Shame and The Unforgivable Sin Against the Holy Spirit


Some Thoughts on Blaspheming Oneself

I’m going to talk some theology today, but first let’s talk about some feelings. I’ve got a dear friend that struggles from time to time with deep fears, shame, and insecurity around his relating to God and the state of his soul, and his anxious heart tends to latch onto religious and theological reasons for these feelings.

In the years I’ve walked with him, different aspects of Christian faith and theology have shaken his assurance that he is, in fact, a Christian and that he can have a hopeful belief in his present and future relating to God.

Recently, he’s been struggling with an idea that’s gone by a few different names throughout history: “The Unpardonable Sin”, “Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit”, “The Unforgiveable Sin”, among others. It’s repeated and reframed in a few places of the Bible, but here is Mark’s version:

[And Jesus said,] “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they [his enemies, the Jewish leaders] had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Many, many of you out there may brush this aside as one more cryptic saying of Jesus on which you can’t base the whole weight of eternity. Others may think this is such theological minutiae or so random out of everything in the Bible that they find it confusing someone would be overly concerned with it.

Frankly, I don’t think the issue here is about theology or Bible interpretation; that’s just what his emotional and cognitive bent uses to ravage him with fear and shame.

And yet, before we criticize too much, I believe we are all wired in this same way to some extent. That’s why I begin this post here. We all have deep harmful feelings, ruminations, anxieties, fears, and ways of thinking that are simmering beneath the surface, whether or not there is an external logical reason to feel that way.

And one sad reality of human frailty is that some of our hearts have grown to look for any reason to feel and justify our abiding feelings of shame, fear, and anger. For him it’s theology. For us, it’s any number of other things in the world. So let’s not judge him too quickly.

Some Thoughts on Blaspheming the Holy Spirit

Nevertheless, he had genuine questions he couldn’t get past. And maybe you do too, so let’s talk about it. I sent him relevant commentary which summarized the way this has historically been understood, yet his response was this:

All the commentators suggest that if someone is worried they’ve committed the unpardonable sin that indicates they haven’t. I don’t see that anywhere in the actual text. What’s their basis for saying so?

Since a more abstract, theological answer wasn’t very helpful to him, I gave him four additional responses that were based more in how the original audience would have heard these words on their original soil.  He found them helpful, so I offer them here for others.

1. The original hearers weren’t worried or confused about this

Jesus isn’t speaking to or about people that are ambivalent concerning him–everyone is clearly for or against him. That’s why he throws that line out so casually. It seems to have been immediately and abundantly clear who fell in what category. Whatever it means, the original readers didn’t seem confused about whom this applied to. It can’t be something someone “accidentally” slips into.

2. It’s only clear in the long view

Those particular passages in the gospels are written years later with the benefit of hindsight. This sin seems to have been something that could be applied to a person or group of people only decades later–likely after their deaths–and seeing how they ended up in their life. It wasn’t an in-the-moment game of questioning oneself.

3. Only Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention this–and that’s important.

This “unforgivable sin” is only mentioned in the earlier gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, implying it was part of a body of Jesus’ sayings that were being shared verbally for decades before they were written down. By the time these early Gospels were written, the sayings were completely divorced from their original historical context. They were disjointed sayings floating around the community of God, and this particular teaching probably stuck around to help early Christians understand why the Jewish people rejected Jesus. Which leads to the last point…

4. It was meant as a comfort for a very particular historical moment

Ironically, then, this cryptic saying was meant to be a comfort and catharsis for the early Christian communities rather than a “diagnostic” or warning to them about their disembodied salvation and spiritual state. In fact, by the time the Gospel of John is written, this teaching doesn’t seem to be a major feature in the Jesus story at all.

Further, and even more to the point, it doesn’t seem to have been part of the the pastoral life of the early church. No other leader in the New Testament mentions others struggling with fear and insecurity over this sin. It wasn’t an active component of the spiritual life and concerns of the early church.

All that to say, when you have a very coherent picture of sin and spirituality painted in the New Testament, and there’s just one little phrase that is still mysterious and really confusing, we shouldn’t put so much weight on the confusing phrase especially when it seems to go against everything else we know about how the God of the entire Bible relates to his people. I hope that’s helpful.

[image credit: “Landscape with a Wing” by Anselm Keifer]


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