Over the last 20 years or so Harry Potter has been a real phenomenon. Vast numbers of people around the world have read or watched the books and films, which feature the title character and his friends. Millions are gripped, especially children.
Although most people in the Western world are very positive about Harry Potter, not everyone agrees. There has been widespread opposition from Christians, even if those who speak out against it seem to be fewer in number than they used to be.
The reason why so many Christians complain is that Harry and his friends use witchcraft. Nor is this just a sideline of what they do. Using witchcraft is right at the heart of what these characters do and who they are. This is enough for many believers to reject these films and books outright.
There are more than a few Christians, however, who are ready to stand up for Harry Potter. They argue that we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the story of Harry and his friends is set in a fantasy world, not our real world. And they argue too that the witchcraft in this fantasy world isn’t the same as witchcraft in the real world. This means, so the argument goes, that the books and films are not leading children to actually start practising witchcraft. It is also said that Harry Potter encourages virtues such as loyalty and kindness.
So what are we to make of all this? What should the Christian attitude to Harry Potter be? Is it an abomination? Or is it actually a positive thing? Or does it simply have some big pros and cons?
I believe that these books and films are near the abomination end of the scale. I am sure that they cause a lot more harm than good, and in what follows I will give reasons why I believe this.
WITCHCRAFT IN OUR ACTUAL WORLD
Before turning to look specifically at Harry Potter, I need to say something about witchcraft in our actual world.
Every Christian needs to understand very clearly that witchcraft is a real thing. There really are witches who really do use witchcraft. Genuine witchcraft uses the ability of evil spirits to perform various supernatural acts. This is the real source of power behind it, even if the people involved are often unaware of this.
Sometimes the terms 'magic' and 'sorcery' are used to refer to witchcraft. Defining things can be complicated by the fact that some people use 'witchcraft', 'magic' and 'sorcery' interchangeably, while others use the words to mean different things.
For our purposes in this article, when I refer to 'witchcraft' I will be using the word broadly to include what anyone might mean by magic and sorcery as well.
Biblical passages that condemn witchcraft
Given that witchcraft uses demonic powers, it is no surprise that the Bible roundly condemns it. The following are some important passages:
In Deut 18:10-12 instructions are given to the Israelites:
'10 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 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD.'
(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version.)
Nothing in later biblical revelation suggests that the principles in these verses in Deuteronomy no longer apply today.
In Acts 19:18-19 Luke tells us what some Christian converts in Ephesus did:
'18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. 19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all.'
Luke clearly portrays this burning of books on magic/witchcraft as a good thing.
In Gal 5:19-20 Paul tells the Galatian churches:
'19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 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.'
Paul is explicit here that those who practise sorcery/witchcraft will not inherit the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God in this verse refers to final, eternal salvation. In other words, Paul is saying that those who unrepentantly practise witchcraft are on track for hell.
In Rev 21:8 God gives a stark warning:
'But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.'
Again, this is very clear that those who unrepentantly practise sorcery/witchcraft are on track for hell.
There are other biblical passages too that condemn witchcraft, but even the few that I have quoted should leave us in no doubt that witchcraft is a grave evil and God hates it.
Attitudes to witchcraft in mainstream Western culture
Mainstream Western culture distinguishes between so-called black magic or black witchcraft on the one hand, and so-called white magic or white witchcraft on the other. The black forms are designed to harm people in various ways, whereas the white forms are not designed to cause harm.
Mainstream Westerners are usually not opposed to white witchcraft. Many don’t believe that there is any real power in witchcraft, and those who take this view don’t tend to be against what they see as harmless make-believe. Many others do accept that there is real power in witchcraft, but they are not opposed to white witchcraft, since it doesn’t aim to harm people.
Comparing mainstream Western and Christian attitudes
It is difficult to overstate the difference between a mainstream Western worldview and a Christian worldview. In reality, if not always in theory, the mainstream Western worldview sees human beings, and not God, as the centre of things. So if something doesn’t harm a human being, it is usually seen as acceptable.
Sadly, many Christians have been very influenced by this outlook. However, whether something harms people or not is not the key issue. The key thing is whether it offends God. And there are many things that offend God without causing direct harm to people.
Witchcraft in all its forms offends God, for two reasons:
First, when a person practises witchcraft, they are stepping outside the place of human beings in the created order. All witchcraft involves engaging in supernatural activity without reference to God. But humans are simply not designed to do this. This is not part of our mandate.
Second, as I have already noted, all witchcraft involves using demonic power, whether people are aware of this or not. And obviously God doesn’t want people to use evil power. It is worth noting too that most people who practise witchcraft end up with demonic problems as a result.
It is essential, then, for Christians to understand that all witchcraft in our real world is evil and dangerous. It may be true that black witchcraft is even worse than white witchcraft, but even the white variety is thoroughly evil in God’s sight.
WHAT SHOULD WE MAKE OF HARRY POTTER?
Let’s turn now to think specifically about Harry Potter. There are several reasons to believe that this series of books and films is harmful, especially to children.
Desensitisation to the fact that witchcraft is evil
First, we should be in no doubt that the Potter books and films serve to desensitise many people, especially children, to the fact that witchcraft in the real world is evil.
Everyone should shudder when they hear the word 'witchcraft', and children should be encouraged to be repulsed by this practice. Every child should be taught that witchcraft is a real thing and that it is always evil. However, having a work of fiction in which the heroes are children who use witchcraft can only hinder children understanding this.
There are some Christians who make a big deal of the fact that the witchcraft in the Potter fantasy world and the witchcraft in the real world are not the same. However, it is still the case that in the storyline of the series Harry and his friends explicitly use witchcraft of a sort. This can only work against children being repulsed by the witchcraft that exists in our real world.
An increase in the practice of witchcraft
Second, in reading up on this topic I found anecdotal evidence that Harry Potter is helping to fuel an increase in the number of people who practise witchcraft.
Apparently, in bookshops it is not uncommon for Potter books to be found on the shelf next to books on real witchcraft. It seems too that the practice of witchcraft is on the rise in Western countries, and witches themselves seem to agree that Harry Potter has contributed to this.
Nothing about this should surprise us. Huge numbers of children adore the Potter books and films and the witchcraft in that fantasy world. For some of these children, when they discover that there is such a thing as witchcraft in our real world, they want to get involved.
Similarities between witchcraft in the real and fantasy worlds
Third, the differences between witchcraft in the real world and witchcraft in Harry Potter are not great enough to say that the former is evil and the latter is acceptable.
In the real world, witchcraft is wrong because it involves operating in the supernatural realm without reference to God. But the same is true of the witchcraft in the Potter fantasy world.
Other fantasy stories
Fourth, appealing to other fantasy stories in support of Harry Potter is very unconvincing.
One argument that is used by some Christians who are in favour of these books and films goes in this way:
Fairy tales are harmless stories, but they often have magical elements. Furthermore, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were Christian authors, whose works are helpful in portraying biblical truth, and their heroes sometimes use magical powers. It is inconsistent to approve of fairy tales, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, and Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia stories, and also to disapprove of Harry Potter.
In response to this, there are a number of points to make:
(1) It is true that we should always be as consistent as possible. However, this should be done by disapproving of bad things in fairy tales, Tolkien and Lewis and not by approving of bad things in Harry Potter.
(2) I think many magical elements in fairy tales are problematic and harmful. In any case, Harry Potter seems a lot worse than fairy tales generally. In the Potter books and films the big thing that the main characters are known for is using witchcraft. This goes beyond what is typically found in fairy tales.
(3) I think Tolkien is very overrated in terms of his positive influence on the Christian faith. I would challenge the idea that his works have helped to promote gospel truth. What is more, some pagan religious groups today appeal to ideas that are found in Tolkien.
(4) I think Lewis is also overrated to an extent. It is true that a lot of what he teaches is good, and he has some extremely helpful insights. Nevertheless, he also has more than a few seriously wrong ideas too.
Besides, Lewis seems to have a very different attitude to witchcraft from what we find in Harry Potter. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the witch is an evil character, and I am not aware of any witch in The Chronicles of Narnia stories that is portrayed as a good character. There is nothing wrong with having witches in children’s fiction, as long as they are portrayed as evil.
There are good reasons, then, for thinking that Harry Potter is harmful, especially to children:
These books and films desensitise people, especially children, to the evil of witchcraft in the real world.
They are helping to fuel an increase in the practice of witchcraft.
The differences between real and Potter-style witchcraft are not great enough to say that one is evil and the other is acceptable.
It is unwarranted to appeal to other fantasy writers as a way to support Harry Potter.
Let me give an analogy to help me try to make my point.
Suppose for a moment that there is a children’s story set in a fantasy world where the main characters are children, but instead of using witchcraft, they go around beating up other children. This is the main thing they do. They travel around finding other children to hurt because they enjoy doing this. And let’s imagine too that the story doesn’t teach that it is wrong for them to behave in this way. Finally, let’s suppose that this story is extremely popular among children and that some adults want it to be read in schools.
Imagine the outrage from parents! People would be horrified! And rightly so.
Why would they be appalled? Simply because beating up children is a very bad thing to do. So to have a story where the main characters do this sets an appalling example to children.
If someone were to try to defend this story by saying that it is set in a fantasy world and not the real world, and that in this fantasy world beating up children is acceptable, they would be told in no uncertain terms that that was a hopelessly weak excuse.
I believe that Harry Potter is very similar to this story. Harry and his friends don’t go around beating up other children. But they do something just as bad, namely, use supernatural powers without reference to God, i.e., witchcraft.
I am sure that many Christians who are reading this will think that my analogy is a poor one. They will think that in a fantasy world, as in the real world, beating up children has to be much worse than so-called white witchcraft.
I would suggest that the reason why so many Christians don’t feel the same about witchcraft as they do about sadistic violence is because, unknowingly, they have been massively influenced by the values of modern Western culture. I come back to the point I made at the beginning of the article. In mainstream Western culture today there is little or no place for God. So if an activity involves causing unnecessary pain to a human being, it is seen as wrong, but if it doesn’t involve doing this to a human being, it is usually seen as acceptable.
However, the whole starting point of this worldview is mistaken. Instead of asking whether an activity causes pain to humans, we should start by asking whether it causes pain to God. And there are many things that pain God without causing direct pain to human beings.
Huge numbers of Christians today have a very faulty worldview, because they have been very influenced by secular Western thinking. Many have simply not grasped that God hates many things that don’t cause direct pain to humans, including witchcraft. So they haven’t understood that it is extremely inappropriate to have a children’s fantasy story in which the main characters do something similar to witchcraft in the real world.
What practical steps, then, should Christians take in response to Harry Potter?
Avoid the books and films
First, I think that as a general rule it is best even for adults to avoid these books and films.
Each Christian would need to follow their own conscience in this matter. However, I would be surprised if it was God’s will for believers to spend their leisure time being exposed to such an evil subject matter. Watching pornography, for example, is wrong, so why would we think that watching or reading about witchcraft, even fantasy witchcraft, is any better?
Second, Christian parents need to take great care to protect their children from harmful influences from these books and films.
I think normally this will mean keeping children, especially young ones, away from Harry Potter. I appreciate how difficult this must be for parents today, especially when there is so much peer pressure on children to follow the crowd, and also when these books are often read in schools.
Perhaps it may sometimes be God’s will for Christian parents to allow their children to be exposed to some of the books and films while at the same time warning them of the evils of witchcraft. But I would at least question that. The subject matter is just so awful.
Finally, there is the issue of book-burning to consider.
In the last two decades various Christian groups have got into the news because they have publicly burned Harry Potter books.
I don’t think this is an overreaction. Public burning of magic books is exactly what we find approved of in Acts 19:19.
It is true that the books referred to in this verse had to do with magic/witchcraft in our real world, not the witchcraft of a fantasy world. Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between burning books on real witchcraft and burning ones on fantasy witchcraft.
A decision to publicly burn books shouldn’t be taken lightly, however. There may well be times when, for one reason or another, God might not want Potter books to be burned in public. So Christians who are considering this would need to take the matter to the Lord in prayer.