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“Can the unforgivable sin be forgiven?”
Wendy said she and many other young people with her grew up with a great fear of the so-called unforgiveable sin. She said she never really knew what it was, but it was terrifying none-the-less. As an adult, having left the Jehovah’s Witnesses and joined an evangelical Lutheran Church, she was aware of a lot of Christians who, though they were people of great faith and commitment had a deep sense of fear that they didn’t know ultimately where they stood with God. A lot of that fear revolved around the question of this mysterious so-called unforgivable sin.
What is the so-called unforgivable sin?
We first encounter the notion in chapter 3 of Mark’s Gospel. (It appears also in Matthew's and Luke’s Gospels, but Mark’s version is the earliest and therefore deserves greater attention.)
The Teachers of the law have come to confront Jesus. They are so threatened by him, and the threat that he poses to their religious and cultural traditions that they accuse him of being in league with the devil, or Beelzebub. They say that he is casting out demons with the power of Satan.
Jesus responds by highlighting just how flawed their thinking is: “How can Satan cast out Satan?” he says. Then goes on to say: 3:28 “Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven people, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”.
According to verse 28 & 29, the unforgivable or eternal sin, is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. But what exactly does it mean does that mean one might ask?
It all seems very enigmatic? It’s no wonder that Wendy never quite knew what the unforgivable sin was. And if there is such a thing as an unforgivable sin, then no-wonder so many people are afraid to commit it. How do you know if you have committed the unforgivable sin or not if you are not even sure what it is?
To understand the passage with greater depth, I believe we need to dive into some questions of translation.
Firstly, a key word that we need to explore in this passage is the word blasphemy. Most of us grew up thinking that blasphemy means using God’s name carelessly or as a swear word but that is not the actual meaning of the word blasphemy.
Blaspheme comes from two words: from blax, meaning "sluggish, slow, or lax" and phḗmē, meaning "reputation, fame". To blaspheme is therefore to be literally, slow or sluggish to call something good that really is good – and to be slow or sluggish to identify what is truly bad or what is really evil.
That is what we see happening in this passage. In Mark’s Gospel, the teachers of the law, some of the super religious elite of Jesus day, are accusing Jesus of being in league with the devil. What the so-called unforgivable sin is highlighting is the conundrum of what happens when people who believe themselves to be good and right, look directly into the face of goodness and love itself and call it evil. It is the problem of a deep deep spiritual blindness and yet believing that one can in fact see. The passage, I believe, suggests that it is often the super-religious who are most in danger of falling into this sin. Jesus is after all addressing the teachers of the law.
The second matter of translation that we need to look at is the English words Holy Spirit. When most of us hear those words, we are trained to immediately think of the third person of the Trinity, in other words, sinning or blaspheming against the Holy Spirit as person. But the Greek words pneuma to hagion can just as easily, and perhaps even more naturally be translated as the spirit of holiness. Jesus in the passage is accusing the teachers of the law of slandering or speaking ill of the spirit of true holiness. They are so deeply ignorant of what true holiness is that when they see true holiness in the face to face they call it evil.
Thirdly we need to examine the word forgiveness. The Greek word that is used is aphesis, which as I understand it, does not carry with it the same notions of guilt and punishment as the English word does. Aphesis at its most basic level means to to untie or to free. I believe the passage is highlighting the difficulty of freeing and untying people from a sin that they do not believe they are guilty of. How do you free, someone from such an enormous error of judgement, when they are so absolutely sure that they are right, and even believe themselves to be an authority on these matters.
The fourth word I would like to scrutenize is the English word eternal. The English translation says it is “an eternal sin”. The Greek word translated as eternal is the word aiōnios. A number of commentators suggest that it doesn’t mean perpetual or with no end. It comes from the Greek word: aión from which we get our English word eon, which refers to an age, or a lengthy cycle of time.
Based on these alternative meanings, I would propose the following as an alternative translation of Mark 3:28-29: “Truly I say to you that all the sins and slanders will be forgiven of the descendants of humanity, as many as they have committed. However, whoever shall blaspheme or slander against the spirit of holiness does not have release for an age, but is guilty of a sin that is partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age.”
A more loose translation of its meaning might be as follows.: “There is no sin from which people cannot be freed. But when your judgement is so flawed as confuse the spirit of true love and goodness with the work of Satan, how enormous and lengthy a task it will be to untangle such a knotted mess of confused thinking.”
Back to the question I started with: "Can the so-called unforgivable sin be forgiven?"
I believe that within our own scriptures we find a story of one in whom the so-called unforgivable sin is forgiven. It is the story of the Apostle Paul. Like the teachers of the law in this passage, Paul (known then as Saul) had also been so zealous for the Jewish law that some would suggest he was not unlike a member of the Taliban. Like the teachers of the law in this passage, Paul would have looked upon followers of Christ as followers of Satan, the great deceiver. Like the Teachers of the Law, he believed he was right. He saw himself as an authority on matters of right and wrong, holiness and unholiness. Like the teachers of the law who would begin plotting the death of Jesus, Paul plotted and carried out the murders of countless Christians, in the name of God. He in effect blasphemed against the spirit of holiness as he breathed out his murderous threats, as many do, in the name of God.
Yet on one fateful day as he travelled on the road to Damascus, Paul had a spiritual encounter that left him transformed, so much so that his name had to be changed from Saul to Paul. In the story of Saul the Pharisees’s transformation into Paul the Apostle, I believe we see that what is impossible for human beings is possible for God, that even the unforgivable sin in the end, can be forgiven.
That takes us to our reading from Philippians today which proclaims that one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. When I was younger, I interpreted this passage to mean that one day those who reject God’s love in Christ will be forced or coerced into bending the knee. But a few months ago, I found an interesting and helpful article that suggested that the Greek words used in the passage conveys the meaning of willingly and joyfully bending the knee and that it would be more accurately or better translated as “One day every knee will willingly bow and every tongue joyfully confess that Jesus is Lord.” In other words, one day all people will come to willingly, joyfully and reverently acknowledge the boundless grace and love of God made known in Jesus.
It suggests I believe that one day, as in the case of the Apostle Paul, even the so-called unforgivable sin will be forgiven. Even the most spiritually deluded, blind and confused will be and healed in the eternal and unending love and patience of God.