It seems wasteful, though in-character, for the Inquisition to execute every heretic they find. Do they ever give them a chance to repent? Do they ever let heretics get away with just a lecture? It stands to reason that quite a few heretics just don't realize the things they're saying/doing are heretical.

I am aware of the use of penal battalions in the Imperial Guard, but I would consider that as just execution with extra steps, unless there is some method of parole I'm not aware of.

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    warhammer40k.fandom.com/wiki/Heresy#Dealing_With_Heresy - Heretics are "purged" which can include killing them, killing everyone that lives near them or killing their entire planet. There doesn't seem to be an option for lesser punishments
    – Valorum
    Jul 5 '21 at 17:51
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    Don't underestimate the size of the Imperium. 15.7 Quadrillion
    – Jontia
    Jul 5 '21 at 18:05
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    In the grim dark future, there is only grim dark. Jul 5 '21 at 18:13
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    You've got to be ruthless or the infection will spread. Jul 5 '21 at 18:39
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    My impression is that there aren't enough Inquisitors for them to go rigorously chasing down every possible minor Chaos cult. In order for the Ordos to fall on a cult they need to do something, like terrorist actions or summonings, to draw attention to themselves - and those are always wiped out.
    – Cadence
    Jul 5 '21 at 19:00

Important is: the Inquisition does not persecute all heretics. For the inquisition (Ordo Hereticus) to become active, the heretic needs to be quite high in the hierarchy. Low level heretics are pursued by the Arbites or the Ecclesiarchy.

The Ordo Hereticus is also called upon to monitor other Imperial organisations for internal threats, including the Adeptus Arbites, the Space Marines, and even the Inquisition itself. Only the Emperor is beyond their jurisdiction.

From the Lexicanum article on the Ordo Hereticus

So, a simple person being a heretic is not their (main) focus. The moment it becomes widespread is when the inquisition pursues it. But even then, not all heretics are simply executed. We can use the Lamenters as an example for heretics that were given a second chance after a pentinent crusade:

Long dogged by misfortune, they sided with the rebel forces during the Badab War, but were granted the Emperor's forgiveness at the conclusion of that conflict subject to the undertaking of a penitent crusade.

From the Lexicanum article on the Lamenters

On the other hand, the Astral Claws, with which the Lamenters sided during the Badab war, were sentenced Excommunicate Traitoris and they were not only hunted and killed but all records of them (specially public records) erased.

After rebelling against the Imperium and being defeated in the ensuing Badab War, the Chapter's survivors fled into the Maelstrom, becoming the core of the Red Corsairs. As a chapter they have been declared Excommunicate Traitoris and any records of the chapter are marked to be destroyed.

From the Lexicanum article on the Astral Claws

From the Lexicanum article on Heresy, we know that Rebellion against the Imperium is also considered heresy. In the Badab War, the inhabitants of Tranquility II raised against the "occuptation" of the planet by the Imperium and are therefore heretics. However, they were not all executed but "merely" enslaved to work for the benefit of the Imperium. So, there is a punishment for heresy but it is not always (and automatically) death.

  • "Persecute"? While it does have a nice, "flavored" ring, I think you actually mean "prosecute"? Or is there a WH40k-specific meaning here I don't know? (Sorry, not familiar with WH40k, just a drive-by via HNQ...)
    – Matthew
    Jul 6 '21 at 17:36
  • @Matthew Not a native english speaker, but ' put to death for one's race, sexual identity, adherence to a particular religious creed' sounds rather fitting.
    – Shade
    Jul 6 '21 at 17:45
  • As a native English speaker, "persecute" seems entirely valid as-used. "Prosecute" is certainly something that could be done to heretics and could involve an inquisition, but would involve far fewer guns than my (minimal) knowledge of Warhammer 40k indicates. Jul 7 '21 at 1:28
  • This has some resemblances to the historical Inquisition. Contrary to popular media depictions, the Inquisition was not a North Korea-style (or 1984-style) regime with constant surveillance, where uttering a wrong opinion got you in mortal danger. In many cases smaller heresies could bloom relatively undisturbed, and the Inquisition would only crack them down when they started something big, like organizing armed peasant rebellions. Only about 2 to 3% of the accused were actually executed. The rest was either found not guilty / not worth the effort / let free after repenting.
    – vsz
    Jul 7 '21 at 5:48

Not all are executed; if they repent they may be allowed a form of redemption through being built into a Penitent Engine. Some heretics may be consigned to Arco-Flagellation, and some may be turned into Servitors.

Note however that this is W40k. Even loyal guardsmen who see something they shouldn't are usually killed, since it's not normally worth the effort to Mind Wipe them.

  • An example that comes to mind for the last sentence is when Imperial Guardsmen happen to have come into contact with Grey Knights. The regular Space Marines are subject to mind wipe, and the Imperial Guardsmen are merely killed and replaced, in order to keep the secrecy of them existing at all.
    – Clockwork
    Jul 6 '21 at 13:34

Not for the Chaos Heretics

May the Emperor have mercy on your Soul for His servants cannot. - Inquisitor Thaddeus

I assume by "heretic" you mean "someone who has forsaken the Emperor to some extent for Chaos." This is a specific type of Heretic. It's also heretical to have dealings with proscribed xenos, to be in contact/know about certain xenos, to be in contact with any xenos outside of very rare circumstances, to Rebel against the Imperium for any reason whatsoever, to worship the Emperor or any of his saints in a way unsanctioned by the Ministorum etc. For these there are punishments other than execution. Normally still execution, but also enslavement and "re-education" that's normally just means "worked to death whilst being preached at." However Chaos is "The Archenemy" of mankind, and a chaos heretic is a different story.

The nature of the Warp means that there is always the chance that a person touched by the warp, even one who is honestly trying to repent, will backslide into heresy or worse (possession, etc). It would be a failure of duty to allow such a person to live, outside of very specific circumstances none of which end with "let off with a lecture." Even if they don't fully comprehend that what they're saying/doing is heretical. To do otherwise is not only imperiling the ex-heretic's soul (because of the penchant to backslide) but also a physical and moral danger to the people around them. The ex-heretic might revert, and convert others. Or try hard not to revert, but Chaos still has it's talons in their mind and they become a psyker and open a warp rift that dooms the whole planet. It's not a risk the Inquisition is usually willing to take.

In Very Specific Instances the heretic is intentionally kept alive, but always with a death sentence in place, just not carried out. For example in Gaunt's Ghosts Mabbon Etogaur (probable former Imperial Guardsman and actively a Chaos General) was allowed to live because of the information he contained. It couldn't be extracted by torture, and he was essentially treated like a "normal" high-security prisoner. Albeit with strong overtones of "this guy is Chaos filth and might be able to do witchcraft." In other instances high-ranking heretics are kept live by more radical inquisitors to plumb their minds for warp-secrets, or by puritans so they can be tortured "sufficiently" to atone for their sins. Low-level heretics (what you might call "didn't know what they were doing" types) are sometimes used as slave labor in situations that will quickly kill them. But more often they're turned into servitors or arco-flagellents or whatever. Since all of these lobotomize you at absolute best they're basically death sentences as well.

That "do they let heretics repent" aspect of your question is super interesting. Heretics in are ALWAYS given a chance to repent, unless it's a battlefield situation. (and sometimes even then! though being shouted at to repent whilst being shot at seems... unlikely to get a positive result.) The "problem" is that repentance doesn't save them from execution. At best it's the difference between a quick execution or a long tortured-to-death style end. In the Imperial Creed there is no repentance in this life that will actively "save" your soul once you've been touched by the warp. As only the Emperor can grant you absolution, the Inquisition's job is to arrange the meeting. How much punishment the Inquisition gives you before you face the Emperor's judgement depends on the level of your sins and your level of remorse. Again a Very Important Heretic might repent and be allowed to live, but only because they are more valuable to the inquisition alive than they are dead for whatever reason. Mabbon Etogaur is again a great example of this. He seems to be actively trying to repent the entire time he's in custody. But I won't go deeper in because the spoilers aren't super pertinent to your question.

As a sidenote on penal battalions there IS a method of Parole. The famous "last chancers" 13th Penal Legion being an example of "last one alive gets the Emperor's forgiveness" style parole for Penal Legion troops. For some minor offences surviving X number of engagements can also be a way out, but "X" tends to be "statistically impossible for you to have survived that long" so it's more a panacea for the legionaries than a thing the Imperium ever things it'll have to actually honor. Also as it relates to your question "heresy" is never considered a "minor offence" so a heretic wouldn't get out of a Penal Battalion that way.

  • This is a wonderfully detailed answer, but is there any evidence to back these bold statement up?
    – Valorum
    Jul 6 '21 at 15:37

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