Words From the Inquisition: "Convert or Die!"

I just watched the first episode of the PBS special, The Secret Files of the Inquisition. The second episode will be on next week (5/16/07), and I highly recommend you watch it. One inquisitor, who went on to become Pope Benedict, told a Jew under interrogation, “convert or die!” These three words echoed down into villages and homes for two centuries. That’s two whole centuries. There was no escape from the power of the church since it reigned exclusively, even over the very ideas people entertained.

At the beginning of the 14th century the church was losing power because it was unwilling to change. The people did not have access to the Bible (nor was there a printed Bible). They were simply to believe what the church taught. Furthermore, the Sunday masses were done in Latin, which people couldn’t understand. So it gave rise to many ideas about religious truth, including a heretical group called “The Good Men.” Instead of addressing these disputes civilly the Church set out to stamp out heresy, violently and forcefully.

The angelic doctor Thomas Aquinas had previously argued that heresy was a "leavening influence" upon the minds of the weak, and as such, heretics should be killed. Since heretical ideas could inflict the greatest possible harm upon other human beings, it was the greatest crime of all. Heretical ideas could send people to an eternally conscious torment in hell. So logic demands that the church must get rid of this heretical leavening influence. It was indeed the greatest crime of them all, given this logic. So, “convert or die!”

Christians today say the church of the Inquisition was wrong, just like they say the Christians who justified American slavery were wrong. And that’s correct. They were wrong. But not for the reasons today’s Christians think. Today's Christians think the Christians of the past were wrong because they misinterpreted the Bible. But the truth is that these former Christians were wrong to believe the Bible in the first place. They were wrong to believe the Bible at all. Today’s Christians cherry-pick from out of the Bible what they want to believe. Today’s Christians have developed a more civilized ethical consciousness, and they read that consciousness back into the Bible rather than adopting what the plain sense and logic of the Bible dictates.

Here are some Bible verses to support the logic of killing heretics:

From Exodus 22:
You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live.
Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the LORD alone, shall be devoted to destruction.

From Numbers 25:
2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the LORD’s anger was kindled agai nst Israel. 4 The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and impale them in the sun before the LORD, in order that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” 5 And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you shall kill any of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.” 6 Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman into his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up and left the congregation. Taking a spear in his hand, 8 he went after the Israelite man into the tent, and pierced the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly.

From Deuteronomy 13:
If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, 2 and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” 3 you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. 4 The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. 5 But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God—who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery—to turn you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 6 If anyone secretly entices you—even if it is your brother, your father’s son orb your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend—saying, “Let us go worship other gods,” whom neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 any of the gods of the peoples that are around you, whether near you or far away from you, from one end of the earth to the other, 8 you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. 9 But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people. 10 Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 11 Then all Israel shall hear and be afraid, and never again do any such wickedness. 12 If you hear it said about one of the towns that the LORD your God is giving you to live in, 13 that scoundrels from among you have gone out and led the inhabitants of the town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods,” whom you have not known, 14 then you shall inquire and make a thorough investigation. If the charge is established that such an abhorrent thing has been done among you, 15 you shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword, utterly destroying it and everything in it—even putting its livestock to the sword

From Deuteronomy 17:
2 If there is found among you, in one of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, and transgresses his covenant 3 by going to serve other gods and worshiping them—whether the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden— 4 and if it is reported to you or you hear of it, and you make a thorough inquiry, and the charge is proved true that such an abhorrent thing has occurred in Israel, 5 then you shall bring out to your gates that man or that woman who has committed this crime and you shall stone the man or woman to death. 20 But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”

How much clearer can the Bible be?

I understand how today's Christians gerrymander around the logical conclusion of these texts. They say these Bible passages don't apply under the New Covenant. But if that's so, then why wasn't God clear about this such that Aquinas and two centuries of theologians got it wrong, causing such torment and misery? Can God effectively communicate to us, or not? Doesn't he know us well enough to do so? It seems that the logic of Aquinas is impeccable, based upon these texts, or an omniscient God needs some basic lessons in communication, or, God isn't a good God.

That being said, I see no moral reason whatsoever for these texts to demand the death of heretics in the first place, even under the Old Covenant. Such commands are reprehensible, coming from an all loving God. But even if they can be justified under the Old Covenant, which they cannot, why didn't God (Jesus or the Apostles) specifically say, "Thou shalt not kill people if they don't believe the gospel," and say it as often as needed? If that was the case, and if you were God, wouldn't YOU do the decent thing here? It just appears the Bible was written by superstitious and barbaric people that reflected their primitive notions about God, that's all. And it best explains what we see in the Bible.

“Convert or die!”

What horrible words to hear! How is this different from militant Muslims?

“Convert or die!”


The broken record I keep hearing from Christians is that I cannot presume to judge God, or that I have no objective moral standard to say that the church did wrong. But what I'm doing is simply taking the present day ethical notions that both Christians and skeptics have and asking why the Bible is so barbaric? I'm saying such notions show me that kind of God doesn't exist. I'm not judging God. I don't think he exists. I'm asking whether such a God exists. I'm asking whether the Bible reflects the will of a good God, and my conclusion is BASED UPON THE ETHICAL NOTIONS OF CHRISTIANS THEMSELVES. I can justify my ethical notions, but that's a separate issue. I'm asking how Christians can justify these texts in the Bible and the logic that follows, if they believe a good God exists.


Edwardtbabinski said...

Edward T. Babinski: Not just Catholics, like Aquinas, but also, Protestantism's founder, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, agreed that heretics/blasphemers must be punished by the state, just as God's perfect laws for a nation insist (in the O.T.). Jesus gave no laws for a nation. But after Christians formed a majority in a nation, they had to consider what laws the people of a nation should abide by, in order to please God, obtain His blessing, avoid His wrath falling upon their nation as a whole. Calvin even wrote a little book on Why Heretics Must Be Punished, and sent letters to cities and countries in Europe insisting that heretics in them be punished.

As John and the PBS series pointed out, what could be worse than the eternal damnation of a person's soul? Thus Christians felt it vitally important to protect themselves and their children from "heretics/heresy." They also cited the O.T. law that said a father had the right to kill an individual threatening his child's life, so didn't the majority of Christians have the right to produce and enforce godly laws to protect their children's "eternal lives" by keeping "heresy/heretics" out of their city or country and prosecuting them should they dare to remain?

Also, the Catholic church, Luther and Calvin agreed that people were "sinners" of a particularly "fallen" sort, and needed strong rules about what to believe and think about God, rules that could be stricly enforced, otherwise there would be nothing but "chaos."

The necessity of such laws thus follows from what Christians believed to be the most inspired laws of all time, given directly by God on how to run a nation that was pleasing to Him, and how to avoid His wrath being shed upon a nation.

Luther's published commentary on the sermon on the mount, where Jesus teaches in Matthew the necessity of "loving one's enemies," "give to all who ask, asking nothing in return," are instructive in this respect, because Luther saw no contradiction between a nation of Christians enforcing anti-heresy anti-blasphemy laws, and also loving people who were his personal enemies. But one must draw the line, said Luther, at loving/helping people who hate God, because then you become an accomplice in their heresy/blasphemy, and one must "serve God rather than man," as it says elsewhere in the N.T.

I delve into this more deeply in chapter two of Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists.

Edward T. Babinski

Rhology said...

"How is that different from militant Muslims?"

For one thing, the Islamic cmd to do the same is in force for all Muslims for all time.
The "convert or die" thing was for certain periods and specific situations in OT Israel.

You can go after that all day long as far as I care, but at least go after the right thing.


Tony B said...

I'm not sure what this is meant to prove though. If you're saying "God did and said these things, so God isn't loving, isn't omniscient, whatever", then you've got it wrong. Because the simple answer is that God didn't do or say any of these things. The Old Testament is a history of the Jewish people, and is semi-mythological. Do you really believe that God gave Moses the commandments on tablets of stone,or appeared to him as a burning bush? Do you think Christians take this literally? I'm sure many do. I don't.

These people weren't educated, they had little or no science, but they had religion and they had faith in their leaders and priests, and if those leaders and priests said something was said or done by God, that's what got written down. Now the OT is something appealed to by Jesus to make a point. The people around him knew these writings and by appeal to them he could make points he would find it difficult otherwise to make. And they show how faith can be good and how faith can be bad. And that is their context. Without them we wouldn't know what Jesus was going on about half the time.

Anonymous said...

TJ, the exact way God told the Jewish people the laws is not really important. The fact is christians believe that in a way God gave the laws to Moses (by direct talk, by inspiration doen't matter to the topic at hand).
The main ideea is that if you accept that God, the creator of this infinite Universe took the time to send some words of "wisdom" than it is very likely that the rest of the story is true. The rest of the story meaning the whole heaven & hell thing, eternal punishement for non-belief (or whatever a particular priest/pope/evanghelist consider a deadly sin). At that moment in time non-belief was the biggest crime and logically is should have been punished accordingly. A few decades ago abortion was another "thing" that should have been condamned.
There will always be a "thing" that should be punished in order to appeal to God. The fact that we don't hang homosexuals in the streets has nothing to do with the high standards of morals set by religion but on the high standards of morals set by society. Religion's ultimate goal is the after life which is the eternal life and it is perfectly natural to protect what is going to be the most important part of your life.
Of course, the trick is that there is no after-life, or if Yehova really exists we are all doomed... for eternity.
Whenever I see discussions about faith I remember a great sketch made by Mr.Bean where he interprets the Devil at the Pearly Gates and making sure who goes where (heaven or hell). After he places lawyers, atheists, criminals to hell he tells "christians too will come to hell. I believe the jews were right". This is the end of the debate regarding faith. Whoever sees how ridicule the whole thing is will never argue for any particular type of faith but against all. Here i'm referring to all faiths that claim that faith is a requirement since there I haven't met any person who will argue for faith if he/she doesn't believe that faith is required.

Matt Sunderland said...

judge god?
who could possibly be judging god more than the xtian right with such statements as "god supports me" or "God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq"?

Deeply in Doubt said...

"Convert or die" so strongly contradicts the expressed aims of Christianity that I don't understand how anyone could have ever justified it. Christians claim, as their right and obligation, the saving of souls. To kill a non-believer is to sentence that person to damnation. Would it not be more Christ-like to gently and intelligently show the lost soul the way to salvation? Or better still, just leave them alone? Isn't there a commandment that frowns upon killing? The real goal, obviously, is to take the shortcut to universal belief (and universal control) by simply eliminating the non-believers.

Tony B said...

For what it's worth I don't believe in that God either. Like Richard Dawkins, you're only really attacking one interpretation of Christianity (and I think it's wrong as wrong can be). Your argument is really this - "Christians in the past have done some bad stuff, some of the things some Christians believe are obviously false, therefore Christianity is false". This argument is fallacious, I'm sure you'd agree.

What is remarkable about the arguments employed by Richard Dawkins, especially in "The God Delusion" is the fact that Christian Theologians were on the same ground fifty or more years ago. When it comes to ultimate reality, Dawkins actually thinks that Christian Theologians haven't said enough. The reality seems to be that Dawkins believes in God, or at least believes in a God similar to that discussed by Tillich, for example, but he doesn't think it's helpful to call it God. Well, Christian Theologians discussed the idea of not calling it God, too. Read this interview with Dawkins.

Anonymous said...

The Bible is the 11th most popular science fiction book, right behind Lord of the Rings 1 - 3 and Harry Potter 1 - 7:)