Why Do Christians Celebrate Easter?
Every spring, Christians celebrate the most important date in their calendar. Easter is a celebration of life, rebirth, joy, and promises for the future - but these themes of Easter are not the purpose of Easter, but merely tied up into the messaging.
Thousands of years ago, Jesus Christ was arrested and crucified on a cross for no crime. His family and followers began to mourn. Three days later, however, He was not in His tomb. He spoke with His disciples, with women who followed Him, with two men along the road, and to a crowd of people before He ascended into the clouds. This was not an apparition, but the flesh and blood man Jesus, resurrected bodily. And with Him arose the hope of humanity.
The Son of God paid for the sins of the world on the cross at Calvary, but on Easter He conquered death and the grave.
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What Is Easter?
In each of the Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - each writer recounts the events surrounding Passover in the thirty-third year of Jesus’ life. After the Passover dinner, the disciple Judas left and went to the priestly leaders and told them when and where they could arrest Jesus.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to the Father about what He was about to experience, “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will’” (Matthew 26:39). Judas came with soldiers and arrested Him.
All night Jesus was beaten, shuffled between the Temple, King Herod, and Roman governor Pontius Pilate. The Romans tried to release Jesus, but they insisted he crucify Jesus, and he relented. During the day, Jesus was whipped, forced to carry His own cross, and collapsed under the strain.
After hours on the cross, the sky darkened, and the earth shook; “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened … When the centurion and those who were with him ... saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:50-54). Afterward, some of his followers came and took his body and buried him in a tomb before the Sabbath.
Jesus’ death served as the perfect sacrifice, paying the price for people’s sins. The curtain in the temple separated the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest could enter because it was where God’s Spirit would come physically dwell. It tore once Jesus surrendered his spirit because God could now indwell with anyone who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. For those who accepted Christ’s offer of free salvation, a separation was no longer needed between God and man.
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Why Is the Resurrection so Important?
What happened three days later was even more significant. A group of women came to his tomb, and the stone was rolled away, the burial clothes folded, and the tomb was empty. One woman stayed, crying when a man approached her. Jesus arose from the grave, his body and spirit reunited.
This miracle was so incredible that his disciple Thomas doubted until a week later; “Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (John 20:26b-28). Jesus conquered death and became the first person to resurrect body and soul, never to die again. Christians celebrate the Resurrection as a special day, focusing on their eternal salvation and the future promise of a great resurrection to come.
The writer of Hebrews summarizes the power of Easter - the crucifixion and resurrection - very well:
“For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:24-28).
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When Is Easter Celebrated?
The date of Easter moves based on the Jewish festival of Passover. In Exodus, God sent ten plagues to Egypt because Pharaoh would not free the Hebrew people. The final plague was a curse which killed all the firstborn in the nation; God gave the people a way to have God’s wrath pass over their homes, which foreshadowed Jesus’ sacrifice. Each household took a spotless lamb and sacrificed it the night of the last plague. They took the blood and covered their doorposts with it, and roasted and ate the lamb with only a few herbs. God ordered them to eat it in haste, as they were to be ready to leave in the morning. Exodus 12 has the full account.
Centuries later, Jesus Christ came as the true, perfect lamb and became the perfect sacrifice, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29b). Beyond the symbolic importance of Passover, it was also the feast happening when Jesus was arrested and executed by the Romans. The Last Supper was the Passover Feast.
Passover’s date changes based on the Jewish calendar, which is based on the cycles of the moon. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, occurs on the new moon closest to the autumnal equinox, usually around September. The months in the Jewish calendar are, Tishrei, Heshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar, Nissan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, and Elul. Passover happens in Nissan, the seventh month in the calendar, starting on the 15th, and ending on the 21st, or the 22nd in Israel. Easter typically falls that following Sunday. There is also a lunar calendar which calculates Easter, though the Orthodox churches and the western churches use separate calendars, and observe Easter on different days.
In 2021, Easter falls on April 4.
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Was Easter Pagan?
Like Christmas, there are some who argue that Easter is merely the culmination of several pagan traditions, holidays, and symbols the early church appropriated to convince pagan cultures to convert. While there may be overlap between certain symbols across cultures, and there may be other stories in other cultures that appear to also have a dying-god trope, they possess different themes and carry different connotations.
For example, many point to the Easter egg as a pagan symbol. While eggs have been a relatively common symbol of rebirth, the use of them as an Easter symbol began in Mesopotamia region where they would paint the eggs in red to represent Christ’s blood, and the empty tomb. Some of the pagan myths about dying-gods that have a return feature the god coming back to life only spiritually, engaging in reincarnation, or do not feature resurrection at all. For example the Norse god Baldr and the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl both die, but do not bodily return. Some gods, like Ishtar from the Mesopotamian legends die yearly, as a cycle to institute the seasons.
Some point to the Osiris myth as the origins of the Christian version of resurrection. In Egyptian lore, Osiris was killed by his brother Set, and his body was scattered across Egypt; his wife Isis brought him back, conceived a son, and then became king of the world of the dead - Duat. The primary difference between this story and Jesus’ resurrection was that no one was redeemed by Osiris’ death, and his resurrection was not truly permanent.
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Why Do We Celebrate Jesus' Death?
Easter is a day of celebration because it is the source of hope and joy in the Christian life. His death paid the debt man owed to God because of their sin. For those who accept Jesus, God credits Christ’s righteousness, “It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:24b-25).
When Jesus shed His blood, He conquered sin. On Resurrection Sunday, believers rejoice because on that day, the Lord conquered death. Because Jesus rose from the grave, those who serve Him will be resurrected to a new, eternal life. This gift of forgiveness from sin and eternal life with God is available to all who repent from their sin - which is any action, thought, or intent, which angers, dishonors, or offends God - and call on God for that forgiveness.
On Easter Sunday, believers celebrate by focusing on glorifying God for this ultimate triumph over darkness. Congregate with fellow believers to worship the risen Savior. Spend time reading the accounts of the Resurrection in the Gospels and what Heaven will be like. Rejoice, and praise the Lord for this wonderful, and eternal gift.
Edwards, Larry D. The Christian Holy Days. Xulon Press, 2010.
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.
Mosjov, Bojana. Osiris Death and Afterlife of a God. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
Wilmington, H.L. Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1981.
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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer who uses her passion for God, reading, and writing to glorify God. She and her husband have lived all over the country serving their Lord and Savior in ministry. She has a blog on graceandgrowing.com.