Immolation by Fire in Abrahamic Religion:
A sequel to "New Thinking or Old Myths?"

A statement in my blog New Thinking or Old Myths? has attracted criticism from a Christian. Since the point at issue is central to evaluating the ethical character of Christianity (presented by its followers as being the most ethical and compassionate of the Abrahamic religions) it is worth some elaboration and this is what this blog will seek to do.

The passage which my critic objected to is the following:
"Jesus said that those who do not agree with him should be brought before him and burnt like "withered branches". An of course he cursed anyone who did not heed his message. This is not a good example for a founder of a religion to set."
Other than the three words "brought before him" (which are inconsequential to my argument) I would still affirm this statement. Indeed an elaboration of this is the substance of this blog. My critic wanted the reference for this statement, and to give a concise statement I quoted John 15:6 which states: " "
"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."
To this my critic replied:
According to the gospel of St John Jesus said, "If a man abides 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." This means that if you do not do the right things you will be punished. That is what happens in any community. But in your earlier article you said, " Jesus said that those who do not believe in him should be brought before him and burnt like withered branches. And of course he cursed all who did not heed his message " . To my mind these sayings are wrongly interpreted, Sorry to contradict you.

There is no need for my critic to feel sorry for contradicting my interpretation of John 15:6 as we can arrive at the truth only by rational argument. I welcome people contesting what I say as this gives me an opportunity to re-evaluate my argument and change it if needed. In this case I have reconsidered my interpretation in the light of what my critic has said, and except for a small error noted above, my interpretation is correct. My critic has interpreted John 15:6 as simply saying that "if you do not do the right things you will be punished". If this is what Jesus intended he would have simply said so and there would not have been a problem. But the offence he is talking about is not violating some ethical rule, but not "abiding" with Jesus, i.e. not taking him as the 'Saviour'. So all people who do not believe in Jesus have to be punished and the punishment is immolating (burning) them. The 'men' there refer to followers of Jesus who will be doing the burning. So this is not the posthumous burning in hell which Jesus promised non-Christians but being burned here and now in this life. As we know Jesus could not have this done as he failed in his desire to become the King of the Jews, and was executed by the Romans for trying to be the King of the Jews. Perhaps this is what will happen in his "Kingdom" when he returns to inherit the earth. Fortunately that is also a myth which will not fool anyone but a Christian.

I accept that the phrase "brought before him (Jesus)" is not in John 15:6. But this is not a major criticism because it does not matter if the burning takes place before Jesus or elsewhere. It is the burning of non-believers that is wrong not so much before whom they are burnt, or whether they are burned in this lifetime or in future existence. I can withdraw these words and the rest of my interpretation will stand. Why I had written those words is that in the actual practice of burning heretics, witches, etc. a statue of Jesus (crucifix) was held before the face of the victim as he or she was slowly burned. I regard this as symbolically making Jesus observe the carrying out of his instruction regarding non-believers.

A classic example of Christians carrying out the instruction of Jesus in John 15:6 is the treatment of the philosopher Giordano Bruno . He made a number of criticisms of Christian dogmas like the Trinity, and also contradicted the Biblical view of the cosmos. He was one of the first to proclaim that the universe was infinite and that the earth, moon and sun were among millions of stars in the sky. He was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in a Roman piazza, the Campo dei Fiori on 17 February 1600. Before being led to the stake his tongue was pulled out and pierced with an iron rod to prevent him uttering any blasphemy. While he was burnt a crucifix fixed to a long pole was held in front of his face.

Immolation by Fire in Judeo-Christian Scripture

It is interesting to note that all Abrahamic religions were fascinated by burning to death as punishment, which is now held by civilized people in utmost horror even when they support capital punishment. Nor is there much evidence of this being a method of punishment in any other society or religion, ancient or modern. Perhaps the aversion to shedding blood may have led them to this punishment where blood is not actually shed as in decapitation. Or it may be a method of using the most horrendous form of execution.

The burning of unbeliever and offenders against the religious code in this world and in the hereafter is so common a statement in Judeo-Christian scriptures that Christians would have no difficulty in interpreting Jesus' exhortation in John 15:6 in any other way. The following are some typical quotations where this punishment is inflicted in this world:

 

The post-mortem punishment by fire of unbelievers is also clearly stated in the NT:

 

Immolation by Fire in Islam

In Islam too burning by fire is the ultimate punishment for Infidels in the Islamic Hell. The Koran is replete with descriptions of Hell that await non-Muslims. Here are typical statements from the early suras of the Koran: And it goes on and on in similar vein.

 

Unlike in Christianity there is no record that Muhammad burnt any of his victims. The usual method was beheading as is seen in the raid on Khaibar where nearly 1000 Jewish men who surrendered to Muhammad's army were ordered to dig their own graves and were systematically beheaded. The women and children were taken as slaves. But not burning them at the stake may not be due to an act of mercy on the part of Muhammad but may be due to the scarcity of firewood in his dessert kingdom. However when later Muslim armies invaded other countries like India there is evidence that they set fire to monasteries (e.g. at Nalanda) burning the monks along with their books and shrines.

Victor Gunasekara