Easter is one of the world’s most popular religious holidays, with hundreds of millions celebrating it every year. For most the celebration is meant to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet there are a number of Christians who see problems with that and refuse to participate in the tradition.
But what’s so wrong with Easter? How can it be that Christians would not celebrate Christ’s resurrection? Let’s consider some problems with the Easter tradition.
Easter’s origins long predated Christianity
To begin with, Easter is not rooted in biblical Christianity but in ancient pagan religious practices that existed far earlier. Customs involving rabbits, colored eggs, hot-cross buns and sunrise services come from ancient fertility rites of spring in honor of ancient gods and goddesses.
The name Easter, associated with dawn in the east, refers to an ancient goddess of the dawn—Eostre in Old English or Ostara in German. And this apparently ultimately derives from the Babylonian Ishtar, elsewhere known as Astarte and Ashtaroth, the queen of heaven, whose worship is directly condemned in the Bible.
In fact, the worship of any false god is condemned in the Bible—as is using practices derived from pagan religion to worship the true God. God does not accept such worship even if meant to honor Him. Notice His clear instruction in Deuteronomy 12:29-32:
“When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, 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 . . . Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (emphasis added throughout).
The timing is all wrong
Well, it might then be argued, why not strip the day of the pagan stuff and use it only to honor Christ’s resurrection? Yet we must understand that the very timing of the observance comes from false religion. It is not biblical.
In Romance languages—those that derive from Latin like Italian and Spanish—the holiday is not called by the pagan name Easter but by the name of a biblical festival, Passover. Yet this holiday is not the authentic biblical Passover. That day on which the Israelites had offered lambs since the Exodus of Egypt prefigured the offering of Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). And it was on the true Passover day that Jesus was crucified.
A close look at the Gospel accounts shows that in that time the Jewish people had come to call the Passover and the entire seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread that immediately follows (Leviticus 23:4-8) by the name “Passover” also—referring to the whole early spring festival period.
And as Jesus was in the grave for three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40), He was resurrected during the Feast of Unleavened Bread or “Passover week.” This enabled a later-invented resurrection festival during that week to be called “Passover.” But it was not really the Passover of the Bible. In fact the name of Easter in Latin languages is sometimes given as “Passover of the Resurrection” to distinguish it from the actual Passover day on which Christ died.
Yet, again, this is all a complete misnomer—especially since the date of the Easter holiday does not depend on the biblical dates of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the Hebrew calendar. Rather, Easter was set to fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the spring equinox (with some divergence in interpreting this between eastern and western Christendom). This only sometimes aligns with the biblical dates for the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread. These are just not the same observance—not by theme nor by the actual day celebrated.
Another problem with the timing here is that Jesus was not even resurrected on Sunday—the supposed basis for weekly Sunday worship and annual Easter Sunday observance. The Good Friday–Easter Sunday time frame is wrong. It can be conclusively proven from the Bible that Jesus died and was buried on Wednesday and left His tomb three days and three nights later (see Matthew 12:40 and look up “three days and three nights” on our website at BTmagazine.org).
His resurrection was actually on Saturday, on the weekly Sabbath. So if we were to celebrate the day on which Jesus rose from death, that day would be the seventh-day Sabbath (observed from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset each week). Of course we should be doing that anyway, since observing the Sabbath is commanded in the Ten Commandments, regardless of what day Jesus was resurrected on. (Weekly Sunday worship also originated in pagan religion—“Sun day” being the day used to honor the sun god in ancient times.)
Resurrected on the Feast of Firstfruits?
Some believe that the Sunday during the Festival of Unleavened Bread is the proper day for celebrating Jesus’ resurrection, calling it the Feast of Firstfruits. Is that valid?
It is true that the Sunday during the Days of Unleavened Bread marked a special occasion. On this day God commanded the Israelites to bring a firstfruits offering of a sheaf of barley to be waved before Him for acceptance (see Leviticus 23:4-14).
Jesus Himself is the firstfruits of God’s spiritual harvest of mankind (see 1 Corinthians 15:20-23). And He evidently ascended briefly to heaven on the day following His resurrection—since He first told Mary Magdalene not to hold on to Him because He had not yet ascended to the Father, but He later allowed people to hold on to Him and worship Him (compare John 20:16-17; Matthew 28:9-10; Luke 24:39). So Jesus must have ascended in between—on the day the wave-sheaf offering was presented. Thus Jesus would have fulfilled what was pictured by this offering.
It should be clarified that this occasion was not the Feast of Firstfruits as a distinct feast. Rather, it was an offering of the firstfruits of the barley harvest during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The name Feast of Firstfruits more accurately applies to Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks, 50 days later, with its leavened loaves of wheat representing God’s people of this age as spiritual firstfruits, Jesus Himself being the first of the firstfruits (see Exodus 23:16; 34:22; Numbers 28:26; James 1:18.)
Regarding the wave-sheaf offering, we should realize that it did not specifically commemorate Jesus’ resurrection. Note that the sheaf was not waved before God at the end of the Sabbath when Jesus was raised but the next morning—after the time He was already risen. Again, the wave-sheaf showed Jesus’ acceptance by His Heavenly Father as the first of the firstfruits—anticipating all those Christians who would later find acceptance with God through Him. Consider, too, that while the wave-sheaf offering was listed among the appointed times of the Lord in Leviticus 23, there is no command for a worship assembly on this occasion as on the various Holy Days listed here.
The fact is, the Bible gives no directive to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection of itself. There is no commemoration of the time or date of the resurrection (although, as noted above, we are to observe the seventh day of the week anyway as the weekly Sabbath).
Some might contend that even though God has not commanded a resurrection day observance, what would be wrong with having one? But a far better question would be: Why would we do this and not observe the occasions God has specifically commanded?
Symbolism in God’s commanded spring feasts
God has commanded two connected annual festivals in early spring (in the northern hemisphere) that we definitely are to observe as Christians, even as Jesus and the apostles did. These are Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread.
Jesus died on the Passover day. For centuries this day had foreshadowed His dying for our sins as the sacrificed Lamb of God, and He commands His followers to keep the Passover as a remembrance or memorial of His sacrifice for us (Matthew 26:26-28; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
Three days later Jesus was resurrected during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Does this mean that the seven-day festival is meant to be a weeklong resurrection celebration—sort of an extended Easter minus the paganism? No, because the Feast of Unleavened Bread is much more than that. Jesus’ resurrection is a vital theme in the festival’s meaning—yet as part of a bigger picture.
Consider what literally happened. Jesus was dead and buried for the first three days of this festival, was raised to life in the midst of it and was then accepted as the firstfruits of God’s spiritual harvest, remaining alive to teach His disciples thereafter. All of this is part of the meaning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread, like the Passover, was revealed to the Israelites at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 12-13). Over the course of these days, the Israelites left the slavery of Egypt. And the removal and avoidance of leavening (an agent such as yeast that causes bread dough to rise in baking) was to symbolize our coming out of sin (see 1 Corinthians 5:6-8).
At the same time, eating unleavened bread as commanded during this same time symbolized partaking of the true “Bread of Life,” Jesus Christ (John 6:32-35, John 6:48-51, John 6:53-58). Only through Jesus Christ living in us can we develop godly character and live a life of righteousness.
We are to figuratively be crucified and die with Christ—our old, sinful self being put to death and buried with Him so that we can be figuratively raised with Him to walk in newness of life, as pictured in baptism (read Galatians 2:20, Romans 6, Colossians 3:1-10 and Philippians 3:10-11).
The Feast of Unleavened Bread represents our coming out of sin. But we must realize that our coming out of sin relies on the person we formerly were being figuratively put to death and buried with Christ and then, in effect, rising with Him into a new way of living—His way.
As the true Bread of Life represented by the unleavened bread Christians are to partake of during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Jesus Christ lives His resurrected life in us through the Holy Spirit. This enables us to live a lifetime of sanctification and transformation until the culmination in our literal resurrection at Christ’s return. Thus what these days symbolize, our coming out of sin to ultimately find new life and acceptance with God, was enabled by Jesus being literally buried, raised and accepted by God during these very days. This was clearly no coincidence!
We need to grasp that Jesus’ resurrection is vital to the process of coming out of sins. As Paul wrote: “If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (1 Corinthians 15:17). And this is where the resurrection focus of Easter fails.
It merely gazes at a hero who has conquered death. In the case of Jesus Christ, that is awesome and wonderful, to be sure. But by itself it lacks the context of His death and resurrection as the basis for our own forgiveness for a lifetime of sin, and then our renewed lives with Jesus Christ living again within us, ultimately leading to our own future resurrection.
In keeping the Days of Unleavened Bread, we do commemorate the fact that Jesus was resurrected to live in us to enable us to overcome—yet not as a celebration specifically of the resurrection in the way that Easter is for many, which misses the big picture of God’s great plan of salvation. It leaves out a proper balanced focus on the need for our old selves to remain buried and on now living a new life through Christ, looking forward to ultimate transformation in the future at His return (1 Corinthians 15:50-54).
For those who recognize the problems with Easter, we should not let pagan corruption take away from having a proper perspective on Jesus’ resurrection—and a recognition of His role in the meaning of the biblical Feast of Unleavened Bread as the Bread of Life through whom we also may receive eternal life by our own resurrection from the dead (John 6:50-58).
Lastly, then, in response to the opening question, we could in turn ask: How can someone be a Christian and not observe the days God commanded us to—the days that picture His great plan of saving mankind through Jesus Christ? Before knowing about them, one might plead ignorance. But having learned about them, now you know. And we encourage you to come to know more—and to honor God the Father and Jesus Christ as They have directed!
The Resurrection Connection
How did worship of an ancient god and goddess come to be associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? A closer look at the ancient mythology surrounding the worship of these gods and goddesses will help us understand how pagan practices have survived in popular Easter customs practiced to this day.
Two of the earliest recorded deities were the Babylonian fertility god Tammuz and the goddess Ishtar. Every year Tammuz “was believed to die, passing away from the cheerful earth to the gloomy subterranean world . . .” (Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1993, p. 326).
The seasonal cycle came to be connected with Tammuz’s supposed annual death and resurrection. “Under the names of Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, and Attis, the peoples of Egypt and Western Asia represented the yearly decay and revival of life . . . which they personified as a god who annually died and rose again from the dead. In name and detail the rites varied from place to place: in substance they were the same” (p. 325).
As worship of Tammuz and Ishtar spread to the Mediterranean region, including the territory of biblical Israel, the pair came to be worshipped under other names—Baal and Astarte (Ashtoreth), Attis and Cybele, and Adonis and Aphrodite. God heatedly condemned the sensual, perverted worship of Baal and Astarte (Judges 2:11-15; Judges 3:7-8; Judges 10:6-7; 1 Kings 11:4-66, 1 Kings 11:31, 1 Kings 11:33; 1 Kings 16:30-33; 1 Kings 22:51-53).
In ancient worship we find the mythology that would ultimately link these ancient customs to Christ’s death and resurrection. Writer and historian Alan Watts states: “It would be tedious to describe in detail all that has been handed down to us about the various rites of Tammuz, Adonis . . . and many others . . . But their universal theme—the drama of death and resurrection—makes them the forerunners of the Christian Easter, and thus the first ‘Easter services.’ As we go on to describe the Christian observance of Easter we shall see how many of its customs and ceremonies resemble these former rites” (Easter: Its Story and Meaning, 1950, p. 58).
In its various forms, worship of Tammuz-Adonis-Attis spread around the Roman Empire, including to Rome itself. As a corrupted form of Christianity spread through the empire, religious leaders merged customs and practices associated with various pagan deities, including this earlier supposed “resurrected” god, and applied them to the real and true resurrected Son of God.
In this respect Easter followed the pattern of Christmas in being officially sanctioned and welcomed into the Roman church: “Motives of the same sort may have led the ecclesiastical authorities to assimilate the Easter festival of the death and resurrection of their Lord to the festival of the death and resurrection of another Asiatic god which fell at the same season.
“Now the Easter rites still observed in Greece, Sicily and southern Italy bear in some respects a striking resemblance to the rites of Adonis . . . The Church may have consciously adapted the new festival to its heathen predecessor for the sake of winning souls to Christ” (Frazer, p. 359).
(This information is excerpted from our free study guide Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Observe? )