And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. ~ Acts 19:19 ESV
Acts here tells us about those who had converted to Christianity in Ephesus. Many of them had formerly practiced magic. In this case magic was not illusion performed through misdirection or slight of hand. It was the pagan art of using spells and incantations to bring luck and good fortune for oneself, one’s family, or city. Magic could also be used to bring misfortune to one’s rivals by employing hexes and curses. In addition to spells and incantations, the books mentioned in Acts 19:19 likely also included instruction on how to predict the future (i.e. divination) and how to contact the spirits of the dead or other spiritual entities that one might appease to solicit their aid. These would have been how-to books on occult practices.
When pagans converted to Christianity they would give up these magical arts and occult practices. As a symbol of their break with the former way of life, Acts 19:19 tells us they brought their magic books together to burn them. There is no indication, however, that they were forced to do so; they voluntarily did so. This was no “book burning” via coercion from ecclesial or government authorities. It was a voluntary practice. Church leaders would have certainly encouraged new converts from among Gentiles to abandon occult practices, but there is nothing here to suggest they required book burning in this case.
The fact that converts would take such drastic measures to disassociate themselves from these books and the practices contained therein is really not all that unusual. Just a few months ago another pastor posted a question on Facebook asking for advice on what he should do with a series of books by a certain author that he once admired, but now considers to be a dangerous false teacher. He wondered if he shouldn’t just burn the books. I actually recommended he keep them for reference for exposing how and why they were misleading.
Nevertheless, I imagine that many of the converts in Ephesus recognized the spiritually deleterious nature of the practices that those magic books promoted, especially after they were born again. They probably also clearly recognized the great harm that they too had suffered spiritually, psychologically, and even physically themselves.
Under the Old Covenant, Israel was explicitly commanded not to engage in occult and superstitious practices. The latter would involve among other things the idea that certain physical objects could bring good fortune or power (i.e. a rabbit’s foot). The prohibitions definitely forbade attempts to communicate with the dead. The main problem was that it detracted from the faith and allegiance that they were to have in the Lord (YAWEH), and the Lord alone. These forbidden practices were certainly associated with the worship of pagan gods and idolatry. But they are not bad only because of their association with idolatrous worship; they were inherently bad in themselves. The reason is because there are real, malevolent spiritual entities that can use these practices to bring spiritual destruction and ruin to the people involved.
“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this. ~ Deuteronomy 18:9-14
The attempt to contact spirits of the dead and to gain insight or empowerment thereby render people vulnerable to the manipulation of evil spirits.
I was talking to someone one night at a social gathering who said he was awakened by a voice one night telling him to go check on the baby. He thought it was his wife, but when he looked over she was obviously sound asleep, and later had no awareness of what he was talking about. He said, he did go to check on the baby who had a stuffed animal over his face. Something similar happened more than once. Initially he thought it was indeed a spiritual entity, the spirit of a deceased person just trying to help. But after building his trust, which opened his mind to looking to it for further help, he said, the spirit eventually turned violent. Later he discovered that there had been a horrific murder in the home. They moved shortly after that! He was quite relieved when I explained that it probably was a demonic presence in the home and how to make sense of it all from a Biblical, Christian perspective. Spirits like that can only have access to people’s lives if they invite them in, naively or knowingly.
I know the above scenario sounds like something out of a horror movie, but the man who told me this story was quite serious. He was seeking my insight as a Christian pastor. The incident took place in a home in Raleigh, NC.
A few years ago, a woman came up to me after a worship service. In tears, she expressed grave concern for her son who was dabbling into sorcery. Several weeks afterwards, I actually met and began to spend some time with the young man . He opened up to me a lot and I shared the gospel of Jesus with him. One time he said he had a friend who had “a dark presence” that he just couldn’t quite get rid of. He asked if I knew anything about demons. He was actually asking for himself, not a friend. He wasn’t quite ready to give up the sorcery and practices that had such a spell on him. For a while it seemed that he only saw Jesus as another possible source of power among others. He was trying Jesus by addition rather than submission to Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The “dark presence” remained. Eventually, he said he submitted to Jesus as his only savior and Lord and it left!
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. ~ James 4:7
I know materialists want to dismiss the supernatural altogether, but there is another dimension. There is a spiritual realm with good and evil entities. God is good, and it is to God and God alone that we are to look to for blessing and help.
Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. ~ Psalm 37:3-4
The key to genuine blessedness, the fullness of which we will only experience in the world to come under the reign of Christ, is to trust in God and by God’s grace to live according to his moral law. The key to blessing in the Bible is obedience to God’s commandments. It was through obedience that Jesus achieved blessedness for us, which we receive through faith in him and him alone. Pagan religion and its corresponding practices have sought to find short cuts to happiness apart from obedience to God. Morality was not a concern of pagan religions in the ancient world or even today; but it is essential to the Judeo-Christian worldview.
Christians should abandon and avoid anything associated with the occult and sorcery or witchcraft and warn others about the same. Things like Ouija boards and even superstitious practices like possessing certain objects or performing certain rituals to bring good luck should be avoided. And of course as Christians who are called to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:14), we should certainly not be engaging in practices to curse or harm anyone.
Sorcery is listed among vices that if engaged in an unrepentant fashion will lead one to be excluded from the kingdom of God according to Paul in Galatians 5:19-21
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (See also Revelation 21:8)
“Sorcery” is translated from the Greek word pharmakiea. That word is used because sorcery often involved enchantment with special potions or drugs. Sometimes the use of special potions is for one’s own personal benefit; sometimes they are used to control other people (i.e. think about how one might use alcohol to manipulate another person). This word used in Galatians recalls all of the warnings and prohibitions against occult practices in the Old Testament. (So much for the idea that the OT should not be the go to source for any behavior in the Church!!). These practices are spiritually dangerous and should be avoided by all Christians.
I once played with a Ouija Board with a friend of mine. She insisted it was for real and seemed to be nothing but serious about it, although she did have some concerns. She was a little spooked because the box it was in would sometimes shake by itself under her bed at night. It seemed quite real to me when we used it together. For me, this was at a time as a late teen just before I entered one of the darkest periods of my life. I was already headed in the wrong direction; I’m sure this encounter didn’t help. Thankfully, God intervened to deliver me!
Toward the end of his life, King Saul of ancient Israel lost faith in God, and ended up seeking guidance from a medium/witch. He wanted her to conjure up Samuel, the dead prophet, who had anointed him as king. Indeed, Samuel did respond, but only to pronounce doom on Saul and his sons. I know there are some who believe that this really could not have been the spirit of Samuel, only a demonic spirit imitating him. The text, however, repeatedly says it was Samuel. While in many cases it could very well be demonic impersonation when it comes to what are called “familiar spirits” (demons do impersonate the dead as a bait to build trust), in this case God allowed Samuel to come and prophesy one more time. But still this only spelled doom for Saul, who still should not have sought the counsel of even the spirit of the great and revered prophet, Samuel, rather than trusting in God! (Read the sad story in 1 Samuel 28)
Today there is an increase in occult activity and witchcraft. Witches apparently outnumber Presbyterians (PCUSA) in the United States now! There are also Christians who have fallen prey to temptations to syncretism, the amalgamation of various religious beliefs and practices. And pagan rituals and practices have crept into mainline Christian circles. There was a serious discussion on a United Methodist clergy Facebook page recently where someone wondered aloud if it was okay for a Unitarian Universalist to teach and over Christian Education in a church. Amazingly many UM clergy thought it would be perfectly fine. Others thought it would be okay but only if the person agreed to teach Methodist doctrine. Something tells me it’s not wise to hire someone who does not hold Christian beliefs to teach Christian beliefs in a church! Another person said they had knowingly hired a pagan spiritualist to teach children and youth because the person agreed to teach Methodist doctrine! This is nuts! The UM pastor said it didn’t work out though because the person didn’t keep her word! I wish I was making this up! Lord, have mercy.
Nonetheless, Halloween is a time when people are especially vulnerable to reveling in and glorifying the dark forces of death and evil. Much of popular media and entertainment certainly puts a positive spin on them, including some occult practices. All Hollows’ Eve, the evening beginning the celebration of All Saints’ Day, does stand as a reminder that we still live in a world plagued by sin and evil and death and decay. There are some scary things still active in this fallen world that we need to be wary of. Christians, however, should celebrate Halloween, but not in a worldly way, where it is severed from its Christian roots, especially its association with All Saints’ Day. We must not forget that we live in a world of sin and evil and death and decay, but we do so as citizens of heaven and heirs of the New Creation where sin and death no longer reign. Halloween is a reminder that death and darkness are still with us, but only as defeated foes not worth comparing to the glory of the New Creation wrought by the glorious victory of Jesus Christ in his resurrection. Christians should never revel in the forces of darkness and death. Neither should we be paralyzed in fear of evil and death as if they are an endless cycle that will never go away. We can dress up and have fun at the expense of the forces of darkness because through the triumph of Christ the saints in heaven and on earth have the final victory!
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. ~ Hebrews 2:14-15