At the beginning of each year, millions upon millions of people who claim to be Christians observe the religious customs and festivities of Lent. Does the Bible command it? Where did it come from and what does it mean?
Lent comes from an Old English word Lencten, meaning “spring.” The root of the word is most likely the same as for the word long and refers to the lengthening days.
The Lenten season runs for a period of 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday. Its traditional purpose was to prepare people for Easter through self-denial and penance. During this time, many deny the self through “fasting” (abstinence from rich foods such as meat, dairy, fats and sugar) or giving up certain luxuries as a form of remorse.
“As long as the perfection of the primitive church remained inviolable,” wrote Cassian in the fifth century, “there was no observance of Lent; but when men began to decline from the apostolical fervour of devotion … then the priests in general agreed to recall them from secular cares by a canonical indiction of fasting …” (Antiquities of the Christian Church, Book 21, chapter 1, emphasis added throughout). Collier’s Encyclopedia says of Lent that it is “Admittedly not of Apostolic origin.” It did not originate with Christ or the early Church but entered into the Christianity of the Roman world in the second century, at the same time Easter did. Lent has always been associated with the pagan Easter celebrations.
Where did the springtime celebration of Lent actually originate? The answer may surprise you.
Why Do Churches Observe Lent?
About 100 years after the death of the last of the original apostles, Irenaeus, the bishop of Gaul (modern-day France), sent a letter to the bishop of Rome. He wrote: “For the controversy is not only concerning the day”—there was a controversy over the time to celebrate the day called Easter—“but also concerning the very manner of the fast”—the fast of the Lenten season. “For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more, and some 40.” What was the origin of this confusion? We know that God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, in all churches of the saints (1 Corinthians 14:33).
Irenaeus continued: “And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time, but long before in that of our ancestors. It is likely they did not hold to strict accuracy, and thus formed a custom for their posterity according to private fancy” (Eusebius’ Church History, book 5).
So the observance was established through custom or private fancy, not by any instruction of God. Churches began to observe Lent, not because the Bible commands it, but because professing Christians adopted the custom from their Gentile neighbors. As we’ll see, the customs and practices have been around for over 4,000 years!
The reason for the observance was similar to why Easter was adopted, as Socrates Scholasticus points out: “Neither the apostles, therefore, nor the Gospels, have anywhere imposed [Easter]. … Wherefore inasmuch as men love festivals, because they afford them cessation from labor: each individual in every place, according to his own pleasure, has by a prevalent custom celebrated [Easter] … The Saviour and his apostles have enjoined us by no law to keep this feast … [J]ust as many other customs have been established in individual localities according to usage, so also the feast of Easter came to be observed in each place according to the individual peculiarities of the peoples inasmuch as none of the apostles legislated on the matter. And that the observance originated not by legislation, but as a custom the facts themselves indicate” (Ecclesiastical History).
Based on Scholasticus’s writings, Hefele, a Catholic scholar, recorded the following: “All the churches of the West, the South and the North had adopted this practice [celebrating Easter] particularly Rome, the whole of Italy, Africa, Egypt, Spain, Gaul [France], Britain, Libya, Achaia [Greece]; it has even been adopted in the dioceses of Asia, Pontus and Cilicia” (History of the Councils).
Easter originated as a custom of the people, and so did Lent. Easter is the climax of Lent. For more information on where Easter came from, request our free reprint article, “The Origin of Easter.”
Worshiping the Risen Lord?
Lent immediately precedes the celebration of a supposedly Sunday resurrection of Christ. But Christ was not resurrected on Sunday! (For proof of this, request our free reprint articles “From Good Friday to Easter Sunday” and “Is Sunday the Lord’s Day?”) More importantly, nowhere in the New Testament are Christians commanded to observe the resurrection of Christ! Instead, we are to memorialize His death (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25). The early Church did observe that memorial, but never Easter or Lent.
Jesus was resurrected, according to the Bible, not on a Sunday morning, but on Saturday evening after he had been in the tomb three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40). No wonder the apostles did not teach the early spirit-filled New Testament Church of God to observe these traditions of men! Lent and Easter celebrate the supposed resurrection of a fake Christ—a false Messiah from Babylon.
“Even if Easter and Lent are ancient pagan festivals, isn’t it all right nevertheless if used to honor Christ?” many ask. That is the way human beings reason. How would God answer that question? The Bible contains many warnings to not follow after the customs of the heathen. “Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them … and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God: for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:30-31).
What people think doesn’t matter. Here is how God views it! What He thinks does matter, and He calls these pagan customs abominable.
The Prophet Jeremiah likewise recorded: “Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain …” (Jeremiah 10:2-3). No wonder neither Christ nor the apostles ever taught the early New Testament Church to observe these traditions of men. The Apostle Paul forbade the saints of the first century to observe these pagan “times” or “seasons” (Galatians 4:9-10).
Timing of Lent
In both Latin and Greek, the term used for Lent means “count 40.” Regardless of the duration, it was always called the celebration of 40 days. Why, then, wasn’t it until the eighth century a.d. that the definitive number of 40 days’ abstinence became an established fact? While the traditional Christian world wants you to believe it was because of the 40 days of Christ’s fasting in preparation for the titanic battle with Satan (Matthew 4), the answer is very different.
Christ fasted at the start of His ministry, before He began preaching the Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:17). His ministry started in the fall, lasted 3½ years and ended in the spring. That means there is no similarity in the timing with Lent whatsoever.
But among the pagans, abstinence was known as “count 40” because of the duration of their spring festival.
In Egyptian Antiquities, the historian Wilkinson records how pagans kept “fasts, many of which lasted from seven to 42 days, and sometimes even a longer period.” Yet the original length of the fast can be traced back some 4,000 years to ancient Babylon, where a 40-day fast took place in the spring of the year, as Sir Austen Henry Layard records in his writings.
Over time, nations slowly changed the duration of the celebration but maintained the same name. Professing Christians began to adopt the customs of their surroundings. This explains the confusion over Lent’s duration.
Carnival—Excess That Requires Penance
The quote above from Socrates Scholasticus points out that the establishment of Lent sprung out of people’s love to party. So how does that fit in with the sobriety of penance and fasting?
The period leading up to Ash Wednesday and the 40 days of penance is typically associated with a carnival of costume parades, excessive partying and fireworks. Many carnival customs are based on pre-Christian rituals, such as the elaborate rites involving masked figures. This practice originated from Bacchanalia, the ancient Roman festival of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine, freedom, intoxication and ecstasy. Bacchus was also known as the “fire-born” son or “lamented one,” although for most people his name suggests nothing more than revelry and drunkenness. Under cover of religion, priests and followers broke civil, moral and religious laws with impunity.
To this day, drunken revelry takes place everywhere around this season. People hide behind hideous masks and weird costumes. Idiotic dancing and noise-making can be seen everywhere. After all, this is the pre-Lenten rioting that accompanied the days of “fasting” prior to Easter. Debauchery arising from the excessive amounts of alcohol consumed during these days is rampant during the carnival season—showing the link with the festival of Bacchus, god of intoxication and ecstasy.
In America, these customs were first brought to the New World by the French colonists and are best known as Mardi Gras. Known as the “Greatest Show on Earth,” the most famous carnival celebrations are probably found in Venice, Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. Associated with excesses and licentiousness, these customs attract millions each year throughout the Western Hemisphere. Each carnival has its own king or prince, who is often given the keys to the city. He is the personification of Momus, the Greek god of satire and mockery.
The original Roman name for the festival was Navigium Isidis (the vessel of Isis), and each year on March 5, the image of Isis was carried to the seashore to bless the start of the sailing season. The festival consisted of a parade of masks following an adorned wooden boat that would reflect the floats of modern carnivals. Even the name carnival, or carrus navalis, meaning naval wagon, points to these ancient wooden floats used to worship Isis.
Mentions of Lent and Easter in the Bible
Isis is none other than the Egyptian goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility, the mother of Horus. Any reader who has studied ancient religions knows her other names: Ishtar, Astarte or Semiramis.
“Easter” is merely the phonetic spelling of the name of this ancient goddess, Ishtar.
Alexander Hislop wrote in The Two Babylons that Easter “bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte … the ‘queen of heaven,’ whose name, as pronounced by the people of Nineveh, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country.”
In the Bible, God condemns the worship of Astarte, the “queen of heaven,” as the most abominable of pagan idolatries. In connection with the Easter celebration, God specifically condemns sunrise services (Ezekiel 8:13-16) and the making of “hot cross buns” (Jeremiah 7:18-20; 44:19).
The word Easter only appears once in the King James translation of the Bible, in Acts 12:4, mistranslated from the word pascha, which is Greek for passover—not Easter.
While Lent is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament, it is in the Old.
As an essential precursor to the great annual festival in commemoration of Tammuz, the Babylonian counterfeit messiah, the Chaldean lunar month of June-July was named in his honor. Preceding the feast of Tammuz, pagans held their Lenten season in the spring—hence its name.
So Lent was observed two millennia before Christ and during the time of Christ, but Jesus never instituted, sanctioned or observed it, nor did the disciples.
Why then did this pagan celebration ever become one of the two most important holidays of professing Christians?
Satan, the god of this world, has blinded all mankind (2 Corinthians 4:4; Revelation 12:9). These festivals are part of that deception. What kind of penalty is the “giving up of sweets, or television” for 40 days? The penitence of Lent is a form of worldly sorrow over the things that smite one’s conscience. But conscience is not a sufficient guide to right or wrong. The penitence of Lent is a counterfeit of genuine repentance of sin.
The Bible defines sin as “the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4)—God’s law! God’s law defines right from wrong!
In the lead-up to God’s spring festivals, true Christians are admonished to examine themselves, to measure themselves against God’s law. They are to search out the sin in their lives and remove it. The Days of Unleavened Bread symbolize putting sin out of our lives. But mankind desires the temporary pleasures of sin and prefers to then do penance for them. Penance means to give up something in payment for sin. That is why the pagans, flocking wholesale into the professing Christian church, ousted the celebration of the Days of Unleavened Bread and substituted it with Lent—40 days of penance, of denying oneself certain physical pleasures in return for enjoying sin for the other days of the year!
God hates sin and doesn’t want us to show remorse for our excesses and acts of moral turpitude only to return to that way of life as soon as we have supposedly paid for our sin with self-punishment. Sin exacts the death penalty (Romans 6:23). No amount of self-reproach can pay for sin—only Christ’s blood can! God doesn’t want penance, but repentance.
As we approach the God-ordained spring festivals and begin to examine ourselves, let’s understand this counterfeit and deepen our understanding of why Paul admonished the Corinthians to let “godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of,” and how this “sorrow of the world” only “worketh death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).