Is Easter Pagan?

The Easter season is nearly upon us once again. For many, it’s a time for rejoicing and celebrating the resurrection of Christ; realizing that because he lives, we also can live forever. But for others, especially those who have absorbed the teachings of Herbert Armstrong, Easter is looked upon with suspicion and disdain. They are convinced that it is not a Christian celebration in the least, and that it should be totally rejected as obviously pagan.

A case in point is an article appearing in the United Church of God’s March/April 2003 issue of “The Good News” magazine. In his article, “Does Easter Really Commemorate Jesus Christ’s Resurrection?”, Wilbur Berg, apparently after having pulled out a few of Herbert’s past articles from the files to make sure he had his talking points straight, laboriously begins his attack on Easter. From his bag of half-truths and prejudiced research he builds his case for the idolatrous beginnings of the Easter holiday, shows how Passover was subtly changed to Easter, and as his trump card delves in to how “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’ cannot possibly be made to fit into the Good Friday – Easter Sunday scenario (never mind the fact that the Bible nowhere states that “in the heart of the earth” means “in the grave” – see my past article on this subject).

And of course, at the end of the article, there is a convenient “Recommended Reading” box inserted which advertises the UCG booklet, “Holidays or Holy Days” and informs the reader that “you need to understand why God expects us to observe Passover and His other commanded festivals.” The hook is being cast in the hopes of snagging a few unsuspecting readers who aren’t too well versed in what the Bible really says on this subject. Guilt seems to make a very effective bait when dealing with the un-churched or under-churched.

Yes, as might be expected of those who have a greater allegiance to the teachings of a man than to those of the Bible, there is no mention made of the old covenant versus new covenant changes that came about in the church at Christ’s death. There is never a hint given in the article that there may be two sides to this issue and to the observance of days in general. Far be it from this group to dare mention Galatians 4:10-11, 21, 24, & 26, where Paul tells the Galatians, who were being proselytized by the Jews into observing old covenant ways and days:

“You observe days [Sabbaths] and months [new moons] and seasons [spring and fall holyday seasons] and years [years of release and Jubilees]. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored in vain…(vs. 21) Tell me, you who desire to be under the law [under the old covenant], do you not hear the law? …(vs. 24) …For these are the two covenants: the one from Mt. Sinai which engenders bondage…(vs. 26)…but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.”

And far be it from groups such as United to mention Romans 14:5-6, 10, which instructs:

“One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks…(vs. 10)… but why do you judge your brother?’

Putting aside the obvious break with new covenant reality that these Armstrong-based churches have experienced regarding the observance of days and old covenant teachings in general, let’s get back to the subject at hand: Just how should Easter be viewed? Is it really just an out-and-out pagan tradition, as some claim, or could it possibly be that its observance is actually pleasing to God? Is it possible to arrive at a conclusion that is Biblically sound and defensible – and also where fact and reason prevail over rumor and emotion? I would have to answer that last question with a hearty “YES”!

Once again I have drawn upon the works of Ralph Woodrow for help. His insights into the past subject regarding “Three Days and Three Nights in the Grave” proved to be invaluable. I believe his insights into this subject, as expressed in his book “Easter…Is it Pagan?” are also very helpful, indeed. Subsequently, I have quoted and excerpted heavily from his 54 page booklet in the remainder of this article as I build, with his aid, the case for Easter as being a very valid form of worshipping God. (See www.ralphwoodrow.org for more info on this and other books by Woodrow).

One common objection many have to Easter is the word itself. Dictionaries can be quoted to the effect that the word, in its original usage, was related to Eostre, the goddess of spring. But how reliable is this information? Who was the goddess Eostre? Do we know anything at all about her? Even the Edda, by the historian Snorri Sturlusion (1178 – 1241), considered to be quite complete on the subject of mythology, fails to mention any goddess by this name.

We do know that the German word Ostern, as well as its English equivalent, “Easter,” is derived from the Norse word eostur, eastur, or ostara, which meant “the season of the growing sun,” “the season of new birth.” A similar word, ost, or “east,” is used for the direction in which the sun rises. So it appears that our English word for the spring holiday commemorating the Resurrection could very well have come from the season itself, and not a pagan deity.

But, for our present study, let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that the word “Easter” was the name of a goddess – a pagan word. Would this necessarily mean the word is still pagan? Or can words change in meaning and significance?

For example, take the word “pharmacy” Do you know anyone that preaches against its usage? It comes from the Greek pharmakeia – the word translated “witchcraft” in the New Testament – while a pharmakon, a pharmacist or druggist, was one who practice “sorcery” (Strong’s Concordance, 5331, 5332). Drugs were linked with the black arts, potions, etc. But today a pharmacy or drug store may sell all kinds of items, it is not a sorcery shop. The word is in common usage today and no one (or very few) go around feeling condemned because they have adopted this previously pagan word into their vocabulary. The word has become a non-issue, as indeed it should have.

What about the word (or abbreviation) “Mr.” Most of us would agree that there is nothing wrong with using “Mr.” in front of a man’s name; it’s perfectly acceptable English. But if one wanted to argue against this title, he could point out that Mr. is only a shortened form of “master,” and from this it could be further argued that Jesus said not to be called masters! (Matt. 23:10). So are we going to waste time preaching against the word “Mr.”? If not, why not? Because I think most of us would agree that the current usage of the word “Mr.” would not in any way, shape or form be breaking the intent of Christ’s command to call no man “master” (as in a master/slave relationship).

In like manner, the overwhelming evidence of what the word Easter means now totally outshines any ancient and obscure meaning! All encyclopedias say that Easter is the spring celebration of Christians in honor of the resurrection of Jesus Christ! Not ONE says it is the time when Christians honor Eostre.

Language is made up of many elements. To try to do away with every word that once had some pagan linkage would be fruitless. The Bible says: “Strive not about words to no profit” (2 Tim 2:14). There would be no profit in wasting time trying to reinvent the English language.

While it is commendable that people do not want to associate with anything “pagan,” unless this concept is kept in balance, it could lead to some strange extremes. One would not dare have a Mercury automobile or ride on the train “The California Zephyr,” since Mercury and Zephyr are names of pagan deities! And some would not own a Ford Thunderbird. This kind of reasoning can easily become mere superstition. Pagan deities, along with the sun and the moon, have provided the basis for the naming of the days of the week. But these names are in such common use now, they no longer convey any pagan significance. This holds true for the word “Easter.”

We have heard it said that Easter is nothing but a Roman Catholic holiday – that Constantine started Easter – that it all came out of the Nicene Council. This is misinformation. Anyone who has looked into the evidence knows better.

Christ’s resurrection was being celebrated by Christians long before anything resembling what is known today as the Roman Catholic church developed, and has been widely celebrated by churches that are not, and never were, under the headship of Rome. The location of Nicaea was far from Rome, located in what is now called Turkey – in the area of the Eastern Church, from which the bulk of the ministers in attendance came. The bishop of Rome (the Pope) did not even attend the council, but was represented by a delegate, Hosius of Cordova.

Constantine, who played a prominent part in the Nicene Council, was a man with glaring inconsistencies in his life. Even so, this does not mean that God could not have used him to accomplish certain things. Constantine did some good things: He did away with death by crucifixion, opposed the worship of Tammuz, and made provision for churches to be built. He sought to end the persecution of Christians that had been so brutal.

In different countries, different ways of figuring the time for Easter had developed. Neither Constantine nor those who attended the Nicene Council started Easter; they simply sought to establish a uniform time for the spring celebration. There were those who favored using a set date of a month, rather than a fixed day of the week. Since the resurrection of Christ had been on the first day of the week – Sunday – many favored the celebration on this day. (All Christians in the early centuries, as far as we know, agreed this was the day Christ arose from the dead; none believed that he rose late on Saturday afternoon or on some other day.)

As to which Sunday in spring would be set aside to commemorate the resurrection, a plan was worked out whereby it would be the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the spring equinox. As a result, right or wrong, Easter is observed each year between March 22 and April 25 by our calendar.

A pastor friend of Mr. Woodrow’s – though his church takes the Lord’s supper each year at Passover time – after spending years studying the matter, came to this conclusion; There is absolutely no way to determine which night on our calendar would correspond with the exact night on which Jesus instituted the Lord’s supper. Does this seem surprising? Even among the Jewish people, the Passover itself was not always on a totally uniform date at the time of Christ!

Since 12 months time, figured by the moon, was only 354 days long, it was necessary to add a month about every three years to the calendar, otherwise the feast days that were linked with ripened harvests would not come at the right time of year. Hence, the confusion about just when certain historic days would fall. Thus it can be seen that the Council of Nicea was not attempting to supplant Passover with Easter, but rather to standardize an observance already in existence.

What about the forty days of Lent many churches observe? There are some that feel that this practice came right out of Babylon. Hislop’s Two Babylons attempts to tie this observance of Lent in with the worship of the Babylonian goddess. But where is the proof? He cites Layard’s Nineveh and Babylon, but if one takes the time to find this old book, as Mr. Woodrow has done, he will fail to find any connection with ancient Babylon or a goddess of any kind. Might we suggest that the 40 days of Lent that developed among Christians did not come from Babylon, but from the Bible? In the Bible, the number forty is often linked with humiliation, affliction, testing and punishment. For example:

Moses twice humbled himself in fasting and prayer forty days and forty nights (Deut 9:9,18).

Elijah fasted forty days (1 Kings 19:8)

Jesus fasted forty days (Matt 4:2)

Forty years Israel was afflicted in the wilderness (Num 14:33,34)

Forty days and forty nights it rained at the time of Noah’s flood (Gen 7:12)

Jonah preached that Ninevah would be overthrown in forty days (Jonah 3:4)

It was forty days after his resurrection that Christ ascended in heaven (Acts 1:3,9)

Without arguing that such references provide any Biblical command for Lent, I think that any unbiased person would agree: Considering the evidence, it is far more likely that the significance of the number forty came from the Bible, and not from Babylon.

What seems especially offensive to some about Easter is the seasonal trim: things like colored eggs and bunnies. And so, we must ask: Are people who color eggs and hide them for their children committing idolatry? Are they performing a “fertility” rite? In an effort to condemn Easter eggs, anti-Easter literature commonly presents numerous examples in which pagan people used eggs in rituals or ceremonies. For example, the ancient Druids bore an egg as a sacred emblem. In the rites of Bacchus at Athens, an egg was consecrated during a nighttime ceremony. A Hindu fable mentions a golden colored egg. A sect in Japan regarded a brazen egg as sacred. Painted eggs have been used in religious festivals in China.

I don’t think there is any doubt that pagans used eggs in various ways, but the weakness of presenting such examples is that they are unrelated to each other, disjointed, obscure, and with no real connection to Easter eggs as we have known them today. Only by emphasizing one similarity – the use of eggs – and ignoring a whole multitude of differences, can this argument have any force at all.

To read anti-Easter literature, one could easily conclude that the egg symbolizes something sinful, wicked, abominable, pagan! This is misleading, for among the many ancient people who were intrigued with the egg, most regarded it as a symbol of new life. This is not bad symbolism.

An egg, though appearing as a lifeless object in one moment, can in another moment burst forth with new life! Not having the revelation of the true Creator, some primitive people carried it further, even supposing that the earth itself must have hatched from an egg. Of course, no one believes that now!

Because eggs were commonly recognized as a symbol of new life, it was only a natural development that such would ultimately come to be associated with spring, the time of year when all nature blossoms forth with new life. That today’s custom of using Easter eggs probably grew out of such earlier beliefs is no secret. Even The Catholic Encyclopedia says: “The custom may have its origin in paganism.”

There was a time when some of us reasoned that if anything was once pagan, it must still be pagan! This is not necessarily a true conclusion. Consider for example, the following quotation from Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible: “Athletic contests…originated in pre-historic times, and were closely associated with religious worship. Thus the Olympic games were held in honor of Olympian Zeus in connection with the magnificent temple in Olympia in Elis; the Isthmian games on the Isthmus of Corinth in honor of Poseidon…” etc.

Today, athletic contests are secular – no one supposes they honor gods like Zeus, Poseidon, etc. Because the pagan linkage no longer exists, there is no valid reason to condemn sports as being pagan. Imagine parents not allowing their child to sign up for the Little League baseball team – since sports contests “came from paganism”!

Why is it, that some can accept this distinction regarding sports, and a host of other things, but insist that a seasonal child’s game, an innocent coloring and hiding of eggs, is still pagan? It could be argued that coloring eggs and hiding them is a waste of time and money. It could be argued that it is inconsistent (in that many children who hunt for eggs do not like to eat them!) It could be argued, quite correctly, there is no Biblical command for the practice. But to say that Christian people who hide Easter eggs for their children are practicing a pagan fertility rite – no! This is not true. Is there even one person, anywhere, who does this as a fertility rite?

Eggs, also being widely recognized as a symbol of new life, need not be regarded as evil. Even rabbits, known for their fertility, need not be looked on as evil. Swine, serpents, scorpions, or spiders might better serve as evil symbols (Matt 7:6; Lk 10:19) but eggs and rabbits are not in this category.

“But what about Easter sunrise services?” some may be asking. “Surely this cannot be justified from the Bible!” There has been a popular booklet making the rounds the past few years which says this about Easter sunrise services: “Deceived into believing this is Christian…millions practice every Easter the identical form of the ancient sun worship of the sun god Baal!…the most abominable of all idolatry.” What? Christians worshipping Baal at sunrise services?

Justification for such wild statements is commonly sought in Ezekiel’s words about “five and twenty men, with…their faces toward the east; and they worshipped the sun toward the east,’ such things being called “abominations” (Ezek. 8:14-17).

Since the sun is in the east at sunrise, the time Ezekiel described was indeed sunrise or early morning. There is this similarity. But the differences are drastic! Ezekiel described men who worshipped the sun. Christians do not worship the sun; they worship Christ. Christians who attend an Easter sunrise service will hear a message about an empty tomb and a resurrected Savior who lives today!

Having such a service at sunrise does not come from paganism, but from the Bible. It was at sunrise that the women came to the tomb and discovered it was empty: “And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulcher AT THE RISING OF THE SUN” (Mark 16:2). If some choose to argue against this, they must argue against the Bible itself.

In conclusion, it appears that many spend more effort looking for traces of paganism under every leaf and stone and behind every tree than they do in examining their own attitudes and standing before God. Easter observance is just one of the areas that some find themselves criticizing – not because they have any legitimate grounds for doing so, but because they have been taught half-truths from those who should have known better.

I well understand that it is certainly easy to get sidetracked from the true gospel, and waste one’s energies hunting down boogiemen that, when examined in the light of day, evaporate into nothingness. Much of what we learned at the feet of Herbert Armstrong falls into this category.

If we take nothing else away from our nightmarish experience of having been ridden hard and put away wet by an unfeeling, self-serving cult, it should be this: “There are two sides to every issue. If you find very few people on your side of an issue, and those who are on your side are considered by most to be somewhat of a cult, be afraid…be very afraid. Run (don’t walk) to your library/computer and research the subject as you never have before, especially if it involves your relationship with God or your wallet!”

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