Where Were the Angels When the Women Arrived at the Tomb?

Are Matthew 28:2-5, Mark 16:5-6, Luke 24:2-6, John 20:12-13 contradictory concerning where the angels were when the women arrived at the tomb?
Bible "contradictions"

The argument

Some argue that the gospel resurrection accounts are contradictory concerning where the angels were when the women appeared at the tomb. Here are the relevant passages:

And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified." (Matthew 28:2-5)
And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, "Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him." (Mark 16:5-6)
And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?" (Luke 24:2-6)
And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." (John 20:12-13)

Was there an angel sitting on a stone, a young man sitting on the right side inside the tomb, two men standing by the women, or one angel at the head and another at the feet of where Jesus had lain? The apparent contradiction is that whereas Matthew writes that an angel sat on the stone, the other three gospels say that the angels were inside the tomb.

A reasonable explanation

In Matthew, what we know is that the angel was sitting on the stone when the guards saw him, and "for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men." It is reasonable to believe that after this happened, the angel in Matthew did not remain on the stone, but rather met the women when they went inside the tomb, as the other gospels report. Matthew simply does not tell us what occurs between when the guards responded to seeing the angel and when the women met the angel.

The other three gospels all report that the angels met the women inside the tomb, so any seeming discrepancy there is minor and easily explained. The gospels simply use slightly different language to describe exactly where the angels were.

For the argument that the earthquake, the angel coming, and the guards responding to seeing the angel occurred before the women arrived at the tomb, see the article, When was the stone rolled away from the tomb? Did an earthquake occur?

For the argument that there two angels at the tomb, see the article, How many angels were at the tomb?

General notes

The differences between the gospels point to their authenticity

What would actually be more suspicious is if all four gospel accounts were identical. This would mean that they collaborated, perhaps even conspired, with one another to produce a perfectly harmonized resurrection account.

However, what we see instead is four accounts that have significant differences between them, which points towards the fact that each author simply reported the events that he heard about himself. So, rather than producing doubt, the differences between the gospel accounts should actually make us more confident in the historicity of the resurrection accounts.

It is perfectly normal for eyewitness accounts to differ

Not every witness to an event recalls all of the details perfectly, or in the exact same way, so we should expect various accounts of the resurrection events to differ from one another.

The key is that there are no irreconcilable contradictions

As long as we can provide possibilities for how the various resurrection accounts could reconcile into one coherent narrative, then there would be no irreconcilable, or necessary contradiction. This would then allow us to continue believing in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible without any compromise.

"But, I'm not convinced by your explanations. I still think these are irreconcilable contradictions."

It's likely that non-believers won't accept the possible explanations that we provide concerning reconciling the apparent contradictions in the resurrection narratives. However, their refusal to accept these explanations is not based upon the fact that reasonable and possible explanations have been provided, but simply upon the fact that they don't want to believe that there are legitimately reasonable and possible explanations.

Their goal is simply to continue justifying their unbelief in the Bible, regardless of any fact or explanation provided to them. So, we can do our best to provide these reasonable and possible explanations to them, but if they blindly close their minds to them, then we have simply done all that we can do. We should inform them that they are being unreasonable and stubborn, and that they are simply trying to shut their minds to the truth.

"I don't buy that explanation"

Some people have trouble accepting possible explanations to alleged contradictions in the Bible, especially ones that they consider a stretch. For example, Dan Barker, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, says this:

I have received numerous replies from Christians who think that these contradictions are either trivial or easily explained. Yet not a single "explanation" has been convincing.

Fact vs Opinion

The fact is that there are plausible explanations for every alleged contradiction in the Bible. That there is a plausible explanation for an alleged contradiction does not mean that it is definitely the correct explanation for the alleged contradiction.

However, as long as a possible explanation has been suggested, then it has been objectively demonstrated that there is no necessary contradiction regarding the Bible verses and passages brought up.

When people like Dan Barker say that they don't find a particular explanation for a contradiction "convincing," then that is merely their opinion. A plausible explanation has been suggested that eliminates the necessary alleged contradiction. They simply don't like it, which is not at all a relevant argument against the explanation.

Additional Resources

To read more about solutions to Bible contradictions and difficulties, check out Norman Geisler's The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation. While we do not agree with some of Geisler's theology, particularly concerning his view of predestination, this book is still an excellent resource. It is thorough and filled with research.

Another book to check out is Tim Chaffey's Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions: Exploring Forty Alleged Contraditions, which also answers many alleged contradictions in the Bible.

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