A student recently asked me, what is the “unforgivable sin”? A simple answer is very easy. The unforgivable sin is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. What does that mean? That is not quite such an easy answer. After all, who knows what “blasphemy” is these days?
The passage in question actually occurs in all three of the synoptic Gospels (Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The version in Saint Matthew’s Gospel reads as follows:
[Jesus said,] “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.” (12:31-32)
There is a terrifying thought. I have heard it said that this is the single-most terrifying passage in all of Scripture, not just because of the severity of the punishment and impossibility of forgiveness, but also because of the ambiguity of the crime. What exactly is “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit”?
The word blasphemy itself comes from two Greek words meaning “I injure” and “reputation.” Thus, from a point of view that takes into consideration words origins, injuring someone’s reputation is blasphemy. Obviously this pertains to a religious context so suggesting that someone cheated on a test would not be blaspheming them, per se, but saying that Jesus Christ is not the Son of God could be considered blasphemy. Certainly the Jews thought Jesus was blasphemous when he was preaching in Jerusalem. St. John tells us,
Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?” The Jews answered Him, saying, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God.” (10:31-33)
Of course, there are men and women today who make a career out of impugning the reputation of God and his people. Those without credential are called comedians; those with them are called “celebrated scholars.”
So, is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit saying anything negative about the Holy Spirit or injuring His reputation? That would mean a whole lot of people are going to Hell. In 2006, a group calling itself the Rational Response Squad began what they called “The Blasphemy Challenge.” They challenged their internet followers to post on You-Tube videos of themselves committing blasphemy. They told their subscribers to record themselves saying “God does not exist.” There were, apparently, at least one thousand people who undertook this challenge. Fortunately, co-founder of the group, Brian Sapient (not his real name—he took that name, which means wise, to ensure his anonymity) did not do enough rational work to realize, saying God does not exist probably does not make the cut for actual blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. At least, that is not what Jesus was talking about in the passage. Let us examine the context of the passage.
In chapter 12 of St. Matthew’s Gospel, the Evangelist tells us,
Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw. And all the multitudes were amazed and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” Now when the Pharisees heard it they said, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.” (vv. 22-24)
Our Lord’s response regarding blasphemy of the Holy Spirit immediately follows the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus was casting out demons because He Himself was demonic. Therefore, most believe that “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” is ascribing to demons or demonic influence the work of the Holy Spirit.
That could mean some serious trouble for those of the non-charismatic persuasion who, fully believing in God and in the Holy Scriptures, have taught that speaking in tongues is demonic. “He speaks like that because he has a demon,” sounds frighteningly close to “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.” I suppose that you might, by extension, view those who regard religious phenomena as a psychological disorder as also committing blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. They are, after all, saying that the work of the Holy Spirit is some kind of disease.
Of course, for me, the more intriguing portion of the passage is the very end. Jesus tells His listeners, “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.” (v. 32) My mind asks what kind of sins can be and just how are sins forgiven in “the age to come.” Isn’t that intriguing?