How many Angels at the Tomb?
There is an alleged contradiction in the number of angels there were that appeared at the tomb of Jesus on the day that He was raised from the dead. Luckily we have some good information on this because all four gospel accounts record angels at the tomb; all we need to do is put all the puzzle pieces together into one harmonious picture. Interestingly, each account only gives one part of the story of the angels present that great day. Not one account repeats another, so we will not read about the same angel in any given two accounts.
Matthew’s account records only what happens outside of the tomb. He speaks of two woman (Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary) getting to the tomb early Sunday morning. There they see one angel outside of the tomb. Matthew does not say that that is the only angel there was or would be during the course of that day; he only says “an angel of the Lord descended from heaven.” Matthew does not record anything that happened when the women went into the tomb, he only records the angel telling them to “come, see the place where the Lord lay.”
Mark gives us the “Part B” to Matthews account, showing us what happened when the two Mary’s went inside the tomb. Once inside, “they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side.” This is not the same angel that Matthew records, nor do Luke or John record this situation. This angel is without the glorious appearance like the angel that was outside the tomb; he is simply described as a young man in a long white robe. This young man proceeds to explain to the women that Jesus is risen and is traveling to Galilee.
Luke provides us with “Part C” of the presence of Angels at the tomb of Jesus. Like Mark, Luke records the women going into the tomb, but he doesn’t necessarily speak of any angels inside the tomb. It is unclear if the angels that Luke speaks of are in the tomb or outside of the tomb. Knowing what Mark records about the appearance of the angel inside the tomb, it seems the most probable that Luke speaks of the women having a run in with two angels after they exited the tomb, when they were fearful and perplexed by what they saw and heard from the young man that was inside the tomb. These angels are described as “two men” who stood by them “in shining garments.” They, like the young man inside, explain once again that Jesus is not here, nor is He dead, but He is risen. Why do you think within minutes that God would repeat the same message to these two women? I am confident in saying that it was because they still didn’t understand. This is now the third time that morning that angels have appeared to them. These are life changing events! These women are struggling in mind with so many things. Notice that on this third occasion the angel repeats what the other angel in the tomb had already said, and follows with “remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, ‘the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.'” This further explanation points to the idea that these two women were struggling to understand what was going on. In demonstration of their perplexity, we can read of Mary Magdalene saying to Peter “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him” (John 20:2). Therefore, we see that even after it was explained to them by the angels on multiple occasions that same day, the fact that He had risen was a truth that they were struggling to see. This is reason enough for the repetition of the angels found in the accounts.
Lastly, John gives us “Part D” of the record of angels that were present the day of Jesus’ resurrection. John’s focus is on the period of time after the women first came to the tomb. John does not record the angel they first see outside the tomb who told them to come in and see; nor does he record the angel siting inside the tomb, or the two angels who talked to them after that. John speaks of Mary Magdalene leaving the tomb to find Peter and John (himself) to report that Jesus is missing. Peter and John both run out to the tomb to see for themselves. John speeds ahead and witnesses the empty tomb first, followed by Peter. After this, Peter and John depart from the tomb to their own homes. But then we see Mary again; she had followed behind them, coming to the tomb for the second time that day. She stands outside the tomb and weeps. The weeping is another reminder of her lack of understanding of the resurrection of Christ. She then proceeds to peak into the tomb once again. This time she sees two angels in white, sitting where the body of Christ had lain. The angels speak to her, saying “woman, why are you weeping?”
So then, altogether, there are recorded six angels that appeared in and around the tomb on the Sunday that the Lord rose from the dead. There are no contradictions in the accounts; only a focus on different events of that Sunday from each of the gospel writers.