Earlier this week, my mind drifted to the witch trials in Salem. Along with the crusades and the inquisitions, the witch trials are something that make most Christians want to crawl under a rock. But we can’t. The trials happened.
From there, my mind wandered to a comment C.S. Lewis made in Mere Christianity. People today love things like the witch trials because they confirm their prejudice: religion is a bunch of irrational hogwash. Lewis tackles this by asking what we would do today if we really believed (as those in Salem did) that people empowered by demons were trying to harm us. Do the witch trials look as irrational?
I appreciate Lewis’s attempt to put the witch trials in perspective. I appreciate even more that he asks us to confront the hypocritical way we wield hindsight. But there is a further step needed. That is looking at whether the Bible supports what happened during the witch trials and whether the actions of people in Salem had anything to do with Christianity.
The short answer is that the Bible doesn’t support what happened during the witch trials. Scripture mentions multiple instances where Jesus and/or his followers encountered people suffering from demonic possession or influence. In most cases, they were able to free the person by telling the evil spirit to leave. Even the worst cases required no more than prayer (Mark 9:29). My own experience with demons bears this out. There is no place—not one!—in scripture where the possessed person was dealt with by hanging or burning to death.
This is to say nothing of the greatest commandments in scripture: 1) love God; 2) love your neighbor as yourself. Put it all together, and we have to say that the Salem witch trials were a product of people *not* living out Christianity. That means Salem was another tragic case of group-think and mob hysteria. These are human phenomena that require no religion to motivate them.
Still, bad theology played a role in the case of Salem, as it did in the inquisitions, the crusades, and other black marks in Christian history. That leaves me with a question: what is bad theology leading us to do today that Christians will be ashamed of in 500 years? What doctrinal wolves do we dress as sheep, and how do they tear up the flock? It’s worth thinking about, even if someone else hangs you for it. If I remember right, Christianity is named for someone who was hung up because He upset bad theologians. You can’t get more biblical than that.