Why Don't Adventists Observe Easter?

In recent years, I have received several questions around the time of Easter from people who grew up in Christian, but non-Adventist, backgrounds. Growing up, my parents would have an Easter-egg hunt for the kids, but I don't remember any particularly notable religious emphasis placed on the date.

When I went to school at Andrews, the University would put on a "Passion Play" and Southern Adventist University was well known for its "SonRise" play. Both productions commemorated the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. While evangelistic efforts like this may be common in our Adventist Universities, most Adventist churches do remarkably little, if anything, on the day of Easter.

At first, there seems to be a bit of a double standard when it comes to Easter and Christmas. Many Adventist churches will have some sort of Christmas program in the weeks leading up to December 25th, and may even do small amounts of decorating, such as using red ribbons or adding some sorts of a Christmas tree. There are often concerts, and a special Sabbath when the childrens departments re-enact the accounts given of the birth of Jesus in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 2. On Easter however, the average Adventist church does no decorating, and Easter comes and goes without anyone even saying so much as "Christ is Risen."

In order to investigate this, let's first consider what Christmas and Easter both have in common. Bother are Christian holidays that commemorate Christ's birth and resurrection respectively. Christians don't have any precise historical date for either of the events that these events commemorate. And the both holidays have a somewhat intriguing crossover with other pagan festivals observed by medieval Europeans.

Regarding the dates, the best estimates for Christ's birth are given in the timeline of Luke 1. By comparing the time of year during which Zechariah's division (of Abijah) was on duty (Luke 1:5, 8; 1 Chronicles 24:7-9) and taking this approximately as the conception month of John, and then calculating that the six months after this, Jesus was conceived (Luke 1:26), Jesus was likely born somewhere between September and November, well before the "holiday season" commencing with Thanksgiving in the United States. As far as Jesus's resurrection, we know that Jesus was crucified at the end of the Passover Week in the third year of his ministry, which fell on a Friday (the preparation day of a high Sabbath), and was likely the 15th of Nisan (looking at the context of the feast of unleavened bread and the date of slaughtering the passover lamb). The next Sunday was likely the 17th of Nisan. However, Biblical scholars of all denominations have acknowledged the great difficulty in pinning down an exact date in the first century for this occurence. Were the dates for Christ's birth or resurrection essential knowledge for our salvation, God would have preserved this information for our benefit. However, this appears (in my opinion) to be a matter similar to the burial of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:6), where God didn't think it was important for us to know a piece of information, and hid it from us to keep us from getting too distracted on venerating a place or a time that wasn't in and of itself essential for our salvation. Moses gave a lot of information about God which was important for our salvation, but venerating the death place of Moses is not important. Jesus had a birth date and a death date, but observing those exact dates in and of themselves is not important.

The modern date of Christmas falls on December 25 each year. It's about the time that someone without a very precise clock can start to notice that each day is getting longer (December 22 is the shortest day of the year). This date comes from ancient medieval traditions that put great religious importance on the sun. The modern date of Easter is far more convoluted. The word Easter, as far as I can tell, comes from a medieval language that is no longer spoken. Eostre was a goddess of a pagan European tradition, and Eostermonab was the month when feasts in her honor would be celebrated.

There does not seem to be any Biblical evidence of the first-century Christians holding a feast in honor of Christ's resurrection in any of the churches that the Apostles planted around the meditterainean. However, in the following centuries, many Christians began the practice of celebrating Easter on the 17th of Nisan, which would hop around to different days of the week (In 2021, it will be on a Tuesday, in 2022 it will be on Monday, a Saturday in 2023, etc..., but I think even this depends on which website you go to for your Jewish calendar1). As centuries progressed, different groups started celebrating different days in different regions, such that the season of passover now happens in completely different months some years, depending on whether you ask an Eastern Orthodox, a Catholic, or a Jew1. One reason for the different dates is that Christians didn't want to be confused with Jews during this time, so they created a rather convoluted equation to calculate a Christian version of Easter, so that it would always fall on a Sunday, since we're told that Jesus rose on the first day of the week. They then decided to celebrate Jesus' resurrection every Sunday, and would celebrate it by observing the Lord's supper, which Jesus instituted on a Thursday evening. Easter observation, therefore, gives Adventists a funny taste in their mouth because the observance of the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox has more to do with the commandment of man than it does any commandment in Scripture. I think that Adventists feel a little more comfortable celebrating Christmas, because there is no hint in Christmas that someone is trying to change the day of the week that God commanded us to observe Sabbath.

All this to say, neither Jesus nor his apostles ever prescribed any set date for the celebration of Christ's birth or resurrection. The Holy Day that was kept by the apostles was a weekly Sabbath. It's evident from the four Gospels that the Jews held Sabbath observance in the first century to be very serious. If the Christians stopped observing the seventh-day Sabbath all together, there would have been at least as much fuss about it in the writings of Paul as he indicates about Circumcision, though there isn't much mention of it. The closest thing we have to a commandment that Jesus gives to observe a new holiday is to observe the last supper either on Thursday evening (not on Sunday), or the 14th day of Nisan (whatever day that falls on in your calendar) (Luke 22:18-20; 1 Cor 11:23-25).

So why don't Adventists say "Christ is Risen" like other Protestants do? Adventists meet on Saturday, and in the synoptic gospels, Jesus was in the tomb during the Sabbath. It seems a little odd to say that Christ is Risen on the Saturday when He rose on Sunday. I suppose that one could say that Christ is Risen on the next Saturday that you go to church after Nisan 17.

I want to end on a practical note. Nobody ever decided to give their life to Christ after getting angry at a Christian for being told that they were wrong. I stated earlier that God likely didn't feel that celebrating the anniversaries of Christ's birth or death were important enough for us to commemorate with an annual festival. That being said, the world has various festivals (religious and secular) that we as Christians can utilize to give timely reminders of God's love for us (e.g., Valentine's day, Thanksgiving, etc...). We can take advantage of Halloween, a time of year when many people are okay with strangers knocking on their door, to give people literature about Christ who would otherwise not be receptive. I believe our energies are far better spent making the most of the cultural practices of the society in which we witness, while being judicious about what may be perceived as compromising on Scripture (Romans 14:1-6, 14).

  1. The table given here further illustrates another substantive difference between Christmas and