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Light for our path: Does the word Easter refer to Ishtar, the Babylonian fertility goddess?

How do I respond to my husband who maintains that the word Easter refers to Ishtar, the Babylonian fertility goddess? He refuses to go to any church that uses that title.

James F. Pope

The response to your question includes some uncertainty and certainty. Thankfully, there is certainty in what really matters.

Uncertain derivation

It is difficult to determine precisely the origin of the word Easter. Some people have tried to identify it with the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring Eostre. That derivation is unlikely but, for argument’s sake, let’s pretend that is the case.

If we avoid using names that have ties to goddesses and gods, then we would not want to use Thursday because the name of the day is connected to the Norse god Thor.

When I write “August” on a check, even though it’s the eighth month of the year, it is named after Caesar Augustus—a god, according to the decree of the Roman Senate.

No matter how the word Easter came about, any connection to pagan gods, goddesses, or idolatry has disappeared a long time ago.

On the other hand, some propose that Easter is derived from the German “Ost” (“East”) and “Ostern” (“Easter”). The sun rises in the east. Those first rays of the sun’s light shatter the darkness of the night from the east.

Certain declaration

Christians recognize that constructing a church calendar and including events like Easter are matters of Christian freedom. While God gave Moses a church calendar with major festivals for Old Testament Israel, that no longer applies to New Testament followers of the Lord (Galatians 4:10; Colossians 2:16). Exercising their spiritual freedom, Christians designed a church-year calendar and then designated important events in the life of Christ. Easter is one of them.

If your husband is concerned about our church’s usage of the title Easter, you may want to point out to him that in the church calendar the Sunday after Good Friday is called “The Resurrection of our Lord.” It is common for Christian churches to use “Easter” and “The Resurrection of our Lord” interchangeably because terminology is not as important as meaning, and the meaning of Easter is all about God’s declaration of acceptance and victory.

The apostle Paul wrote about Jesus: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25). The message that God broadcast to the world on the first Easter Sunday was that he had accepted Jesus’ holy life and sacrificial death as the full payment for the sins of the world. On the cross Jesus proclaimed, “It is finished” (John 19:30). God verified that declaration by means of the empty tomb.

Easter points us to the empty tomb that temporarily housed Jesus’ lifeless body. Easter Sunday is God’s declaration of his victory over death. Jesus said about himself, “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again” (Luke 24:7). Jesus did conquer death. In addition, the Lord imparted this promise: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11:25,26). Jesus guarantees that his followers share in his victory over death.

Easter, then, is an uncertain term with certain meaning. Jesus lives! We live!

Author: James F. Pope
Volume 106, Number 4
Issue: April 2019

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This entry is part 51 of 64 in the series question-answer

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