A few years ago, as part of an apologetics series at Grace Fellowship Church, we examined the alternative explanations for the empty tomb of Jesus. One possible explanation suggests the disciples stole the body and conspired to lie about the resurrection appearances. As a skeptic, I believed this was perhaps the most reasonable explanation for the empty tomb, but the more I came to understand what motivates people to lie, murder (or commit any sin at all), the less reasonable this explanation became. As a homicide detective, “motive detection” became an important part of my work. When entering a murder scene, it’s tempting to become overwhelmed with the possibilities. Why did this happen? Who would do such a thing? What could have motivated this? When I was a young investigator, I was sometimes overcome by the possibilities. But as I worked case after case, however, I came to realize murders occur for only one of three reasons. As it turns out, these same three reasons lie at the heart of every other crime as well. In fact, every time you’ve ever done something wrong, you did it for one of these three reasons:
This is often the driving force behind the crimes I investigate. Some murders, for example, result from a botched robbery. Other murders take place simply because they give the suspect a financial advantage.
Sexual Lust (or Relational Desire)
I’ve also investigated a number of murders sexually (or relationally) motivated. Some sexual attackers murder their victims so they can’t testify later. Some murders occur simply because a jealous boyfriend couldn’t bear to see his girlfriend dating another man.
The Pursuit of Power
Finally, some people commit murders to achieve or maintain a position of power or authority. It might be a rivalry between two people who are trying to get the same promotion. Others have killed simply because the victim dishonored or “disrespected” them in front of a group of peers.
That’s it. Nothing more. When I enter a murder scene, I simply ask myself a question: Who would have benefited from the perspective of money, sex or power? My suspect will eventually fit into one of these three categories. When presenting this set of motives to groups across the nation, some have offered additional categories. What about jealousy, hatred, revenge or anger? “Motive detection” requires us to ask what is causing the jealousy, hatred, revenge or anger. When we seek the root causes, we end up back in the three simple categories I’ve already described. What about insanity; is this an additional category? No. The mentally insane are a group for which we can’t ask traditional questions of motive. Their actions are unpredictable and often inexplicable simply because of their mental instability.
Why are these three motives so important to us as Christians? “Motive detection” can help us spot heresy and confirm the reliability of the Gospels. Every heretical movement in history was driven by a leader who possessed one of these three simple motives. Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) for example, possessed all three motives. He was repeatedly supported by his followers financially, took over 30 wives as the prophet of the church, and at one time commanded the largest standing militia in the North American continent (with the exception of the United States armed forces). While not everyone who possesses motive actually acts on their desire, I’ve yet to convict a defendant who didn’t have a motive to begin with. The fact Smith possessed sufficient motive does not necessarily make him a liar, but the foundational drives were certainly in place.
When we examine the 1st Century disciples of Jesus through the lens of motives and desires, we end up in a very different place, however. If the disciples stole the body of Jesus and lied about the resurrection, they did it for one of the same three reasons we’ve already discussed. Which motive could have driven them to do such a thing?
None of the disciples or apostles gained anything financially from their claims. In fact, it appears John and James left respectable employment with their family to enter into the financial hardship known to the apostles (as described in the Book of Acts and by Paul in his letters). No one got rich.
Sexual Lust (or Relational Desire)?
Given the repeated admonitions related to sexual purity in the New Testament, the apostles and disciples garnered a reputation for sexual reservation and modesty known to the world around them. No one got girlfriends.
The Pursuit of Power?
Paul was already a respected and established leader within the Jewish religious elite, given the responsibility of persecuting Christians. It’s unlikely the pursuit of power drove him to leave his success to start anew with the very group he formerly persecuted. The apostles became part of a hated class within the Roman Empire. There’s a big difference between seeking fame and enduring infamy. No one got powerful.
Once we understand what motivates us to do what we shouldn’t, it’s a lot easier to examine the history of Christianity (and all the heretical movements along the way). In the end, motives drive actions. As we learn more about motive, we can grow in our confidence related to the apostles, and better understand why heretical splinter movements have emerged over history.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids, Forensic Faith, and Forensic Faith for Kids.