The Heretic

April 3, 2010

The Heretic

The last person ever to be sentenced to death for heresy was a young man accused of distorting the image of God by his false teachings.

As was the custom at the time, the accused was unceremoniously imprisoned and tortured in an attempt to extract a confession and repentance. But while the accused freely gave them a confession, he refused to offer repentance in relation to the charges. Perhaps, if they had continued, the torturers would have finally forced him to repent, but they did not care, for if the judge decreed a death sentence, then the apology would be extracted by the flames.

Once the prison guards had gained a written confession, the condemned man was brought before the court in order to hear his sentence. The judge listened as various people testified to the words and images that the accused had used in explaining the ways of God. As was to be expected, the judge claimed that these teachings were misleading and could potentially lead to conflict and disagreement within the one true church. In light on this the judge decreed that this heretic must suffer death by fire in order that he might repent before passing to the other side and so escape the eternal flames of hell. Not only would this benevolent sentence bring salvation to the condemned, but also it would silence, once and for all, the false doctrines that he was teaching.

After the sentence was passed, the judge asked the heretic if he had any final words to say.

“One thing only, your honor,” he replied. “I do not dispute your sentence. Indeed, I could not, as the charges made against me are quite true. And neither will I plead for my life. But, if it would please the court, on the day of my execution I would like to choose from among the gathered crowd the one who would light the fires upon which I am to die.”

The judge thought for a moment, and then agreed to the man’s last request. It would be fitting, thought the judge, that one of the common people puts this man to death, for it was the common people whom the man led astray.

A few days later, the time came for the execution to take place. As always the stake and the bundles of sticks were prepared in the marketplace so that all the people could gather and watch the sentence being carried out. Since it was a bright morning, and the case was well known, a large crowd had gathered to watch the morning’s entertainment.

Once everything had been made ready, the heretic was led through the crowd and tied to the stake, and the bundles of sticks were heaped around him. Once the people had settled, the sentence was read aloud to the condemned man. But before the executioner could set the sticks alight, the judge, true to his word, demanded silence. He then stood before the crowd and faced the condemned man.

“On the day of your sentence you asked if it would be possible for you to choose the one who would bring you salvation through the flames. I have not forgotten this, and so it is now time for you to choose who will have this honor. The one you point to will carry out this act by my word and by my authority.”

As the young heretic’s eyes darted through the gathered crowd, people began to feel uncomfortable. A dark and foreboding fear descended among the people, for the judge would surely demand that the chosen one light the sticks, something that no one wanted on their conscience. Slowly the entire crowd went quiet, until no one stirred.

When the whole marketplace had gone silent, the condemned man gazed out into the crowd.

“I stand before you now, helpless as a child, condemned to death for heresy. I am guilty as charged, for I have held a distorted, muddied, and inaccurate view of the divine. I have only one request: that I be set alight by one among you who is innocent of this charge.”


This is a subversive little story in a couple of ways. First, it reconfigures the story of the woman caught in adultery. Second, it takes a dig at the obsession with theological purity that is evident in so many of our church interactions. I’ll deal with both in turn.

In actuality the story of the woman caught in adultery and this story of a condemned heretic are not all that different. It would have been Pharisees who brought the woman before Jesus, and their attitude towards sin was particularly strict. As far as they were concerned, any time a person transgressed the Law of Moses they defiled the entire community and made it impossible for God to redeem Israel. In effect, any person who sinned and thus made imperfect the body of Israel was a heretic. The woman’s adultery with another man would also have been viewed as adultery with another way of being– in effect, cheating on God– and that’s not so different from the story of heresy.

So by taking the story of adultery and reconfiguring it to heresy, this story makes us feel uncomfortable about something Christians are usually pretty comfortable doing. This is a problem with a lot of Bible stories, actually. We become so familiar with the stories and the “point” of the stories that their power is lost on us. One thing that Christians tend to feel very comfortable doing is proclaiming another person’s teaching about God “false.” This is something that really gets me blood pressure up, actually, because, especially in Protestant circles, “false” teaching doesn’t just mean you’re wrong. It means you’re a heretic who’s trying to lead people away from the One True God, and you’re on the side of the Anti-Christ. That’s the implication, and it is thrown around far too casually.

In a previous post I talked about the idea that all of us are idolators, and that’s what the Heretic in this story is getting at. Every. single. one of us. gets it wrong. When it comes to God, a healthy dose of humility would be useful. So when you come up against a person who is saying things about God that seem a little… out there, don’t immediately dismiss them as a heretic, don’t call their teaching “false.” Engage with them, decide whether or not you think it is good, useful, true, and move on.


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