[ 6 minutes to read ]… and other oddities November 1 is the well-known Mexican holiday, The Day of the Dead. Customs may vary throughout Mexico, but generally it is a celebration of the dead. People build ofrendas in their homes to place pictures or some possessions of their deceased relatives. They may have flowers or burn candles on these altars. People gather around the graves of their deceased and eat meals featuring the favorite foods and drinks of the departed, and leave portions for them as well. They pray to and for their dead, dance in the streets, and calaveras are everywhere.
The holiday is typically associated with the Catholic holidays, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. However, the Catholic influence on such practices is more come lately, as the roots these observances go back much further to the pre-hispanic, indigenous peoples of Mexico. Odd beliefs, customs, and practices concerning the dead go even further back in the roots of paganism.
Pagan Roots and Fruits
We first encounter observances pertaining to the dead in the Bible among the Canaanites. The old covenant law gave specific warnings to Israel, forbidding them from taking up the pagan practices of the nations around them (Leviticus 19:26-31; 21:5; Deuteronomy 14:1; 18:9-14; 26:12-15). We find there prohibitions against such as making offerings to or for the dead, body modifications for the dead, eating the blood to gain power of the dead, and consulting with diviners and such to communicate with the dead in order to learn the future or gain special knowledge outside of God’s natural revelation in creation or special revelation in his word.
Of course, the Jews of Israel were not impervious to these cultic practices concerning the dead. A perusal of the prophets finds the nation condemned for such things as offering their children in the fire and seeking commune with the dead (2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:10; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Isaiah 47:12; Jeremiah 7:31-32; Ezekiel 23:37-39). By the time of the intertestamental period post-exile, it wasn’t uncommon for there to be offerings for the dead and prayers to and for the dead in Israel. The inclusion of such things is one of the reasons early churches rejected the intertestamental books as apocryphal, not including them in the canon of Scripture.
Various adaptations of pagan practices concerning the dead have persisted in church history. The practice of prayers to and for the dead eventually gave rise to the doctrine of purgatory and the idea of post-mortem atonement or absolution of sins. I hope that evangelical Christians can see all these things as the abominable pagan practices they are, regardless of the sanctified language, historied traditions, good intentions, or imaginative reasoning used to support them.
A Rose of Another Name
It is good to have such hope I suppose, but Christians really seem to struggle to get a handle on paganism. We can’t seem to figure out what it is exactly. For some, all you have to do is label something as pagan and that roundly condemns all instances of it and everyone within a fifty mile radius of it. You better steer clear of any twice-removed cousins who know a guy that has a friend who might have seen it or heard of it before. Of course, that is not any species of scriptural reasoning at all. It is more like the reasoning of a sweating fundamentalist evangelist at a southern summer campmeeting. He can preach agin’ anything. All he has to do is label it worldly and then quote a verse about not loving the world, and, boom, he’s got “bible” for preaching the devil out of y’all.
Calling something pagan or claiming it has pagan roots doesn’t accomplish anything. For instance, pagans have hunted and farmed as long as pagans have existed. They typically pray to their gods before and after their harvests. Does that mean farming and hunting are pagan practices? When a Christian engages in these activities and prays to the true and only God before after the harvests, is he committing paganism?
A pagan cuts down a tree, builds a fire to warm himself and bake bread, and with the rest he makes idols to worship (Isaiah 44:9-20; Jeremiah 10:2-5)? Pagans go outside and cut flowers or other greenery to bring into their homes. They may do so with observing certain rites and believing they are inviting the spirits of their ancestors into their homes to bring them favor. When a Christian cuts down a tree, builds a fire, warms himself, or bakes bread, is he practicing paganism? When a Christian man brings home a bouquet of beautiful flowers to his wife and she puts them in a vase on the dining room table, or they otherwise adorn their home with plants of God’s creation, have they committed abominations?
Paul would say, No (1 Timothy 4:3-5). The creation of God is good and is to be received and enjoyed with thanksgiving. All things are made by God and rightly belong to him (Psalms 24:1). Paul actually quoted that verse in 1 Corinthians 10:26 where in chapters 8-10 he is showing that meat sacrificed to idols is not tainted or inherently sinful. Paul wrote that those who have true knowledge understand that and that an idol is nothing in the world (1 Corinthians 8:4). Those chapters certainly help us sort out paganism for what it is. Paganism doesn’t create or own anything. Paganism perverts and corrupts what God has created and owns to use for abominable practices. But, pagan misuse doesn’t nullify a proper use.
Getting back to praying for the dead and other such odd practices, what should we make of it? Some may be tempted to apply Paul’s argument about meat sacrificed to idols and say, “Oh, we aren’t praying for the dead like that. We are not praying like pagans do. We don’t believe in purgatory or post-death atonement. We are merely praying retroactively, knowing that God has all power and time is nothing to him.” I’m tempted to ask, What then are you praying for? What are you asking God to do, or what you asking for to happen? Stripped back to the essence, this argument claims that pagans misuse prayers for the dead and these Christians are making a right use of prayers for the dead.
That argument fails and twists Scripture. We have already considered references where such practices for the dead are condemned as pagan abominations. God doesn’t give alternatives to those practices as if there were a right way to do it. No, he says don’t do it at all because you are “the children of the LORD your God,” and you are “an holy people unto the LORD thy God” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2). When it comes to plowing a field, there is a way to plow in sin (Proverbs 21:4) and a way to plow in faith (1 Corinthians 9:10). The plowing itself is neither sinful nor righteous. Paul said the same thing about eating the meat. But, praying for the dead is only sinful. There is no right way and wrong way to do it. The whole practice is abominable.
The various strange practices for the dead are all linked by the attempt to converse with a realm that is forbidden to us living people. When Moses gave Israel the law, he made clear that the source of knowledge for them and the source of requirements for them was not hidden or secreted away is some unreachable realm so that they would have to resort to unusual means to find it out (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). What God wants us to know is given to us in his written word (Deuteronomy 29:29). To pray for the dead is to meddle with God’s domain that is his alone. Our prayers are to be made to God alone and not after the manner of pagans (Matthew 6:5-13), and they are to be made for the people living in our time (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
We all struggle at times to distinguish wrong from right. When it comes to oraciones por los muertos, prayers for the dead, no struggle is required. It’s actually pagan. It’s actually wrong.