“The Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” AKA “The Blasphemy Challenge”

Blasphemy Challenge

Am I taking the “Blasphemy Challenge?” (google the phrase, see what you get).
I strongly suspect itʼs not necessary, because, “Blasphemy Challenges” aside, isnʼt it a major Protestant view that people are simply damned if they reach the age of accountability and donʼt convert? No need to do anything, the damnation of everybody simply “is,” unless they convert and say they believe, and believe it too. Some Protestants and Catholics still even defend the centuries old Christian notion of “infant damnation,” i.e., if a newborn is not baptized and dies it goes straight to hell; again no need to “blaspheme” in order to be damned. And Catholics, whose church membership is about as large as that of all Protestant denominations put together (according to adherents.com), believe that even if you are baptized and confirmed (when you reach the age of accountability, though Catholics donʼt call it that), you can still be damned if you die with a single “mortal sin” on your soul that hasnʼt been confessed and repented. Even the Protestants who believe that you “canʼt lose your salvation,” or that the righteous are “predestined” to receive saving grace and hence canʼt be damned, even those folks have difficulties convincing themselves sometimes that they indeed display all the proper and convincing “signs” of being one of the “eternally chosen,” and hence even Calvinists can experience dark doubts that they might not be among the chosen since in the end it is God choice to save or damn whomever. Therefore there is plenty of damning going on according to various Christianities (or fear of not being among the righteous) without even the need to commit “blasphemy.”

But letʼs look at the verses themselves, as found in the earliest Gospel, Mark (upon which the two later Gospels, Matthew and Luke were built literarily speaking):

“He [Jesus] had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him. Whenever the evil[a] spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.’ But he gave them strict orders not to tell who he was. […] the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ’He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’ So Jesus called them and spoke to them in parables: ’How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong manʼs house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house. I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.’ He said this because they were saying, ‘He has an evil spirit.’” (Mark, chapter 3)

J.P. Holding quotes James D. G. Dunn (not an inerrantist) who points out that the “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” referred to people who claimed Jesus was possessed, and that Dunnʼs interpretation was this one:

“…the beneficial effect of [Jesusʼ] exorcisms was so self-evidently of God and wrought by his Spirit, that to attribute it to Satan was the worse kind of perversity — deliberately to confuse the Spirit of God with the power of Satan was to turn oneʼs back on God and his forgiveness (Mark 3:29)” [Dunn].

Itʼs too bad that Jesus didnʼt have the knack of expressing himself as precisely as Dunn does above, putting each of his sayings in such clear theological perspective. It also appears to me that Dunn might be going beyond what Mark 3 says by adding perhaps an overly elaborate theologically driven explanation, though note that even the author of the Markan Gospel felt that the saying about “an unforgivable sin” needed a bit of commentary, so he followed it with his little explanation, ‘He [Jesus] said this because they were saying ’He has an evil spirit.’”

Personally I prefer concentrating on the other passages of Jesus above, in which Jesus asks whether a person accused of having an evil spirit would go around casting out evil in others? I agree that doesnʼt make sense, because why or how would Satan cast out Satan? Itʼs also self evident that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Those sorts of points are all thatʼs needed to be said in a case of somebody accusing somebody else of casting out Satan via Satanʼs own power. Itʼs like pointing out, how can I be evil if Iʼm helping other people, and even casting away evil?

But Jesus (or whomever wrote or spoke the words above, since I doubt every word attributed to Jesus in the Gospels must necessarily have been spoken by him) went farther than just making the self evident points about why evil would cast out evil, and perhaps later the line was added about the “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” being “unforgivable.”

In fact, the New Interpreterʼs Bible raised a similar question:

“The ‘unpardonable sin’ saying of 12:31-32 came from Jesus in the form of an absolute and universal pronouncement of forgiveness to the ‘sons of men,’ but in subsequent modifications the exception of ‘blasphemy of the Holy Spirit’ was added and ‘sons of men’ became the Christological title ‘Son of Man.’” [See endnote #1]

Another question is based on the recognition that Luke-Acts [which were composed after both Mark and Matthew] separates the story about Jesusʼ exorcisms from his declaration concerning “the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” The author of Luke-Acts appears to have separated the exorcism story from the declaration for a theological reason, namely to broaden the notion of what “the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit “ meant, by no longer limiting it as the Gospels of Mark and Matthew did to Jesusʼ miracle working ability being confused with the power of “Satan.” According to the author of Luke-Acts the “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” now refers to rejecting any spirit-filled or God-filled message, and is no longer connected with blaming Jesusʼ miracle-working powers on “Satan.” See Luke 12:9-12:

“And I say to you, everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man shall confess him also before the angels of God; but he who denies Me before men shall be denied before the angels of God. And everyone who will speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him. And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not become anxious about how or what you should speak in your defense, or what you should say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:9-12. See also Acts 5:1-4 in which Ananias “lies to the Holy Ghost” holds back some money from the church, and dies.)

“The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit here [in Luke] is the rejection of the Spirit-taught witnesses who confess the Son of Man before men.” (Mark Horne, “Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit?” [online])

“In Markʼs context, then, the sin against the Holy Sprit involves deliberately shutting oneʼs eyes to the light and consequently calling good evil; [but] in Luke it is irretrievable apostasy.” (Bruce, F. F. The Hard sayings of Jesus. Illinois: InterVarsity Press; 1983, p.93).

So the author of Luke-Acts appears to have sought to broaden the definition of the “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.”

Another question to ask about such a statement is whether or not it was born of ancient Near Eastern hyperbole (or exaggeration)? There is plenty of hyperbole in the O.T. and N.T. like “plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand” rather than “sinning” with them, and going to hell with both of them left intact, “because itʼs better to enter heaven with one eye or one hand rather than be cast into hell.” Thatʼs hyperbole. So are the lines about having to “hate” parents and brothers and sisters in order to be a disciple. (I wonʼt go into why such hyperbole sounds offensive, including the line about “letting the dead bury the dead” when one disciple asked to return home for the funeral of a relative). Psalm. 51 is hyperbole too, a psalm about the sin of adultery—In that psalm its author declares that he was “a sinner from the womb.” Note that the psalm is about personally debasing oneself before ones God [Yahweh] in order to gain forgiveness, like cringing before an ancient Near Eastern potentate or monarch, whipping yourself to show them how sorry you are, “I was bad! Iʼm sorry, I was so bad, um, that I was a sinner even from, the womb!” Hyperbole. Exaggeration. So if you consider that the line about a sin being “unforgivable” might be the result of the ancient Near Eastern love of hyperbole, then Jesus (or whomever came up with the “unforgivable blasphemy” line) might have been adding to points already made about how stupid a person is to believe that helping people and casting away demons comes from being possessed by evil. In other words, to assume such a thing is unforgivably stupid, and maybe not literally unforgivable, but certainly hyperbolically so. And as I said above, such a saying might also be the result of someone other than Jesus pondering the story and trying to sum up a message theologically. Or it might be the result of a misinterpretation of the phrase “son of man,” as the Interpreterʼs Bible pointed out above.

Trouble is we didnʼt live back then, and our “sources” cannot be proven to be inerrant recordings, certainly not tape recordings or videos. So we are left pondering questions of authenticity, change, varying interpretations over time. As for the meanings of the words we possess in the different Gospels, their interpretation raises further questions. Though we can study the language from a distance and know what the literal meaning of words were back then, we canʼt be certain concerning the poetic or rhetorical or hyperbolic meanings or intentions of written words for that culture or that audience at that time and in that instance. Itʼs tough enough trying to understand how to take some of the sentences people send each other in emails today during a discussion.

I would also add that some scholars view the Gospel of Mark (the earliest written Gospel) as not teaching that Jesus was God, but rather an adopted “Son” of God at his baptism (with which the Markan Gospel begins, i.e., citing a psalm at Jesusʼ baptism that was recited at the enthronement of Hebrew Kings that said, “You are my son, this day have I begotten you,” or adopted you to be my “son”). So what if the earliest view among the first Gospel writerʼs community was that Jesus was chosen and empowered by God, but not God, and hence, “all manner of words spoken against the son of man [Jesus]” would be forgivable because he simply was not God, but Godʼs chosen adopted vice-regent, chosen at baptism, not birth. But in contrast to the “Son of Man,” the “Holy Spirit” was indeed God. Such an interpretation of the saying is yet another one that makes sense for scholars who argue that Mark, the earliest Gospel, was based on an “adoptionist” Christology.

Lastly, if you believe that Jesus was part of a “Trinity” and all parts of the “Trinity” were equal parts of one whole God, then why make words spoken against Jesus forgivable, but words spoken against the Holy Spirit of God “unforgivable?” Can you really get away with blaspheming some parts of the Trinity but not others? (Or was Jesus, according to the author of the earliest Gospel, not as much “God” as the “Holy Spirit?”)

Letʼs just say that the verse about an “unforgivable” sin has caused even the most devout believing Christians restlessness and worry over the centuries. Some have feared quite deeply that they might have committed a sin that damns them for all eternity, especially when the “unforgivable” sin is interpreted as broadly as it is in Luke-Acts as ignoring or not listening to the “Holy Spirit of God” as spoken through even a human prophet. (See what I wrote above about the “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” according to Luke-Acts.)

Such talk of an “unforgivable sin” creates fear that some sort of sin exists out there that is not defined very clearly, or defined differently in different Gospels. A sin worse than “all the sins and blasphemies of men,” as Jesus said about it in Mark 3, and that such a sin can “never be forgiven.” All Christians would probably like to be able to read in the Bible exactly what the unforgivable sin is in order to calm their fears, but the verses in Mark 3 (not to mention the verses in Luke-Acts) are not as clear in explaining themselves as the interpretations from Dunn and J.P. Holding are. I havenʼt checked the history of interpretation of those verses over the centuries by learned Christians but I bet thereʼs a book written by a theologian who has made such a comparison. And I bet interpretations have differed.

At any rate, if the verse means what J. P. Holding (quoting Dunn) says it does, then is it speaking about people who reject Holdingʼs and Dunnʼs Nicean/Chalcedonian/Trinitarian Christian theology? That doesnʼt sound right either, because Jesus wasnʼt speaking to an audience that knew of such orthodox creedal statements, but instead was speaking to an audience that merely knew, say, “The Lordʼs Prayer,” which even Jews can pray today. [See endnote #2 for J. P. Holdingʼs take.]

I also wonder what “sin” I am committing if I say “to hell with the whole question?” Who cares what the author of Mark wrote? Iʼm going to live my life based on everything I have learned during my life, and admit that there will always be things I donʼt know and that I honestly donʼt feel right dogmatizing so clearly about them all, especially things beyond death, in another supernatural realm, beyond touch and sight, etc. The world and ancient books no longer seem as clear to me exegetically as they once did when I was a born again Bible believing (and later, tongue-speaking) Christian.


#1 The author of the interpretation I cited is E. Boring (Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University) who writes on Matthew from a mainline critical perspective, affirming Matthewʼs use of Mark, Q and M. He believes that Matthew was written by an anonymous author around 90 CE, presumably in Antioch. (See, The New Interpreterʼs Bible. Vol. 8: General Articles on the New Testament; The Gospel of Matthew; The Gospel of Mark. Edited by Leander E. Keck et al. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995.)

#2 Below is a statement by J.P. Holding at Tektonics about the Blasphemy Challenge from his Whazzup! page: http://www.tektonics.org/newstuff.html

December 11, 2006
Iʼll be improving some files in the Classics collection today, and we also have an anti-blog note. The self-alleged “Rational Response Squad” (aka Fundy Atheists on the Run) has now launched a program in which they give away 1001 copies of The God Who Wasnʼt There to anyone making a video of themselves, posted on “YouTube” (the video version of Wikipedia, to the extent that it is an exercise in unrestrained anarchy), blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Of course their understanding of what that means is as primtive as Flemmingʼs was (they need only make a video of themselves saying they are not Christians; it is not necessary to say specifically, “I deny the Holy Spirit”), but in any event, itʼs nice to see that the crew there has finally grown up a little, so that they are now in their terrible twos. May we suggest for their next feat they ask their readers to post videos of themselves crying for their blankies.

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