Paganism In Christianity

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The traditional holidays with their annual rituals are coming: Halloween costumes, Christmas decorations, Easter bunnies. Where did those traditions and practices come from? Celebrated as Christian holidays, shouldn't these occasions be faithful to what the Bible says?


Jack-o-lanterns have been around for centuries as part of an ancient Celtic celebration at the start of the winter season. The Druids (a sort of pagan priesthood) believed that at this time of year the barriers between our world and the supernatural weakened and broke down. Expecting the souls of the dead to roam the land, they built large bonfires to frighten them off and slaughtered animals—or even people—to appease the evil spirits. The jack-o-lantern represents a poor soul caught between the two worlds, and some believe it served as a warning meant to ward off bad spirits. Incidentally, pumpkins are not common in Europe, so the original jack-o-lanterns were carved from turnips (The Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987, p. 176, "Halloween").

Why is much of modern Christian ritual and belief based on pagan practice rather than the Bible? Isn’t it enough that people honor God however they want?

Carved vegetables, talismans against evil spirits, human sacrifice—these are not in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Halloween is still looked to by some as All Hallows' Eve—the night before the Catholic All Saints' Day, a supposedly holy occasion. Yet with all its ties to the occult and dark forces, Halloween is anything but holy. And it's now shunned by many professing Christians. They see no value in celebrating a holiday that clearly originated from polytheism (the worship of multiple gods) and animism (belief in spiritual forces in inanimate objects). Such religions have been broadly referred to as pagan in Western societies since the time of the late Roman Empire.

If most of the beliefs and practices associated with Halloween originated in paganism, does the pagan influence end there?


The Druids in ancient France and Britain staged a 12-day festival at the time of the winter solstice. They believed it was the high point of an annual battle between an ice giant, representing death, and the sun god, representing life. They built large bonfires to cheer on and assist their champion, the sun. The Druids and other pagan leaders knew, as we do today, that the days always get longer as the calendar progresses through winter toward spring regardless of their seasonal rituals—but still they persisted in them (L.W. Cowie and John Selwyn Gummer, The Christian Calendar, 1974, p. 22). Unfortunately, so does much of Christianity today.

What is today thought to be a celebration of the birth of Christ began as the pagan midwinter festival. One unbiblical tradition of this holiday is the use of greenery. Decorating with green plants in late December through the beginning of January was one of the ways Druids "honored and encouraged" the sun god at the time of the winter solstice. Families commonly cut down an evergreen tree to bring into their home, where they decorated and displayed it in a prominent place. In the Middle Ages, this ritual of paganism persisted and was eventually adapted and given a Christian label, as Roman Catholic missionaries worked to convince people to worship the Son of God rather than the sun god. In due course, German immigrants brought the practice of decorating evergreen trees to America, where it has flourished. As you may have already guessed, the "Twelve Days of Christmas" of the famous carol owe their origin to the pagan festival too (ibid.). (For more on the pagan origins of this holiday, see "Is Christmas Phony?".)


Even Easter, which many assume was instituted to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, is steeped in connections to paganism. The name "Easter" ultimately derives from the name of an ancient Chaldean goddess Astarte, who was known as the "Queen of Heaven." Her Babylonian name was "Ishtar." Since most languages pronounce "I" as ee, it's not hard to see how eesh-tar and its linguistic variants could eventually become Easter (see Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, New Testament Section, p. 192, "Easter").

As the goddess of love and fertility, Ishtar's symbols were—you guessed it—eggs and rabbits! Rabbits can bear several litters of young each year and thus were highly fertile animals familiar to these ancient people. Worshipping Ishtar during an annual spring festival was intended to ask her blessing of fertility on the crops being planted at that time of year. Decorating eggs as a means of worship seems harmless until you consider that the people also practiced ritual sex acts, often with temple prostitutes, to honor the goddess (Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, p. 509, "Gods, Pagan"). That doesn't sound very Christian, yet most Christians continue to associate eggs and bunnies with what they think is the most solemn holiday of the year.

Traditional Christian doctrines

Unfortunately, some of the most basic things believed by most professing Christians derive from ancient paganism rather than from the Bible. The idea that people have immortal souls was first taught in ancient Egypt and Babylon. The Greeks likewise taught that at death the soul would separate from the physical body (Jewish Encyclopedia, 1941, Vol. 6, pp. 564, 566, "Immortality of the Soul"). That idea was merged into Christianity from Greek philosophy. It did not come from inspired Scripture.

The ancient Egyptians developed the concept of going to heaven. In their mythology, the god Osiris was killed but then raised back to life, whereupon he went to a distant heavenly realm. The Egyptians concluded that if he could do this, then human beings could follow (Lewis Browne, This Believing World, pp. 83-84). This heavenly reward was a central teaching of several ancient mystery religions—but not the religion of the Hebrews or early Christians.

Even some Christian teachings about Jesus have origins in paganism rather than the Biblical record. Babylonian mythology regarding Ishtar claimed that she had a son named Tammuz. He died each year, but then would be reborn again in the spring. The Babylonian veneration of both the mother and child influenced later versions of Christianity that deified Jesus' mother Mary as much as Jesus Himself (Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1993, p. 326). This stands in contrast to Scripture, which honors Mary, but reveres no ordinary human being—only Christ.

The Chaldean symbol for Tammuz was the letter tau, which appears as a san-serif "t" and is commonly considered a cross (Babylonian Mystery Religion, p. 51; Vine's, "Cross, Crucify"). While the Bible does indeed teach that Jesus was crucified, there is no record of the shape of the crucifix. At that time, Romans used various forms of upright stakes, some with crossbeams and some without. The Bible gives no indication that the early Church ever used the cross as a religious symbol, but several pagan religions had been doing so for centuries before Christ was born.

How to worship God

Why is much of modern Christian ritual and belief based on ancient pagan practice rather than the Bible? Isn't it enough that people honor God however they want? Human logic might say that one can do anything to show personal religious faith as long as the intent is to worship God. However, God has a much different view.

When He gave the ancient Hebrews instructions about how to worship Him, God also told them very specifically not to borrow or copy the practices of pagan cultures around them. He said, "Do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I will also do likewise.' You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way" (Deuteronomy 12:30-31). The point of faithfulness is that God defines how He should be worshipped, not man: "Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it" (Deuteronomy 12:32).

Jesus offered a challenge for us all: "But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him" (John 4:23). We live in a world historically deceived about the truth—especially religious truth. But when you do learn the truth, take Christ's challenge: believe it and follow it. God is seeking you.


  • Michael L Hays

    My question is this: why do the Gospels include pagan elements? That is, what purpose was served by their inclusion at the time?

  • Frank Dunkle

    Hello, Mr. Hays,

    Thanks for reading the article. I have to confess that, since we wrote it years ago, I had to go back and look at it again to understand the context of your question. I still am not certain that I understand what you are asking, though. Our point was that many elements of worship in modern churches derive from ancient pagan practices, rather than from the Bible. Of course, those same churches have elements of worship that do come from scripture. I believe that God does not favor mixing such things, and prefers for us to worship in the ways revealed in the Bible.

    Are there some things in the gospel accounts that you had in mind? I will be glad to answer, if I can, when I understand to what you are referring. I apologize for my confusion, but hope I might yet be able to help.

    Frank Dunkle

  • O'Tool_Is_No_Fool

    One of the most interesting aspects of paganism found in Christianity IMO, albeit mostly seen in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sects, is the saint relic (body parts, sacred remains, pieces of objects that touched the holy such as splinters of the true cross). ...Although the relic had its biggest moments of glory during the middle ages, they are still a big of the faith for many around the globe. What are your thoughts on these, often ghoulish, items?

  • Frank Dunkle

    Hello, Mr. O'Toole,

    I appreciate your comment, and question. I have to confess that this article was written long enough ago that I had to search to find it and remind myself of its content. It is gratifying to see that writing done several years ago still is useful--especially as I was able to collaborate on it with my friend Dave Cobb.

    As for your question, I do not have specific thoughts on relics--other than to agree that some of them do seem to be quite qhoulish. It seems to tie into the human tendency to want to focus on concrete items more than on abstract ideas. That is understandable, but I am sometimes amazed at the credulity of people when they believe that a piece of wood in front of them was actually a part of the instrument of Christ's crucifixion--or that a small bit of bone was part of an apostle's body.

    I wish I had more insight to offer, but, lacking that, I am confident that we have no need of such things to worship God as Jesus taught in John 4:23-24, "in spirit and in truth."

    Frank D

  • Josephtj

    there is a lot more that is originally pagan

  • dai2119555

    So I'm concerned why you said we dont have an eternal soul seperate from the body or am I misunderstanding because the bible tells me so. And it says I do and there is a heaven and a hell in contrast? It also says the law was abolished by grace doesn't it?

  • Frank Dunkle

    Hello Ms. Rogers,
    Actually the idea of humans possessing an immortal soul is a common misunderstanding o that arose from Greek philosophy, not from the Bible. In Gen. 2: 7 we read that "man became a living soul." That is how the old King James version translates it. The NKJ says that "man became a living being." Both are correct. The word commonly translated "soul" is the Hebrew nephesh, which describes animals as well as humans in these chapters. Ezek 18: 4 says "the soul who sins shall die." This chapter makes the point of individual accountability, rather than a statement about the nature of human existence, but it does so using the common biblical understanding that "souls" can and do die.
    Paul made a statement in Rom 6: 23 that "the wages (results) of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life." Since earlier, in Rom 3: 23, Paul had written that all people have sinned, it follows that all people have earned the death penalty. However, God has a plan to give life. Man does not already have it. We lack space here for further explanation, but our booklets, "The Road to Eternal Life" and "Why Were You Born?" include more detailed explanation.

  • Lena VanAusdle

    Hi Dailen,
    can you tell me which scriptures say that the laws were abolished? The only thing that was "nailed to the cross" was the penalty for sin. Further, can you tell me exactly which laws you believe we no longer need to keep? Are you advocating that we should go out and lie, steal, commit adultery, commit murder? The problem was never with the law, the problem was with the heart of the people keeping it. We cannot "earn" our salvation, grace is a gift freely given, but we obey God because we love Him, and we recognize that He shows His love for us through His commands! Check out Romans 6:15; John 14:15; 1 John 5:2-3).


    I'm not going to say that the information is wrong but I believe the interpretation is way off base. Belief/Faith is different for each individual and you can't decide what someone should or shouldn't believe. Also, how can you be so sure that the way you described things is exactly the truth? Because they were written in a book? Well, the Holy Bible is a book (the teachings of Christ) but you seem to claim that numerous sections are incorrect. Let me ask, were you there to witness all of this? If not you are just assuming one version over another, which kind of leads me to see where your faith lies (not that there is anything wrong with that). I do agree about all the images in the Catholic church but most of them are of Mary and Jesus. Therefore, I don't really see an issue with that and I don't think God would be annoyed that his son and his son's mother were on display in his house of worship, do you? Finally, I can't see where you get that God believes Christian belief is based on Pagan practices but I don't believe it really means anything. However, it appears that you are set in your belief. I've been a minister for over 17 years and I'm really shocked after reading this.

  • Lena VanAusdle

    Hey Kurt,
    I'm not sure why you say that ucg doesn't believe what the Bible says, in fact, they believe what the Bible says 100%, but only what the Bible says when it was originally written. That being said, I'd like to address a couple of your claims. First, you mention God being pleased with images of His Son and Mary being displayed, the problem with that is the second commandment (exodus 20) says we are not to make images or worship them. You are correct that we can't decide what people should believe, but we can definitely say that there is truth, truth based on the Bible, and God expects us to teach that. It is up to each individual whether they will believe and follow what He says.

  • Skip Miller

    Hello Kurt, I need to handle only one of your thoughts (one at a time, anyway.) The thought that I want to handle is the current cultural thinking that (almost) anything goes, as long as it doesn't hurt anybody (on the surface.) UCG believes that God is correct and that God's will is discoverable through prayer and study. We do not claim all knowledge but we do claim that God's Truth exists. Once a person humbles himself, honestly, God can work with that person. The next item I would like to discuss (at another time) is whether God thinks that worshiping Him with Pagan practices is okay. Perhaps you did not really mean that. Did you?

  • dai2119555

    I'm not shocked catholics still bow to statues of people and pray to them. I have not a doubt that the catholics started much of pagan worship in the church to cause assimilation to happen quicker. But many original christians and protestants fought that and today still do. however, I do agree that some of that article does need explaining. For example the separation of body and spirit is a biblical truth and I would love anyone to challenge this. Also heaven is a biblical truth Jesus speaks of it.

  • Lena VanAusdle

    heaven exists, but Jesus Christ says, "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven" (John 3:13). Later in Acts, Peter states, “Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day" (Acts 2:29). The third heaven is the throne of God, not where the saints go at death. Since death is likened to a sleep in multiple places, including 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16, "For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first."

  • Skip Miller

    Hello Dailen, You have several thoughts that are worth discussing. I would like to examine one only. In Job 32: 8 Elihu states that there is a spirit in man. Some feel he means what others call the "soul." Is there a difference between soul and spirit? Absolutely! God says "The soul that sins shall die." (Ezek 18: 4 and 20) On the other hand Ecc 12: 7 shows that
    the spirit in man does return to God who gave it. We need to discuss the difference between 'soul' and 'spirit.' Perhaps you would like one of our booklets?

  • wink

    Are there Christian Churches who worship on Saturday (thereby honoring the teaching that Christ died on a Wednesday and rose on a Saturday)? Thank you for ththe article!

  • dai2119555

    Worshiping on saturday or sunday isn't the largest concern for your life it's if you've accepted Jesus in your heart. There are true worshipers of God who worship on Sunday.

  • Ivan Veller

    Hi Dailen,

    “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship … in truth" (John 4:24). If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person … is not living in the truth” (1 John 2:4). Accepting God includes accepting guilt for having broken His statutes: “The land … will enjoy its sabbaths without them; … they will accept their guilt, because they despised My judgments and because their soul abhorred My statutes” (Lev. 26:43). “And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to … test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Dt. 8:2). “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” (Dt. 5:29). May we “earnestly obey [His] commandments ... to love … God and serve Him … heart and … soul” (Dt. 11:13). May we pray, “With my whole heart I have sought You; Oh, let me not wander from Your commandments!” (Ps. 119:10):

  • Lena VanAusdle

    Hi Dailen,
    We do need be true worshippers of God, but how do we demonstrate that we are true worshippers? God says we can only serve one master (Matthew 6:24), and He is very clear on how His people should worship Him (Exodus 34:14-16); would His true followers choose to worship Him in a way that He says not to, on a day that He hasn't sanctified and set aside?

  • Frank Dunkle

    Hello Ms. Welenc.,
    The United Church of God does worship on the 7th day Sabbath, and we would love to have to visit one of our congregations. If you click on the tab of our website labeled, "congregations," you will have opportunity to type in your location and then find the location and time for services of the congregation nearest you.

  • dai2119555

    What day of the week to worship is trivial the law has been fulfilled. The true worshipers of God are worshiping God the way he sees fit. Now I do believe God made the sabbath for man and for that one day of the week should be dedicated to him and rest.

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