The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — About the Crusades
1. Crusading does NOT get you into heaven.
When discussing the evils of the Crusades, at the top of the list is the whole idea of trying to gain favor from God in order to secure your salvation by going to war. This notion of trying to attain some foothold on salvation by our efforts or best intentions is entirely foreign to the Gospel as revealed in the New Testament. The thief on the cross was saved by Jesus entirely by the grace of God. He had done nothing to commend himself at all, but he cried out to Jesus, and the Lord saved him.
That thief is a picture of us all, and a picture of how any of us are saved (Luke 23:29-43). Jesus tells His disciples in John 5:24 that when they believe in Him they have eternal life, they will never be condemned, and they have already passed from death to life. The Apostle Paul, throughout his epistles, confirms that salvation is entirely apart from our good works or performance (Romans 4:1-6). Such is the consistent testimony throughout the New Testament.
Jesus and the Apostles never taught that forgiveness or the granting of eternal life can be attained in any way by going to war, no matter how pure one's motives might be.
2. God does not promise physical rewards.
2. No physical rewards today. As a corollary to that, the Lord promises NO lands to His Church today. We are pilgrims and strangers in this world. We are looking for a heavenly Jerusalem whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 12:22, 23; 11:10). Conquest for Christians today is to be done entirely through peaceful evangelism. You never see Jesus and the Apostles proselytizing through compulsion or conquering nations by fire and sword.
3. The Crusades caused unexpected tragedies.
The misguided religious fervor of those days created several human disasters.
The so-called "Children's Crusades" (one led by the German boy Nicholas and the other by the French boy Stephen) stand out as colossal failures. Although they were never organized or promoted by the Catholic Church, the end result was that the seas did not open up for these crowds, some of the kids were sold into slavery in Egypt, some just went home, and others joined other crusades. These sad episodes remind me of Romans 10:1-4, where Paul says that although certain people had a zeal toward God, it was not according to knowledge.
And then you have religious fervor that turns really bad — as in inspiring murder. During the First Crusade, as knights were gathering in Europe, plenty of them decided to loot, rape, and murder their way through German towns along the Rhine. In most cases, the victims were Jewish families who simply had nothing to fight with against these armored thugs. Catholic bishops tried to protect the Jews, but, as happened in the city of Mainz, the knights just stormed the bishop's palace and slaughtered everyone.
Once the knights broke through the walls of Jerusalem, they did indeed massacre several thousand men, women, and children of both Islamic and Jewish faiths. Yes, I know that in medieval times it was customary to offer terms of peace to the people of besieged cities, and if the terms were rejected, then all bets were off. The inhabitants were all legitimate targets. But supposedly the knights were "pious" Christians. I see very little in their behavior that resembles the teachings of Jesus Christ.
The Crusades are a vastly misunderstood and understudied subject. In order to better understand the Middle East, Europe, and the Crusades, I think it would be important to get sources by authors who have actually done the hard work and have read the primary documents of that age. One book that really helped me was Dr. Thomas Madden's book The New Concise History of the Crusades. He is quite a scholar of medieval history, his books read like novels, and he does not bow down to "political correctness." In fact, ALL of his books are excellent reads. Get 'em. You'll enjoy 'em.