Friday, October 28, 2011

A Biblical Perspective on the Filipino Celebration of All-Saint's Day

A Biblical Perspective on All-Saint’s Day
By Dr. Dave Johnson
Assemblies of God Missionary to the Philippines

On November 1, millions of Filipinos, most of them nominal Roman Catholics, will go to the cemeteries to visit the graves of their departed loved ones.  They believe that on this day every year the spirits of the dead return to the gravesite.  In this sense, the dead remain alive in the consciousness of their families and are what anthropologists have aptly called the “living dead.” My purpose here is to offer a biblical perspective on both the conviction that the spirits return to the gravesites and the worldview that fosters this belief.

While at the gravesite, the family will clean the graves, have a family reunion, light candles, and leave offerings for the dead. Some also offer prayers for the dead, presumably to get them out of Purgatory and into Heaven.  The need to clean the graves is obvious and the opportunity for a family reunion is certainly understandable but, in order to understand the need for candles and offerings, we need to probe a little deeper into the Filipino psyche.  After all, few people do things for no reason, so what’s the point?

The point, simply stated, is that Filipinos have a deep awareness and fear of the spirit world.  The Filipino worldview abounds with spirit beings that are either benevolent, malevolent, or both.  Filipinos also believe that these spirits can and must be controlled through candles and offerings.  They believe that if the ancestors are not appeased, they can wreak havoc on the living by causing misfortune.  If, however, the ancestors are happy, they will at least not bother the living and may even bring them a blessing through success in business, a wonderful marriage, or general good luck.  Keeping the ancestors happy, then, is believed to be an important task.

Three important observations can be made here.  First, this is one of many examples that could be given where Catholicism and Filipino traditional religious practices intermix. Second, these traditional religious practices are self centered.  The goal is to get the spirits of the ancestors to either leave the living alone or bring them good luck. In other words, people leave offerings for the dead for the ultimate benefit of the living, not the dead.  Man, then, is the center of the universe, not God or even the spirits. Third, underlying all of this is a deep fear of what the spirits might do if not appeased. It may be that this fear, more than any other motive, is what drives Filipinos to the graveyards every year. 

What does the Bible say about all this?  In a word, plenty!  First, from Genesis to Revelation, God is the focus of the universe.  He stands uncreated and without equal. He alone is the Creator and Sustainer of all things, and He alone rules the universe with his almighty hand.

Second, the Bible affirms the existence of the spirit world, suggesting that the Filipino worldview, which is shared by other cultures in varying forms throughout the world, is much closer to the biblical worldview than is the worldview of those of us from Western nations.  The New Testament and, to a lesser extent, the Old Testament, is replete with examples of spirit beings known as angels, Satan himself, and demons. A critical difference, however, between the biblical and Filipino worldviews, is that in the Filipino mindset, God is not totally in control.  If he were, the ancestors would not need to be appeased.  The Bible, however, shows a God who is in complete control of his creation. While numerous passages could be given, Philippians 2:9-11 will suffice here.  The name of Jesus is superior to every other name.  He outranks all others.  Verse 10 is clear that every knee will bow to him whether they are in heaven, on earth, or under the earth—which could be a reference either to dead people or demons, and all shall acknowledge his lordship.

Not only is God in complete control, his character, love, and trustworthiness, is absolutely consistent.  His is not only able to keep spirit beings from harming humans; he is also willing to do so.  Psalm 91 is an excellent example of God’s willingness to keep those who trust in him from spiritual predators. Therefore, we do not need to fear the ancestors or any other spirit!  Offerings to them are not necessary because, in biblical perspective, they can neither harm nor bless us.  All of the blessings we need come from God and even the adversities in life that God allows have purpose.  This is great news to Filipinos!

But the question must still be answered as to whether the dead can return to earth.  Most Christians would likely say no, but the biblical evidence is not that simple. Hebrews 9:27 does clearly imply that when people die, they are finished with life on earth.  The apostle Paul also hints at this in 2 Corinthians 5:8 when he writes that, for the believer, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.  Therefore, we can conclude that, generally speaking, the dead do not return to earth. There are, however, a few striking exceptions. Four examples will suffice.  In 1 Samuel 28, the witch at Endor did succeed in bringing Samuel up from the dead but, in reality, it was God sending him to deliver a message to King Saul.  In the New Testament, Jesus raised many from the dead, the story of Lazarus in John 11:38-44 being only one example.  Jesus did these things and commanded his disciples to do likewise as a declaration that the Kingdom of God had come (Matthew 10:8). Another example was the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13 and Luke 9:28-36) where both Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus to discuss his upcoming crucifixion.  The Transfiguration, which occurred at about the midpoint of Jesus’ ministry, was a watershed.  From that time on, he prepared his disciples for his departure. And obviously, the ultimate return from the dead was Christ’s own resurrection. 

A couple of observations can be made from these examples. First, these events were random.  The dead did not return en masse yearly on a specific date, nor did they do so of their own volition.  Second, in all cases God was in control of what happened.  Third, in each situation the dead returned as a part of God’s purpose, not their own or, as in the case of Saul at Endor, the will of the one who summoned them.

The Bible does affirm the existence of the spirit world and the existence of spirit beings, known as Satan and his demons, who would wish to harm people.  Therefore, the Filipino’s fear of the spirits is understandable.  The good news, however, is that God is in control of the spirit world, and he alone is worthy of our offerings, praise, worship, and adoration.  He alone is trustworthy and can liberate us from all of our fears.       


*All Scripture references are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.

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Copyright 2011 Dr. Dave Johnson 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting reflection, Dave. Can see that you have really imbibed many of our customs and beliefs already. Conversely, we have been celebrating November 1 here in the UK, not with candles for our deceased ones, but with lots of pumpkins! What a contrast indeed! Blessings!