07 February 2015

Is it wrong to burn people to death?

(I asked this question in a post back in 2008. There was no clear answer from believers then, so I thought I'd ask again now.)

At the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama addressed the recent burning of the Jordanian pilot by the Islamic State. He condemned the "unspeakable acts of barbarism" committed in the name of Islam, but he also had this advice for Christians:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.

Which is undeniably true, of course. Christians (Catholics and Protestants) routinely committed unspeakable acts of cruelty, including burning people to death. And they took their inspiration from the Bible.


There are three commandments in the Bible that require believers to burn people to death.

  1. If a man take a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: they shall be burnt with fire, both he and they. Leviticus 20:14

  2. The daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.

  3. He that is taken with the accursed thing shall be burnt with fire, he and all that he hath. Joshua 7:15

And God not only commands his followers to burn people alive, he does it himself sometimes.

But that was Yahweh. What about about Jesus? What did he say about burning people to death?


Well, it turns out that Jesus said nothing about burning people to death. He didn't tell his followers to do it and he didn't do it himself.

But he liked the idea. A lot. He just planned to wait until people die and then burn them forever in hell. Here's what he said about it:

Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Matthew 7:19.

The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 13:41-42

If thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. Matthew 18:8-9

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. Matthew 25:41

And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. Mark 9:43-48

There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. Luke 16:19-25

If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. John 15:6

So that takes care of Yahweh and Jesus. What about Allah? How does he feel about burning people to death?

The Quran

Well, that is an easy question. Allah loves burning people. He mentions "the Fire" 140 times in the Quran, often with obvious relish and in great detail. Here are just a few examples:

Lo! Those who disbelieve Our revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment. 4:56

And the dwellers of the Fire cry out unto the dwellers of the Garden: Pour on us some water or some wherewith Allah hath provided you. They say: Lo! Allah hath forbidden both to disbelievers. 7:50

Thou wilt see the guilty on that day linked together in chains, Their raiment of pitch, and the Fire covering their faces. 14:49-50

We have prepared for disbelievers Fire. Its tent encloseth them. If they ask for showers, they will be showered with water like to molten lead which burneth the faces. 18:29

If those who disbelieved but knew the time when they will not be able to drive off the fire from their faces and from their backs, and they will not be helped! 21:39

But as for those who disbelieve, for them is fire of hell; it taketh not complete effect upon them so that they can die, nor is its torment lightened for them. 35:36

Those in the Fire say unto the guards of hell: Entreat your Lord that He relieve us of a day of the torment. ... the prayer of disbelievers is in vain. 40:49

Those who are immortal in the Fire and are given boiling water to drink so that it teareth their bowels. 47:15

And yet, somewhat surprisingly in light of recent events, the Quran does not command its followers to burn anyone to death. Flogging, crucifixion, amputation, and decapitation are all there, but not burning. Unless your enemy does it first -- then it's okay. (It's sort of the "Do unto others" of the Quran.)
And one who attacketh you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you. 2:194


And lastly, what about Muhammad? What did he say about burning people to death?

That's hard to say, since the existing stories about Muhammad's life and saying are completely unreliable. But here's a story from Ibn Ishaq's Life of Muhammad:

[T]he apostle gave orders to al-Zubayr b. al-Awwam, ‘Torture him until you extract what he has,’ so he kindled a fire with flint and steel on his chest until he was nearly dead. Then the apostle delivered him to Muhammad b. Maslama and he struck off his head, in revenge for his brother Mahmud.” p.515
And this from Bukhari (Book 1 Volume 11 Hadith 626):
The Prophet said, "No prayer is harder for the hypocrites than the Fajr and the 'Isha' prayers and if they knew the reward for these prayers at their respective times, they would certainly present themselves (in the mosques) even if they had to crawl." The Prophet added, "Certainly I decided to order the Mu'adh-dhin (call-maker) to pronounce Iqama and order a man to lead the prayer and then take a fire flame to burn all those who had not left their houses so far for the prayer along with their houses."

Of course, there are some contradictory stories. Here, for example, is what another Bukhari hadith says (Book 9 Volume 84 Hadith 57):

Some Zanadiqa (atheists) were brought to 'Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn 'Abbas who said, "If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah's Apostle forbade it, saying, 'Do not punish anybody with Allah's punishment (fire).' I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah's Apostle, 'Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.'"

So perhaps Muhammad thought that burning is Allah's special punishment. And Allah doesn't like to share.

Is it wrong to burn people to death?

Yahweh, Jesus, and Muhammad all agree: It is not wrong to burn people -- dead or alive. It is, in fact, their favorite form of punishment.

So my question to believers is this: Are they wrong about that? Is it, as President Obama said, "an unspeakable act of barbarism" or is it a divinely sanctioned punishment that we should continue to administer today?

Is it wrong to burn people to death?

(My answer, by the way, is that it is wrong, always and everywhere, for anyone to burn anyone else for any crime whatsoever. Can any believer say the same?)


pierre le danois said...

Hell fire cannot be called burning people to death. Make that distinction, and who is left that allow it as a form of execution?
Meanwhile, it should be noted that in Islam, they are still acting like Christians did in the Middle Ages, whereas those Old Testament Judgements are not used by neither Jews or Christians of today.

Steve Wells said...

I agree, pierre. Hell fire is not burning people to death; it's burning people forever after they die. So if burning people to death is wrong, then burning people in hell is infinitely worse.

And yes it's true that we don't execute people by burning anymore. But that doesn't answer the question. (Is it wrong to burn people to death?)

So what do you think, pierre? Would it be wrong to obey ?Leviticus 20:14 today? Would it have been wrong 2500 years ago?

pierre le danois said...

Burning people in eternal hell fire is a nasty thought, but it is only a thought, as far as we know. Is it wrong to have such thoughts? I think that in most circumstances it would be wrong to burn anything to death, even in Dresden. That tribal god in the old testament was wrong. My conscience tells me so. He was a nasty thought.

pierre le danois said...

Incidentally, fire is an oft used metaphor.

czpauly said...

You're right, Pierre. With the exception of the Ku Klux Klan (recent enough), the Lord's Resistance army, abortion clinic bombers, Anders Breivik, and other cases of Christian terrorism, the separation of church and state plus growing secularism has proved able to control Christians and prevent them from fulfilling their beliefs. If many Christians had their way, they would be setting fire to certain people.

Mplsmndude said...

I thought one of the 10 commandments was 'Thou shalt not kill.' However I guess that this applies to man and not God. He or she is above their own laws. Once again do as I say not as I do.