What is the Unforgivable Sin?
I suspect that for many people, that question is the first theological issue they tackle. It was certainly a topic for discussion among my middle school peers. We’d heard this phrase “the Unforgivable Sin” and the idea that there could be any sin so bad that God wouldn’t or couldn’t forgive it was mind-blowing. What could it be? Of course, it never occurred to us to look in the Bible, so we just talked about it. Usually we decided that it must be suicide–figuring that if you were dead you couldn’t ask God to forgive you and that was the crux of the problem.
The question is a good one, but middle-school theology is about as reliable as middle-school explanations of sex, so having reached adulthood, let’s take a look at the two places in the gospels that mention this sin. You’ll find it in Matthew 12 and Mark 3. I’ll excerpt from Mark:
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Hero′di-ans against him, how to destroy him….
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Be-el′zebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And he called them to him, and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house.
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
When Jesus heals people in the gospels, those actions are called “signs.” That word is important, because the purpose of these acts of power is to indicate the source and nature of authority. Signs are proof that someone speaks for God. They point to God, not to the power of the person who performs the act, which is why people glorify God and not Jesus after these signs. Think about Moses asking God “How am I going to convince the people that You sent me?” Think about the passage in 1 Corinthians 1 “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom” where Paul contrasts the various types of proof.
In Mark and in Matthew the scribes and the Pharisees see the signs of Jesus’ authority and the Holy Spirit’s actions and they are not confused. They know this is God’s work. But their hearts are hard, and knowing it is the Spirit, they name it Satan. And that’s their sin.
Calling the Spirit evil is blasphemy, but it seems to me that there’s even a bit more to the story than that. The Pharisees and the scribes are turning spiritual matters into political ones–and by “political” I mean issues of power and control. What they want most of all is to retain their own authority and power, and so they will not yield even to God. They would lie about the nature of God (and it is a lie, for they are learned) rather than lose control.
We could stop there, feeling superior, and then move on some other theological question, but I want to linger a moment, and think some more about that rhetorical move: the use of the spiritual for political purposes.
These are dangerous times. All times have their dangers, but just as they did in the first half of the twentieth century, there are people today seeking to impose their will on the rest of the world through violent means. It’s terrifying.
I came to understand more about one aspect of these struggles through an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. Terry Gross interviewed Maajid Nawaz, a most insightful and articulate man. Nawaz became an Islamic extremist at the age of 16, but by profound study and contemplation while imprisoned, and by considering George Orwell’s Animal Farm, he came to believe that the creation of a theocratic utopia was impossible. He is now the co-founder of a think tank called Quilliam, which is dedicated to countering extremist beliefs.
In the interview, Nawaz explains clearly the difference between an Islamist and a jihadist, and also the logic behind what seem like inexplicable actions to those of us living in democratic societies. Though they differ in their methods, both the Islamist and the jihadist believe that a theocracy must be established–that spiritual power must be made into earthly political power in order to preserve their religion and do the will of God.
Now in these dangerous times, the President of the United States spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast about the two sides of faith. His remarks were immediately greeted with outrage by people who would have criticized him no matter what he said. No surprises there, but this time the nature of the criticism hit me in slightly different way. It reminded me of the Pharisees and the Islamists and the other religious people in history who have believed that their understanding of the Divine (or whatever they call the Nature of Reality) must be The Understanding for the world. Those people talk about protecting religion, but it’s really about politics and power–and not even religion’s power, but their power. The Romans set out to conquer too, but they were at least honest about their motives.
So having wandered our way from middle school to the present day, where have we arrived? What have we learned? How then do we live?
…how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religion for their own murderous ends?
…as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends. And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion — the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.