The Taming of Death

The Taming of Death

There is a seniors care home a few blocks from my house. On the front doors are two gigantic Halloween signs with a frightening ghost-type face and the words “Enter if you dare.” While I don’t object to Halloween decorations, somehow it feels quite out of place amongst the elderly and those nearest to death itself. While death could come to any of us at any time, it seems least entertaining in a seniors facility.

In this article I want to suggest a reason for the unbelievable popularity of Halloween in our culture. This is not a post about the history of Halloween. This is not a post about whether Christians should participate in Halloween. Dave Smith provided a very fine article exploring that question a few days ago which I agree with. I do believe the gospel mission may call us into a certain level of participation with the aim of being faithfully present in our neighborhoods. Each family will have to discuss and decide things on their own.

But this article is asking a different question: Why is it that this holiday is so popular? I’m sure there are many reasons, one of which is sheer commercialism. Halloween is extremely profitable: Americans spend over 2 billion dollars each Halloween on candy alone. But I’m more interested in the appeal of finding entertainment in the frightening. I get the candy. I get the costume parties. But, why haunted houses? Why horror movies? Why do we mock death so?

Mocking Death

In our culture we avoid dealing with death directly. People die in movies and video games. But a family member doesn’t die. They pass away. They are no longer with us. They go to a better place. Everything is clouded in euphemisms. When pastoring in Manitoba I did a number of really traditional funerals. At the funeral the open casket would be in the foyer of the church so that everyone passed by on their way in. In Vancouver, I’m told by funeral directors that over 90% of people are cremated. No caskets. No graveyards. No body. If there is a memorial, often all that will be there is a framed 8×10 photo on a table. It’s incredibly rare for the average person to ever see a dead body.

But at Halloween, we who avoid death suddenly embrace it. People litter their lawns with headstones and skeletons. We who don’t know the rawness of death suddenly find it amusing. Here’s my theory: in mocking death, it gives us a feeling of control over it. We control the uncontrollable. In horror movies, we get scared, but at the end the hero lives and evil is vanquished. We can watch the movie, be frightened, and like the hero we can walk away. And so in our mind, we tame death. We control it. We can put it in a box and contain it.

We can’t control death and that frightens us. And so we ignore it hoping it will go away. Or we mock it and hope that it can be tamed.

The Sting of Death

The mocking of death at Halloween is a vain attempt to control death. We laugh at it to tame it. It may give us a sense of control. We may not fear death anymore. But death will not be mocked. It mocks us back. Death will come to us all. There is a day appointed for each of us. Death has power over us because of sin. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (I Corinthians 15.56). We have broken God’s law, and so death has power over us. It controls us and will not be mocked.

But Christ paid the penalty of sin and broke the power of sin through his death and resurrection. For those of us in Christ, “death is swallowed up in victory” (I Cor 15.54). Just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too will be raised to new life. Death has been defeated. It no longer holds control over us. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

Halloween tries to offer something that only the gospel can give: freedom from the fear of death. Our culture both fears and mocks death, but death mocks back. We can avoid death for a while, but death will take us in the end. But in Christ death has lost its power. To live is Christ, and to die is gain.

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This post originally appeared at Grounded in the Gospel.

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