We don’t hear much about the “unpardonable sin” anymore, and that is probably a good thing.
Its presence in Christian tradition has been a cause of unhealthy anxiety. It has even driven some to the brink of despair and beyond for fear of having committed it.
We can trace the origin of the concept of an unforgivable sin to Jesus’ words in Mark 3:29 and Matthew 12:31, where he identifies it as a particular kind of blasphemy, a term that generally refers to speaking negatively and disrespectfully about God.
“Blasphemy against the Spirit” in this context seems to mean speaking in a way that denies the Spirit’s true nature, thereby attributing the Spirit’s work to an evil source, as his accusers were doing: “He has an ‘unclean spirit.'”
We see it again when the opponents in the religious establishment accuse Jesus of blasphemy when he forgives sins, which only God can do and which they can regulate (Mark 2:7).
They charge him with blasphemy when he claims a close relation to the Father that does not fit their beliefs about how that relationship can be experienced (John 10:33).
We might wonder if there was a measure of blasphemy inherent in the charge of the accusers, as they presume to “know the mind of God” in sufficient measure to deny any faith claim that does not fit the template of their belief framework.
Their charge of blasphemy was a declaration in the strongest terms: “This is not what we believe!”
They were so certain in their consistency with the mind of God that it could reject with complete confidence anything that did not fit their beliefs.
For them, blasphemy was a violation of their doctrinal authority. Within them, blasphemy was implied in that very claim of authority itself.
It is easy to reject a useful concept for thinking about human experience on the basis of one interpretation of it, often due to a slanted use or application.
Because we are “on Jesus’ side” of these confrontations, we can dismiss the idea of blasphemy as a misguided rant of those who opposed him, rather than seeing it for what it actually points to: the presumption that one thinks and speaks with the mind and voice of God, or at least in perfect consistency with it.
This has led me to wonder: Is religious certainty the new face of blasphemy today?
Religious thought and pronouncement that claims the authority of an infallible teaching, an inerrant Bible or some specific experience of the Spirit can claim a certainty that trumps a quest for understanding and reconciliation in a fractured world.
“Here is the truth, I believe it, that settles it” seems to be a mantra in response to many an issue.
Certainty about what God wants is a burdensome obstacle to the effort to discern what God would have us do on the various frontiers of the faith journey.
The ease with which the confidence of faith in God can slip into the certainty of belief about God is a danger that lurks along every pilgrim’s path.
When that happens, it may be that blasphemy is just a word or deed away.
Let’s think of it this way:
- If God is Lord of all creation (as we affirm and proclaim),
- If the essential nature of God is love (as we affirm and proclaim),
- If the normative expression of that love is seen in Jesus Christ (as we affirm and proclaim),
- Then, if the people and church bearing his name place limits and controls on how that love can be experienced and expressed, it would seem that this might be getting very close to blasphemy.
It would be as if we were saying, “God, you can’t be who you are. You have to be who we want and need you to be to support our beliefs about you.”
Unforgivable sin? I hope not.
There is probably a bit of this kind of blasphemy in all of us, and there is a lot of testimony from pilgrims gone before that points to the sufficiency of God’s grace to redeem us even from this one.
I guess it’s still a good idea to try not to fall into it.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.