On a recent Theology Broadcast, I was asked this question:
“Why did Jesus say that when men blaspheme against him they will be forgiven but when they do so against the Holy Spirit they are not?”
My answer had two parts to it.
- I don’t know. (Even if I say so myself, this was a great answer and one that we could all do with using a bit more).
- I will find out.
Having read around the subject a bit, this is what I have learned:
This saying of Jesus is referred to in the three synoptic gospels. It is phrased slightly differently in each case.
Matthew 12:30-32 – “…Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but that blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 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.”
Mark 3:28-30 – “…Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” – for they were saying. “He has an unclean spirit.”
Luke 12:8-10 – “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.”
In Luke, this saying occurs in the middle of a series of unconnected teachings of Jesus, but both Matthew and Mark record the words in the context which they were spoken.
A man was brought to Jesus who was demon-possessed, deaf and mute, and Jesus healed him. The onlookers had seen the miracle and began to wonder if Jesus was the Messiah, but the Pharisees had a different view of things. They could not deny that the demon had been cast away, but instead, they opposed Jesus by claiming that he was casting out demons by the power of the devil. They were attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan, and it is this that provoked Jesus’ comments about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and it is to this that he is referring. Mark draws this link directly by adding the explanation – for they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit’.
As I read around, here are some ideas, interpretations and questions that I have found. I don’t necessarily agree with all of them (and they don’t all fit with each other) but they are worthy of consideration.
1) “The ‘unforgiveable sin’ was a clear, specific sin that could be committed by the Pharisees during the life of Jesus.”
2) “The same sin cannot be committed today… no-one today will have the opportunity to see Jesus performing miracles in person.”
3) “The unpardonable sin is accusing Jesus of being demon-possessed rather than spirit filled.”
4) “You will be forgiven all blasphemies that you repent of – but the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit puts you beyond repentance.”
5) “Jesus doesn’t directly say the Pharisees have committed this unforgiveable sin. He may be warning them as he sees the direction they are heading in.”
6) “The unforgiveable sin is the rejection of the offer of salvation.”
7) “In the face of every possible evidence of Jesus’ messiahship and deity, God could do nothing more for them, and they would therefore remain eternally unforgiven.”
As you can see, there are quite a few ways to come at this one.
For me, the idea of accusing Jesus of being demon-possessed rather than Spirit-filled seems to best fit both the context and the severity of the words, and would almost certainly come from such a hardness of heart that repentance would not be possible.
At this stage of my reading, that’s the view I am leaning towards.
Which view makes sense to you?