I once lived in a community where each Easter season a pastor, known to locals as “Burnin’ Vernon,” torched the Easter Bunny in effigy. Vernon was convinced that the bunny had stolen the resurrection from Christians and was determined to make him pay, or at least to expose him for the fraud he was. Easter, according to Vernon, was not even a Christian holiday.
But Vernon oversimplified the story. It’s true: the name “Easter” comes from the pagan goddess of the dawn known as Eostra (or Ostara or Ishtar), but her name outlasted her worship. Devotion to the goddess had already ceased. The celebration of the resurrection, observed in the Church since its earliest days, was never associated with Eostra in anything but name.
Still, Eostra (or Easter) is the name of a pagan goddess. Shouldn’t Christians renounce the use of the name when celebrating the resurrection of Jesus? Burnin’ Vernon certainly thought so. But the answer is not as straight-forward as he may have
If Christians removed from their vocabulary every word derived from pre-Christian worship rites, they would hardly be able to communicate. Thursday is named for the Norse god Thor, Saturday for the king of the gods, Saturn. Your Nike running shoes are named for a goddess. When you listen to music you are listening to the inspiration of muses.
Throughout Church history, we find converts abandoning their pre-Christian worship practices while continuing to live and worship in places once marked by pagan rituals. Churches around the Mediterranean routinely made use of buildings constructed and used by pagans and turned them into meeting places for Christians, carving crosses into their aged marble to show that Christ now reigned in a place where pagan gods once
We see this kind of thing in the celebration of Christ’s birth at the time of the Festival of Saturn. Even the king of the Roman pantheon was made to bow to the baby Jesus. The apostle Paul himself made use of a pagan shrine to “The Unknown God” to serve the gospel of Christ.
Christians saw the resurrection as proof that Jesus was Lord over Eostra and all her fellow gods and goddesses –that he was “the great King above all gods,” to use the ancient psalmist’s phrase. His resurrection, occurring as it did at the close of the ancient Jewish Passover Feast, is reminiscent of the triumph of Israel’s God over all the gods of Egypt in the very first Passover. Before the resurrected Jesus, Eostra and her kind can only bow their knees.
No, the threat to the Christian celebration of resurrection does not come from Eostra (or the Easter Bunny, for that matter). It’s not the ancient gods we have to worry about. They have been dethroned and are powerless to undermine Christ’s resurrection. That has been left to Christians themselves to
And we’ve done a good job of it too. Of course there are the historic denials of the resurrection by theologians and bishops, but these pale before a popular theology that has replaced the hope of the resurrection with a vague hope of some shadowy life after
While most people still believe in an afterlife, many no longer hold to the classic Christian doctrine of a bodily resurrection. As the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright noted, “I often find that though Christians still use the word resurrection, they treat it as a synonym for ‘life after death’ or ‘going to
No one has stolen the resurrection – not the goddess Eostra, the Easter Bunny, or anyone else. The resurrection has not been stolen but misplaced and few have noticed, because a nebulous doctrine of life after death has taken its place.
But this is not the historic Christian faith. Christians believe in the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” not a mere postmortem existence. That belongs to the religion of Plato, not Jesus, whose resurrection marked him as “the beginning and firstborn from among the dead.”
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/19/14