The Gruesome History of Christian Torture

Of course, I couldn’t possibly talk about every terrible event that would qualify to be in this episode — every grisly act, every theological splitting of hairs that led to those acts. The truth is I didn’t even set out to make this episode. Just in reading books that involved religion, I kept coming across example after example of Christian sadism — either fantasies of human suffering or the deliberate infliction of pain caused by Christian belief. And though this isn’t normally the sort of thing I talk about, I eventually had enough compelling to want to talk about it.

Christianity has quite a relationship with torture. The primary symbol of the religion is a torture device. God’s chosen method of providing salvation was gruesome public torture. And hell has been an object of obsession for Christian artists, writers, and church fathers since the beginning. As the religious scholar Karen King puts it, there are “torturous narratives at Christianity’s foundations.” Fascination with torture, though not unique to Christianity by any means, has been a part of the religion since the beginning and the practice thereof has permeated Christian history. Maybe the powerlessness of early Christians fanned these flames; maybe it was inherited from the brutal practices of the Roman empire; maybe it’s just a part of human nature that arises naturally in certain circumstances, and has only recently been suppressed in our civilization. My only point is that for whatever reason, torture has always been in the DNA of Christianity. You can’t talk about Christianity without talking about it’s long and romantic relationship with torture.

Even at the time of it’s birth in the Roman Empire, early Christians were disturbing Pagan intellectuals like Celsus, who observed that Christians “invent a number of terrifying incentives. Above all, they have concocted an absolutely offensive doctrine of everlasting punishments and rewards, exceeding anything the philosophers . . . could have imagined.”

In the second century, Christian texts began to feature accounts of the afterlife, including, in great detail, the torments of hell. The agony of those tortured was comprehensively illustrated, as New Testament historian Bart Ehrman puts it, with “barely concealed voyeuristic glee.”

The Roman historian Ramsay MacMullen has called these Christian accounts “the only sadistic literature I am aware of in the ancient world.”

In a text called the Apocalypse of Peter, Jesus shows the disciple Peter the terrors of hell. Blasphemers are hanged by their tongues, adulterers are suspended by their genitals, doubters have their eyes continually burned out with red-hot irons, abortionists are buried in excrement up to their necks, idol worshipers are recurringly chased off of cliffs, and slaves who disobeyed their masters chew out their own tongues eternally.

You might remember some of these documents I’m referencing from the Spread of Christianity episode; as I said, I collected most of this without looking for it. I just have one more you may have heard that I want to share, which is the third-century Christian apologist Tertullian, who wrote, “What sight shall wake my wonder, what my laughter, my joy and exultation? …[T]he magistrates who persecuted the name of Jesus, liquefying in fiercer flames than they kindled in their rage against Christians. Those sages, too, the philosophers blushing before their disciples as they blaze together.”

The sadistic impulses of Christians weren’t limited to non-Christians, of course, but extended to heretics. A literal reading of the Old Testament not only permits the killing of heretics, but requires that they to be put to death, as is commanded in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Throughout the New Testament, heretics are condemned to hell and in the cases of NT books that were originally letters, the recipients are repeatedly warned about being lead astray by “false teachers” and “false prophets” (usually because the author of the letter was competing with several other early Christian teachers).

Capital punishment for heresy was the mainstream interpretation of scripture for the majority of Christians and Christian authorities, and this is well-documented by the Catholic Church itself. That’s why no one even bothers to deny that this was the case and that it was the case for explicitly religious reasons — the church is the source of the information. They kept pretty good records of what the authorities decreed and of the various proceedings that shed light on the theological reasoning behind it. That’s something that eventually became a problem for the Catholic Church — they’ve been around for a very long time and they created a paper trail.

In 1199, the already regular practice of outing heretics was accelerated by the Pope’s decree that the property of a heretic would be confiscated by the church, who would divide part of it to the victim’s accusers, as a reward for their outstanding moral behavior.

The historian Otto Friedrich, in his book, The End of the World, recounts a story from 1234, where a celebration of a new Saint was briefly interrupted by the burning alive of an old woman. “The canonization of Saint Dominic was finally proclaimed . . . Bishop Raymond de Vega was washing his hands in preparation for dinner when he heard the rumor that a fever-ridden old woman in a nearby house was about to undergo the [dying] ritual. The bishop hurried to her bedside and managed to convince her that he was a friend, then interrogated her on her beliefs, then denounced her as a heretic. He called on her to recant. She refused. The bishop thereupon had her bed carried out into a field, and there she was burned. A bystander wrote, ‘And after the bishop and the friars and their companions had seen the business completed, they returned to the refectory and, giving thanks to God and the blessed Dominic, ate with rejoicing what had been prepared for them.’”

The last known heretic to be killed by the Catholic Church was in 1826. Catholics and Protestants killed each other as heretics, and both killed Jews as heretics. Ever since Jesus was rejected by the Jews and especially since the Gospel of John, Jews have been singled out by Christians and persecuted the second Christians had any political power. Church fathers saw Judaism as a deviation from Christianity, and all deviations from Christianity were heresies. In Antioch, heretics were sometimes referred to as having “Jewish minds,” and the early Christian apologist Tertullian said, “From the Jew the heretic has accepted guidance in this discussion that Jesus was not the Christ.”

During the centuries-long Christian domination of Europe, skilled torturers used methods and devices to prolong the life of the prisoner as much as possible while inflicting the greatest agony. People were literally sawed in half, either across the body or along body length. Heads were crushed between two metal plates that closed like a vise. The handle of the vise was cranked, crushing the skull and facial bones. If the torture stopped before death, the victim would suffer permanent facial disfigurement. Torturers also crushed victims’ knees, ripped off women’s breasts, and systematically broke bones to prolong the torture for days. Another one of these disturbing methods was rat torture. Prisoners were tied down with starving rodents placed on their bare skin over their stomach. A metal container was placed over the rat, trapping it. The metal container was then gradually heated until the rodents began to claw and eat their way out through the stomach of the restrained victim.

Christians not only tortured and killed heretics with abandon, they also spent a lot of time and energy saving the world from witchcraft. The authors of the Bible clearly think witchcraft is a real force in the world that needs to be addressed. I’ve heard some Christians try to justify this absurdity in their book by asserting that witches are really getting their power from demonic activity. So witches are real, in a sense; they’re just mistaken about why their witchcraft is effective. Of course, witchcraft is not effective, and a belief in demons is not any less absurd than a belief in witches. But as it was noted in a seventeenth-century witch trial, “Atheists abound in these days and witchcraft is called into question. If neither possession nor witchcraft [exists], why should we think that there are devils? If no devils, no God.”

The authors of the Bible didn’t know magic wasn’t real and neither did the giants of the Christian tradition, many of whom are still venerated to this day. Martin Luther himself, when interpreting Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”), stated that witches were able to steal milk merely by thinking of a cow. He taught that witchcraft was a sin against the second commandment and prescribed the Biblical penalty for the practice. “One should show no mercy to these [women]; I would burn them myself, for we read in the Law that the priests were the ones to begin the stoning of criminals.” This was in the context of a discussion about how to handle the problem of witches causing food to spoil. Again, this was Martin Luther, the instigator of the Protestant Reformation, addressing the real problem of all these witches making our food go bad. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, put it plainly when he said “The giving up of witchcraft is the giving up of the Bible.” By the way, William Lane Craig considers himself to be some sort of Wesleyan.

In Exodus 7, after Moses throws down his staff and turns it into a snake, “Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts.” In Micah 5:12, God himself announces that he “will destroy your witchcraft and you will no longer cast spells.” The Bible prescribes capital punishment to those who practice witchcraft, in Exodus 22:18, which I mentioned — “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” ; Also, in Leviticus 20:27 — “A man or a woman who is a spiritist or a medium must be put to death. . . their blood will be on their own heads.” Revelation 21:8 declares that “those who practice magic arts” will be cast into the lake of fire.

As I mentioned, passages like these caused Christian thinkers to take the problem of witchcraft very seriously. And if we learn nothing else from Biblical passages and quotes from Christian leaders like those, it should at least be clear that this stuff was invented by people — superstitious, fallible people who were trying to make sense of the world centuries and centuries ago.

In his book the Moral Arc, Michael Shermer discusses witchcraft in Christian history. “One woman, being interrogated for witchcraft, confessed under torture that she had danced counterclockwise, which was believed to lead to disaster.” (It was a common practice to subject witches to trial by ordeal, often, ordeal by water.) “This particular test involved tying up the accused and then dunking her into a body of water. If the accused sank (and drowned) that meant she was innocent; but if she managed to float, she was obviously guilty — either because the pure element of water naturally expels evil or because, in the words of an observer at the time, ‘the witch, having made a compact with the devil, hath renounced her baptism, hence the antipathy between her and water.’ If you — and everyone around you, including ecclesiastical and political authorities — truly believe that witches cause disease, crop failures, sickness, catastrophes, and accidents, then it is not only a rational act to burn witches, it is also a moral duty. This is what Voltaire meant when he wrote that people who believe absurdities are more likely to commit atrocities.”

In Charles MacKay’s work, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, MacKay recounts the story of two famous Jesuits who supported the use of torture in eliciting confessions from accused witches. The Duke of the area was skeptical of torture as a means of extracting accurate information, reasoning that people would say anything to make the pain stop, and he invited the Jesuits to accompany him to witness a woman accused of witchcraft being tortured on the rack, the device where arms and legs were gradually stretched as ligaments were torn, frequently to the point where limbs were ripped off the still living person’s body entirely. Often, the sight of someone else on the rack caused an accused person to confess. The Duke told the woman on the rack that he suspects the two Jesuits accompanying him to be warlocks, and that he wanted her opinion on the matter, while instructing her torturers to turn the rack. She immediately screamed that she had seen both men turn into goats, wolves, and other animals; also that they had sex with other witches, producing such offspring as toad-headed spiders. The Duke then asked the Jesuits if, in their opinion, he should torture them until they confessed.

One of the Jesuits, Friedrich Spee, was so astonished by the revelation that people will say whatever you want to hear to make you stop torturing them, he wrote a book in 1631 that historians have credited as causing a major downturn in witchcraft accusations in much of Germany at that time. This is yet another example of progress from the outside. In this case, skepticism, pressuring religion to be better than it would have otherwise been. The power of human reason and skepticism caused this medieval stupidity to decline. It was sustained for centuries by religion, and it’s not as if theological progress was made and then things changed. However, it didn’t work out the way it did for the Jesuit as it did for many other disillusioned torturers.

Bertrand Russell said, “Some few bold rationalists ventured, even while the persecution was at its height, to doubt whether tempests, hail storms, thunder and lightning were really caused by the machinations of women. Such men were shown no mercy. Thus towards the end of the 16th century, the chief judge of the electoral Court, after condemning countless witches, began to think that perhaps their confessions were due to the desire to escape from the tortures of the rack, with the result that he showed unwillingness to convict. He was accused of having sold himself to Satan, and was subjected to the same tortures as he had inflicted upon others. Like them, he confessed his guilt, and in 1589 he was strangled and then burned.”

The mainstream historical consensus is that between sixty-thousand and a hundred thousand accused witches were murdered just in France and Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries alone. And keep in mind, this was a few centuries ago, when the population of Europe was a fraction of what it is today.

What’s even more sickening is that this is actually still happening in some parts of the world. And I’ll let you guess — do you think those parts are more religious or less religious? I’m quoting from the Moral Arc again:

“Today, the theory of witch causality has fallen into disuse, with the exception of a few isolated pockets in Papua New Guinea, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Tanzania, Kenya, and Sierra Leone, where ‘witches’ are still burned to death. A 2002 WHO study, for example, reported that every year, more than 500 elderly women in Tanzania alone are killed for being ‘witches.’ In Nigeria, children by the thousands are being rounded up and burned alive as ‘witches’. In response, the Nigerian government arrested a bishop who it accused of killing 110 such children. Another study found that as many as 55% of sub-Saharan Africans believe in witches. . . In Papua New Guinea, a twenty year old woman and mother of two was burned alive because she was accused of sorcery by the relatives of a boy who had recently died. As in witch hunts of old, the conflagration on a pile of rubbish was preceded by torture with a hot iron rod, after which she was bound, doused in gasoline and ignited. A 2010 Oxfam study explains why sorcery and witchcraft are not uncommon in this part of the world in which many people still ‘do not accept natural causes as an explanation for misfortune, illness, accidents or death.’”

Even being in the west, just try to imagine that you were born a few hundred years earlier than you happened to have been born. Because of the collective religious delusions of your neighbors and those in power, you could be ripped away from your life — your parents, children, spouse, career, your home — to be tortured without mercy in some of the most grisly, sadistic ways humans have devised. And while in your agony, your torturers or a priestly accomplice recite the Bible to you and ask you nonsense questions like “Are you a sorcerer?” with complete sincerity. These were humans just like us, and they didn’t live that long ago; they just held different beliefs about how the world works. And while you’re being tortured, you’re dimly aware that your property is probably being confiscated and distributed among your accusers. If you’re a woman accused of witchcraft (historians estimate that about 85% of the people accused were women), you’re almost certainly going to be raped, probably with torture devices. Same for women accused of infidelity and men accused of homosexuality. If you confess and later plead with the judge that you only did so to make the torture stop, you’ll just be returned to your jailers for more torture.

In the End of Faith, Sam Harris opens a chapter by trying to imagine the point of view of someone who was apprehended by religious authorities and received the standard treatment. Keep in mind, this was not fiction for hundreds of thousands of people, when you include witches, heretics, Jews, blasphemers, and anyone else who Christians saw fit to torture and kill.

“Without warning, you are seized and brought before a judge. Did you create a thunderstorm and destroy the village harvest? Did you kill your neighbor with the evil eye? Do you doubt that Christ is bodily present in the Eucharist? You will soon learn that questions of this sort admit of no exculpatory reply. You were not told the names of your accusers. But their identities are of little account, for even if, at this late hour, they were to recant their charges against you, they would merely be punished as false witnesses, while their original accusations would retain their full weight as evidence of your guilt. The machinery of justice has been so well oiled by faith that it can no longer be influenced. But you have a choice, of sorts: you can concede your guilt and name your accomplices. . . . The sight of iron boots designed to crush your feet seems to refresh your memory. . .  Your accomplices will soon be rounded up for torture. Or you can maintain your innocence, which is almost certainly the truth — after all, it is a rare person who can create a thunderstorm. In response, your jailers will be happy to lead you to the furthest reaches of human suffering before burning you at the stake. You may be imprisoned in total darkness for months or years at a time, repeatedly beaten and starved or stretched up on the rack. Thumb screws may be applied, or toes screws, or a pear-shaped vise may be inserted into your mouth, vagina, or anus, and forced open until your misery admits of no possible increase. You may be hoisted to the ceiling with your arms bound behind your back, attached to a pulley, and weights tied to your feet, dislocating your shoulders. If you are unlucky enough to be in Spain, where judicial torture has achieved a transcendent level of cruelty, you may be placed in the Spanish chair: the throne of iron, complete with iron stocks to secure your neck and limbs. In the interest of saving your soul, hot coal will be placed beneath your bare feet, slowly roasting them. Because the strain of heresy runs deep, your flesh will be continually larded with fat to keep it from burning too quickly. Or you may be bound to a bench, with a cauldron filled with mice placed upside down upon your bare abdomen. With the requisite application of heat to the iron cauldron, the mice will begin to burrow into your skin in search of an exit. Should you, while in extremis, admit to your torturers that you are indeed a heretic, a sorcerer, or a witch, you will be made to confirm your story before a judge — and any attempt to recant, to claim that your confession had been coerced through torture, will deliver you either to your tormentors once again or directly to the stake. If, once condemned, you repent of your sins, these compassionate and learned men — whose concern for the fate of your eternal soul really knows no bounds — will do you the kindness of strangling you before lighting the fire.”

What’s the point of talking about this?

I think we ought to remember the terrible consequences that arose logically out of Christian faith. If you look at the historical accounts, these were not psychopaths who would’ve tortured anyway. I’m sure there were sadists who enthusiastically volunteered for the job, but there were simply too many of these people for them to have all been psychopaths and sadists; and their motivation, in the light of scripture, is all too clear. There was a theological justification for every horrific act and impulse that I’ve spoken about, and it wasn’t theological progress that caused the gradual decline of torture. Of course, you can’t ignore things like the confusion surrounding disease or weather events that may have led to superstitious acts of harm. However, you can’t disentangle that confusion from Christianity. They had an answer for what was causing the disease and what caused the miscarriages and even the food to spoil. As I’ve tried to show with various quotations, Christianity was an integral part of the confusion. Whether it was the reasoning behind why a witch would float, or that the most likely explanation for a judge’s skepticism towards torture was that he had sold his soul to the devil, or John Wesley declaring that ‘the giving up of witchcraft is the giving up of the Bible.’ Christianity also held the political authority that allowed them to imprison, torture, and rob their victims. When Christians had real power and everyone took the Christian worldview as seriously as it was intended to be taken, we ended up with a Christian version of the Islamic State. This is not my speculation — this is what in fact happened. I can’t emphasize this enough — this stuff actually happened. And not even that long ago — a few hundred years ago. It’s simply a fact that this is how Christianity behaved for the majority of its existence, and it’s worst behavior was during the time when it had the most political power and the most power over our minds.


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Christopher Hitchens [YouTube]

Skeptical Examination of Torture [YouTube]

The Moral Arc – Michael Shermer [Amazon]

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds – Charles MacKay [Amazon]

The End of Faith – Sam Harris [Amazon]

Triumph of Christianity – Bart Ehrman [Amazon]


5 thoughts on “The Gruesome History of Christian Torture

  1. Astonishing that there is one member of that faith. And you have just scratched the surface. Another good resource is a first hand account of Bartolo de las Casas in the Caribbean in 1502. Heartbreaking torture. God is love. Ha!


  2. Im sorry M.r emerson but this qualifies as some of the worst new atheist pseudohistory i’ve read in quite a while. I suggestcyou visit or tim o neills answers on quora for a more nuanced view


    1. Name something specific, Max old boy 🙂 Also I’m not sure if you’re drunk or if English is your second language, but some study of middle school / high school grammar and spelling may be beneficial. I’m also aware of Tim O’Neill, and I don’t think he would disagree with anything I’ve written.


      1. Yes, english is not my first language.
        “Im aware of Tim o neill, and I don’t think he would disagree with anything I’ve written”. Really? I think that he would severly disagree with you citing Sam harris as an actual authority on the inquisition and then saying that “when everyone took the christian worldview seriously , we ended up with a christian version of the islamic state”
        (Witch hunts were not even medieval btw)


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