The oldest and earliest documented naturalistic explanation for the empty tomb and resurrection of Jesus was a conspiracy theory: The disciples did it. The disciples stole the body. This account, given by the Jewish religious leaders of the day, is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:
[S]ome of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’” … And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. (Matt. 28:11–15)1
Conspiracy theories are nothing new; in fact, they seem to abound nowadays. From the Islamic terrorist attack on 9/11, to the Flat Earth Society (with members around the globe), the Apollo 11 moon landing, and more recently, the supposed use of crisis actors during staged mass shootings, there is no shortage of speculations, conjectures, and often outright false narratives going viral on the internet.
Five Criteria for Successful Conspiracies
In his book Cold-Case Christianity, seasoned cold-case homicide detective J. Warner Wallace points out that while conspiracy theories are often the popular subject in much of our entertainment, successful conspiracy theories in reality are very difficult to execute and maintain. Wallace lists five criteria that any particular conspiracy must possess in order to achieve success:2
- A small number of conspirators. The more people involved in a conspiracy, the harder it will be for the group as a whole to maintain the lie.
- Thorough and immediate communication. When communication breaks down, conspiracies break down. Without adequate communication, co-conspirators are unable to know what information has been divulged.
- A short time span. The shorter amount of time the conspiracy has to be maintained, the better. Longer periods invoke more probability conspirators will confess.
- Significant relational connections. In other words, strangers make poor collaborators. The stronger the bond between accomplices (such as a familial bond), the less likely individuals will betray one another.
- Little or no pressure. Pressure can come in the form of threats, persecution, incarceration, and more. The more pressure, the more likely conspirators will fold and the conspiracy collapse.
Without all five of these criteria in place, conspiracy theories are far less likely to succeed. Wallace goes on to argue that with regard to the resurrection, the disciples didn’t have one thing going for them: They were large in number (not small), they had inadequate communication over time, they maintained their stories to their deaths, most of them were strangers before becoming followers of Jesus, and pressure led to their persecution, beating, and for many, martyrdom.3
J. Warner Wallace isn’t the only one to reach this conclusion. Chuck Colson, former special counsel to President Nixon, recognized this fact firsthand during his involvement with the Watergate scandal. Colson later became a Christian, and it was his reflection on the nature of conspiracies that convinced him the resurrection couldn’t be explained away so easily:
As I have written elsewhere, it was, ironically, the Watergate cover-up that left me convinced that the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ are historically reliable.
In my Watergate experience I saw the inability of men—powerful, highly motivated professionals—to hold together a conspiracy based on a lie. It was less than three weeks from the time that Mr. Nixon knew all the facts to the time that John Dean went to prosecutors. Once that happened Mr. Nixon’s presidency was doomed. The actual cover-up lasted less than a month. Yet Christ’s powerless followers maintained to their grim deaths by execution that they had in fact seen Jesus Christ raised from the dead. There was no conspiracy, no Passover plot. Men and women do not give up their comfort—and certainly not their lives—for what they know to be a lie.4
Of course, this doesn’t mean that conspiracy theories are never true. But looking at the criteria above, it is easy to recognize why so many of the grand, large-scale conspiracies touted today are so far-fetched and implausible. Take, for example, the Flat Earth Theory. Either the conspiracy to hide a flat earth (a conspiracy which would literally have to involve thousands upon thousands of individuals who are “in on it”) is one of the greatest conspiracies ever perpetuated by man (and for what purpose exactly?), or perhaps critical thinking skills have been dulled by too many unqualified YouTube sources. Worldwide conspiracies require far too much faith in the ability of man.
Conspiracy Theories Undermine Rational Thought
Not only are conspiracies notoriously difficult to execute and maintain over time, but they also often turn out to be non-falsifiable.
I once spoke with a sincere Christian friend who was convinced the coordinated terrorist attack on 9/11 was a U.S. government-controlled operation. But when I began raising questions, problems, or pointing out what I believed were inconsistencies, he would easily reply, “But that’s what they want you to believe.” In other words, any skepticism or evidence I raised against the conspiracy theory turned out to be part of the conspiracy theory itself. In a sort of diabolical, twisted use of logic, evidence against the conspiracy turned out to be evidence for the conspiracy. In this way, conspiracy theories are often presented by adherents as non-falsifiable. You can’t prove them wrong. But if you can’t prove them wrong, how do you prove them right? It seems you either buy into the theory wholesale or you don’t. In questioning the theory, it only shows you have been blinded, hornswoggled, and taken in by the media and government propaganda.
This kind of reasoning undermines rational thought, our intellectual obligation to weigh evidence, and, in the end, our ability to think critically. As a Christian, if you sincerely believe in these outlandish conspiracies, you are undermining your witness for Christ, undercutting your own case for the resurrection and giving people a reason not to listen.
Evaluating Conspiracy Theories
In closing, here are four quick tips to remember when evaluating conspiracy theories.
First, be skeptical. Given all we have discussed above, you have reason to be.
Second, evaluate each conspiracy based on criteria such as that presented by J. Warner Wallace. Does it meet the criteria? Is the conspiracy composed of a small number of closely-related people who have adequate communication, little to no pressure, and don’t have to maintain the lie for long? If not, see the first point.
Third, check and evaluate your sources. Where is the evidence or theory coming from? Is there multiple attestation or a number of documented sources? Are the individuals cited considered experts in their field? What is the motive for the conspiracy? Is the motive plausible?
Finally, examine the counter-evidence. What are the best arguments and evidence against the conspiracy theory? Ask yourself, “Am I looking at this objectively?” Also ask, “What would it take, in reality, to pull off a conspiracy of this magnitude, and why is it even reasonable to believe such a thing is possible?” Sometimes answering this last question by itself is enough to put many internet conspiracies to rest.