they lost THEIR right to inhabit the place - and were exiled to Assyria or Babylon. For example, 2Chronicles 33 tells us about Manasseh King of Judah: "But Manasseh led Judah and the people of Jerusalem astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the LORD had destroyed before the Israelites." "He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had demolished; he also erected altars to the Baals and made Asherah poles. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them....In both courts of the temple of the LORD, he built altars to all the starry hosts. He sacrificed his sons in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practiced sorcery, divination and witchcraft, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the LORD, provoking him to anger." (2Ch 33:9,3ff)

Sorcery, witchcraft, and psychics make God angry. Deuteronomy (18:12) says such practices are 'detestable' to Him; New Living Translation says anyone who does such things is 'an object of horror and disgust to the Lord' - another kind of 'horror show'. God can't stand these activities, so they are ultimately excluded from His Kingdom. Revelation 21(8)/22(15), "But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars-- their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur...Outside [the new Jerusalem] are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood."

What is the essence of spiritism and sorcery? It is turning away from God to serve other powers and allegiances. The prophet Samuel told disobedient King Saul, "For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king." (1Sam 15:23) Rebellion and arrogance are paralleled to divination and idolatry. Essentially, turning away from God to evil is to reject God's word - in favour perhaps of other word-spells.

The Bible doesn't pooh-pooh or try to dismiss the powers of darkness. Pharaoh's magicians succeeded in copy-catting the plagues of Moses and Aaron - up to a point. They made their staffs become snakes. They made water turn to blood. They too made frogs come up on the land. But there came a level at which they were just out-classed. Aaron's staff swallowed their staffs. When they failed to produce gnats, they realized they were out of their league; they said clearly to Pharaoh, "This is the finger of God." But Pharaoh's heart was hard and he wouldn't listen.

The power of the enemy is real (albeit counterfeit). The follower of Jesus need not fear, for He told His disciples, "I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you." (Lu 10:19) But people will be tempted to turn away from God and bargain with the enemy in exchange for his temporary rewards. Don't turn away or let your heart be hardened like Saul and Pharaoh!

The key question is, are we willing to be under God's control? To submit to Jesus' lordship and resist other powers (including the deceitful 'do your own thing')? In Galatians 5 Paul talks about this as 'living by the [Holy] Spirit', being 'led by the Spirit' - as opposed to yielding to desires of the sinful nature. Those who belong to Christ Jesus, who live by the Spirit, experience the fruit of the Spirit coming to fullness in their lives - love, joy, peace, goodness, and so on. Go the other way and your life will result in the 'deeds of the flesh' - note sorcery or 'witchcraft' is part of the list: "sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.[Paul adds a very sombre caution] I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God." (Ga 5:19-21) You can't serve 2 masters; witchcraft is a turning away from God. Similarly, although the word 'hypnosis' isn't found in the Bible it would fall under the category of 'enchantment': you're surrendering control of your faculties to another, so it becomes an issue of Lordship and stewardship.

Perfect Love Casts Out Fear

God's desire for His children in Christ is our freedom within His healthy limits; our deliverance from principalities that would eventually subjugate and destroy us. When we say 'yes' to Jesus' leading, He can then start to release His power for good through us. In Ephesus during Paul's time, following the confrontation between the Jewish would-be exorcists and the evil spirit that beat them up, people were seized with fear; "the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour" and many believed and confessed their evil deeds. The Bible says, "A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. [50,000 days' wages - over a quarter of a million dollars!] In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power." (Ac 19:19f) They made a clean break with their occult patterns, honoured Jesus' name, and subsequently experienced His power in a new way.

Before the gospel comes to a culture, often there is bondage to superstition. God wants us to be free from superstitious fear. Paul writes to Timothy, "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity [fear], but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline [sound mind]." (2Ti 1:7) The most frequent direct command in scripture is "Fear not." Revering and knowing God frees us from other fears. The apostle John writes, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear...The one who fears is not made perfect [complete] in love." (1Jo 4:18) Our homes, our way of life, the customs we introduce our children to, should be ones based on love not fear.

Some would say Halloween is a 'disputable matter' as in Romans 14, that we shouldn't pass judgment on others who aren't convinced thus in their own mind. How we consider days differs. When we put up a Christmas tree we don't consider it an ancient fertility symbol. Certainly when trick-or-treaters show up at our door is not the time to respond negatively, but creatively somehow show the love of Jesus. Dressing small children up can be fun; but I wonder if the very words 'trick or treat' are not an accommodation to the threatening, coercive tactics of the evil one. By trick-or-treating, are we inoculating children to the occult, rather than helping them spot and stay away from it?

In Christ, we have freedom. Paul also writes in Galatians 5 that we 'were called to be free'; yet in that freedom, we're not to indulge the sinful nature, but serve one another in love. So even our discussion about Halloween should be loving and respectful. We're not to bite and devour each other if we differ, but love our neighbour as ourself.

Halloween's Hang-ups

Ken Wideman in Family Fun Night: A Working Manual for a Christian Alternative to Halloween lists "12 Problems with Modern Halloween". (1) It provides an opportunity to abduct children. (2) It provides an opportunity to inflict pain and suffering (such as razor blades, crushed glass, or poison in treats). (3) It increases the risk of a traffic accident. (4) It increases the health risk to little children (for examples by costumes not being warm enough or reducing visibility). (5) It encourages excessive and harmful sugar intake in children (I wonder how many illnesses result from the weakened immune system - not to mention behavioural problems). (6) It allows profiteering and contributes to pollution and environmental harm (for example, all that packaging). (7) It produces irresistible temptation to vandals. (8) It teaches a lie to our children about the occult (ie that ghosts/ goblins/ witches/ devils/ monsters are either unreal, or amusing and entertaining and fun harmless beings - rather than they are evil, to be resisted and abhorred). (9) It conforms to current Satanic group practices (ex-satanists confirm the significance of this satanic 'New Year' on their calendar, including human sacrifices). (10) It promotes and encourages the emotion of fear (a debilitating force that can cause both physical and emotional illness). (11) It entices people to explore the occult. (12) It conforms to the world rather than the Word.

May the Lord guide you with conviction as you respond to the challenge that Halloween and occult practices present. Though sinners love the darkness rather than the light, by faith in Jesus "now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light - for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth." (Jn 3:19; Eph 5:8f) Let's pray.