In the middle of scenes of Jesus’ resurrection, the Gospel of Matthew recounts the birth of one of the oldest conspiracy theories.
On Easter morning, while the women are on their way to announce the resurrection of Jesus to the disciples, Matthew 28:11–15 highlights another movement: Some tomb guards report the weekend’s events to the chief priests. These men, in turn, then consult with the elders and decide together to conceal what has happened. At no point do they investigate what happened to Jesus’ body. They know from the start that what they might discover will not please them.
Instead, they invent what would today be called a conspiracy theory, with the “alternative facts” that support it: The disciples came to steal Jesus’ corpse. Never mind that those who had fled in fear after the arrest of their master would have needed to come at night to face a guard of several armed men. Never mind that they would have needed to loosen the seals on the tomb, roll away a massive stone, and remove the body of Jesus—all without waking anyone who could raise the alarm.
This version of the facts is absurd. Not only in and of itself, but because the disciples would later risk their lives to proclaim that Jesus had risen. If they had known it was a lie, where would they have found the courage to face the authorities threatening them? Why preach a knowingly falsified gospel? The audacity of the apostles, their courage, their zeal, their perseverance, and the whole expansion of Christianity is inexplicable without the Resurrection.
But all this, the elders do not yet know. So they try their luck and make a deal with the soldiers. The proposed lie is not without danger for them—the guards obviously weren’t supposed to fall asleep—but there is money involved, and the Jewish leaders assure them of their protection.
Thus, this version of the story, the text says, has spread among the Jews to this present day—the first century of our current era. But it is also our reality today, where theories to eschew the truth of the resurrection of Jesus continue to be propagated.
But it is probably not because of their credibility that these explanations persist. In fact, the explanation of the guards is so implausible that the apostle Matthew takes the liberty of mentioning it in his gospel, knowing full well that anyone who wanted could go and check this account.
When you want to drown out a truth, your lies or half-truths don’t have to be believable or well-founded. It is enough that your version suits what your listeners want to hear or avoids confronting them with a reality that disturbs them.
An ominous light
One might be surprised at the response of the Jewish leaders. The one announced to be the Messiah had just come back to life. An extraordinary miracle! A staggering truth! But instead of euphoria, they react with anger.
There is a certain irony in the text: After warning Pontius Pilate on Saturday that the disciples might steal the body, the chief priests and Pharisees themselves demand a seal be placed on the stone and that guards watch the tomb (Matt. 27:62–66). These precautions that they are responsible for end up confronting them with evidence they do not want to see.
Perhaps their doubt might be justified without these measures. But now they face an unsettling conclusion regarding Jesus’ body—and yet are refusing to entertain anything that might challenge their worldview.
What this attitude reveals about human hearts is terrifying, but perhaps not so surprising. Twenty-five years ago, German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg told the magazine Prism:
The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.
All of this is deeply disturbing. Imagine the discomfort of the leaders who passed as religious in front of everyone but rejected the one who now turned out to be the Messiah. Accepting this new reality would irredeemably upset their position and influence. Accepting this as true would mark the end of the life they have built for themselves. Believing in Jesus would be their death.
So they try to have it another way. The elders deny the truth and drag others into their denial. They prefer to stay in their way of thinking than to know the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
We humans often prefer the darkness that does not disturb us to the light that could set us free. The apostle John tells us:
Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19–21)
Even as we may judge the religious leaders, we also ought to be able to see ourselves in them. Our actions are motivated by fears of losing relationships, status, livelihoods, communities, dignity, and control. When these feel threatened, we become incentivized to find a different, more comforting narrative that allows us to maintain our status quo. The issue, then, is not so much the search for facts as the protection of a self-justifying narrative.
In order not to see the fragility or the deceptive nature of what we have clung to, we sometimes try at all costs to hold together the pieces of a puzzle that is falling apart. No one wants to see their world collapse.
Christians vulnerable to misinformation?
Matthew’s account also offers a reason why Christians might be inclined to embrace conspiracy theories: Since Easter morning, certain forces at work in the world have attempted to obscure the most basic truth of the gospel. From the beginning, the world has been developing an alternate history in which Christ is not resurrected.
Consequently, our Christian identity has accustomed us to the idea that the truth is something not everyone will accept or follow. We become habituated to a disconnect between what we accept as the truth and what the world at large accepts as such.
For Christians, then, there may be a smaller step than for others to embrace alternative explanations on different topics. Also, for some decades now we have been living in a period of the decline of Christendom in the West, a time in which Christian culture has been increasingly pushed to the margins. Many Christians find themselves at odds with the prevailing discourse on gender, creation, or pluralism in public education or the media, often feeling these institutions are leading us astray. In these circumstances, it may be tempting to be less careful about, for instance, supposed facts supporting the idea that all Western elites are corrupt or praising the greatness of some leader presented as the protector of “Christian values.”
It can be flattering to believe we know something that others do not. However, the knowledge we have received from Jesus Christ is grace from God. It does not come from any moral or intellectual superiority that we have over our fellow humans, nor does it entitle us to believe that we know better in all things.
Further, we must not assume that our knowledge of the Bible inherently keeps us safe from deception. As the attitude of many religious leaders at the time of Jesus shows, knowledge of the Scriptures does not guarantee the acceptance of the truth.
We are told that few people will accept God’s truth. But while these words may encourage us in our faith journey when facing opposition, they can also be applied out of context to a range of beliefs that have little to do with any claims about Christ.
Taking the first step
How then can we walk with fellow Christians who we believe have lied to themselves? We are all convinced that some people live in illusion, and some people think the same of us. One thing we all share is that we live in a world where the truth is not always easy to access. And we have all, at some point, been lied to. Today, the Russian government’s propaganda impresses with its cynicism. But throughout history, even some of the most respected governments, institutions, and leaders have lied to cover their actions.
The world is complex. In Matthew’s account, the elders and guards aren’t on equal playing fields. Some know the truth fully and have a responsibility to it. The others, while willing to lie for money, are less scripturally literate and likely don’t have the same knowledge of the issues. And what about those in Jerusalem trying to make up their own mind according to the various things they’ve heard?
If we want to continue to understand each other, we also need a way to recover from our mistakes when we come to acknowledge the truth. We need cultural scripts that allow us to confess our errors, change our paths, and receive grace.
It is not up to us to change the other. However, we can model a world where our belief in the resurrection of Christ offers us the confidence to consider not only what reinforces our points of view or our status, but also what nuances them, or even challenges them.
The first followers of Jesus who received the news of the Resurrection continued to have their reality shaken. As Jews, they too had their worldview and status challenged by the integration of non-Jews into the people of God. Peter, for instance, needed to hear the same message three times in a row (Acts 10:9–16). The way is not always easy, but in their footsteps, we continue to learn how, in Jesus, we are no longer prisoners of the fear of death (Heb. 2:15).
It may seem difficult to hope that people trapped in the lies they have fabricated or promoted will come to light. The blindness of the priests denying the Resurrection is striking. How could they have walked away from the lies they had spread? If Matthew knew of this conspiracy between the leaders of the people, one has to imagine that one of the guards—not the religious leaders—tipped him off to the story.
A few years after this episode in Matthew’s gospel, a very religious Jew and fierce persecutor of the church saw his life transformed by an encounter with the risen Christ. In giving up his religious status, his privileges, and his old worldview, the apostle Paul faced many “deaths” in Christ, but he witnessed unto the end the power of the Resurrection.
In God’s hands, there is still hope that those who lead the world astray will change. Perhaps even those who cling to conspiracy theories may one day become the boldest defenders of truth.
As for us, let’s live out our Resurrection convictions in such a way that others see our lives as evidence of what lies beyond death.
Léo Lehmann is publications director for the Network of Evangelical Missiology for French-speaking Europe (REMEEF) as well as CT’s French language coordinator. He lives in Brussels, Belgium.