TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

26 November 2015

What’s “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” mean?

As people ask, ’cause it’s kind of a big deal.

Fairly soon after we become Christians, we hear a rumor going round that there’s such a thing as an unpardonable sin: Once we commit this sin, we’re boned. God’s grace has a limit, and we just crossed it. We’re going to hell. Game over, man, game over.

The rumor doesn’t always define the unpardonable sin: I’ve had newbies ask me, “Isn’t it, like, murder or something?” Nope, not murder. (Moses and David were murderers, y’know; arguably so was Paul.) Others have asked me whether all of the “seven deadly sins” are unpardonable, and nope, that’s not it either. When I was a kid I thought cursing God would do it. Still not it.

The unpardonable sin is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus brings that up in this story:

Mark 3.22-30 KWL
22 The scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He uses Baal Chebul.
He overthrows demons by the demons’ leader.”
23 Summoning them, Jesus told them by way of a parable,
“How is Satan able to overthrow Satan?
24 When a kingdom’s split apart, that kingdom can’t stay together.
25 When a house is split apart, that house can’t stay together.
26 And if Satan opposes itself and splits itself apart, it can’t stay together.
In fact, it’s the End.
27 In fact, nobody who enters a strongman’s house can plunder his things—
not unless he first ties up the strongman. Then he can plunder his house.
28 Amen! I promise you every sin will be forgiven the children of Adam,
and every blasphemy that’s been blasphemed.
29 But when anyone blasphemes the Holy Spirit they aren’t forgiven in the age to come:
In that age, they’ll be liable for a crime.”
30 For they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”

So there y’go: Everyone can be forgiven anything, but the one exception is blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Do that, and you’re sitting out the age to come. No New Jerusalem for you. Just weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Scary, right? Hence people wanna make sure they never commit this crime. Trouble is, some of them have invented some really weird explanations about what “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” actually means. So it’s time we clarify things.

Blasphemy!

Blaspheme /blæs'fim/ v. Speak irreverently about God or holy things.
2. Slander: Say something about God (or holy things) which isn’t true.
[Blasphemy /'blæs.fə.mi/ n., blasphemer /blæs'fim.ər/ n., blasphemous /'blæs.fə.məs/ adj.]

Part of the problem is this old-timey word blasphemy. It’s not a word people use all that often, and as a result we’ve guessed at the definition… and many times guessed wrong.

There’s a French term, lèse-majesté /liz 'mædʒ.ɨs.ti/ (or in its proper French pronunciation /lɛz mɑʒ.ɛs'te/) which means insulting the majesty, or dignity, of the monarch. In ancient cultures, if people insulted the king, he’d have them killed. Esther, fr’instance: Step into the Persian shah’s throneroom without an appointment, and if he didn’t pardon you immediately, you’d die. Es 4.11 Usually by crucifixion.

That, most people insist, is blasphemy: When we do something that wounds God’s dignity. When we make light of him. When we make jokes which involve him—not even to mock him, but just in his general vicinity, for God’s too sacred for such common, plebeian things as humor. When we take the sacred and treat it as common, that’s blasphemy.

Following that definition, I get accused of blasphemy a lot. More than one Christian has got his panties in a twist over my titling this blog Christ Almighty! ’Cause Christ is holy, y’know. And God is holy. And the bible is holy. And they are holy… well, these sacred cows of theirs are holy, anyway. That’s the real issue: It’s not that God’s insulted or offended by any of these things. God has a sense of humor… and a thick skin. He doesn’t have the problem. It’s the guys with the sticks up their arses, who take offense because deep down they wanna be treated with rarified respect. Hassle people when they treat God as a familiar friend, and once they finally know their place you can work on hassling them when they treat you as a familiar friend. Enforce those ranks in God’s kingdom… even though God himself eliminated them and calls us his children.

Okay, so what is blasphemy? The Greek word blasfimía means inappropriate speech—which Plato of Athens contrasted with effimía/“appropriate speech.” Yeah, there are things we should say, and things we shouldn’t. But Plato wasn’t speaking of propriety and culture and refinement. He was speaking of good and evil. Democritus of Abdera used it to describe lying, slanderous speech—evil gossip, intentional or unintentional lies, things meant to outrage people against the slandered person.

Blasfimía, and its related verb blasfiméo, were used to translate the Old Testament word naqáb/“puncture.” When someone punctured the LORD’s name, Lv 24.16 they injured it or hurt it: They made people think ill of the LORD. Even though nobody should think ill of the LORD: He loves us and wants to save us. Damage the LORD’s name, and ultimately we damage everyone who believes those lies, half-truths, untruths, and slanders told about him.

Okay, now take that definition and look at the Jesus story again.

Did the scribes commit the unpardonable sin?

Here’s the context: Pharisees in the Galilee, who were a bit annoyed with Jesus, had called down south for experts from Judea. The Judeans had sent scribes, bible experts who knew their bible backwards and forwards, to weigh in their expert opinions. Here’s this guy performing amazing acts of healing and exorcism; they couldn’t deny Jesus did miracles. But they didn’t like his teachings, and they didn’t like the way he ignored Pharisee customs. Scribes, what say you?

There are Christians today who are anti-supernatural, and they often come to the very same conclusion these Pharisee scribes did. They don’t deny the miracles happened. Obviously something happened. But they don’t wanna say these miracles came from God—because that’d mean we have to take the miracle-worker seriously. They really don’t wanna do that. So they claim the miracles are instead devilish tricks, meant to fool people away from the real God—whom they claim to work for, lack of miracles notwithstanding.

The scribes concluded Jesus’s miracles may not be fake, but they weren’t done through by Holy Spirit’s power. They were instead done by Beeldzevúl—a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Baal Chebul or Baal Tzebul. (The KJV went with Beelzebub, and the ESV Beelzebul.) Chebul was a local Palestinian god, and like most Palestinian gods was called by the title Baal/“Master.” Pharisees liked to mock it by calling it Zebúb, Hebrew for “fly” (from whence we get “Lord of the Flies”) or Zebul, Aramaic for “crap.” King Ahaziah had called upon this particular god for healing, 2Ki 1.2 and the scribes claimed so did Jesus.

Jesus’s response was to point out how illogical it was for a devil to throw out devils. If Satan is fighting itself, this wasn’t just a mere trick: This meant Satan was falling apart. Its end had come. The End had come.

Jesus wrapped up with his statement about blaspheming the Spirit. For, Mark commented, the scribes “were saying ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” Mk 3.30 Jesus’s acts were powered by the Holy Spirit; they claimed they were powered by a devil. And if we’re calling the Holy Spirit a devil, that’s clearly slander. That’s blasphemy. That’s gonna drive people away from the Spirit, when they should be running to him.

So, in the age to come, will people be forgiven for rejecting the Holy Spirit? Nope. He’s the one we get sealed with when we turn to Jesus. He’s the one who guarantees we get saved. How’s he gonna do that when we refuse him, and say he’s a devil? Worse, when we fight him, and tell everyone else to stay away from him—lest he save them? See, that’s the reason people who blaspheme the Spirit won’t be forgiven in the age to come. They’ve driven away the Forgiver.

So did these scribes blaspheme the Spirit? Of course they did; it’s kinda obvious. It’s why Jesus said so, and why Mark hammered the point home.

So why do some Christians claim they didn’t commit it?

The part I could never fully wrap my brain around, is why certain preachers and theologians insist the scribes didn’t really blaspheme the Spirit. I mean, even if they still use the wrong definition of blasphemy as lèse-majesté, it’s still mighty insulting to refer to God the Holy Spirit as “the demons’ leader.” Call a medieval king the leader of the local rabble, and he’d have your head on a pointed stick before the day was out.

These Christians claim “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” isn’t really what the scribes did. Yes they did something bad; they didn’t believe who Jesus was, and didn’t believe who the Spirit was. But blasphemy of the Spirit is something worse than what the scribes did. Something awful. Something profound.

Why do they claim this? ’Cause it’s way too easy to commit this kind of slander.

John MacArthur, fr’instance. He’s a popular preacher, and famously cessationist: He believes God turned off the miracles till the End Times. He claims any Christians who are still performing miracles, definitely aren’t doing ’em through the Holy Spirit. They’re doing them through demons. In other words, he’s committing the very same act the Pharisee scribes did. And if what they did was blaspheming the Holy Spirit, that’s precisely what MacArthur does with his books, conferences, and sermons. He blasphemes the Holy Spirit on a regular basis. Same as every other skeptical Christian who just assumes every present-day Christian miracle is a fraud, and denounces Christians who do ’em and pursue ’em.

MacArthur’s an extreme (but rather common) example. Now, what about those Christians who do believe God performs miracles, who are just doing their Christian duty to discern whether a particular prophecy is from God or not? 1Jn 4.1 I mean, this “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” thingy kinda raises the stakes a lot. If we determine “Yes it’s the Spirit” and it turns out to really be a con artist’s trick, doesn’t our treating the fake prophecy as God’s word misrepresent, and therefore slander, the Spirit? Conversely if we determine, “Nope; not God” and it turns out to be God, doesn’t that rejection blaspheme him too? Good night, there are pitfalls everywhere which could wind up losing us our salvation!

For this reason, people insist it can’t be that easy to commit the unpardonable sin. So they redefine it till it’s not easy to commit—not easy for a Christian, anyway.

My old pastor, back in my Fundamentalist days, taught blaspheming the Spirit was what happened when the Spirit was trying to lead a pagan to Jesus… and the pagan said, “Nope, no, not gonna do it.” They refused the Spirit’s call to salvation. They rejected the Spirit. That, he said, was the underlying problem with the Pharisee scribes: They “knew in their knowers” that Jesus came from God, but they just weren’t gonna accept the facts. They were gonna turn a blind eye and claim Jesus was devilish, despite what they really knew deep down. That kind of willful rejection: That’s blaspheming the Holy Spirit. We Christians accepted Jesus, and didn’t reject him like that, so we’re good. We’re saved. We’re so saved, feel free to join John MacArthur’s diatribes against Pentecostals. It’s okay; it’s not really blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.

My theology professor claimed it’s more like a sociopathic break. The Pharisee scribes were so dedicated to being anti-Jesus, they were willing to officially state they saw no difference between the Spirit’s work and the devil’s work. They couldn’t tell the difference between good and evil, wrong and right, salvation and destruction, darkness and light. They were spiritually insensible. Committed spiritual suicide, he put it; it’s like they shot themselves in the head, and Spirit could save them no longer. They were gone.

I’m gonna give these guys the benefit of the doubt. I believe both of them were trying to redefine Spirit-blasphemy because they didn’t want our fellow Christians to panic and worry about God’s grace. Not because they’re evilly trying to keep Christians from worrying about making a very real and serious mistake (which is the only logical alternative explanation). They simply didn’t think it was as easy as that to fall into this sin, and wind up doomed.

Isn’t this sin unpardonable?

I agree with this part: It’s not that easy to wind up doomed. God wants to save everyone. 1Ti 2.4 His grace extends to everyone. Tt 2.11 Including people who mistakenly say, “Oh come on, that can’t be God. It’s a devilish trick.” You think Paul never said that back when he used to think Christians were heretics, and persecuted them?

Paul heard Peter and John were healing people. He heard Stephen’s testimony personally. He heard plenty about Christians and the supernatural things they did… and dismissed it all as fake and wrong and evil, and worthy of the death penalty. You can’t think like that without blaspheming the Spirit. Because it’s the Spirit who empowers all that stuff. And if people truly have the Spirit within them, he’s shouting at them to cut it out—and they’re not listening. But it’s far more likely they don’t.

Paul fully admitted he blasphemed and tried to get others to do likewise. Ac 26.11 And he also said,

1 Timothy 1.12-14 KWL
12 I have grace in that our master, Christ Jesus, is making me strong:
He considers me faithful, appointing me into service—
13 a former blasphemer, persecutor, and know-it-all.
I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly, out of unbelief.
14 Our master’s grace overflowed with faith and love in Christ Jesus.

Paul was forgiven for blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Then the Spirit demonstrated his forgiveness by empowering Paul to perform miracle after miracle: Prophecy, exorcisms, healing, and writing some inspired books for the bible.

But what about Jesus’s statement where such blasphemers won’t be forgiven in the age to come? Entirely true. If we’re still committing this sin when the age to come arrives. If God hasn’t forgiven us for it between now and then, because we resisted his forgiveness and kept right on blaspheming, we’ve doomed ourselves.

Yeah, this interpretation kinda sounds like what my old pastor taught—that blaspheming the Spirit is the same as refusing salvation. It’s not. Functionally it has the same results: When we reject the Spirit, he’s not in any position to save us. But you’ll notice there are a number of Christians who blaspheme the Spirit—who think they have a relationship with God, but they’re more Christianist than Christian. Y’see, blaspheming the Spirit is a form of hypocrisy.

When we blaspheme the Spirit, we do so in spite of recognizing there’s a Lord. Same as the Pharisee scribes did: We claim to know him, claim allegiance to him. But we clearly don’t know him, ’cause we can’t tell the difference between him and the devil. We’re that unfamiliar with him.

This was Paul’s error, before Jesus straightened him out; this was the Pharisee scribes’ error, and Jesus tried to straighten them out, lest they persist in it and doom themselves. They thought they knew God, and totally didn’t. Someone who knows the Father should recognize his Son and what he’s up to—and produce fruit. Not strife and schism. Not act like their real father, the devil. Jn 8.42-47

That’s the problem with cessationists: They claim to know Jesus, but because they reject the Spirit, it’s gotta make us wonder whether they know Jesus at all. Now, some of them really aren’t blaspheming the Spirit: They know better than to claim miracles are of the devil when they don’t really know one way or the other. They don’t slander what they don’t understand. Ju 10 They’re skeptical, but not hostile, not dismissive. And that’s fine; God can work with that. Often we see the Spirit’s fruit in such people, ’cause he’s guiding them through their doubts. But then there’s the other kind, who are the very same sort of blasphemers, persecutors, and know-it-alls, as Paul before he met Jesus. I worry about them.

Still: Jesus said every slander said against God can be forgiven. So those who reject the Spirit have this time, right now, to seek God as he is, and get right with him. The only unpardonable sins are the ones we never repent of, and carry with us into judgment.