Why Understanding Criminal Motive Is So Important to Christians

by J Warner Wallace

Last night, 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:

Financial Greed
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.

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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…

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