C.S. Lewis called it “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible” — the words attributed to Jesus Christ in the synoptic gospels that concerned the timing of his eventual return. Taken at face value, it seems apparent that Jesus believed he would be back within the lifetimes of his followers. That, needless to say, did not happen. Or maybe it already happened. Or maybe he came back as one of these guys.
Of course the possibility also exists that, now perched in a timeless heaven and looking down upon the many earthly horrors that were to be committed in his name, he just got pissed and decided that humanity wasn’t worth the effort.
Not that you could blame him. His adherents, certainly, seemed to forget the gist of his teaching almost immediately, officially kicking off the bloodletting with the execution of Priscillian of Avila — a Spanish bishop who founded an ascetic, Gnostic-influenced movement in the late 4th century, and who had the unhappy distinction of being the first person in the history of Christianity to be executed for heresy. The Church thus began a long history of getting its man — even when its man happened to be dead. And a Pope.
But Priscillian got off lucky in one sense. He was merely beheaded. Decapitation was widely considered the most humane (though there is some debate about just how humane) form of execution in the ancient world, which was certainly not wanting for clever ideas when it came to capital punishment. Today, you’re only at risk of an (intentional) noggin-lopping if you happen to commit a serious crime in Saudi Arabia, such as being homosexual, or have the bad luck to run afoul of terrorists (PDF).
If Priscillian’s murderers had preferred immolation to decapitation, he would have found himself in the company of some illustrious dead heretics. From Joan of Arc (whose ashes, I am happy to report, were later absolved) to Giordano Bruno (who inspired Czeslaw Milosz) to William Tyndale (who, through his translation of the Bible, had an incalculable impact upon the English language) the list of famed men and women who returned to ashes a little sooner than expected is depressingly long indeed.
Maybe Lewis should have been more embarrassed by that.