Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit

A great deal has been written about the sin often called “unpardonable” or “unforgiveable.” Many Christians live in fear of accidentally committing this sin, and being forever condemned to perdition. Others worry that at some point in their past they might have blasphemed the Holy Spirit and are therefore already beyond the reach of God’s grace. 

I find this fear tragic, and so I’ve spent a great deal of time in study over the three passages in the Gospels where this sin against the Holy Spirit is mentioned, trying to understand why this one sin should be so unpardonable, so eternal in its consequences.

And what I discovered is that it isn’t. 

I’ll try to explain here why I believe that almost everything I’ve ever been taught about the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is wrong.  I hope that this will be a source of relief to some. I imagine it will be a source of consternation to many. I may be wrong, but I don’t think so. The difficulty is that this teaching has been so universally taught for so long that many of the mistaken presuppositions that support it have become almost invisible. “We must read the text the way we’ve always done it because, well, because it just has to mean what we’ve always thought it meant.”  But it doesn’t.  I hope you’ll open your heart to listen to a new possibility, even if you don’t buy it (at first).

An awful lot of this has to do with translating the passages properly, so I apologize in advance for all the Greek I’m going to throw in. I’ll use transliterated forms of the words, so that at least it’ll look like something we can pronounce, rather than using the Greek alphabet. (Since this isn’t being written for a scholarly journal.) I find that, when we let the original text speak in its plain sense (rather than the one influenced by our presuppositions) the warnings about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit fall much more into keeping with a God who says that He  will never forsake us, that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Before I begin…

It may be helpful to deal initially with the question of just what this sin is, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, when defining the Greek verb “blasphemeo,” my lexicon (Bauer, Gingrich & Danker) simply says, “blaspheme,” when defining the word used in reference to a divine being. Not terribly helpful. But when defining the word when used in reference to a human being I find, “injure the reputation of, revile, defame.” There are a lot of actions, or at least kinds of speech that I can think of that might fall into that category, which helps me understand why some people may be so fearful. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that speaking in error about the Holy Spirit might injure His reputation in the ears of my hearers.  Just misrepresenting Him to others, no matter how well intentioned I might be, could leave me subject to the charge of blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

I think that we could spend countless hours together trying to narrow down the real intention of the sayings here, but I think that we will do best to let the contexts of the different sayings lead us into a clearer understanding.

There are three episodes in the Gospels where Jesus speaks of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. One in each of the “synoptic” Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Mark 3:22-30, Matthew 12:22-32, and Luke 12:8-11) As I read the different stories, I find that they build on one another. Each one adds a layer of understanding concerning Jesus’ real intention in this teaching. 

Most scholars agree that Mark is the earliest of the Gospels, and one that both Matthew and Luke had available to them as they wrote their own. While I am not sure I agree, I find also that Luke read Matthew as part of his preparation for the writing of his own Gospel account. (A fuller discussion of the relationships between the Gospels is beyond the scope of this paper.) I believe that every word of these texts was inspired, but that doesn’t mean that Matthew and Luke were not inspired to reframe the texts they already had available to them so as to convey God’s Word to their own communities. 

And so the relationship between these texts tells us a great deal about the meaning of Jesus’ teaching.

I begin with Mark, the commonly thought earliest version of the story.

The setting for Mark’s teaching on blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is essentially the same as Matthew’s. “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” (Mark 3:22 ESV) It’s important to understand this, because it adds to our understanding of Luke’s passage, where the setting of the teaching takes the situation in Mark and Matthew somewhat for granted.

At the conclusion of the teaching Mark adds a clarifying comment, “for they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” (Mark 3:30 ESV)

It is really tempting here to jump to the conclusion that Jesus intends to equate the accusation that He casts out demons by Beelzebul with blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, but that would be unwise before we’ve read and allowed Matthew and Luke to refine our understanding.

Next I look at the part of of the passage in Mark that is unfortunately translated “never.” (but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:29 ESV) What the Greek in Mark says, if we read it literally is, “but whoever may speak evil in regard to the Holy Spirit hath not forgiveness — to the age, but is in danger of age-during judgment;” (Young’s Literal Translation) 

So it doesn’t say that this person blaspheming the Holy Spirit “never” has forgiveness, but rather, has not forgiveness up to “the age.” (Greek “aion”, like our eon.) Again, it would be simple just to translate this as “forever” because the Greek phrase “eis ton aion” is translated that way almost everywhere else in the New Testament. But it’s clear reading Matthew that this is not what is meant in Mark because Matthew is inspired to add a clarifying phrase, “or in the age to come.”

Clearly, Matthew reads Mark and understands “eis ton aion” or “up to the age” as meaning something limited in scope, a period of time that has an end, and is followed by another such period of time. So while this phrase might mean “forever” elsewhere, it clearly does not for Matthew or he would not have written his Gospel this way, “And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:32 ESV)

So, if it weren’t for “in the age to come” we might just read Mark to mean that the sinner would not have forgiveness “forever,” but that can’t be what it means.

Of course, “in the age to come” might mean the very same thing. In other words, Matthew understands that Mark’s Gospel doesn’t say it clearly enough, and that “up to the age” has left off a significant part of Jesus’ intended meaning. So Matthew restores the meaning, “neither in this age nor in the age to come.” (I think that “neither/nor” more accurately translates the Greek than “either,” as the repeated Greek conjunction has a definitely negative connotation that isn’t sufficiently represented by “either/or.”)

This is the kind of thinking we get when we think we understand the text before we finish translating it. We’re tempted to think that “the age to come” must mean eternity, but it doesn’t. All we have to do is look at the way that “coming” is used in almost every other case in the New Testament. In all but one or two cases (and there are many) the participle “coming” refers to something in the immediate future, something that is just “about to” happen. (In fact, that is how it’s translated in many cases.) There is no way that we can see an age that is just around the corner as an age that Jesus meant us to understand as “eternity.”

So what “age” was the one that Jesus meant? What did Matthew understand as the “age” that would follow the current age (within which the sinner would also be denied forgiveness). 

That brings us to Luke, where the time of the “age” Jesus teaches about becomes clear, as well as the agents (not God!) who are withholding forgiveness.

Luke’s recounting of the teaching on blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is more brief, and appears at first to be set in a different context. “And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:8-12 ESV)

Context is even more crucial in Luke than in any of the other Gospels. Luke makes it clear from the beginning that the “order” in which he writes things out is the very reason that he’s sharing another Gospel when there are already others out there: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4 ESV) Luke is writing an “orderly” account. The order matters.

And so in order to understand this teaching on the Holy Spirit and blasphemy, we need to understand that the verses immediately before and after the teaching on blasphemy (which share an obvious point) also share that point with verse 10.  The first part of verse 8, “And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men…” And the first part of verse 11, “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities.”  Jesus speaks in both instances about our being brought before temporal authorities. Most specifically, the synagogue authorities. 

And so the word spoken against Jesus is a word spoken before the rulers and authorities of the synagogue. And of course they forgive that.

But no good Jewish leader would forgive blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Jesus understands that such blasphemy (at least as understood by the synagogue authorities) will lead to the deaths of His followers (See Acts 7 and Stephen!). There will be no forgiveness in this age (the one immediately following the current age in which Jesus speaks) for that sin. But nonetheless, the Holy Spirit will give us utterance in those moments (i.e., Stephen’s cry, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.)

Luke clearly means us to understand that Jesus is teaching about the repercussions of our speech before those authorities for whom blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is “eternal.” (We can’t really escape that translation, as “aionios” is translated “eternal” in almost every case in the NT. But literally, it means “of an age.”) Regardless, “eternal” here speaks of the seriousness and persistence of the sin (in the ears of the synagogue authorities) not the duration of the guilt.

Luke means this clearly, but do Mark and Matthew? 

It is inescapable that Matthew understood Mark’s phrase to mean a limited period of time. “To the age” required that Matthew render the warning “neither in this age nor in the one that is just about to come.”  This is not a sin with eternal consequences.

Matthew adds reference to the age that is just around the corner as Jesus speaks.

Luke makes it clear what that age will entail.

Yes, they’re all speaking about the same events.

Mark explains why Jesus said this: “for they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” (Mark 3:30 ESV) Not because this accusation constitutes blasphemy, but because Jesus knew that His followers would face the same accusation when they ministered in the power of the Spirit and that such ministry would be seen as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. (Again, see Acts 7 and Stephen.) Indeed, among those who still subscribe to a theology known as “cessationism” those who heal and deliver and prophesy in the modern day are seen as agents not of God and particularly the Holy Spirit, but of Satan. (Google “cessation of spiritual gifts” to see how vehemently!) Such accusations are not blasphemy, but they are the same strain of accusation leveled against Jesus. And it is still seen as “eternal “in its consequences.

It is my prayer that this effort will set many Christians free from a pervasive fear of an “unforgivable” sin, but also that it will encourage those who sometimes “skip over” the hard sayings of Jesus in the Gospels to take this, and all of them, seriously.

In Him,


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