[Editor's Note: This is the third and final article on the historical development of the Easter holiday. The first two articles examined how the date was selected for this holiday and the origin of the name “Easter.” A feedback article was written to clarify that the purpose of these articles was to show what has happened in history and not to define any specific position of Answers in Genesis. Please understand that these articles are descriptive rather than prescriptive.]
If you were to ask the typical American to identify the symbols used to celebrate Easter, the likely responses would include bunnies, eggs, plastic grass, chicks, ham . . . and don’t forget candy! Some responses might include lambs, crosses, palm branches, candles, and flowers, but the focus in American culture is typically on that magical bunny that lays eggs in plastic grass in the wee hours of the morning.
If Easter is supposed to be a celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, how did all these trappings get added to the fasting and feasting that marked the earliest celebrations within the church? The answers are complex and involve regional influences. I do not intend to examine every tradition but to focus on a few of the more popular symbols and examine them from a biblical perspective. Ultimately, each person must consider these practices in light of Scripture and his own convictions about worshipping the Savior regarding the Resurrection.
There is no question that a majority of these practices have their origins in pagan customs. These customs were assimilated into Christian practices throughout the early centuries of the church. Alexander Hislop and Ralph Woodrow1 chronicled the insertion of these practices into the life of the church, especially appearing in the modern rituals of the Roman Catholic and other churches. The celebrations linked to the Catholic Church calendar are admittedly tied to pagan celebrations. Though there are problems with the reasoning in the writings of Hislop and Woodrow, many of their ideas regarding the symbols attached to Easter are confirmed, even by the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Under the discussion of Easter in the Catholic Encyclopedia, we find statements like the following:
The [use of Easter eggs] may have its origin in paganism, for a great many pagan customs, celebrating the return of spring, gravitated to Easter. The egg is the emblem of the germinating life of early spring. (emphasis added)
The rabbit is a pagan symbol and has always been an emblem of fertility. The Easter fire . . . is a custom of pagan origin in vogue all over Europe, signifying the victory of spring over winter. . . . The Church adopted the observance into the Easter ceremonies, referring it to the fiery column in the desert and to the Resurrection of Christ.2
As the church spread throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe, it appears that the customs of various seasons and festivals were co-opted and incorporated into Christian practices. It is not easy to identify the exact date of the origin of the Roman Catholic Church, so to say that all of these practices are simply attached to the Roman Church may be an overstatement. As a result of the Reformation, some of these practices were separated from the celebration, but many remain in various cultures. Let’s examine some of the more popular ideas in the West.
Lent is the period of 40 days leading up to the Easter feast. The exact origin of this tradition is clouded by history, but there are two likely origins. Hislop proposed that this period of 40 days comes from the fasting that followed the Babylonian worship of Tammuz, who was honored by a period of weeping.3 Hislop cited current examples of this practice, but there is still no clear connection through time to the practice in the Christian community. Satan acts as a counterfeiter—he is the father of lies (John 8:44). Undoubtedly, he takes biblical ideas and tries to twist them to pervert the true worship of God. Some writings do seem to support that the 40 day period was introduced in the fifth century,4 but an earlier statement counters this idea. Irenaeus, writing of Polycarp visiting the Bishop of Rome around AD 150, stated:
For the controversy is not merely as regards the day, but also as regards the form itself of the fast. For some consider themselves bound to fast one day, others two days, others still more, while others [do so during] forty: the diurnal and the nocturnal hours they measure out together as their [fasting] day. And this variety among the observers [of the fasts] had not its origin in our time, but long before in that of our predecessors, some of whom probably, being not very accurate in their observance of it, handed down to posterity the custom as it had, through simplicity or private fancy, been [introduced among them]. And yet nevertheless all these lived in peace one with another, and we also keep peace together.5 (emphasis added)
It is clear from this record that the period of the fast varied widely from a few days, apparently in honor of the period from the Cross to the Resurrection, to 40 days, apparently in reference to the fasting and temptation of Christ in the wilderness following His baptism (Luke 4:1–13). Despite the trappings that have been added since, there is nothing unchristian about setting aside a period of devotion to honor Christ. The danger comes when legalistic requirements with no connection to the gospel or the Bible are added.
The hare has been celebrated as a symbol of fertility in many cultures throughout recorded history. Throughout Western celebrations, the hare or rabbit has been attached to the Resurrection of the Savior of the world. Exactly how this connection has come to be varies within cultures, but all are from outside the Bible.
A problematic aspect of the hare in our modern culture comes from the promise of treats to boys and girls who have been good. Not too unlike Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny magically and mysteriously appears in the middle of the night to hide a basket filled with candy for the child. Sadly, rather than waking to a morning focused on celebrating Christ’s victory over death and our assurance of faith in Him (1 Corinthians 15:13–17), the focus is on selfishly seeking a hidden basket of sweets. I ask you to question whether this is a wise practice for your family and yet to reserve judging those who choose to participate in such activities (Romans 14). Every Christian would do well to consider whether this type of activity leads to exalting Christ as Lord and Savior and to make that goal the measure of their decision whether to participate in egg hunts and the like.
Like the hare, eggs have also been a symbol of fertility cults and pagan rituals around the world. The coloring of eggs is common to many of these rituals. Many Christians across the globe have incorporated the use of eggs into their celebrations but with no specific biblical command to do so. While eggs have been symbols of the rebirth of the earth each spring in paganism, Christians have viewed the egg as a symbol of resurrection. From the apparently dead egg springs forth new life in the form of a chick. This raises an interesting question: If an object or action is used in pagan worship, can it ever be used to worship God? Answering this question is at the heart of the discussion over how to celebrate the Resurrection.
Can Christians Celebrate the Resurrection Using Pagan Symbols?
Scripture does not answer this question directly, so we must apply principles from the breadth of Scripture. In order to examine this question, we must set aside our preconceived notions about the alleged connections to pagan worship we have been handed and examine the claims individually as well as the motives of those participating in the “questionable” practices.
God is the Creator of everything, so any object from nature the pagans may use in their worship is actually a corruption of what God has created. Christians might use an egg to communicate the idea of Christ’s Resurrection without worshipping the egg, expecting increased fertility, or associating it with a pagan god. In fact, we might take the opportunity to explain how Satan has perverted God’s truth and His creation to deceive people through such practices.
Many people use Deuteronomy 12:1–32 to suggest that incorporating various cultural practices into worshipping God is forbidden. It is clear that in some instances the springtime worship rituals were simply adopted by Christians. However, Christians who use eggs in their celebrations today do not do so to honor a fertility goddess or with the impression they are worshipping God through the egg. Those who participate in sunrise services are doing so because that is the approximate time Christ rose from the dead, not because they are unknowingly worshipping the sun.
The Deuteronomy passage must be considered in its context. The commands of chapter 12 are for the conquest of Canaan. In verses 1–4, the Israelites are also called to destroy every altar and idol they encounter. Verses 29–32 are a reiteration of this command. We do not see such a command in the New Testament as the gospel was spreading around the globe. Paul did not topple the statues he found in Athens—he used them as an opportunity to teach about the real God who had created the earth and had risen from the dead.
In general, Christians have used formerly pagan symbols to represent the new life we have in Christ. Celebrating His Resurrection is the perfect time to be reminded of the new life each believer has in Christ. The grass and flowers that spring forth as the weather warms are a splendid analogy for the rebirth of the Christian. We should be constantly reminded of God’s active role in sustaining the earth He has given us to live on. Springtime offers a time to remember that it is God who causes the grass to grow (Psalm 147:8), just as He causes new birth for those who turn to the resurrected Lord Jesus in repentance and faith (1 Peter 1:3–5). We should acknowledge this wonderful truth every day, not just on Easter, as we praise God for His goodness and mercy.
As you consider how best to acknowledge the Resurrection, take time to make sure your practices help you bring honor and glory to Christ. Christians should take care to be separate from the influences of worldliness and to live as a people called out of the world by God. Certainly, some will say Scripture does not command the celebration, and so it should be avoided. Others will say there are no commands against it and no shame in participating in cultural activities that are not sinful (1 Corinthians 8; Romans 14). Others will insist that we keep only the feasts given to the Israelites and that to do anything else is a perverted form of worship.
Remember that those brothers and sisters with whom you disagree have also been bought with Christ’s blood and have His Spirit living in them. Share your understanding of Scripture with love, knowing that it is the role of the Holy Spirit to bring conviction of sin. If your convictions lead you to avoid the common customs, do so, and do not violate your conscience on these matters. Regardless, make sure Christ is the focus of your worship not only during the celebration of the Resurrection, but every day of your life. Paul reminded his readers of the attitude believers should have toward each other.
I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:1–6)