In our modern culture of horror movies, Halloween brings on
thoughts of the dead rising from the earth and walking among the living. In
recent years, that once-a-year notion had become a large entertainment genre
built around zombies, from books to TV to film.
But to Christianity over the centuries, the phrase “the dead
rising” would have meant raising the dead into heaven. Have you ever thought
about what gives the dead the power to rise into heaven rather than into the
world of the living?
Medieval Christian theologians believed that the dead were
weighed down by their sins and so stopped at a midway point, Purgatory, where
they were purified for entry into heaven. Post-Puritan Protestant thinkers
emphasized lightening one’s burden while here on earth, through confession,
forgiveness, and leading a sanctified life.
Theological descriptions were fine for the clergy and the
educated, but ordinary, often unlearned, Christians took a different route to
ensuring that the dead made it to heaven. They buried their dead in locations
where there was a special link between heaven and earth.
Earthly locations with special links to heaven were
considered to be sacred places. Sacred means “touched by God.” In the Holy
Land, in Palestine, sacred places were fairly common.
Any place Jesus performed a miracle, for
instance, was considered a sacred place. These locations where divine power had
been displayed were believed to have a special link to heaven, the divine
Over the centuries, these sacred spots often became heavily
used cemeteries. Churches and monasteries were built on them, and cemeteries
formed around them. Several sites became destinations for pious Christians who
never set foot in the Holy Land during their life. But they had their remains
transported there for permanent burial
The British Isles differed from the Holy Land.
Since Christianity reached these islands
centuries after Jesus’ life and death, they had no sites where Jesus, or even
some of his early followers, had lived, traveled or done miracles.
So at what sacred locations could the early British
Christians bury their dead?
was to take over the sacred places of earlier religions—the sites where the
Druids and others had practiced their rites.
In Anglesey, two sites have recently been found where the
Christians buried their dead next to a Bronze Age burial mound nearly two
millennia older. Near Stonehenge, the ancient stone circles of Avebury and
Knowlton were appropriated by the Christians as cemeteries.
And at Lough Erne in Northern Ireland, an
ancient two-faced stone statue became the center of a Christian burial ground.
What is going on here? The early British Christians, like
those in Israel, wanted to bury their dead at a sacred site. The only sacred
sites they knew came from the pagans. But now that the Christians knew the true
nature of the divine being, that he was God, they seemed to have decided that
these sites were part of God’s holiness. By burying the dead there, they were
brought closer to the Christian heaven.
But who knows, in the dark of Halloween night, whether the
early Christians remained certain that their God was completely in control.
Perhaps some pagan spirits and power remained, and who knows what the dead
might do . . . .