(Deut. 13:5) Why were false teachers put to death (c.f. Deut. 18:20; Lev. 19:26; Ex. 22:18)?

CLAIM: Deuteronomy records, “But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has counseled rebellion against the Lord your God” (Deut. 13:5). Atheist Christopher Hitchens objects to this, when he writes, “This was, for centuries, the warrant for the Christian torture and burning of women who did not conform.”[1] Why is this such an extreme punishment?

RESPONSE: This is an example of capital punishment for the faith of Israel. Clearly the Salem Witch Trials were a horrible act of religious fanaticism, where several people were grievously killed. However, as C.S. Lewis has pointed out, if someone actually was a true demonic witch, we would be morally mandated to kill them! Lewis writes,

Surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did –if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did. There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.[2]

If someone was actually bringing curses and death on a community by the power of Satan, what would you do? Killing fake witches is moral madness, but killing real witches would be morally mandatory. For instance, no one cringes at the end of Dracula, when the lead vampire is stabbed in the heart with a stake! If a demonic killing machine was let loose on a population, we would make it a priority to hunt it down and kill it.

False teaching in the ancient Near East was not similar to someone coming home from a Yoga class, as Sam Harris rhetorically argues.[3] Instead, false teaching in the ancient Near East was usually associated with child sacrifice and ritual prostitution (Deut. 18:10). God considered these types of actions to be forms of moral “rebellion” (Deut. 13:5). Moreover, historically, whenever Israel got involved with other gods, we see that this always turned out to have horrific moral consequences. This objection is hypocritical of the critics. They denounce the Bible for crass and evil practices, but then they refuse the solutions and prohibitions for these problems. They can’t have it both ways.

[1] Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007. 101.

[2] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1952. 26.

[3] Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2005. 18.