A few churches teach that Easter is a pagan holiday. They frown on the idea of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday morning. They say that Christians are not celebrating Jesus, but are unwittingly worshipping an ancient pagan deity when they participate in such activities as Easter sunrise services.
But this is based on several misunderstandings. The New Testament gives no grounds for limiting Christian fellowship and worship on Easter. Let’s examine a few objections that are commonly made against Easter and see whether they have any merit.
The Word "Easter"
The first issue is the word "Easter" itself. (Of course, this objection is completely irrelevant in many nations, because the word for this Christian spring festival in other languages has no connection with the word "Easter.") As well, we should remember that the resurrection of Jesus was celebrated in the spring for centuries in Christendom before the word "Easter" was adopted as a label for this festival in the English language.
Nonetheless, critics claim that the Word "Easter" is derived from the name of a Germanic goddess of spring, Eastre. The English monk, Venerable Bede, who lived in the eighth century, popularized this view. However, this idea is not at all certain. The King James translators certainly did not understand the word "Easter" in this way when they used it to translate the Greek pascha, or Passover, in Acts 12:4!
Another explanation is that Easter derives from an Old German root, ostern, for dawn or east, which is the time and place of the rising sun. This makes more sense as a reason why a day commemorating Jesus’ resurrection would have begun to be called "Easter." Jesus is thought to have risen around dawn or sunrise on resurrection Sunday (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2). Since he is called "the sun of righteousness" (Malachi 4:2), it would be quite appropriate to call a day in honor of his resurrection, "Easter" – the dawn of the Rising Sun or Son, Jesus. (The Lord God of the Old Testament is called a "sun" in Psalm 84:11.)
In any case, even if the word "Easter" was associated with an ancient goddess, it does not mean we cannot use the word today. We have many words in the English language that were connected with ancient gods. For example, our word "cereal" comes from the name of the ancient goddess of agriculture, Ceres. The word "cloth" comes from Clotho, the spinster goddess who was said to spin the thread of life. The word "hymn" is thought to come from the god of marriage, Hymen, and in ancient times meant any song offered in praise or honor of a god or gods. But when we use "hymn" in church services we mean a song sung in praise of the one true God. When we use the word "cereal" we’re not thinking of the goddess or worshipping her, but of corn flakes or granola. Cloth is cloth to us, not Clotho.
Easter Sunrise Services
In connection with the word "Easter," the concept of an Easter sunrise service is also labeled as pagan by detractors. They point to Ezekiel 8:14-17, which describes individuals with their faces toward the east, worshipping the sun. This practice in Ezekiel is spoken of as idolatry and an abomination in God’s sight. Critics maintain Easter is a replica of this vain worship in ancient Israel.
However, in Ezekiel the individuals were forsaking the worship of the true God, as is evidenced by them turning their backs on the temple of the Lord (verse 16). They were purposely worshipping the sun. When Christians attend an Easter sunrise service they worship God and Christ, remembering and rehearsing the meaning of the resurrection. The dawn or rising of the sun has great symbolic value in that it reminds them that Jesus is the Dawn of our salvation, and that he had risen on a Sunday morning along with the sun.
Did pagans worship the sun, though? Yes, of course. Pagans worshipped many things, including stars, the moon, many animals, and even the earth itself. Devout Christians see this, and sometimes confuse ancient forms with modern substance. They point to the association of some modern tradition with an ancient religious celebration, and shout "pagan." Similarly, "once pagan, always pagan" is the way some people erroneously reason. While they may admit the transforming power of Christ for people, they deny it for customs and traditions.
Israel’s worship system
Yet, what is often overlooked is the fact that many of the practices God commanded for ancient Israel had previously existed in paganism. Temples, priests, priestly vestments, incense, animal sacrifices, harvest time as the lynchpin of festivals—these and other forms used in pagan worship systems found their counterpart in Israel’s worship system given by God.
The annual festivals or "holy days" God gave Israel as part of the old covenant were based on the cycle of the moon. The festival of Trumpets came on the new moon of the seventh month. Israelites even had a new moon celebration with a blowing of trumpets (Psalm 81:3). Yet, the moon was regularly worshipped as a god or goddess in other cultures. That’s where we get our name for "Monday." It was the day set aside in honor of the moon. If we were to apply the reasoning some people use to call Easter celebration "pagan" to Israel’s worship system (which God gave them), we would be falsely painting it with the brush of paganism.
In fact, God transformed many pagan customs into a form of worship devoted to him. Even the sun, universally worshipped as a god by pagan cultures, is used in Scripture to symbolize an aspect of Jesus’ glory. Luke called him "the rising sun" (Luke 1:78). Jesus is also called the "bright Morning Star" in Scripture (Revelation 22:16). God can use symbols misappropriated by pagans and transform them for his own use, and for acceptable worship.
The point is that even if there once was a pagan "Easter" festival in the spring, or if the word itself had some pagan significance, it doesn’t matter. No one takes the phrase "Easter sunrise service" to mean some old pagan rite or thinks that he or she is worshipping the sun.
As pointed out about Monday, all the names of the days of the week have a pagan significance and were named for various pagan deities. Sunday was the day of the sun; Monday was the moon’s day; Tuesday was Tiw’s day; Wednesday was Woden’s day; Thursday was Thor’s day and Friday was Frigga’s day. The latter four were all Norse deities. But we don’t worship pagan gods when we say or use these names for our days. We don’t think of worshipping old gods when a new day comes. That’s the way it is with the word "Easter." Whether or not it had a pagan connection doesn’t matter. We don’t think of it in these terms anymore.
The same applies to worship services on Easter Sunday morning or during resurrection Sunday. If there were pagan "resurrection" celebrations to various gods on Sunday – and no doubt there were – it doesn’t matter. Those institutions, if they existed, have been transformed by God for his use just as he transformed pagan sacrificial and priestly systems for his use. Israel’s religious system may have had forms already in use by pagan religious, but God meant these to be transformed as vehicles for godly worship.
Christians do the same thing with worship on Easter. Today, on Easter Sunday, Christians worship Christ. That’s what’s important. Unless we are to conclude that celebrating Christ’s resurrection is in itself a detestable thing, its celebration on what was once a pagan holiday is irrelevant. We must remember that Pentecost, one of the Old Testament festivals given to Israel by God, fell on Sunday. As well, the Holy Spirit first came on this day, as we know from Acts 2. Knowing this, we understand that Christians who keep Easter are not involved in pagan worship. They do not worship nor regard pagan gods. They honor Christ as Lord and Savior.
Easter eggs, rabbits and things
We should explain one other major objection to Easter. What seems particularly offensive to some people is the use of colored eggs at Easter. A related objection has to do with references to rabbits, which are known for their prodigious reproductive capacities.
Of course, it is quite evident that pagan people used eggs in rituals and ceremonies dedicated to their gods, and in fertility rites. But let’s first ask why eggs might have been used in religious activities. They are certainly a symbol of new life, and thus would have been a ready metaphor of fertility. Since nature comes alive in the springtime, we shouldn’t be surprised that eggs may have been associated with festivities at this time. It certainly is also true that many of the pagan fertility rites were associated with abominable practices such as temple prostitution and other revelry.
On the other hand, let us look at fertility and the egg from another point of view. God created the egg, and since he is the giver of life, it would not be wrong to think of the egg as a symbol of the blessing of life that God gives to us. We don’t confuse the egg with life. As Christians, we know God created life and that it comes from him.
Fertility is something God himself commanded. He told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). Children are a blessing from the Lord. So is an abundance of livestock and fish. The ability of life to reproduce is a great and necessary gift of God so that we might live our physical lives.
The ancients were not wrong in understanding the key role of fertility in life, nor in knowing that sex and reproduction are gifts of God. What they erred in was worshipping the created rather than the Creator, and then worshipping in ways that were abominable to God – such as in fertility revelry, which included temple prostitution.
But there is nothing inherently evil about eggs or rabbits. When associated with Easter, neither are used in the way pagans may have used them. In fact, eggs are hardly thought of in a religious way at all in modern times. The egg-rolling festivity is merely a secular time of fun for children, and nothing more. We put chocolate bunny rabbits in Easter baskets, but they have no Christian religious association. Besides, the pagan linkage simply no longer exists. There is no need to look on Easter eggs or bunnies as evil, for God created both.
Easter celebration not in Bible
Another objection to Easter observance made by some is that it is not mentioned in the Bible. Some people feel we should not set apart any day for worship unless it is specifically commanded in the Bible. Since there is no direct example of the church celebrating the resurrection on Easter Sunday, these people say we should not do it.
Of course, there is no command in the New Testament to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. However, neither is there a command not to celebrate or memorialize it. Consider this. If we could only have those religious worship times and activities that the New Testament specifically mentions, then we would be able to do almost nothing in terms of worship and Christian ceremony. None of the apostles are shown to have performed a wedding ceremony or conducted a funeral, for example. There are no examples of church services such as we have them in our churches. But these are a part of our lives, and Christian experience and worship.
The central issue regarding Easter observance is this: How much freedom do Christians have in the new covenant, either individually or as a church, to express their faith, worship and thanks toward Christ in forms not found in the Bible? Are Christians free to innovate in worship? May church leaders establish special days to celebrate the great acts of salvation?
True, the Bible nowhere tells us to celebrate Easter. But, as mentioned earlier, it also nowhere says not to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on this day. The fact is, the Bible gives examples where God permitted human beings to set up times and forms of worship other than what he specifically commanded.
When Israel added Hanukkah and Purim to its religious calendar – events that celebrated God’s saving acts in Jewish history – these were acceptable to God. Jesus attended temple worship during Hanukkah, then called the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22). The Jews added the synagogue and its traditions, and nowhere is this said to be displeasing to God. In John 7:37 it is widely recognized that Jesus made reference to the Jewish water-drawing ceremony, which pictured the salvation they looked for. Jesus did not condemn this ceremony but used it as a convenient vehicle for explaining that he was the one who would bring true salvation.
Examples such as these have led many Christians to conclude that the church also has the freedom to add to its calendar festivals that celebrate God’s redemptive acts through Jesus. Central among these is the resurrection of Jesus, which is celebrated in the spring (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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It is not a sin to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter. Rather, it is pleasing to God to see his people worshipping Jesus and having understanding of the meaning of his resurrection. After all, Jesus’ resurrection should be a cause of great rejoicing and celebration. It is our hope for eternal life.
Love, not command, is what motivates many Christians to celebrate Easter. To harshly judge those who choose to practice their faith in this spirit of devotion conflicts with many New Testament principles. The fact that non-Christians or even some Christians celebrate Easter in a secular manner only or, perhaps even in a profane way, is no reason to avoid worshipful celebration during the Easter season. If some celebrate during Easter in a wrong way, this is not the problem of the season but of the people who celebrate it in a wrong manner. Just as some may need to put "Christ back into Christmas," others may also need to put Jesus back into Easter.
We encourage all those who celebrate Easter to make Christ the center of their celebration. The decision to observe Easter, and how to observe it, is a personal matter.