This essay was republished in our most recent issue of The Mockingbird, the Deja Vu Issue. Order your copy today!

It’s ironic, but Halloween has become more Christian than Christmas. Certainly Christmas is more associated with Christianity than is Halloween, but in practice—and as they are thought of in culture—Halloween provides a better picture of Christianity’s message to the world.

Christians have long had issues with Halloween. We’re not sure what to make of it; we’re not sure if it’s okay to celebrate it, if we’re celebrating demons, monsters, and other evil things. Michael Jackson, at the beginning of the landmark Thriller video, felt compelled to provide a disclaimer that this film, in which he turns into a werewolf and a zombie, did not endorse the occult. For the similar reasons, many Christians have felt the need to speak out against Harry Potter and Spongebob Squarepants.

I myself have very mixed feelings about Halloween. I love chocolate, but I hate candy. Things like Jolly Ranchers, Gummi Worms, and Tootsie Rolls make my stomach turn. As far as I’m concerned, the ultimate Halloween prize is fun-sized Kit Kats. You want to know what heaven is like? Eat a couple fun-sized Kit Kats, and in heaven you’ll be. Probably another reason for my apathy about Halloween is that I’m afraid I’ll get stuck in some strange neighborhood, far from my own, and have to go to the bathroom. You want to know what hell is like? You’re about 10 years old, far from home, and you are told at house after house that, no, you cannot use their bathroom. That frantic run home was hell on earth.

But for good news? For grace? I’ll take Halloween over Christmas every time.

Consider the theological implications of Halloween: it’s the ultimate equal opportunity holiday. Everyone gets candy. On the surface, it’s the picture of the gospel. There is no qualification check at the door. You come and you receive, no matter the quality of your costume. (In fact, you could even argue that the worse you look, the more you’ll be rewarded.)

Christmas, on the other hand…well, you know the song: “He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.” Yikes! David Sedaris, the amazing humorist, writes in one of his essays that in Holland, if a child is bad, Saint Nicholas and his helpers beat the offending child with a switch. If a child is really bad, they throw him into a sack and take him back to Spain (which, of course, is where jolly St. Nick is from). Our punishment isn’t as harsh as the Dutch one, but it’s not far, and it’s based on the same equation. If you’re good: presents. If you’re bad: lump of coal.

Think of what’s probably the most famous Christmas story of all time: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge is a bad guy who doesn’t want to let his employee have Christmas off or put a single briquette of coal in the furnace. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley’s ghost is dragging around a huge chain, which he says was forged by all the selfish and evil deeds he committed during his life.

Marley says to Scrooge, “Would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!” This is what we believe—you will reap what you sow. We write books about how and why everything you do today matters forever. All too often, this has become the syntax of our Christian faith. But it doesn’t have to be.

In the opening lines to his letter to the Ephesians (a notoriously sinful people: see 4:1, 4:17, 5:3, etc.), St. Paul makes clear what the foundation of the Christian faith actually is: the free gift of God in Jesus Christ.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. (1:3-10).

Writing to these sinful people, Paul doesn’t say “Shape up or ship out!” He doesn’t say, as Marley does, that the chains are growing by the year. Instead he remarks, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you!” He doesn’t go all Christmas on them. He doesn’t check the naughty-or-nice list. He treats them like it’s Halloween. Candy for everyone.

According to Paul, the Christian life is based on the wonderful free gift of God. And not only is this a gift, this one-way love of God, it’s an incredibly generous one: “the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us!”

This is what the Christian life is really like. We approach the throne of God. We look awful. Maybe we even look like something that’s been dead for a while (it’d be the most accurate costume we could wear). We have nothing to offer except our appearance, the sin from which we need to be saved. But everyone gets the candy! God’s grace is a free gift, offered lavishly to sinners.

The message of A Christmas Carol and too much of today’s Christianity is “You are a sinner, better become a saint.” The message of the Bible and of Jesus Christ is “You are a sinner, and yet you are a saint!”

Why? How?

Listen to Paul’s words as he opens his letter to the Ephesians: “He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”

Notice the exquisite passivity in this! God is the actor at every moment. He is the gift-giver, we are the receiver. We are adopted…according to his pleasure…with his grace…that he bestowed…on us in Christ. We are saints because God has decided to call us saints! He has taken the initiative in our lives, coming to us in our sinful state, and given us his free gift of righteousness.

We have each, like Jacob Marley, forged for ourselves a ponderous chain. But every single link of it is worn by our savior, Jesus Christ.

Merry Halloween.