The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. For many Christians, it is the source of great fear and trepidation, as they understand this act means that one will never be forgiven by God, that one will be relegated to an eternal hell fire. However, what makes it so scary isn’t simply what is thought to be the punishment, but because Jesus doesn’t explicitly define what the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is. This has lead to no small amount of fear and speculation about it.
I want to make two points about this idea that can redefine how we understand the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. First, I will take a look at the consequence that Jesus spoke of it on the lack of freedom rather than everlasting judgment. Second, I will take a look the vocabulary about time that Jesus uses. Thirdly, I will then try to provide a sense of what the act specifically is. Finally, it will try to sum up these observations into a theological account that attempts to make sense of the seriousness of this blasphemy.
In the three synoptic accounts of Matthew 12.31-32/Mark 3.28-30/Luke 12.10, there are two cognate words used that most translations render as either forgive or forgiveness: ἀφίημι in Matthew and Luke and ἄφεσις in Mark. Neither of these terms, in their normal usage, specifically mean forgiveness by default. They rather refer to an act of releasing someone or something. Certainly, we can imagine that forgiveness may be understood as a form of release, but that is simply one possible metaphorical extension of the idea.
Another way to understand these terms is closer to the idea of being freed from the control that a sin may have on the person, both in the hold it has on the person and in the potential discipline or punishment that may come upon the person for committing such an act. We see this dual focus in Hebrews 10.14-18, where the transformation of the person in God’s instruction being put into people’s heart and God’s “forgetting” of sins is connected to a release (ἄφεσις). Put in common theological language, the releasing of sins can be understood to entail both releasing of the person from the power of sin and the guilt of sin.
With this in mind, when Jesus warns those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit will not be released, Jesus isn’t alluding to the final judgment where God sends people to heaven and hell. Rather, he is referring to the present reality that actively binds the person. The Matthean version says they will not be forgiven in this age or in the future, suggesting this is about the present as well as the future (more to come on this temporal vocabulary in a moment). People who commit the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit will not become freed from it but will remain controlled by it, even as other people are freed from other sins.
This leads us to the vocabulary about time in the Matthean and Markan versions. Matthew’s versions describes the persistence state of the sin being in the present age (τούτῳ τῷ αἰῶνι) and what is about to come (ἐν τῷ μέλλοντι). αἰών is used to refer to a specific time period, often with a sense of historical epochs. Meanwhile, μέλλω often conveys a sense of immediacy as to what is to come next in time, though it can be used for the future in gelera. Using the present participle τῷ μέλλοντι in conjunction with τούτῳ τῷ αἰῶνι suggests that Jesus is referring to the next ‘age’ that is coming in succession. In other words, the act of blaspheming the Holy Spirit will be present in two different ages, not just simply one.
The significance of this phrase can be readily lost on us who think Jesus is simply talking about heaven and hell. However, we can look to two, interrelate ideas that are expressed the four canonical Gospels we have: that Jesus is going to inaugurate a new age of history in the kingdom of God and this new age will be characterizing by a new activity of the Spirit. Jesus alludes to the transitioning to a new age and a novel ministry of the Spirit in Matthew 12.28. This explains what Jesus means about the present age and what is about to come: the lack of releasing from the blasphemy of the Spirit is not something that is going to change when the kingdom of God because historically inaugurated.
While Mark does not have this explicitly expressed in this scene, the beginning of the Gospel of Mark in 1.1-15 can be seen as implying this transition in age, where the Holy Spirit will be active (baptized in the Spirit) in a way He was not previously and the nearness of the Kingdom. So the Markan account about the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit would have had this idea of an emerging historical epoch in the background. This transition into a new historical age is expressed in the phrase εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα. Mark then provides a further explanation of this by describing the person is answerable to an sin that is described as αἰωνίου. While many translations render this word eternal, the word can also be used to define as lasting for an age. Context is critical to determining if it means long-lasting or everlasting, and in this context, it is better to understand it to refer to the time period of τὸν αἰῶνα, translating the end of the verse as “he is accountable for an age-long sin.”
At the heart of both the Matthean and Markan accounts is that the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is going to have a consequence for the person that the new age that Jesus is inaugurating through the Holy Spirit is not going to take away or change. The immediate future will provide no release for the words of anyone who might have transgress this boundary.
So what exactly is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? It is important to understand the moral language about blasphemy. Blasphemy is not something that is simply offensive or wrong. To say that something is blasphemous is to say the words of a particular severe, egregious, moral evil.
In the context in which Jesus refers to blasphemy, the Pharisees have said that Jesus has been casting out demons by Beezlebul as ruler of the demons. To say this is tantamount to saying that Jesus is acting by the power and dictates of the most powerful force in opposition to God. What makes such speech blasphemous is that it attributes the good work of God through Jesus and the Spirit to the very force standing in direct opposition to God. It is to, in to call the miraculous good work of God its opposite: an extreme evil. This is not simply an error, a mistake, skepticism, or an offensive word. Such speech reflects the entire inversion of the moral order in the minds of those who speak, calling a great good a great evil. The reality of such speech is that the specific Pharisees are in their hearts set to resist the new work that God is doing in Jesus through the Holy Spirit, as they deem it something horribly, wickedly, evil.
So, what sort of theological insight can we garner from these three exegetical observations? I would put forward that the problem of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is that the new historical age that Jesus is inaugurating is going to be an age where the Spirit is going to be bountifully bestowed. If someone has spoken such a strong, blasphemous word about the Spirit’s life-restoring and life-giving power that they deem it an egregious, demonic evil, they are the type of people who will never be released from the effect of this sin: they will never be able to receive and live with the power of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit of the coming age. Their heart are so set against the good work of the Spirit, that they will be resistant to the very Spirit that has come upon Christ and is setting people free from their sins.
In other words, Jesus may be effectively understood as saying “You will have no part in the power of the age to come,” excluding them from having the religiously-instituted authority and power over people that they presently enjoy and have. As they do not rejoice over the releasing of a person from the bondage to demons, they will be forever accountable to their words and will not have access to the power of the Spirit to bring life as part of God’s coming kingdom. While Jesus certainly welcomes scribes and Pharisees into the fold, those Pharisees whose hearts were so corrupted that they could only call the miraculous life-giving gift of freedom from demons an act of the devil have sowed their own future that they will reap: they will have no part in the age to come that Jesus is bringing to the world.
With this, we can look at the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit different. Rather than fearing, we can look at it as something that if you truly love God and you love people and seek for their good and hope for God’s power to work in their lives, you are not the type of person who would call a powerful, amazing good work of the Holy Spirit as some terrible evil conjured up by the ever-persistent enemy of God and His purposes.