Christian theology tells us that Jesus died as a sacrifice for sinners, such that “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). What, then, does it mean when the New Testament speaks of a sin which is “eternal” and unforgivable?
What Is the Eternal Sin?
The unforgivable, or eternal, sin is ascribing the works of Jesus to Beelzebub or an unclean spirit. It’s the attribution to evil of that which the New Testament teaches is supremely good. Jesus describes this as being blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. [ref]Back when I was a Christian, I noticed a group calling themselves the Rational Response Squad issuing what they called The Blasphemy Challenge, in which unbelievers would make a video denying, mocking, or otherwise deriding the Holy Spirit, in an effort to publicly commit unforgivable sin to demonstrate their disregard for Christianity. To this day, I appreciate the irony of a group with “rational” in their name having such a clichéd understanding of what blasphemy of the Holy Spirit actually is, biblically speaking.[/ref]
In the context of Mark 3, scribes from Jerusalem accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power or authority of the prince of demons, Beelzebub. Immediately after, Jesus points out how ridiculous this is — why would Satan cast out Satan‽ [ref]Although, really, that seems like exactly the sort of thing Satan would do. In this hypothetical, Jesus is a double-agent, working for Satan to lead everyone astray with a make-believe tale of messiahship and salvation. Use your imagination, and go write that New Testament fan fiction![/ref] — and in response points out that God is able and/or willing to forgive every possible sin except for accusing Jesus to be working by the power of Satan rather than by the power of the Holy Spirit. [ref]Think about that for a moment. God will forgive you if you rape a billion children, but if you say Jesus was using Satan’s power or authority to cast out demons, you’re screwed.[/ref]
Who Has All Sins Forgiven?
Believers. Whether you believe that Jesus died for everyone and that that forgiveness only becomes effectual once they believe or that Jesus died only for the elect (those who will be saved [ref]You may recognize this as a cardinal tenant of Calvinism.[/ref] and that no part of Jesus’ sacrifice was wasted on those who would go to Hell, all Christians seem to agree that believers have their sins forgiven, a doctrine famously summed up in John 3:16.
There is no contradiction in the situation of lifelong unbelievers committing blasphemy against the Holy Spirit — they’re unforgiven anyway, so what harm is having an unforgivable sin in their ledger?
The problem arises when one considers two other subsets of people: unbelievers who blaspheme the Holy Spirit but then later in life become believers in Jesus, and believers in Jesus who blaspheme the Holy Spirit.
Salvation, biblically, is a matter of belief (and repentance, depending on which verse or tract you want to utilize), after which it is permanent. [ref]Yes, I recognize that plenty of Christians — Arminians, Nazarenes, etc. — believe that salvation can be lost. When I was a Christian, I found the arguments for that position spurious at best; that hasn’t changed now that I’m an ardent unbeliever. Ironic, I know. However, reality (my leaving Christianity to become an atheist) doesn’t define “biblical theology,” and within the context of the Bible, salvation is a permanent thing and Christianity is a lifelong endeavor.[/ref] So what if a person fulfills the requirements to be saved — believing in Jesus — and repents of their sins, giving themselves over to a life of charity and servitude to their neighbors and to Jesus, ultimately goes on to, for whatever reason, ascribe to Jesus’ exorcism efforts the authority of Satan?
Likewise, what if an unbeliever who has committed just such a blasphemy later decides to become a Christian, with everything that goes along with it?
I’ve heard several apologists’ excuses for why this apparent contradiction isn’t a contradiction at all:
- No Christian would want to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, so the situation would never arise! This assumes, of course, that Christians have no free will, or at least no free will to create a logical hole in the Bible or to send themselves to Hell.
- No unbeliever who has blasphemed the Holy Spirit would ever desire to believe in Jesus. This assumes that a twenty-year-old who commits the eternal sin will live such a limited life that they’ll never change over time to arrive at a point in which they choose Jesus’ offer of salvation.
- Or my favorite, which I have heard taught from a pulpit: The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is a sin that people could only commit during the few years of Jesus’ active ministry and that the eternal sin should be understood to be witnessing Jesus’ activity and then ascribing his power to Satan. Because no one since then has witnessed Jesus casting out demons, no one can misattribute that power, and so worrying about the unforgivable sin is purely academic and not useful for Christians to spend time expounding.
In the first two cases, we must take into account another of the Bible’s declarations. First Corinthians 12:3 says that nobody calls Jesus lord except by the Holy Spirit. The context is how Christians speak and receive gifts from the Spirit, and so this is essentially saying that nobody can call Jesus lord unless they are saved.
I spent years calling Jesus lord. Am I still saved? According to the Bible, because I walked away from Christianity, I was never actually a part of Christianity, despite all the faith I at one point possessed. So if I, as apparently a lifelong heathen, could call Jesus lord for nearly a decade despite the Bible saying that just isn’t possible, could not the first two of the apologists’ explanations prove to be just as problematic?
As for the third explanation, it completely fails to take into account that Jesus said that his followers would cast out demons as well by the power of the Holy Spirit. This means that, in theory, folks of every era can ascribe to Beelzebub the acts of Christians casting out demons, making the unforgivable sin something committable by people of every age.
Of course, you could always take the route chosen by some apologists and provide no real reconciliation of the above Bible verses, instead simply hand waving the contradiction away by saying that if you’re worried about committing the sin, you’ll obviously never commit it.
I wonder if Moses ever worried about murdering someone when dealing with anger in his life prior to the point when he actually murdered someone…