Early Christianity has no connection to paganism, but what about later traditions – like Easter eggs & bunnies & Christmas trees? Aren’t they pagan? Probably… but so what?
In the first two parts of this series, I argued:
(1) The name “Easter” itself has no pagan origin. (Read Part 1 here.)
(2) There is no evidence that ancient pagan religions had any influence on early Christianity or modern Bible-based (Sola Scriptura! – “by Scripture alone”) Christianity (Read Part 2 here.)
But there are always loose ends: What about Easter eggs? And rabbits? What about Christmas trees? Or Santa Claus or mistletoe?
Since the first two parts of this series were somewhat long, I want to give you a short answer for this third and final part… followed, of course, by a long answer because I can’t seem to address any issue quickly…
THE SHORT ANSWER
QUESTION: “May I ask what the chocolate and coloured eggs have to do with the death and resurrection of Christ?” (This was asked in the comments section for Part 1 of this series.)
RESPONSE: “… The answer to your questions is: absolutely nothing… whether bunnies and eggs have pagan roots doesn’t matter. The practices are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Bible. Thus, the practice is neutral. It’s similar to how the music used in churches is essentially neutral as long as it glorifies God; it doesn’t matter if the music is contemporary or traditional. So, if people want to have an egg hunt with their kids on Easter, there’s nothing wrong with that from a biblical standpoint. On the other hand, if a Christian doesn’t feel comfortable with the practice/tradition (not doctrine) of egg hunts because it may have pagan roots and that person chooses to abstain from it, that is what they should do and it is perfectly acceptable as well.”
THE LONG ANSWER
Do eggs, bunnies, mistletoe, and decorated trees have pagan roots? Probably.
Even Bruce Metzger – one of the most influential New Testament scholars of the 20th Century and highly respected by both evangelical scholars and liberal theological scholars – in his essay arguing against any pagan influence on early Christianity (Read it here), wrote that post-Constantine Christianity in the fourth and fifth Centuries, long after the New Testament had been written, did adopt some pagan-influenced practices. (Yet the Protestant Reformation and Sola Scriptura did away with all of the practices he cites.)
But this is what happens when something – whether it be punk music or Christianity – goes “mainstream.” The devout few grow into the nominal many. The strict core remains, but they’re surrounded by the lax masses. And somewhere along the way eggs, bunnies, mistletoe, and decorated trees joined in.
Do eggs, bunnies, mistletoe, and decorating trees have pagan roots? Probably.
But… who cares?
To be honest, I didn’t even research this question because it doesn’t matter…
TRADITION VS. DOCTRINE
There is a difference between church doctrine based on biblical teachings and traditions from outside the Bible. There is a difference between biblical practices and non-biblical practices, even if those non-biblical practices are practiced by Christians – even practiced by Christians at a church or during a holiday celebration.
At my church (and most churches), we pass out bulletins. Did Jesus command us to do this? No. Do the writers of the Bible tell us to do this? No. Did the first Christian churches do this? I doubt it. Does this mean we have corrupted Christianity with a secular practice? No.
Say I’m in a jazz band, but I really like that mohawk I saw on that guy in that punk rock band. So, I grab an electric shaver and give myself a mohawk. Does that mean my jazz band is now a punk rock band?
CLAIMING IT FOR CHRIST
The God of the Bible is Truth and Creator of all things. Even if something is connected to something sinful, it can be reclaimed for Christ. For example, I know there are exceptions, but the majority of popular hiphop artists I’ve heard rap about embarrassingly shameful subjects – celebrating materialism, misogyny, ego, drug culture, violence. But Christian hiphop artists like Shai Linne, Lecrae, and Andy Mineo have claimed rap for Christ, using their lyrics not to objectify women or glorify themselves, but for glorifying their Lord and Savior. Likewise, we can claim anything for Christ and use it in honor of Him.
When speaking about religion, syncretism is the combining or uniting of religious beliefs. For example, we see a combination of Catholic Christianity and tribal African religions (often called voodoo) in places like New Orleans. This would be an example of syncretism completely unacceptable to a strictly Bible-believing Christian because certain practices of tribal African religions clearly contradict the teachings in the Bible (and, thus, Christian doctrine) in many ways (whether we’re speaking about Protestantism or Catholicism).
On the other hand, say you go to church on Easter Sunday to worship God and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and then you come home and hide colored eggs, which most likely are originally pagan symbols. Is this syncretism — perhaps a “lighter” type? Many strictly Bible-believing Christians find no problem with this tradition because it doesn’t defy nor contradict the teachings in the Bible. No other deity is being worshipped in the act of an egg hunt. No pagan rituals are being performed. No sin is being committed. Yes, colored eggs may have pagan origins, but the pagan significance has lost its meaning.
Music is a good example to understand this idea. Certain passages in the Bible definitely speak of worshipping God with music. But does it state a specific style of music? No. If the music glorifies God and can be sung in unison as a congregation, few should find any issue from a biblical standpoint concerning the style of music in Christian churches.
Just as popular music styles change over time, the songs Christians were singing in honor of Christ in the 1st Century in Jerusalem or Rome were certainly a different style than the songs sung in American churches today. (This is why it’s so baffling to me when Christians get hung up on traditions and get into battles over not having contemporary music in churches.) The style of music used in church is tradition and preference, not biblical doctrine. Thus, churches in Africa, Asia, Indonesia, and Northern Europe can worship God with music specific to their cultures.
Another illustration borrowed from one of my professors at SBTS, Dr. David Sills – professor of missions and anthropology, and author of Reaching and Teaching – will help:
In the New Testament, Jesus clearly teaches that those who repent and believe in the Gospel of Christ Jesus should be baptized – a symbolic, public declaration of their faith. This is an example of a command from Jesus, and thus, a biblical doctrine.
Dr. Sills shared how the people of a certain tribe in Africa wore many necklaces and bracelets with all sorts of talismans — amulets, charms — hanging from them, according to their traditional religious beliefs. Some of the natives, after accepting Christ, would cut off the necklaces and bracelets and throw them into a fire before being baptized. As a new Christian, the necklaces, bracelets, talismans, and amulets would certainly have to be left behind because this would be syncretism that contradicts the teachings in the Bible. But what about the part concerning casting them into the fire?
Was it acceptable for them, as Christians, to do this? Of course. There’s no biblical reason why they shouldn’t throw the talismans into the fire. The act was a powerful statement of their belief in the one true God, but should they make it a requirement, an addition to the act of baptism? No! To add anything to or to take away anything from baptism as given by Christ would be against Scripture. Can this act be made an optional tradition? Sure! Likewise, in many American churches, people often give their testimonies before being baptized. Is this required by Scripture? No. Is this forbidden by Scripture? No. Can it be an optional tradition? Sure.
Likewise, does a Christian have to hide eggs on Easter? No. Is it forbidden to hide eggs according to Scripture? No. Can I hide eggs if I want to? Sure. Can I decide to not hide eggs because I’m uncomfortable with the idea of it having pagan roots? Yes, that’s okay too.
Let’s look at one more example: Halloween. Now, many claim Halloween has pagan roots. I recently learned more about the origins of Halloween, and this doesn’t appear to be the case, but there’s no reason to go into all of that here. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say Halloween does have pagan roots. Should Christians participate in Halloween? That’s a question individual Christians have to make. Two questions have to be honestly considered by all Christians, whether it concerns trick-or-treating or hiding eggs or decorating a tree:
(1) What biblical teaching may I be violating?
(2) Have the pagan “meanings” of Halloween been lost in our current culture to the extent that it no longer can be considered “pagan”? (Similar to how Christmas has become a secular holiday for many, and the true reason for celebrating it has been lost – or ignored – in secular society.)
The possible ways of answering these questions can be seen in how different churches have responded: Some churches (like the one I grew up in) had no problem with Halloween. (We even did a haunted house in the church basement!) Other churches carve pumpkins, hold (non-scary) costume contests, and pass out candy, but call it a “Fall Festival.” Some churches ignore Halloween (or Fall Festivals) all together. Likewise, some churches have decided to simply call Easter Resurrection Sunday because of the possible pagan origins of the name Easter (though I showed in Part 1 that this is most likely inaccurate).
THE EXCEPTION: STUMBLING BLOCKS
What I’m writing about here is sometimes referred to as “Christian Freedom.” Yes, there are clear commands and prohibitions in the Christian life, but there is also a considerable amount of freedom (despite the tendency of both misguided Christians and non-Christians throughout history to demean our faith to simply being about following legalistic rules). For example, is there a way all Christians should dress? No. We have freedom to dress as we please. Of course, there are Christian principles that should guide how we dress to an extent. For example, women shouldn’t dress in ways that cause men to lust after them.
Another big exception to Christian Freedom is explored in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In his letter (See 1 Corinthians, Chapters 8-10), Paul addresses a debate in the Corinth church about whether Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols. People would bring bulls and other animals to the pagan priests for sacrifice for one reason or another, and that sacrificed animal would more than likely end up being someone’s dinner. As odd as this seems to us today, it was a common practice in the Roman world in the 1st Century, and it gives us an important biblical principle for today.
Paul explains that eating meat sacrificed to idols is harmless because, after all, what is an idol? An idol is nothing but a statue. There is no god behind it because there is only one God (8:4-6). But then Paul goes on to explain that not all Christians are as insightful or mature in their understanding of these things, and if eating meat sacrificed to idols will cause them to struggle in their faith – such as causing an unclear unconscious – the more mature Christian should willfully abstain from such practice for the sake of his or her brother or sister in Christ (8:7-13).
Furthermore, Paul continues, if a non-Christian has you over for dinner and offers you meat, accept it graciously and don’t ask where it comes from. But if the non-Christian tells you that the meat comes from a sacrificed animal, then don’t eat it – not for your own sake, but for the sake of the non-Christian (10:27-29).
This is the “stumbling block” concept (8:9).
If your actions cause a brother or sister in Christ to “stumble,” than you are to show grace and patience – the same grace and patience God has shown you – and refrain from those practices. Likewise, if your actions (though they may be allowed by Christian Freedom) somehow damage the perception of our faith by non-believers, we should refrain from them as well.
A good illustration concerns drinking alcohol. The writers of the Bible tell us not to get drunk, but the drinking of alcohol is not prohibited. Jesus, after all, turned water into wine (John 2), and Paul recommended to Timothy to drink some wine for his stomach problems (1 Timothy 5:23). But if a friend of yours, who is not yet strong in the faith, feels strongly that Christians shouldn’t drink, it’s better not to have a beer with dinner when you invite him over. This is even truer if you have a friend who has a drinking problem. Have no doubt about it: To cause your brother or sister in Christ to stumble is a sin.
As Paul writes:
“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (10:23-24)
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (10:31)
(To be clear, in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, Paul further explains that though eating meat offered to idols is essentially harmless, a Christian shouldn’t participate in any rituals dedicated to idols or pagan gods.)
- There is a big difference between doctrine and tradition.
- If a tradition or practice doesn’t contradict or disobey biblical teachings, it’s fair game.
- Conversely, if a tradition or practice becomes a “stumbling block” to others in their faith in Jesus Christ or in coming to faith in Jesus Christ (or even if it doesn’t sit well with your own conscience) it should be refrained from out of Christian love and grace.
Frankly, it may be worth ceasing the traditions of eggs, rabbits, Christmas trees, mistletoe, and even the use of the word “Easter” simply so Christians no longer have to address these weary matters.
Thoughts? Share ’em below please!
Do meaningless secular holidays have their origin in religious pagan myths?… Possible future article idea??