What is Easter?

by Matt Slick

Easter is the celebration of the bodily resurrection of Jesus which, according to the Bible, occurred three days after his crucifixion (Matthew 12:40; John 2:19-21). He was crucified as a sacrifice for us--as a substitute (Isaiah 53:4-6)--where our sins were put upon him (1 Peter 2:24), and he died with them. He was a sacrifice (Hebrews 9:26; 10:12); and when we trust in the sacrifice of Christ for forgiveness of our sins, then we can be justified by faith (Romans 5:1).

The account of the crucifixion of Christ is found in the New Testament.

  • Matthew 27:33-36, And when they had come to a place called Golgotha, which means Place of a Skull, 34 they gave Him wine to drink mingled with gall; and after tasting it, He was unwilling to drink. 35 And when they had crucified Him, they divided up His garments among themselves, casting lots; 36 and sitting down, they began to keep watch over Him there.
  • Luke 23:33, And when they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left.
  • John 19:17-18, They took Jesus therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. 18 There they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between.

The account of the resurrection of Christ is found in the New Testament.

  • Matthew 28:5-7, And the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. 6 He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. 7 And go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going before you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you."
  • Luke 24:1-7, But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, bringing the spices which they had prepared. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 And it happened that while they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling apparel; 5 and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead? 6 He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, 7 saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again."
  • 2 Timothy 2:8, Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel.

When is Easter celebrated?

Luke 24:1 says that Jesus rose on the first day of the week, Sunday. This is why we have Easter Sunday as the day of the celebration which occurs once a year. Furthermore, Jesus was crucified at the time of the Passover which is the 14th of Nissan. So traditionally Christians would celebrate the resurrection of Christ on the first Sunday following the traditional date of Christ's crucifixion, which was a Friday following the first full moon of the month, which corresponds to our modern month of April. Therefore, "the dates of Easter can range from March 22 to April 25."1

Where did the word Easter come from? 

The word "Easter" is not found in the Bible except in the King James Version. Acts 12:4, "And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people."

So, if the word is not found in Scripture what is its origin?

  • "Originally a Saxon word (Eostre), denoting a goddess of the Saxons, in honour of whom sacrifices were offered about the time of the Passover. Hence the name came to be given to the festival of the Resurrection of Christ, which occured at the time of the Passover."2
  • "The name, which has been attested as early as the eighth century A.D., is believed to have derived from annual sacrifices in honor of Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon spring goddess.  The Eastern church, following the practice of early Jewish Christians, first observed the celebration on the fourteenth of Nisan, the first day of Passover. The Western church, following the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection (Matt. 28:1 par.), set the festival on a Sunday, the first to follow the new moon which occurs on or immediately after the vernal (spring) equinox as determined by the Council of Nicaea (325); thus the dates for Easter may range from March 22 to April 25."3

If the word "Easter" has a pagan origin, should we then avoid using it? No, it does not mean we can't use the word. In fact, many words we use in modern time have pagan origins such as "Saturday" which means "Saturn's day," a phrase used in ancient Roman pagan belief that the god Saturn had influence over that day.

There is an error in argumentation called the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy says that if the origin of something is bad, then what comes from it cannot be trusted and should be avoided. It is like saying you cannot trust the directions that were given to you by someone who was a thief. His being a thief does not mean his directions are bad. Likewise, the origin of a word in pagan history does not mean the entire celebration that the word signifies in modern times is now somehow tainted and ungodly.

Nevertheless, it is up to the individual Christian to be convinced in his own mind (Romans 14:5) about the propriety of using the term and celebrating it on any particular day.

  • 1. Myers, Allen C. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987.
  • 2. Easton, M. G. Easton’s Bible Dictionary. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893.
  • 3. Myers, Allen C. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987.

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.