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The unforgivable / eternal / unpardonable sin

Our interpretation. Narrowing the
definition. Various beliefs about it.

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Our interpretation of Mark 3:29 and parallels:

The authors on this web site rarely intrude with their own ideas. Rather, we try to explain all current and past viewpoints on each topic. But I cannot resist speculating on the nature of the unforgivable sin because it causes so much anxiety and distress among Christian believers.

The vast majority of Christian denominations believe In a Trinity: a single deity composed of three persons -- the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Denying the existence of the Trinity, or denying the existence of God, the Son, or the Holy Spirit as separate persons would be considered blasphemy by most Christians. The unforgivable sin in these Gospel passages could be interpreted as denying the existence of the Holy Spirit as a person within the Trinity.

The religions of the world have different concepts of deity. From a Christian world view:

bullet Any person who is or was a strong Atheist -- even for a brief interval at one time during their life could have denied the existence of the entire Trinity, and thus blasphemed against the Holy Spirit.
 
bullet Strong monotheists, including Jews and Muslims, who regard God as being a single undividable entity could have similarly sinned.
 
bullet All of the other Theists in the world who do not believe in the existence of the traditional Christian Trinity are blaspheming. This includes followers of almost all theistic religions from Asatru to Zoroastrianism, some Pentecostals, Mormons, Hindus, Wiccans, etc.

Further, even within Christianity, there are denominations that reject the traditional Trinity concept:

bullet Jehovah's Witnesses, followers of The Way, and others believe that the Holy Spirit is not a person, but is an impersonal force used by God to interact with the world.

From a traditional historical Christian view, these groups are blaspheming against the Holy Spirit and could have committed the unpardonable sin; their believers would be destined to spend eternity in Hell.

Of course, if one views deity from a Muslim point of view, it is the Christians who are committing the ultimate blasphemy by believing that God is divisible. And so on with other religions. Also, if one views deity from the point of view of the Jehovah's Witness or other Trinity-denying group, then it is they that have the proper view of the Holy Spirit, and all other Christian groups are guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

"You pays your money and you take your choice."

The term "blasphemy" clearly does not have an absolute meaning. Its exact meaning depends upon a person's or faith group's other theological beliefs. Yet many -- perhaps most -- people in the world believe that blasphemy does have an absolute meaning for the simple reasons that they believe their own belief system to be absolutely true.

One might think that the solution to deciphering the unpardonable sin would be to assess the will of God. One could simply pray to God to find out whether one of the 33 beliefs cited in this web site is the correct one, or whether all 33 are wrong and some different definition is correct. After all, it would not be reasonable for God to allow an ambiguous passage in the New Testament to leave Christians hanging with no way to handle their anxiety.

Unfortunately, a pilot study that we conducted into the assessment of God's will seems to indicate that it is impossible to assess God's will through prayer. An individual may feel certain that they have assessed God's will, but it appears to be not so.

So, perhaps there is no obvious way to be certain what, if anything, is the unpardonable sin, and whether it is still possible to commit the unpardonable sin today.

One possible way of resolving this uncertainty is to study the range of human behaviors involving human torture. Imagine drawing a line on a piece of paper. Make it a vertical line with a top and bottom extreme. (Drawing a horizontal line would end up with a line with a left and right end, which has obvious political connotations.) The top end represents the most compassionate and forgiving of humans, like Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer. etc. They would most likely reject the concept of unforgivable sin and of eternal punishment in the torture chambers of Hell for that sin. The bottom extreme represents the most despicable and degenerate of human beings, like Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, etc. They would probably have no objection to unforgivable sin and eternal punishment for that sin. The question to ask is: Where does God lie on this continuum? One of God's attributes is his omnibeneficience -- being all-good. That would seem to imply that God would be found closer to or beyond Gandhi, etc, than with Hitler, etc. This conclusion is incompatible with the Bible's passages on the unforgivable sin as being God's Word. Fortunately, there is some wiggle room here. Biblical inerrancy refers only to the autograph copies of the books in the Bible. These are the original copies as written by the authors. One might assume that a copying error -- intentional or accidental -- has occurred to Mark 3:29 and the other unforgivable sin passages between the writing of the autograph copies and the ancient manuscripts that we know about today.

Is it possible to narrow down the dozens of interpretations of the unforgivable sin?

It may be possible to reject some of the many dozens of interpretations given for the unforgivable sin by analyzing the precise definition of the word "blasphemy."

Barnard Franklin, in his article "The Blasphemy Against the Holy Ghost" writes:

"The word 'blasphemy' in its various forms (as verb, noun, adjective, etc.) appears some fifty-nine times in the New Testament. It has a variety of renderings, such as, 'blasphemy,' 'reviled,' 'railed,' 'evil spoken of,' 'to speak evil of,' etc. ... It is evident from these that blasphemy is a sin of the mouth, a 'tongue-sin.' All New Testament writers except the author of Hebrews use the word. 1,2

In Matthew 12:32, the author attributes to Jesus the sentence:

"And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come." (Emphasis ours)

One might conclude that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit must be actually spoken. It cannot be an action or thought. That would eliminate many, perhaps most, of the historical interpretations of this sin, such as murder, suicide, adultery.

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How some conservative Protestant groups deal with unforgivable sin:

Most Christian groups, whether conservative Protestants, liberal Protestants, Roman Catholics, or others, downplay the importance of these passages.

Many conservative Protestants are faced with a conflict between two of their cardinal beliefs:

  • They teach that the act of being saved -- by personally repenting of sins and trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior -- permanently guarantees that a person's sins have been forgiven and forgotten. They are personally guaranteed that they will spend eternity in Heaven. That is, once a person is saved, they are always saved. This conflicts with the concept of an unpardonable sin that if committed would presumably change their eternal destiny from Heaven to Hell.

  • The also teach that the Bible is God's Word: that God inspired the authors to write material that is inerrant -- free of error. Thus the Gospel passages on the unpardonable sin must mean exactly what they say: that even persons who are saved can never be certain of their salvation.

While searching for a solution to this conflict, some have accepted an interpretation of these passages that prevents the unforgivable sin from being committed by a saved person today. Some conclude that committing this sin could only have been done while Jesus was ministering on Earth for one year (according to the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke) or for three years (according to the Gospel of John) during the early part of the first century CE. This would make Heaven attainable by saved persons today, even if they were to commit the sin described in the Bible as unforgivable.

How liberal/progressive Christian groups deal with unforgivable sin:

Most liberal/progressive Christian groups:
 
bulletHave long abandoned the concept of eternal punishment in Hell as being a profoundly immoral belief unworthy of a loving, compassionate God. It lowers God's moral standards to a level beneath that of the most degenerate humans, such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, those CIA operatives who engaged in torture, etc.
 
bulletThe belief that God is unable to forgive all sins negates one of God's main attributes: his omnipotence.
 
bullet Alternately, to say that God is capable but unwilling to forgive all sins of a repentant sinner negates another of God's attributes: his omnibeneficience.

Thus these passages have little impact on their theology.

How the Roman Catholic Church deals with unforgivable sin:

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that God can forgive any sin through church sacraments -- notably the sacrament commonly referred to as confession. According to AmericanCatholic.org:
"The Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as the Sacrament of Penance, or Penance and Reconciliation) has three elements: conversion, confession and celebration. In it we find God's unconditional forgiveness, and as a result we are called to forgive others." 3

Author Sandra DeGidio implies that a person who has committed a sin and who has a close relationship with God will sense God's love for them, and realize that God's love saves them. The individual's role is "...to be open to the gift of God's love -- to be open to grace."

Moral conversion means to decide to turn away "...from the evil that blinds us to God's love, and to turn toward God." Following conversion, the individual may confess her or his sin to a priest and receive the prayer of absolution which signifies God's forgiveness.

All sins, even the unforgivable sin -- whatever it is -- can presumably be forgiven by God through this process. 4

References:

  1. Barnard Franklin, "The Blasphemy Against the Holy Ghost: An Inquiry into the Scriptural Teaching Regarding the Unpardonable Sin," Bibliotheca Sacra, 93:220-233, (1936-April).
  2. Kyle Butt, "Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit -- The 'Unpardonable Sin'," Apologetics Press, at: http://www.apologeticspress.org/
  3. "Sacraments," American Catholic, at: http://www.americancatholic.org/
  4. Sandra DeGidio, O.S.M., "The Sacrament of Reconciliation: Celebrating God's Forgiveness," American Catholic, at: http://www.americancatholic.org/


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Copyright © 2006 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
First posted: 2006-OCT-25
Latest update: 2013-JUN-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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