Did the Inquisition Really Kill 50 Million People?

Historical revisionism has been a favorite pastime of liberals. They have accused religious folks of believing in a flat earth (false) until Columbus confounded the religious leaders of his day (false), that religion has been at war with science (false), and that the Inquisition was one of the bloodiest assaults on humanity in the name of God (false).

The sad fact is, there are some Christians who parrot the revisionist history of liberals and pass it off as historical gospel. Revisionist historiography cuts both ways.

The following is from an advertisement from the people who operate Worldview Weekend:

The Facebook page of American Family Association & American Family Radio Network host Bryan Fischer declares: “In ONE MONTH (November [2014]), Muslims killed more people (5042) than the inquisition did IN ITS ENTIRE HISTORY (2300).” [Emphasis of caps is how it was on their Facebook page]. Topic: The Catholic inquisition killed over 50 million Christians and in this program Brannon [Howse] gives just some of the facts to document this figure. Topic: Do today’s neo-evangelicals and religious right that think they are so brave in exposing the murderous history of Islam also have the courage of their convictions to expose the murderous history of the Church of Rome and the 50 million killed by the Papacy through the inquisition?”

So who’s right? To be honest, I have never done a thorough study of the history of Inquisition, but others have. The following comes from Rodney Stark’s book The Triumph of Christianity. It’s a real eye opener, as is his book For the Glory of God:

  • The standard account of the Spanish Inquisition was invented and spread by English and Dutch propagandists in the sixteenth century during their wars with Spain and repeated ever after by malicious or misled historians eager to sustain “an image of Spain as a nation of fanatical bigots.” This image of Spain is now referred to by fair-minded historians as the “Black Legend.”. . (335-336)
  • Astonishing as it may seem, the new historians of the Inquisition have revealed that, in contrast with the secular courts all across Europe, the Spanish Inquisition was a consistent force for justice, restraint, due process, and enlightenment. (337)
  • The fact is that during the entire period 1480 through 1700, only about ten deaths per year were meted out by the Inquisition all across Spain – and usually to repeat offenders! By modern Western standards, of course, even ten executions a year for various acts of religious nonconformity seem a dreadful excess. (338)
  • Every court in Europe used torture, but the Inquisition did so far less than other courts. (339)
  • “But even so, torture was rarely used, perhaps because the “inquisitors themselves were skeptical of the efficacy and validity of torture as a method of conviction.” (339)
  • Contrary to the standard myth, the Inquisition made little use of the stake, seldom tortured anyone, and maintained unusually decent prisons. (339)
  • [T]he Inquisition used its power and influence to suppress witchhunting by local mobs or secular authorities. (343) (Stark relates a fascinating story about how the Inquisition intervened in a particular case.)

Stark does not sugarcoat history. He tells both sides of the story. Secular historians seem only to cite examples that make religion look bad. Consider this:

“Even leading antireligious voices of the day supported the persecution of witches. Thomas Hobbes (1599-1679), the famous English philosopher and outspoken atheist who, in his very influential book Leviathan, dismissed all religion as ‘credulity,’ ‘ignorance,’ and ‘lies’ and Gods as but ‘creatures of fancy,’ also wrote in that same book, ‘[A]s for witches . . . they are justly punished.’” ((Stark, For the Glory of God, 222).

As Stark points out, Hobbes wasn’t the only one.

Reginald Scot (c. 1538–1599), who was a Christian, was the author of The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), which exposed the witch-hunting craze of his time by using the Bible to make his case.

History does not come wrapped in a neat bow. It’s messy, but not as messy as Brannon Howse at Worldview Weekend claims it is.

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