Holidays seem to be getting weirder for me every year. This may be because I’m in dialogue with very diverse groups of people. And I’m not talking about people on opposite ends of a spectrum here. I’m talking about people on the tips of the tentacles of a giant metaphorical octopus. And when it comes to holidays, it’s as though the giant octopus farts out a big ink cloud and just sits there in it. To add to the confusion, in some ways the most legalistic of Christians find themselves most closely aligned with the atheists and anti-Christian scoffers, who seem to think they are above it all.
Nonetheless, I had a wonderful, meaningful, and joyful Passover/Easter season, and I did not worship Satan even once.
The issue, in case you weren’t on Facebook the week before Easter, has to do with the origins of the holiday we know as Easter. There has long been a rumor going around that Easter is named after the Assyrian goddess Ishtar. Or the Indo-European goddess Eostre. Or Ostara, or Astarte, or some other pagan goddess, (it doesn’t really matter which one.) Apparently even atheist author Richard Dawkins posted a (factually incorrect) meme on his website this Easter season, spreading the idea that Easter = Ishtar. The point is that, supposedly, the most important holiday in all of worldwide Christendom is derived from pagan sources. However, as is usually the case, the truth is a bit more nuanced than a Facebook meme would lead you to believe.
But just for fun, here is my attempt to respectfully and fairly describe a few of the various American camps around the Easter holiday. Please correct me if you feel I misrepresented you here:
The legalistic Christian camp – These well-intentioned people love Jesus and love the Bible. They think that Easter is derived from pagan practices, and is not biblical in origin. If Easter is named after a pagan fertility goddess whose symbols are eggs and rabbits, then participating in these things is akin to participating in pagan rituals. They prefer the term “Resurrection Sunday” over “Easter” in order to keep the focus where they feel it belongs, and separate themselves from any pagan associations.
The liberal Christian camp – These well-intentioned people love the idea of a Jesus, they just don’t know what He actually said or did. They also love parts of the Bible, but overall, they think it’s an inspired myth. They may or may not believe in a literal Jesus or resurrection, and generally don’t believe the miracles really happened. It doesn’t matter to them if Easter was derived from paganism because they don’t believe in an exclusive truth anyway. I would guess that some of them may be looking for new ways to incorporate paganism into Easter in order to celebrate diversity and universalism.
The Roman Catholic camp – These well-intentioned people belong to the tradition that actually invented Easter, and since they exalt church tradition to the level of scripture, they generally are not worried about accidentally worshipping the devil by celebrating Easter.
The Orthodox Church camp – This much smaller branch also exalts church tradition and considers the Easter season to be the most sacred of seasons, but calculates their Easter date differently than does the Catholic Church. So if they are accidentally worshipping Satan, they’re usually doing it on a different day than everybody else.
The Torah Observant Messianic camp – This is the well-intentioned dominant branch (from what I can tell) of the Messianic Jewish movement. They are believers in Jesus, but not in the Church traditions that grew up after Him, including the Christian holidays. They see themselves as “grafted-in” Jewish followers of Yeshua (Jesus,) and believe the Torah of Moses is still in force for the most part. Accordingly, they observe the Jewish holidays as described in the Torah, and tend to be vehemently opposed to celebrating “pagan holidays” like Easter.
The mainstream Evangelical camp – These well-intentioned people are a diverse group. They may say “Easter,” “Resurrection Sunday,” or “Passover.” They love Jesus and the Bible. They tend to believe relationship with God is more important than religious observance and rule-keeping. They emphasize grace over “law.” Billy Graham and Rick Warren are in this camp. These churches often have Easter egg hunts on the church lawn for children on Easter morning. This is the camp (along with the Catholics and Orthodox) that is accidentally worshipping Satan according the legalistic Christian camp and the Torah Observant Messianic camp.
The atheist/skeptic/anti-religious camp – These well-intentioned non-believers think that the whole Bible and Jesus thing is a bunch of nonsense. They believe that not only are the Christian holidays derived from paganism, the idea of a virgin birth, and a divine, resurrected Jesus is derived from Paganism as well. (They are demonstrably wrong about this, but that’s a topic for another day.) They are amused that “the Christians” ignorantly celebrate their “Christian holidays” with Pagan rituals. In this, the most legalistic Christian groups described above would agree with them, except that they are concerned, not amused.
The Easter candy makers – These people are not well intentioned, and are killing our children with dye and sugar and chemicals, all dressed up in cheery, irresistible packaging. For money. ‘Just thought I’d throw that in.
What a hairball. And assuming anyone cares, is there any way to sort it all out? I believe there is a very simple way. And from a most unexpected source – a source that many would assume to be the culprit in all of this – the Bible.
But first I must make a general observation:
THE EASTER BUNNY AND EASTER EGGS ARE SIMPLY PART OF THE AMERICAN CULTURE IN WHICH WE LIVE. They are basically silly and meaningless traditions for children that have nothing to do with worshipping anything. In our culture, it’s simply fun, cute, springtime stuff, even if it did originate in Paganism, which is highly questionable. The persistence of the Easter Bunny probably has more to do with free market capitalism than with anything else.
So how does the Bible cut through all of the religious hoopla? In a nutshell, by urging humilty and love.
1) To my legalistic Christian and Messianic readers who think the Church is practicing Paganism by celebrating Easter, I would respectfully challenge you to provide even one single biblical example of anyone accidently worshipping Satan/demons/false gods. I contend that the Bible presents worship as an intentional act, no matter who the object of worship is. If you can’t provide biblical support for your position, then how can you claim that your position is biblical? I actually agree with you that celebrating Easter is not the best possible, most biblically sound way to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, but that doesn’t make it demonic. On Easter Sunday, church people are honestly, earnestly, and joyfully celebrating the most earth shaking event in history – the resurrection of Jesus. They’re just doing it on an irrelevant day.
Let us note the following biblical position from the apostle Paul:
“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God…“ He goes on to say, “…So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:4-19)
2) To the atheist/skeptic/anti-religious people who think that the celebration of Easter is somehow an argument against the historical reality of Jesus and the truth of His resurrection, I respectfully challenge you to explain how that is the case. First, the etymology of “Easter” remains uncertain. Second, I’ve yet to see a convincing explanation as to how errant Church traditions that developed after the time of Jesus have any bearing on the validity of what Jesus said or did, according to the Bible, while He was on earth. All it proves is that people in authority often do stupid things; but we already know that. Yet your camp’s spokespeople – like Dawkins and Harris – regularly blame the Bible for later extra-biblical Church practices. Like burning witches.
On that cheery note, I hope we can all lighten up a bit and enjoy each other, and enjoy the fascinating pluralistic culture in which we live while we still can. We live in a remarkable time in history, and it is worth pondering the wonder that God is still not dead, and that we’re still having this discussion in the 21st century. For me, the bottom line is that Easter’s possible pagan origin is not even worth debating – it’s completely irrelevant since Easter is clearly not a pagan holiday today.
However, having said all of this, I contend that there is an extremely important issue around Easter that is worth debating, that has nothing to do with paganism, and that continues to be a gash on the reputation of the Church. It is a matter of historical record that the origin of a Christian holiday called Easter was part of a tragic development in church history that was arrogant and unbiblical, and can be shown to be so. The harmful consequences of that tragic development are still very much with us today. Next week’s post will use the occasion of Easter observance to elaborate on that development.