Professor Shares View on Celebration of Easter

Do historical roots of holiday affect meaning of Easter?

Apr. 1, 2010 By Jenna Bartlo

Some Christians question whether it's wrong to celebrate Easter because of supposed pagan roots. Here professor of philosophy and director of Torrey Honors Institute, John Mark Reynolds, gives his perspective.

On Pagan Easter

The devil hates Easter for good reasons, but some Christians worry about it for bad reasons.

Some worry that Easter is really a pagan holiday.

It is not.

Most people who think "Easter" is pagan base their false belief on the fact that we call it "Easter." It is important to point out that in most of the Christian world "Easter" is not called "Easter," because most of the Christian world does not speak English!

It is true that English-speaking Christians began to call their new Christian spring holiday "Easter," because the Christian feast happened close to an old pagan holiday. Linguistically this was sloppy, but the Christian origins of the holiday are obvious since in most lands the name used for the celebration of the memory of Christ's resurrection is related to the Jewish feast of passover. If you speak a language like Spanish, you already know this is true!

Pagan peoples did have spring holidays to celebrate the end of winter, but the Christian feast is tied to the historic death of Jesus. All but the most fringe skeptics concede that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by the Roman authorities. The disagreement starts when we ask what happened next. If you believe, as I do, that Jesus rose from the dead, then that is the "reason for the season." If you don't buy the evidence for the resurrection, then you need some other explanation for why the disciples started to celebrate the death of their Master.

On this view, the Christians invented their own "dying god and living god" to replace the old agricultural gods that had come before the Faith. The difficulty with this is that the timing of the Christian feast is not based on the agricultural calendar, at least directly, but on the Jewish feast of Passover. Jesus was in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. He died around the time of Passover, and that is why he would have come back to life in the spring! In that sense, even if they were lying, the apostles were very lucky that Jesus died and came to life in the spring, because it fit the "myth" they wanted to imitate.

It was the death of Jesus that created Christianity. Something happened after that death that took fairly conventional Jewish men and made them say remarkable things. It is true that earlier faiths had "dying gods," but not dying gods who had first become men. It is true that some religions had tied agriculture to the death and life of their god, but the Jesus of the gospels is distinctly not an agricultural deity. I don't think of the "circle of life" when I think of the story of Jesus, since Jesus died once for all.

Spring comes every year, but Jesus died once in Palestine.

Christians are happy to point out that many pagan beliefs were a dim foretelling of Christian truths. What the pagans heard in a dangerously garbled way, Jesus revealed to us clearly. We are happy to borrow images and costumes that are fun and enjoyable in themselves, like the Easter egg, and give them new meanings.

Easter, or Pascha, is not one of those borrowings. The empty tomb is the center of the feast and not a fertility symbol. God became man and conquered death on Easter. He did not conquer the natural cycle of seasons or winter.

God is a great poet and so He died when the flowers were in bloom. In the beauty of the lilies Christ died across the sea, to modify the old hymn. This was God's great good joke on paganism. They prayed for a corn god to end winter, but He came Himself and ended death.

The cycle of seasons would continue but the curse of sin was broken forever.

This Easter, or Pascha, if you prefer, every Christian in the world celebrates the once and forever conquest by our King of death, sin and the devil. Passover, and the liberation of God's people, had been the image, but now real freedom has come. It need never happen again. It is finished and that is a fact worth celebrating by any name.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester.

Written by Jenna Bartlo, Media Relations Coordinator, can be reached at (562) 777-4061 or through email at jenna.l.bartlo@biola.edu.

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