Is the word “Easter” derived from the name of a pagan goddess? Is it appropriate to use that term to refer to the Resurrection day of Jesus Christ—and is the entire Lent season and Easter holiday tainted by association with ancient pagan religion?
We’re asked these questions each year during Lent. We’ve asked Mel Lawrenz, minister-at-large of Elmbrook Church and creative director of The Brook Network, to talk about this issue. His answer is below.
Question: Why do most Christians use the word “Easter” in reference to the Resurrection day of Jesus, when that word comes from a pagan goddess?
First, there never has been a direct association of the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus with the pagan deity. The celebration of the day of resurrection fell on the month of Eastre (West Saxon) or Eostre (Northumbrian). So it was a time of year that was the association, the name of a month. Now that month’s name was probably (not certainly) derived from a goddess of spring. But this association is remote and that is why if you use the word “Easter” in normal speech today, people make no association with ancient pagan religion. Hundreds of millions of Christians use “Easter,” and have done so for centuries, with the meaning of “the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.”
Second, there are many words we use that have long-passed connections in pagan culture or religion, but their meaning has been changed. When we talk about going to church on “Sunday” we don’t have much heartburn about the fact that this day in the Roman calendar was for the worship of the sun. The examples are everywhere. And when we pass into January we mark a new beginning with little concern that the word “January” comes from the Roman god Janus, the god of doorways. Many of the words we use have some peculiar etymology. What matters is what the words mean to us today in normal spoken language.
One last point. Christians have often intentionally placed their symbols and labels on top of pagan symbols and labels because they believe this represents the conquest of the Lordship of Christ. When Christians began celebrating the birth of Jesus at the time of the pagan festival of Saturnalia near the winter solstice they were intentionally saying: the Son of God trumps the sun god.
Mel Lawrenz trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a Ph.D. in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, the latest, How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.