Easter is celebrated throughout the United States and around the world by Christians and non-Christians alike. What originated as a strictly religious holiday for many, extended into a commercial holiday for several others. Although the Easter bunny and chocolate eggs are beloved symbols of Easter nowadays, it is the resurrection of Jesus that is fundamentally responsible for the initial recognition of the Easter holiday. Jesus is perhaps the most well-recognized reference to the concept of resurrection that we have today; however, upon closer inspection, it seems that religions and cultures have always included stories of resurrection in their teachings. It appears that humans have been fascinated by the concept of immortality and rebirth since the beginning of time.
Resurrection is the belief in reawakening or living on after death. Resurrection relies on divinity, miracles, or metaphysical intervention, thereby assuming the belief in a god or gods. Tales of resurrection often include cycles of the natural world as well, such as the changing of seasons or daily rising of the sun. Because spirituality and the physical world both provide examples of rebirth, the concept seems to be inherently familiar among civilizations from any period of time.
Along with Christianity, resurrection is a common belief in several ancient religions. Even before Homo Sapiens emerged, our ancient ancestors demonstrated ideas of resurrection or an afterlife. Recent discoveries show Homo Naledi buried their dead in an organized way. We have evidence that Neanderthals, too, buried their dead. Archaeologists have found feathers, stone tools, and implements at Neanderthal burial sites, implying that they did not think of death as an end but rather a transition to another realm. Modern humans have expanded upon these prehistoric concepts over time.
Religions of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia also tell stories of people rising from the dead. The Egyptian god, Osiris, is perhaps the oldest recorded story of resurrection. After being killed by his brother, Osiris was revived to become the king of the underworld. Osiris was often symbolized by perennial crops (some sources say barley, wheat, or corn), which he was credited with introducing to the Egyptians for sustenance. He was believed to enable the rebirth of the dead, and the renewal of the sun each day. Symbols of the afterlife are prevalent in Egyptian culture, as evidenced by the famous pyramids and elaborate tombs meant to prepare pharaohs for their journey after death.
The “ankh” is a hieroglyphic symbol used in ancient Egyptian writing to represent the word “life.” It is still universally recognized today, bearing a striking resemblance to the Cross of Christianity. The modern-day Egyptian Coptic church even uses the ankh as a form of the Cross. Egyptian deities were often depicted holding the ankh to symbolize their ability to revive human souls after death.
Other ancient societies, including the Ugaritic gods of Mesopotamia, had their own cycle of resurrections surrounding the god, Ba’al, among others. In Mesopotamia, gods would kill one another, die, and be reborn. In Ancient Greece, there were many stories of death, the afterlife, and the potential return to the living world. The sad tale of Orpheus frames this concept through a husband’s loss of his wife from circumstances beyond his control. He attempts to retrieve her from the underworld but ruins her resurrection by failing to adhere to the guidelines the gods had provided him. For grieving hearts throughout history, resurrection has served as a profound symbol of hope.
Perhaps even more interesting, the ancient Greeks believed that one could achieve immortality after death by completing certain deeds of notoriety during their lifetime. This concept of “Kleos” was one way by which the dead could live on forever through the ongoing repetition of their famous deeds and continued veneration of their name. Although current mainstream religions don’t share this concept literally, many believe the human spirit survives within the hearts and memories of those left behind. In this way, immortality is still a very relevant theme for humankind today.
The advent of Christianity is when resurrection seemed to reach a new magnitude and level of focus. In the Christian bible, Jesus’ resurrection was explicitly foreshadowed by His raising of Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb. One of the bible’s most quoted passages in the New Testament comes as a result of this event.
Here, Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.”
The dead man’s sister tells Jesus that she has always believed that He was the Messiah. Her confession prompts Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead. Although Jesus was at odds with the Pharisees, He follows their line of thought in regards to resurrection, later demonstrating this miracle by His own resurrection on Easter.
Regardless of your personal beliefs, there’s no denying the observation that life after death has inspired civilizations throughout history. What we now recognize as the “Easter egg” has served a symbol of rebirth in many cultures. This symbol makes sense, given that human life is derived from an egg. Even Pagan religions viewed the egg as a representation of the rebirth of spring, when flowers burst open and new growth emerges. Modern Greeks call this the “anastasis” or resurrection, in reference to Jesus, recovery from severe health conditions, and springtime.
For Christians, the egg holds a similar meaning while being divorced from seasonality and representing the second life of Christ. Another universal Easter symbol is that of the lamb. Jesus came to be known as the “Lamb of God.” Lambs are seen as innocent animals, sacrificed for the greater good of the people, to feed and clothe them. Jesus’ death is believed to have extended the power of resurrection to all of His believers. His sacrifice is seen as a gift to Christians around the world.
Whether you chock this all up to humanity’s tendency towards wishful thinking, or you believe wholeheartedly in the Christian version of life after death, it’s hard to deny that those who pass on never seem to leave without a trace. Humans leave lasting imprints on the people and places around them, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Our connections to the living world can last for generations to come, through the ripple effects that one human life has on another.
Although many people don’t believe in life after death, there is an encompassing truth in the sentiment that the human spirit lives on in the hearts and minds of those who once knew them. Even distant connections can provide everlasting elements to our conscious and subconscious minds. Whatever you make of the Easter season, let nature’s introduction of spring serve as an inspiration to live with intentionally for the eternal impressions you offer the world.