This article has a list of people burned as heretics by the Church in the past. Is there any Biblical basis for burning the heretics? Which specific verse was used for the judgement on the heretics, which called for the burning at the stake?

I guess, this verse might have influence on the method of execution, if interpreted wrongly.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:5-6)

Couldn't the Church simply ignore the heretics? Is there any command in the Bible to burn the heretics? If such command is there, should we continue to burn the heretics in the Church today?

  • You have misunderstood "burned" in the scripture. It is not referring to a physical burning and so has no bearing on burning at the stakes.
    – Waeshael
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 11:46
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    @Waeshael On the contrary, that verse may indeed be exactly why burning was chosen as the punishment. Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 11:53
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    @Waeshael Or, you misunderstood the question?
    – Mawia
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 11:55
  • Well, I have a problem with "heretics." Until the Roman Church established its Dogma, heretic meant other opinion (cf. Iranaeus writings 2nd. cent.). And in RC only RC clergy can be branded a heretic and then only if they do not teach from the entire magisterium. i.e they teach only a part of it. Non-Catholics could not be heretics.
    – Waeshael
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 14:59
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    I bet you might be able to find something along the lines of "purged by fire" or "cleansed by fire". Fire was (and sort of still is) symbolic of God's holy cleansing. I bet you could find something where a witch is sentenced to burn for the sake of her own soul, that the fire might purge her of all evil.
    – user3961
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 18:41

4 Answers 4


There is no verse in the New Testament stating that we need to punish "heretics". Quite the contrary.

In James 4:12 (NIV) it says:

There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you--who are you to judge your neighbor?

Matthew 5:43-48 (NIV):

"You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The parable of the tares among the wheat could be applied to this problem. Matthew 13:24-30 (NIV):

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

Also, when Peter lopped off the ear of the slave of the high priest (Matthew 26:51-52), Jesus said:

"Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword."

I know that the context is different, but it shows how the kingdom of heaven is not a militant kingdom.

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    So you mean the Church made a big mistake by burning the heretics?
    – Mawia
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 15:17
  • Again we see that the gathering of people "to be burned" is to take place at the end of the world and is to be instigated by God. Though the "enemy" created the tares, Jesus taught that enemies were to be loved. Can God do any less? The burning is to purify their souls, not to destroy them. This applies to those alive or dead at the end of the world.
    – Waeshael
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 15:29
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    @Waeshael Precisely. We are called to love our enemies. But, I'm not sure what you mean that the burning is to purify their souls. The lake of fire is meant for eternal punishment.
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 23:00
  • We are also called to judge no man on this earth. We are to treat those who refuse to understand, as a heathen man and a publican Mt 18:17 and welcome them into the kingdom of heaven, as sinners to begin their instruction anew. (As the Master taught, the publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before the unbelievers.) Mt 21:31. God came to baptize with the Holy Ghost and Fire Mt3:11. The fire is to purify us, as gold and silver are purified from the baser elements in the smelting of them.
    – Waeshael
    Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 3:47
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    Yes, the Catholic church was wrong to burn heretics.
    – Narnian
    Commented Sep 25, 2014 at 12:51

There's a scholarly article on the Inquisitions at a rather surprising website. It says...

(From Deuteronomy 13 NIV) "If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you... and he says, 'Let us follow other gods'... That prophet or dreamer must be put to death... You must purge the evil from among you.

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, 'Let us go and worship other gods'... do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him... You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death... Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.

If you hear it said about one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you to live in that wicked men have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray... then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you, you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. Destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock.

Gather all the plunder of the town into the middle of the public square and completely burn the town and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the LORD your God. It is to remain a ruin forever, never to be rebuilt."

(From Exodus 22:18 NIV) "Do not allow a sorceress to live."

It does appear that the only NT verse which could be used as justification is the one you cite from John 15. However, S Thomas Aquinas was happy with the situation of heretics being delivered for execution:

...Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.

On the part of the Church, however, there is mercy which looks to the conversion of the wanderer, wherefore she condemns not at once, but 'after the first and second admonition,' as the Apostle directs: after that, if he is yet stubborn, the Church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death... Arius was but one spark in Alexandria, but as that spark was not at once put out, the whole earth was laid waste by its flame.

[Summa Theologica]

As to whether the Church should be acting in the same way today, what Aquinas says is relevant: "...and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated..."

Aquinas acknowledges that it is not the Church who is exterminating, but "the secular tribunal". People are put to death in accordance with the laws of the State, which may or may not allow execution for heresy against the Church. Most secular law nowadays does not.

With excommunication, the Church is protecting itself from pollution — both the Church Militant as the heretic will no longer have contact with it; and the Church Triumphant, as he won't reach heaven either.

The Church does still excommunicate for heresy.

  • One part of St. Thomas's comments that is often overlooked in the immediate shock of first encountering this passage is if forgers of money ... are ... condemned to death by the secular authority. Clearly the bar for capital punishment was MUCH lower in 13th-century Europe than it is almost anywhere today.
    – Ben Dunlap
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 11:15
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    Nice answer in general -- might be worth emphasizing earlier on that "the Church" did not historically do the executing. Also I would quibble with "Once their eternal soul is dealt with via excommunication" since the quote from St. Thomas seems to indicate that excommunication is aimed at the spiritual well-being of the rest of the flock and really has nothing directly to do with the eternal soul of the heretic.
    – Ben Dunlap
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 11:18
  • (1) From 1351 to 1832 in England and the UK, counterfeiting currency was a petty treason and punishable by death. (2) Both are tied up together. Let me have a think. Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 11:27
  • Yes, I've only recently learned that "high" treason was punished so gruesomely (disemboweling, quartering, etc.) because so many other offences were already punishable by death (albeit a much quicker and less painful death)
    – Ben Dunlap
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 15:01
  • In England the Church was the State and had power to hand out the death penalty.
    – Waeshael
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 15:22

Just some thoughts, many of the priests, teachers of theology and the high priest during Jesus' time thought Jesus was a heretic. It was the established church that put Jesus to death, even the pagan Pilate said "I find no fault in Him". The very individual that was sent to save them, they crucified and closed the door of their own salvation.

If there was ever anyone who qualified as being heretics, it was those who were determined to put Jesus to death. But what was Jesus response? Stone them? Burn them at the stake? No, instead He prays on the cross "Father forgive them".

In the book of Acts it is again those who claim to be following God who are trying to put Paul and the other apostles to death. They thought they were following God and would receive rewards for their zeal, but in the end they will be greatly disappointed.

During the dark ages the Bible was chained to pulpits and limited access was granted only to priests and theological leaders/scholars. This suppress of the scriptures resulted in theological and spiritual straying away from the teachings of Christ for we have this divine promise,

"Cease listening to instruction, my son, And you will stray from the words of knowledge." (Proverbs 19:27)

The Lord raised up a handful of faithful men who began to translate the Scriptures into the common languages and distribute them to the masses. This would result in a fantastic revival for the word of God has power to revive the soul for it is written

"It is the spirit who gives life, the flesh profitteth nothing, these words that I speak to you, they are spirit and they are life". (John 6:63)

When man began to regain knowledge of the word of God, they learned that just like in Jesus' time, men had made merchandise of the grace of God. Like those selling in the temple courts whom Jesus declared "Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise." (John 2:16) now men were claiming the forgiveness of sins by simply paying money to the church. The infinite sacrifice of Christ was lost sight of. When Simon the sorcerer tried to purchase the gift of God with money, the apostle Peter declared

“Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity." (Acts 8:20-23)

Men began to protest against the abuses of the Church and a reformation began. Those who rejected the light of God's word followed the same path as the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' time. They began to persecute unto death. This was no surprise for it is written

That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

A good history of the inquisition can be found here - http://www.whiteestate.org/books/gc/gc.asp

  • What makes you think St. Thomas was happy about it? (cf. this).
    – Geremia
    Commented Oct 19, 2014 at 1:57

Although the Church was morally responsible for burning heretics, technically it was not the Church that actually burned them; it was the state, after the Church had condemned the person.

The most serious punishment was "relaxation" to the secular arm. The Inquisition had no power to actually kill the convict or determine the way they should die; that was a right of the King. Burning at the stake was a possibility... This penalty was frequently applied to impenitent heretics and those who had relapsed. Execution was public. If the condemned repented, they were shown mercy by being garroted before their corpse was burned; if not, they were burned alive.

The most frequent victims of this practice were Jews and Muslims who converted to Christianity under duress and then "lapsed" or practiced their previous religious customs in private. Thousands of them were executed as heretics.

Biblical basis

The biblical basis for killing people judged guilty of religious crimes, as far as I know, is all taken from the OT. The most famous is "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. (Exodus 22:18) This scripture was the primary basis for the 15th c. Malleus Malleficarum which became a standard manual for the persecution of witches as heretics. The book also draws on the works of Aristotle, the Scriptures, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. It was given the imprimatur of the Church when it was published together with the Papal Bull Summis desiderantes (Innocent VIII), of Dec. 5th, 1484.

The OT legal basis for for executing heretics is expounded is in Deut. 13:

“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples that are round about you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him; but you shall kill him..."

The method of execution in such cases was stoning, not fire. However, there are several cases in which fire might be used for other crimes.

Judah planned to burn Tamar to death for adultery:

About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has played the harlot; and moreover she is with child by harlotry.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” (Genesis 38:24)

This story is based on the punishment for incest being death by burning.

If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is wickedness; they shall be burned with fire, both he and they, that there may be no wickedness among you. (Lev. 20:14)

Another case of fire being used as a means of execution is found in Joshua 7:

Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver and the mantle and the bar of gold, and his sons and daughters, and his oxen and asses and sheep, and his tent, and all that he had; and they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. And Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord brings trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him with stones; they burned them with fire, and stoned them with stones."

The closest we come to fire being used against heretics per se is in association with the reforms of King Josiah:

All the shrines also of the high places that were in the cities of Samar′ia, which kings of Israel had made, provoking the Lord to anger, Josi′ah removed; he did to them according to all that he had done at Bethel. And he slew all the priests of the high places who were there, upon the altars, and burned the bones of men upon them. Then he returned to Jerusalem. (2 Kings 23:19-20)

Some translators render the last line as "he burned their bones upon them."

Why did Christian authorities turn to burning? Since the biblical precedents for burning usually did not involve heresy, we can only surmise that this practice was adopted by legal authorities from non-Christian legal codes for crimes against the state religion. Other possibilities may have been spiritual purification by fire, an anticipation of hellfire, public spectacle, or simply to cause an extremely painful death.

Thus, there was indeed a biblical basis for heresy being a capital crime. There is also a biblical basis for burning as one method of execution, though not for heresy per se. Hopefully the OP is not serious in suggesting we should execute heretics today, either by burning or otherwise.

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    What's the Biblical basis for the state punishing heretics in the Christian era?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 5:42
  • Did the biblical basis disappear? Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 13:52
  • The problem here is that the "Biblical basis" is strictly based on the civil laws given for running the physical nation of Israel. Christians are members of spiritual Israel, and are to submit themselves to the authority of whatever civil government they are living under. Heretics are simply to be rejected from the Christian community. Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 15:05
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    +1 "Technically it was not the Church that burned heretics, it was the state, after the Church had condemned the person." LAME, and you know it! Did the Church stand up to the state when it burned heretics? Condemn the state? Give safe harbour to those accused by the state? NOT REALLY. In most cases, the Church was complicit. Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 16:16
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    My point was that the OP asked about "people burned as heretics by the Church." I hope my answer didn't read as a defense of the Church's role. I agree that it is a lame excuse. Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 16:39

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