Some Christian churches teach that Christians should not observe Easter because the holiday supposedly originated in paganism. We feel especially qualified to address this issue, for we once taught this but have come to understand that our objections were misguided.
In its worst form, the idea is that people who assemble on Easter morning, who participate in such customs as decorating or hunting for eggs, are unwittingly worshipping an ancient pagan goddess. But this is based on several misunderstandings, and the New Testament gives no grounds for prohibiting Christian fellowship and worship on Easter.
The word “Easter”
Let’s examine a few objections that are sometimes made against Easter and see whether they have any merit. Let us start with the word “Easter” itself. (This objection is irrelevant in many nations, because the word for this holiday in other languages has no connection with the word “Easter.” Jesus’ resurrection was being celebrated centuries before the word “Easter” became associated with it.) Critics claim that the word “Easter” comes from the name of a Germanic goddess of spring, Eastre. Venerable Bede, an English monk who lived in the eighth century, taught this. However, many English words, such as “cereal” and “Saturday,” come from the names of pagan deities — but it is not a sin to use such words.
Bede may have been wrong, and the word “Easter” may not have come from the name of a goddess. 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 been called “Easter.” Jesus is thought to have risen shortly before sunrise on Sunday (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2). Since he is called “the sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2; Psalm 84:11), it would be appropriate to call a day in honor of his resurrection, “Easter” — the dawn of the Rising Son, Jesus.
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 deities. 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 fabric to us, not Clotho.
In connection with the word “Easter,” the concept of an Easter sunrise service is also labelled 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 called idolatry and an abomination in God’s sight. Easter is said to be 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 Jesus’ resurrection. The rising of the sun reminds them that Jesus is the dawn of our salvation, and that he rose early Sunday morning.
Did pagans worship the sun? Yes, they 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 traditions with ancient religious celebrations, and shout “pagan.” They think, “Once pagan, always pagan.” While they may admit the transforming power of Christ for people, they act as if Christ cannot transform days, customs and traditions. Yet many of the practices God approved for ancient Israel had previously existed in paganism. Sacrifices, prayers, temples, priests, harvest festivals, music in worship, circumcision and tithing all had ancient pagan counterparts. God can transform days and customs for his use. The fact that Christians use some of the same methods as pagans does not mean that we worship the same gods.
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 nearby cultures. That’s where we get our name for “Monday.” It was the day of the moon’s worship. Even though pagans worshipped the moon god on the day of the new moon, the Israelites could worship the true God on the same day. Just because pagans did something does not automatically mean that God’s people cannot do it.
God transformed many pagan customs into a form of worship devoted to him. Even the sun, worshipped as a god by many pagan cultures, God used 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 Revelation 22:16. God can use symbols misappropriated by pagans and transform them for his own use, making them acceptable for worship.
The point is that even if there once was a pagan “Easter” festival, and even if the word had some pagan significance, it doesn’t matter. No one takes the phrase “Easter sunrise service” to mean a 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 on which different deities were worshipped. 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 in the past doesn’t matter. We don’t think of it in these terms anymore; the word does not mean that any more.
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 there probably were — it doesn’t matter. God’s people can use those days to worship Christ, and they are not stuck in some time warp that turns them into unwitting idolaters. The words and the days have no power of their own; they do not change adoration of God into secret veneration of an idol. In modern times, on Easter Sunday, Christians worship Christ. That’s what is important. Christians who keep Easter are not pagans. They do not worship nor regard pagan gods. They honor Christ as Lord and Savior.
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.
Eggs and rabbits
We should explain one other 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, 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 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 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 eggs from another point of view. God created the egg. Since he is the giver of life, it would not be wrong to think of the egg as a reminder of the blessing of life that God gives to us. We don’t confuse the egg with life. We know God created life and that it comes from him through the egg. 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 birds. The ability of life to reproduce is a great and necessary gift of God.
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 and 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. The egg-hunting festivity is merely a secular time of fun for children, and nothing more. We put chocolate rabbits in Easter baskets, but they have no religious association. The pagan linkage simply no longer exists. Just as the word “cereal” is no longer pagan, the eggs and rabbits are no longer pagan. There is no need to look on eggs or bunnies as evil, for God created both.
Not commanded in the Bible
Another objection to Easter observance made by some is that it is not mentioned in the Bible. These people feel we should not set apart any day for worship unless it is specifically mentioned in the Bible. Since there is no example of celebrating the resurrection, these people say we should not do it.
Of course, there is no command in the New Testament not to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. But that doesn’t matter. If we could only have those religious worship times and activities that the New Testament specifically mentions, then we would be able to do very little 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. But these are a part of our lives and Christian 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 ever free to do anything new 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 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. So, too, was the addition of the synagogue and its traditions; God did not command it, but he allowed the innovation. Jesus attended temple worship during Hannukah, then called the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22), and he attended synagogues (Luke 4:16). In John 7:37 Jesus referred 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 intervention in human affairs. This would include the birth of Jesus at Christmas and his resurrection at Easter time.
It is not a sin to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter. After all, his resurrection is a cause of great rejoicing and celebration. It is our hope for eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:12-26). God is pleased to see his people worshipping Jesus and commemorating this event that is so important for their salvation.
Love, not command, is what motivates many Christians to celebrate Easter. To criticize 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 as a secular holiday, or perhaps even in a profane way, is no reason to avoid Easter. That’s not the problem of Easter but of the people who celebrate it in a wrong manner.
The decision to observe Easter, and if so how to observe it, is a personal matter. The church hopes that Christians who celebrate Easter and those who do not are both seeking to honor Jesus Christ (Romans 14:5-6). We encourage all who celebrate Easter to make Christ the center of their celebration.