At this sacred time on the Christian calendar, we need to consider: Why is Easter so different from what we find in the Bible? Does it really matter?
Is Easter pagan?
It’s a controversial, maybe inflammatory, question that provokes interesting responses.
Some people bristle at the mere suggestion. That’s understandable if they believe it disgraces one of their most sacred holy days. Search that question on the Internet, and you’ll find articles by people jumping to defend Easter against any accusation that its origins are so tainted.
The same search results, however, reveal many others writing, “Of course it is!” in articles exposing how heathen religious practices (think rabbits and eggs) became entwined with today’s Easter celebrations. These customs’ historical roots are so commonly known, in fact, that some poke fun at Easter with comic memes like, “The pagans are mad—they want their holidays back!”
Does it matter if Easter is pagan?
These diverse answers, though, quickly lead to a greater question: Does it matter?
Once again, we find people hopelessly divided.
The majority probably sit in the “So what?” camp—they admit ancient pagan customs gradually mixed into modern Easter celebrations, but shrug and say, “Who cares? It doesn’t matter where it came from, or what it meant to people thousands of years ago. All that counts is what it means to you today. And, besides, it’s fun for the kids!”
Some more conservative religious people, though, do care. Troubled by Easter’s pagan associations, they try to detach from those aspects and focus solely on a core religious meaning. Still others urge tolerance of all beliefs as the godly way to bridge these divisions.
At the end of the day, you’re lost in a dense fog of human opinions by asking people to answer, “Is Easter pagan?” and “Does it matter?”
Maybe we need to ask some different questions, like …
What does God think? If Easter is about honoring Him and Christ, shouldn’t His opinion be the only one that really counts? Does He care? Does He leave us in a fog?
Actually, this Easter controversy can be easily cleared up by following these three steps:
- Examine the Scriptures to discover exactly what God says.
- Examine the facts to discover the historical record and see whether it aligns with God’s Word.
- Finally, adapt your practices accordingly.
What does God say?
What does the Bible say about religious holidays and customs?
God designated the holy days the Israelites were to observe—days with deep significance to Him. “The feasts of the LORD, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts,” He told them (Leviticus 23:2, emphasis added).
He also expressly forbade them from adopting the religious teachings and traditions of other nations.
“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” (Deuteronomy 12:30-32).
Yet His people repeatedly ignored Him and ran after other gods. Centuries later God told Israel, “Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates” (Isaiah 1:14).
Some argue, “Yes, but that doesn’t apply to New Testament Christianity.” How, then, can one explain Jesus’ own words in Mark 7:6-9?
He said, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors 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.”
Jesus added, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.”
Paul chimed in with his letter to Colossae: “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
There is nothing ambiguous about these scriptures!
Okay, next let’s look at the scriptures indicating it’s now permissible for us to change the holy days God established. Or the scriptures showing it’s acceptable to bring pagan practices into His Church if it helps bring people to Christ. Or the ones where God says it’s okay for us to decide how we worship Him. Or any that say, or even hint, that “it doesn’t matter.” Here’s the list:
All we find from the scriptural evidence is a conspicuous absence of any words to that effect.
Now let’s consider six historical facts.
Fact 1: You can’t find the word Easter in the Bible.
Only in the old King James Version do we find a single use of Easter (Acts 12:4). Virtually all other translations (including the New King James) use the term Passover. It baffles scholars as to why the King James translators wrote Easter into this verse when they correctly called it Passover in all the other 28 occurrences of this Greek word (pascha) in the New Testament.
These 29 references range over decades from Christ’s death through the late writings of the apostle Paul, further proof that the New Testament Church observed Passover—not Easter.
So where does the word Easter come from? Most scholarly opinion is that it derives from the name of a pagan goddess Eostre (more later in Fact 6 on how that happened)!
Fact 2: Commemorating Good Friday as Jesus’ crucifixion and celebrating Easter Sunday as His resurrection contradict the only sign He gave that He was the Messiah!
Jesus told the religious leaders of the day that He would provide only one proof of His Messiahship—so this is rather important! That sign was very specific: “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39-40).
In a related situation Jesus talked about full 12-hour days, which implies full 12-hour nights (John 11:6-9), not partial days and nights.
So how could Jesus die on Friday afternoon and be resurrected before sunrise on Sunday (John says Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty “while it was still dark”)?
Do the math—it’s not possible to fit three days and three nights between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning—not even if you counted partial days and nights.
That means today’s Easter Holy Week practices contradict the Messiah’s own words!
When you understand the holy days observed at that time—the ones God ordained—it’s easy to understand the timing. John 19:31 states the Jews were concerned that “the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day).” This “high day” was the first holy day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which that year fell on a Thursday.
Jesus died late Wednesday afternoon (not Friday), lay in the tomb for three full days and nights, and was resurrected before sunset Saturday afternoon (not Sunday morning).
Fact 3: The apostles and early New Testament Church never observed Easter.
Several New Testament verses prove the early Church observed only God’s ordained holy days.
Can we justify to God bringing pagan practices into His Church? On whose authority did anyone change the doctrines and practices of the Church Jesus built?The Corinthians, for example, clearly kept the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). Though they were mostly Greek converts, they didn’t raise the “Jewish feast” objections as many do today. They saw them as “the Feasts of the Lord.” And while Christ’s resurrection is certainly of incredible importance and never to be minimized, they knew Jesus’ instructions were to commemorate His death, not His resurrection.
Fact 4: The Council of Nicaea, nearly 300 years after Christ, officially changed the church’s observance from Passover to Easter.
If Church members during the time of Paul, Peter, James, John and Jude had come back to life just a century or so later, they would not have recognized the Church. Many of the heresies the apostles had warned of had gained strong footholds. Faithful members and leaders were slowly losing the battle “for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
Under Roman Emperor Constantine’s direction, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. Monumental doctrinal changes had already come. Only four years earlier Constantine had decreed that Sunday, “the venerable Day of the Sun,” would be the official Roman day of rest. Now they determined to settle the Passover/Easter controversy.
At this council, without any scriptural authority, the majority decided Easter must be observed instead of Passover, and always on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. This ensured Easter would not fall on the Passover.
Fact 5: Many changes were driven by anti-Semitism, not by Scripture.
Well before the Council of Nicaea, Christians holding to New Testament practices suffered persecution for being “Judaizers.”
Constantine revealed his hatred in his description of the Easter/Passover decision: “It appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul. … Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Saviour a different way.”
Other leaders of the Roman church were just as vitriolic.
Today many Christian church leaders condemn anti-Semitism, and rightfully so. Yet they don’t acknowledge that one of the main reasons for establishing Sunday and Easter observance was to separate the church from anything considered Jewish!
But were these the Jews’ Passover and festivals, or were they God’s? Sadly, the Nicaea decision increased the persecution and isolation of those who held faithfully to keeping the Passover and not Easter.
Fact 6: The philosophy of syncretism opened the door for many pagan practices to enter into modern Christianity.
What is syncretism?
Some years ago I visited one of Lima, Peru’s popular tourist sites, the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco. Those of us touring the building expected to see architecture and art typical of Catholic churches, but we were unprepared for the catacombs beneath.
Walking through dark corridors of neatly stacked bones—skulls here, femurs there, geometric designs in other places, the skeletal remains of an estimated 75,000 people—was a bit eerie.
As we exited, relieved to be in the bright light of day, the guide directed our attention to a large emblem on a tall metal spike above the massive doors. Now we were told to look at the sun—the emblem over the doors, that is.
“Why is that significant?” he asked. Because, he continued, the church knew the natives would be more easily converted if they could bring elements of their religious practices with them. The sun was a great example—since the natives worshipped sun gods, they were happy seeing their sun god idol atop the church.
That is a prime example of syncretism—“the combination of different forms of belief or practice” (Merriam-Webster.com). It explains a whole lot about what we see in Christianity today, including the bunnies and colorful eggs (and even the name Easter) that are now linked to the death and resurrection of our Savior.
Yes, Easter has a lot of paganism in it!
Does God care? The scriptures cited earlier answer that.
Obviously, Easter raises many other, even more important, questions than “Is it pagan?”
The light of Scripture requires us to also ask: Is it biblical? Why does Easter even exist as a Christian holy day? Where did it come from? Does God give it any legitimacy? Can we justify to God bringing pagan practices into His Church? On whose authority did anyone change the doctrines and practices of the Church Jesus built?
Earlier I wrote that the Easter controversy could be easily resolved with three steps.
- The Scriptures? They’re clear.
- The facts? They’re clear.
- Only one thing remains unclear—will you adapt your religious practices to conform to the Scriptures and the facts?
These questions do matter! Jesus said so in John 4:23: “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.”