Halloween and Reformation Day

For a more concise essay on this topic, you can see my Crosswalk article: Halloween and Reformation Day: The Connection in our Halloween Articles section.

You may be surprised to learn that there are some important connections between Halloween and Reformation Day. As explained on our Halloween History page, many of the traditions associated with the dead on Halloween were thought to have their roots in an ancient pagan celebration called Samhain. However, these traditions were more likely connected with All Souls’ Day (of which the foundational theology contributed to the Protestant Reformation) .1

All Souls’ Day and Purgatory

About the same time that All Saints’ Day was formally established, Amalarius of Metz (d. around 850), a liturgical writer from France, wrote in De ordine antiphonarii: “After the office of the saints I have inserted the office for the dead; for many pass out of this world without at once being admitted into the company of the blessed.”2 This text may well have influenced St. Odilo (d. 1049), an abbot in France, who directed his congregation to honor November 2 as a day to pray for the dead. The practice spread, and over the next two or three centuries, All Souls’ Day became common to church calendars.

It is difficult to identify when Christians began making distinctions among their dead, but it is clear that throughout the Middle Ages, Roman Catholicism taught a threefold picture of the church:

The Church Triumphant: Christians who have died and arrived at the center of heaven to enjoy the “beatific vision” (standing in the presence of God and seeing him in his glory).

The Church Expectant (or the Church Suffering): Christians who have died and are in a purgatorial state, being cleansed of their sins and fitted for heaven.

The Church Militant: Christians on earth. The word “militant” is suggestive of the battle against sin, the world, the flesh and the devil.

According to scholar N.T. Wright, “Purgatory . . . provides the rationale for All Soul’s Day. This Day . . . assumes a sharp distinction between the ‘saints’, who have already made it to heaven, and the ‘souls’, who haven’t, and who are therefore still, at least in theory, less than completely happy and need our help to move on from there.”3

At the 1274 Council of Lyons, the idea of purgatory was made dogma. Speaking of “all souls,” the council wrote:

“If they die truly repentant in charity before they have made satisfaction by worthy fruits of penance for (sins) committed and omitted, their souls are cleansed after death by purgatorical or purifying punishments . . . . And to relieve punishments of this kind, the offerings of the living faithful are of advantage to these, namely, the sacrifices of Masses, prayers, alms, and other duties of piety . . .”

Thomas Aquinas, one of the first to articulate “doctrine” on the subject of purgatory, wrote about it in his famous Summa Theologica. He used words like punishment, torment and pain (the least of which “surpasses the greatest pain of this life”) to describe purgatory.”4

Though the Roman Catholic Church was not explicit about the nature of purgatory as dogma, wild and terrible descriptions developed. Furthermore, tremendous superstition and fear came to be associated with the afterlife.

Over the next several centuries, a great deal of “energy went into understanding purgatory, teaching people about it, and in particular, arranging life in the present in relation to it.”5 All Saints’ and All Souls’ day were both intimately tied to remembering the Christian dead and considering their state. It became standard practice during these days for Christians on earth (the church militant) to invoke the saints (the church triumphant) for help in relieving their loved ones (the church expectant) from the punishments of purgatory.

Conducting masses and praying for those in purgatory became “a major feature of medieval piety,” and the practice of selling indulgences to help reduce time in purgatory for loved ones is one of the issues that moved Martin Luther to write his famous 95 theses.6

Reformation Day

It was not a coincidence that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church (also called “Castle Church”) on October 31, 1517. This was the eve on which Christians were particularly focused on their dead and appealed to the saints on their behalf; indulgences were an intimate part of these practices.

What is an Indulgence?

It is a reduction of the “temporal punishment” due to sin.

The Roman Catholic Church distinguishes between temporal punishment and eternal punishment (hell), clarifying that though the Christians’ guilt of sin is already forgiven by Christ, the punishment for sin must be endured in this life or the life to come and the stain of sin must be purged or purified.

To issue an indulgence, the Church draws from a treasury of merit – an “inexhaustible fund” of Christs’ righteousness, “the satisfactory works of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” and “the virtues, penances, and sufferings of the saints vastly exceeding any temporal punishment which these servants of God might have incurred.”7 In other words, the treasury of merit is a collection of good works done by Christ, Mary, and the saints in excess of what was required of them. These works are applied to Christians through indulgences.

Some scholars dispute the claim that Luther actually posted his theses to the church door. However, we do know that on 31 October 1517, Luther wrote a letter to Albert, the Archbishop of Mainz, protesting the sale of indulgences. He included a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” (now known as the 95 Theses), a document widely regarded as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. Thus, October 31st is recognized by many Protestants as Reformation Day.

Some of the key points of Luther’s theses were that:

1. Indulgences were being used for financial gain: “when the money clinks in the bottom of the chest avarice and greed increase” (thesis 28).

2. Indulgences were giving people a false assurance of salvation, leading them to overlook true repentance and contrition: “It is not in accordance with Christian doctrines to preach and teach that those who buy off souls, or purchase confessional licenses, have no need to repent of their own sins” (thesis 35) and “the very multitude of indulgences dulls men’s consciences” (thesis 40).

3. Indulgences were said to have power over the dead and the ability to free souls from purgatory: “There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest” (thesis 27) and “when the church offers intercession, all depends in the will of God” (Thesis 28).8

To be fair, it should be noted that many Catholics have decried the abuses highlighted by Luther about indulgences, and in 1567, Pope Pius V eliminated financial transactions in the granting of indulgences.9 However, indulgences, as well as purgatory, remain an integral part of Roman Catholic doctrine.

Afterlife in the Reformed View

Reformers take care to identify all believers as “saints.” For, as NT Wright says, “In the New Testament every single Christian is referred to as a ‘saint,’ including the muddled and sinful ones to whom Paul writes his letters”.10

Furthermore, the Reformed view of the church sees only “The Church Triumphant” (Christians in heaven) and “The Church Militant” (Christians on earth). There are no distinctions made between the destination of “heroes of the faith” and the rest of the Christian souls; they all enter the presence of the Lord immediately after death.

For as Jesus says to the criminal on the cross, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Paul writes, “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 2:3); Paul implies that he will immediately be with Christ after death and gives no indication that his experience would be different than the other Philippian believers.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, drawn up in 1646, articulates the following belief about the afterlife:

 “The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledges none” (Chapter XXXII).

The Reformed view appeals to Scripture to demonstrate that Christ died not only for the guilt of our sin but also the punishment and the stain of sin:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6).

“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25b-27).

This is not to say that there is no temporal punishment for sin; surely we endure consequences for our sin, and God uses events in this world to discipline us (Hebrews 12:5-7). However, the notion that our sin requires “satisfaction by [our] worthy fruits” (Council of Lyons, 1274) or by the fruit of the saints in order to obtain heaven seems to deny the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross and to diminish the good news of the gospel.

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, published in 1536, John Calvin famously wrote:

“We should exclaim with all our might, that purgatory is a pernicious fiction of Satan, that it makes void the cross of Christ, that it intolerably insults the Divine mercy, and weakens and overturns our faith. For what is their purgatory, but a satisfaction for sins paid after death by the souls of the deceased? Thus the notion of satisfaction being overthrown, purgatory itself is immediately subverted from its very foundation. It has been fully proved that the blood of Christ is the only satisfaction, expiation and purgation for the sins of the faithful.”11

Biblically speaking, purgatory, or the purging of sins, took place at the cross: “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3b), and “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).

All believers are called “saints” (Ephesians 1:1), “citizens of heaven” (Philippians 3:20) and those “blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). Let us, therefore, “live up to what we have already attained” (Philippians 3:16) in heaven.

It comes as no surprise that death is mysterious and terrifying to non-believers, but for the Christian, there is no place for fear and superstition regarding the afterlife. For “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1) and “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6)

But what about a healthy “fear of the Lord”?  Consider the words of the psalmist:

“If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (Psalm 130:3-4).

This fear seems to entail awe, wonder, and reverence at the fact that God in his justice could condemn us eternally to hell, but He chooses rather to “forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Thus, “fear of the Lord” is somehow curiously rooted in understanding that we are forgiven and that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). As the Apostle John writes, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

John Piper sums it up this way, “The only safe place from the wrath of God is in God. Everywhere outside of his care is dangerous. He is the only hiding place from his own wrath”; healthy fear of the Lord “drives us to Christ where there is safety.”12

See our Halloween Articles page to learn more about the connection between Halloween and Reformation Day, as well as how can Reformed Christians can celebrate Halloween.

This page was created by:

angie signature

Back to main Halloween History page.

We welcome your ideas! If you have suggestions on how to improve this page, please contact us.

The content on this page is drawn from a Rose Publishing pamphlet, Christian Origins of Halloween; it has a copyright © 2012. You may freely use this content if you cite the source and/or link back to this page.

Image Source: Martin Luther Statue, Public Domain Image on Pixabay.

1 Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween, From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 19.
2 Butler, Alban (edited, revised and supplemented by Herbert Thurston, S.J. and Donald Attwater). Butlers Lives of the Saints. Volume IV (October, November and December). P.J. Kenedy and Sons, 1956, p. 241.
3 Wright, N.T. For All the Saints? Remember the Christian Departed. Morehouse Publishing, 2003, p. 13.
4 Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Question 2, Articles 2 and 6.
5 Wright, N.T., p.6.
6 Ibid, p.7.
7 Kent, William. “Indulgences.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 20 Sept. 2011: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07783a.htm.
8 Text for 95 Theses drawn from: http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/95theses.htm.
9 Kent, William. “Indulgences.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 20 Sept. 2011: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07783a.htm.
10 Wright, N.T., p.22.
11 Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, III, 5.6. Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1843, p. 607.
12 Piper, John. “Rejoice with Trembling, A Meditation on Psalm 2:11-12.” Desiring God Blog Post, January 7, 2006: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/taste-see-articles/rejoice-with-trembling




Enter your email address to receive blog posts:

Or, subscribe to our free monthly newsletter!

Featured Page

Hymn of the Week