Is it right to worship God with pagan holidays and customs—or to casually dismiss concerns about doing so? In fact, the Bible itself warns against and condemns both!
It seems to happen every year as sure as winter rolls around. Amid the intense marketing of Christmas gifts by retailers in November and December, a sobering counterpoint appears. We begin seeing articles in print and online about the non-Christian origins of many aspects of Christmas celebrations. The articles often quote encyclopedias and books that detail the transition of the Roman pagan holiday of the winter solstice, called Saturnalia, and the birth of the sun god, called Mithras, into the observances of the Roman church in the third and fourth centuries. Consider:
Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the church…. Christmas customs are an evolution from the times that long antedated the Christian period—a descent from seasonal, pagan, religious and national practices, hedged about with legend and tradition (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, vol. 5, “Christmas,” p. 642).
Does the Bible prohibit some of your traditional practices? In the first century, the Pharisees had traditions that violated God’s commandments. They claimed to have a rationale for their mistakes, and today’s theologians do as well. For instance, most professing Christians know that the observance of Christmas isn’t biblical—but do you know how theologians try to justify it?
When Roman Emperor Constantine declared his empire to be Christian, he had to begin the difficult process of adjusting the pagans to Roman church practices. He did this through what historians and theologians call syncretism, the mixing together of disparate religious practices.
The Romans, like many other pagan cultures, had a winter solstice celebration. What purpose did it serve? Noted cultural anthropologists Anne Baring and Jules Cashford observe, “All over the world, for countless millennia, people have participated in a religious ritual at the winter solstice, when the sun’s downward course is arrested and it turns back, it seems, to earth. This change of state in the bleak mid-winter of the year was experienced as the rebirth of the sun and commemorated as the birth day of the sun god, the luminous divine child” (The Myth of the Goddess, 1993, p. 561).
Most people who read the Bible know that Christmas is not a biblical observance. Nowhere in either the Old Testament or the New Testament are we instructed to keep an observance of Christ’s birthday—and, in any case, most understand that He could not have been born in December. The shepherds would not have been in the field at that time of year (Luke 2:8) because their sheep would have long since been brought into their folds for the winter months. Other biblical indications are that Christ was most likely born in the autumn.
These days, Christmas is largely a secular winter festival driven by commercial interests. As a result, people are fond of saying, “We need to put Christ back into Christmas!” But He was never really there—so how do theologians justify putting Him there? One of the main ways is the idea of “sanctifying the pagan.”
So, can pagan practices ever be sanctified for the worship of the Almighty God of the Bible? The world’s churches say they can, but God Himself gives a very different answer in His word.
The Story of Civilization is an eleven-volume history written by noted historian Will Durant and his wife, Ariel. In Volume III, titled Caesar and Christ, he provides a frank discussion of pagan influence on the later development of “mainstream” Christianity and gives some examples of Rome’s sanctifying of pagan practices. He wrote the following:
Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it…. [T]he Greek mysteries passed down into the impressive mystery of the Mass. Other pagan cultures contributed to the syncretist result. From Egypt came the ideas of a divine trinity, the Last Judgment, and a personal immortality of reward and punishment; from Egypt the adoration of the Mother and Child…. From Phrygia came the worship of the Great Mother; from Syria the resurrection drama of Adonis…. The Mithraic ritual so closely resembled the eucharistic sacrifice of the mass that Christian fathers charged the Devil with inventing these similarities to mislead frail minds. [Nicaean] Christianity was the last great creation of the ancient pagan world (1944, p. 595, emphasis added).
Pagan temples were converted to churches—there were at least eleven such conversions in Rome alone. Statues of pagan gods were repurposed to represent Christian saints. In art, the halo (or nimbus) that had adorned pictures of pagan gods and emperors was transferred to depictions of Jesus and various supposed Christians. The solar calendar and its festivals replaced the biblical calendar and its Festivals. And the list goes on.
Cardinal John Henry Newman, an influential Roman Catholic prelate in the nineteenth century, rationalized this practice theologically when he wrote the following:
We are told in various ways by Eusebius [an early church historian], that Constantine, in order to recommend the new religion to the heathen, transferred into it the outward ornaments to which they had been accustomed in their own…. The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints… holidays and seasons… turning to the East, images at a later date… are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption in the Church (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1845, chapter 8:6, emphasis added).
Twentieth-century Catholic theologian Christopher Dawson typified an even more extreme approach, writing, “The complete sanctification of the pagan is the end result of the Christianization of the world” (The Leavening Process in Christian Culture, August 7, 1955, emphasis added).
But we should ask, If Dawson’s scenario takes place, will paganism actually be Christianized, or will “Christianity” be paganized?
Some people assume that they can use pagan practices in their worship as long as they do so to honor God. But has God changed His mind about this matter? He has told us, “I am the Lord, I do not change” (Malachi 3:6), and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah, who said, “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8–9). God has not changed His mind about how He is to be worshipped, and Christ warns us that it is possible to worship Him in vain.
God tells us that He is holy, and that He set Israel apart to worship Him without pagan practices (Leviticus 20:6). The Apostle Peter had this in mind when he reminded Christians, “But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15–16). Peter was quoting from Leviticus 20:7 when he wrote this, remembering that ancient Israel had at times included pagan practices in its worship of the Most High God—practices taken from the worship of pagan deities such as Baal, Ashtoreth, and Molech. God forbade that in the first commandment He gave at Mt. Sinai, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:2–3).
Ancient Israel displayed—as do many people today—a propensity toward syncretism, adapting pagan religious forms into their worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet God warned Israel, “You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations which you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. And you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and burn their wooden images with fire; you shall cut down the carved images of their gods and destroy their names from that place. You shall not worship the Lord your God with such things” (Deuteronomy 12:2–4). That warning applies to us today. The elements of paganism cannot be transformed for the worship of the Most High God.
Some say that since our culture shares so much with the ancient pagans, we might as well sanctify those pagan connections. For example, our names for the days of the week are generally of pagan origin. For instance, the etymology of Wednesday comes from the Teutonic god Woden, and Thursday is named for the Teutonic god Thor. Therefore, some reason, sanctifying pagan practices for the worship of God should not be a problem, since if one is not a sin, the other must not be either.
But that is bad reasoning. Christians and pagans also eat bread, drink water, breathe air, laugh, and cry. God didn’t say that we must not do anything at all that the pagans do. His specific command is that we must not worship pagan deities, nor mix pagan worship with His!
God gave us a very clear instruction when He inspired these words:
When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods (Deuteronomy 12:29–31).
Then He gave an explicit prescription and proscription: “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (v. 32). God has not changed His mind about this, and it is not something we can ignore!
Many understand that Christmas is one of several festivals of mainstream Christianity that were “Christianized” from pagan religious traditions. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day often let their own traditions supersede God’s clear commands, just as today’s religious leaders often do. But Jesus Christ had an admonition for them—and for us.
He said plainly, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:6–9).
As we have seen, the changes made by Constantine and the Roman church in the second and third centuries went far beyond “the washing of pitchers and cups.” God makes it clear that the practices associated with other gods are not to be used in His worship, and that He does not accept them.