Incineration vs. Decapitation: What to do with Servetus?

RickPatrickBy Rick Patrick 


According to The History and Character of Calvinism by J. T. McNeil, in 1553 John Calvin requested that Michael Servetus be decapitated as a traitor rather than burned as a heretic. In light of this merciful request, Calvin’s friend William Farel chided him for his undue lenience. However, it did no good and Servetus was burned at the stake.

Who among us cannot sympathize with Farel’s concern? Frankly, Calvin’s softness in proposing merely to cut off the head of a man who so clearly deserved to be set on fire is puzzling. What kind of girlyman allows a heretic who denies both the Trinity and infant baptism to get away with the mere wrist slap of head removal?

Clearly, Calvin hoped in this matter that cooler heads would prevail–except, of course, for that of Servetus. When rebuffed by the Geneva Council, Calvin undoubtedly felt he had been burned, ironically the very same sensation that the heretic felt last.

In order to fully comprehend Calvin’s view of God’s love for sinners like Servetus, it is helpful to explore the advantages and disadvantages of incineration and decapitation.

One could argue that decapitation better illustrates God’s grace, a major concern of Calvin’s, for we all must die in one manner or another, and the immediate separation of the brain from the pain receptors in one’s nerve endings ensures a quick and painless death. The traitor certainly bleeds, but at least he will never know it. Unfortunately, this method requires extensive postmortem labor in dealing with the corpse and blood loss.

On the other hand, incineration better illustrates the glory Calvin believed God received by pouring out His wrath upon sinners in hell. Although it is a more painful form of execution, it conveniently dispatched of the remains through a marvelous efficiency–the very form of execution accomplished the cremation of the body simultaneously. One would be hard pressed to find a better illustration of the concept “ashes to ashes.”

Perhaps Calvin’s preference for traitorous decapitation over heretical incineration had less to do with the form of execution and more to do with the rationale. If Servetus was killed for being a traitor, the blame could be placed on civil authorities rather than religious ones. Was Calvin trying to deny his own responsibility in the matter? In fact, did his theology not tend to deny human responsibility more generally?

While I fully realize that the culture of the day allowed for the execution of both traitors and heretics, it is difficult for me to overlook the theologian’s role in this matter. Calvin’s actions speak louder than his words. How does a Calvinist today so easily absolve his conscience while taking his theological cues on the nature of God’s love from a heart and mind so blind to the immorality of governmental or ecclesiastical homicide?

Why does Calvin get a free pass on this matter? The argument that nobody is perfect is certainly one Servetus might wish we could have stumbled upon a little sooner. Surely if Calvin was indeed such a genius, his mind was capable of recognizing this as sin. Conversely, since he evidently did not view this as sin, can we not infer that perhaps there are a great many other things his brilliant mind failed to grasp as well?

Whatever else God’s plan of salvation addresses, it clearly speaks of His love for sinners–a love that does not seek to kill them but to die in their place. Personally, the formulation of salvation doctrine I embrace was reduced to writing by a Twentieth Century born Southern Baptist theologian who would have favored the pardoning of  Servetus rather than sentencing him with either incineration or decapitation.

How Calvinists can take their cue regarding God’s love for sinners from a Sixteenth Century born non-Southern Baptist theologian who approved treating his theological opponents in such a manner is an absolute mystery to me. If a theologian can get murder wrong, it is certainly fair to question his understanding of other truths as well.