It’s the unforgivable sin. The worst thing a Christian can possibly do. Jesus himself declares in two gospels that if someone commits it, he’ll never forgive them, ever. That means that committing this sin against him will send that person to Hell forever.
And yet Christians have never known exactly what it is — or how to tell if they’ve done it.
Introduction to the unforgivable sin
Hi and welcome back! This is Captain Cassidy of Roll to Disbelieve. It is February 22, 2022, and today I want to continue the discussion we started last week about how Christians define themselves.
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Last time, we talked about how Christians define Christianity itself and what Christians need to do and believe to practice it correctly. And we linked it to their sourcebook, the Bible, being really awful at worldbuilding. It doesn’t give them any clear definitions of anything!
Well, today’s topic is much the same. What we’re going to discuss today is a problem for Christians for the same reason. And it turns out to be a big, huge, awful problem, one that could potentially send them to Hell forever if they’re wrong about it.
Yes, I’m talking here about the unforgivable sin, the ultimate sin of all sins, and yet Christians have no clue what it actually is or how to tell if they might have committed it.
Defining things, or rather not defining ’em at all
First, of course, we must know what the unforgivable sin even is. The idea comes to us from the Gospels. It’s actually repeated in Mark and Luke. In Mark chapter 3, Jesus is up on a mountain, ministering with his disciples and teaching them his ideas. Various people, including his family, thought he was out of his mind and tried to take him in hand, though they failed. We’re even told that “scribes” had traveled all the way from Jerusalem to observe him, though weirdly not one of those scribes ever wrote anything about this incident anywhere that we’ve ever found. The scribes were saying, Mark tells us, that Jesus had to be possessed by demons to do the stuff he was doing.
At some point, the scribes got to our friendly neighborhood wild-eyed apocalyptic preacher. So Jesus, sounding quite annoyed by them, teaches his followers about the unforgivable sin. He thoughtfully includes this exhortation:
“Truly I tell you, the sons of men will be forgiven all sins and blasphemies, as many as they utter. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of eternal sin.”
Jesus made this statement because they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”Mark 3:29
So the unforgivable sin is blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. Sure, people could sin and blaspheme all day long. But this one kind of blasphemy is completely off-limits. That could never, ever be forgiven.
But what even is that? How do you know when you’ve done it?
When I was Christian, I worried a lot about the unforgivable sin
When I was 17, this became a very serious question for me. Remember, I’d joined Pentecostalism initially at 16, but then drifted out after an Endtimes prophecy didn’t come true. I rejoined after my then-boyfriend Biff converted.
So I’d had this period of time where I’d been out of church. When I saw that thing in the Bible about the unforgivable sin, I got obsessed with it. What if I’d somehow committed this sin while I was reprobate and prodigal? What if I was now beyond salvation?
My first pastor, a genial old fellow with a down-home, folksy demeanor, chuckled and patted my shoulder. He said “Sister Cas, don’t worry about that. No truly saved Christian could ever commit that sin.” He further hinted that he wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but he was still sure that it couldn’t happen if you really believed.
If you’re wondering, he didn’t help at all with my anxiety.
If he couldn’t define what it was, then he couldn’t possibly know if I’d done it or not. And if he didn’t know, then I had no hope of getting a definitive answer.
Gosh, if only we’d known that all we had to do was wait a few more decades, and then we’d have been surrounded by guesses! We could have picked and chosen our favorites out of a whole gaggle of ’em!
So what actually is the unforgivable sin?
Back then, nobody in my tribe really wanted to hazard a guess about what the unforgivable sin looked like. Nowadays, though, I see no shortage of guesses. Many touch on that 1 John verse about deconversion.
In fact, that’s how I found this one site called “Faith Alone.” I was actually checking out one of their posts about 1 John 2:19, the one Christians like them like to fling at ex-Christians. In another one of their blog posts called “Is Perseverance Guaranteed at Least a Little? Part 4,” they talk about the unforgivable sin. That caught my eye. There, we find this statement about Jesus’ non-explanation in Mark 3 about this sin:
My understanding of this verse is that blasphemy against the Holy Ghost is impossible for saved believers. The sin is something an unbeliever can commit and once they do, they are sadly beyond the possibility of redemption. My belief is that this particular sin is impossible to commit in this day and age since it requires seeing manifest miracles and decrying the healing of God as the works of the devil.Faithalone.org
Whew! Thank goodness he moved that goalpost! I’d have worried, otherwise.
Oh wait. That doesn’t actually help.
A slideshow to end all slideshows
Crosswalk, a Millennial-aimed evangelical site, offered up a listicle of “10 Things You Need to Know About the Unforgivable Sin.” That has to be the worst title I’ve ever heard. Like it’s trying to sound all upheat and life-hack-y about the worst possible thing that could ever possibly befall a Christian. What’s the follow-up going to be here? 12 Things Every Tsunami Victim Needs to Put on Their To-Do List? Ooh, or how about The 3 Movies You Need to Watch the Day After Your Dog Dies?
Making matters even worse, this listicle is actually a slideshow.
Seriously. About five years ago, bloggers got all excited about slideshows because ZOMG, LOOKIT ALL THE CLICKS YOU GET FOR THEM! And they ignored that they’d be lucky to get even like 5% of their readers to the last slide. Most will abandon the slideshow pretty quickly. If you actually want people to read what you wrote, then you need to keep it to one page. The more pages people have to click to read what you write, the less likely you make it that they’ll ever reach the end. Heck, it’s not even a sure thing with one page. But it’s way less of a shot with ten.
Besides that obvious problem, the best content for a slideshow is stuff without a narrative flow. Celebrity gossip or fashion trends would be halfway decent subjects for a slideshow. Making a slideshow about a sin that could send Christians to Hell without ever knowing for sure they’ve done it? That makes a slideshow feel more like hostage negotiation: clicks for literal salvation.
Crosswalk’s best guess about the unforgivable sin
Anyway, Crosswalk’s official guess here is that the Mark verses indicate that Jesus was upset about the scribes saying he was demon-possessed. They write,
He gave this teaching because His foes were accusing Him of having an unclean spirit (verse 22). Our Lord was telling them, in essence, “There is a sin that you are on the verge of committing. You should be very careful, because you’re about to do something for which there is no forgiveness.”Slide 2 of 12. seriously.
On the next slide, they reassure their readers that no Christian could do this as a “thoughtless mistake.” It’s not done “randomly” or “on a whim.” They insist that anybody committing this sin is doing it maliciously, out of hate and vengefulness. What’s funny is that they’re kinda adding a lot to the story here in saying that the scribes initially were very interested, but then indifferent, and then downright hateful toward Jesus. The verses don’t say anything like that at all. Either way, to support their contention they even try to reach for the Original Greek and Hebrew! Yes! We found some Original Greek and Hebrew, folks!
On the 8th slide, they modify their assertion somewhat. Now, it’s “denying the deity of Christ.” Oh wait. It’s “ascribing the miracles of Jesus to Satan.” Oh wait. No, it’s actually still saying Jesus couldn’t be “God.” Oh. Wait. On the 9th slide, now it’s “Rejecting the Holy Spirit,” which they say is connected to “rejecting the deity of Christ.” If a Christian believes Jesus is the “Son of God,” then that person also must “accept the witness of the Holy Spirit.” But they also must “act upon the conviction He brings.”
Confused yet? Don’t worry.
You’re “likely” okay here, Christians
On slide 10, they tell you that if you’re worried, as a Christian, about having committed this sin, then you have “likely not committed this sin.” They continue from there:
If He is still working in your heart, it’s not possible to have committed the unpardonable sin. The very fact that you’re reading this article is a tremendous indication you’ve not committed the unforgivable sin described in the Gospel of Mark.Slide 10 of 12
But they speak only in very generalized terms. They don’t say it’s impossible for a Christian to do that. They can’t give any kind of flat-out assurance, yes or no. However, then they say this:
So don’t worry that you’ve committed the unpardonable sin. But if you don’t know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, be concerned that you might.Slide 11 of 12
But.. if you have, they just said it’s unforgivable. There’s no forgiveness at all for that sin. It’s insta-Hell. So why would they want someone to be concerned? There’s nothing someone can do if they’ve done whatever this sin is. Concern won’t help them now! But Crosswalk devotes their whole last slide to threatening non-Christians with Hell.
(In answer, I say this: Sorry, my dudes, but I don’t negotiate with terrorists.)
I love this whole slideshow. It’s beyond funny to me, though I do sympathize with the Christians who, like I did years ago, worry a lot about it. Crosswalk just beautifully illustrates a central problem within Christianity that most Christians can’t come close to touching, much less resolving.
The big problem Christians are having with the unforgivable sin
Here’s the big problem Christians are having with this unforgivable sin concept.
Christians inhabit a world where every sin can be forgiven–immediately, completely, and without fuss.
Yeppers! They can sin all day long and even laugh about adding more sins to the pile that Jesus forgave with his death. I’ve heard ’em do it.
Sure, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ might look down their noses at this attitude. They call it cheap grace, meaning that divine grace has been cheapened by these Christians. But still, the facts remain that most flavors of Christianity are exactly like this.
But now, here comes this one statement, straight from apparently Jesus himself and repeated in two of the four Gospels. It tells them that why no, actually, there IS one sin that will never be forgiven by him. There’s one thing they can do that really will get them damned forever by the Lord of Love and Prince of Peace.
And then, for some reason, he doesn’t clearly spell out exactly what it is.
A fear that has haunted Christians for centuries
This oversight by “Jesus” has produced untold misery for Christians for literal centuries.
Even Crosswalk slideshow tells us, in their tenth slide, that this undefined sin has “haunted sensitive people in every century, and maybe it has haunted you.” And yet even knowing that Christians have panicked about it for many years, even for centuries, even they can’t actually 100% reassure such worried Christians that they haven’t done it.
It’s very hard to escape the suspicion Crosswalk really isn’t very confident in their slideshow semi-definition of it.
If it was really as simple to understand the unforgivable sin as they assert, then centuries’ worth of Christians wouldn’t ever have needed to worry about having done it by accident.
That shortcoming has another bad side, though. It produces a lot of vague fears that are impossible to allay using Christianity’s own sourcebook. Such fears represent a lush and fertile source of income and obedience for opportunistic Christian leaders.
How conjobs manipulate Christians’ fear for fun and profit
Over the years, I’ve even seen this fear manipulated by opportunistic conjobs with miracle claims. Since one popular explanation for the unforgivable sin is saying something miraculous or divine is actually evil or natural, any Christian pushing back against a false miracle claim (pro-tip: they are all false) could be accidentally denying or even blaspheming the Holy Spirit! And indeed, I found an evangelical site called “Tomorrow’s World” hinting at exactly this.
They titled their blog post “Have you committed the unpardonable sin?” Its subtitle promises to ease Christians’ fears:
If you have strayed from God in the past, you may wonder whether you can really return to Him in the future. Have you sinned so greatly that all hope is lost for you? The Bible’s clear warning can help you see for yourself!Tomorrow’s World
And it opens thusly:
One of the most agonizing worries is the fear of being cut off from God. Even more distressing is the thought that one may be cut off forever, with no chance of redemption. Some fear that they have committed the “unpardonable sin.” Do you feel guilty, worried that your sins are keeping you away from God?Tomorrow’s World
But the post really doesn’t help. Ultimately, the post assures readers that as long as they keep on trucking and trying to Jesus the best that they can, they’ll be okay. That’s about what my old pastor said to me. It didn’t help me, and I don’t think it’ll help the Christians worrying like I did.
It’s got what souls crave
I suspect it won’t help because the Bible doesn’t ever clearly outline exactly what “blaspheming against the Holy Spirit” means. It reminds me of that silly scene in the 2006 movie Idiocracy where Joe is trying to convince the President’s Cabinet to use water on plants instead of a sports energy drink called Brawndo. However, all the Cabinet says in response are parroted Brawndo marketing phrases.
Pvt. Joe Bowers: What *are* these electrolytes? Do you even know?
Secretary of State: They’re… what they use to make Brawndo!
Pvt. Joe Bowers: But *why* do they use them to make Brawndo?
Secretary of Defense: [raises hand after a pause] Because Brawndo’s got electrolytes.Idiocracy
None of them know what electrolytes are. Joe himself might not even know. But Brawndo has successfully stripped Americans of the need to know. They know “plants crave Brawndo” for its “electrolytes”:
Pvt. Joe Bowers: For the last time, I’m pretty sure what’s killing the crops is this Brawndo stuff.
Secretary of State: But Brawndo’s got what plants crave. It’s got electrolytes.Idiocracy
The unforgivable sin works in very similar ways. Every post I’ve seen on the topic just keeps using the same catchphrases and vague reassurances, but none of them actually know for sure what the phrase even means.
Why the unforgivable sin is such a problem
And part of the problem here might be that they’re all insisting that a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ can’t possibly commit this sin by accident — but they can’t define what a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ is either, and their followers sense that fact even if they can’t perceive it clearly.
So we get someone writing to the Billy Graham site way back in 2004 saying they’re scared they’ve done it, and that’s all the site can tell them. And this guy who wrote to Preach It, Teach It who was scared he’d done it by accident in trying to slam an ex-Christian as not having really believed. And someone at The Gospel Coalition who felt the need to review four completely different opinions about what the unforgivable sin even is. His conclusion: only those “hardened in their unbelief” can possibly have committed it, because Jesus has given up on them.
That doesn’t help someone who feels they were actually hardened in unbelief at one point, but began Jesus-ing again later. In the end, most Christian advice-givers (like this guy) have to punt to mystery and tell those afraid of having done it to just be sure to Jesus their li’l hearts out and just hope it works out in the end.
For a religion that’s so reliant upon false certainty and all-too-easy answers, it’s just not enough.
The pain created by inadequate worldbuilding
In the end, this misery has been caused by inadequate instructions and poorly-worded, often-contradictory commands and exhortations in the New Testament.
Christians, especially the authoritarian kind who go in for literalism and Hell-belief, face life-altering struggles to win the ultimate prize — and avoid the worst imaginable punishment. They need absolute certainty here. Nothing less will ease their fears and worries. Heck, that’s a big part of how very anxious Christians end up in these very controlling flavors of the religion. It’s definitely part of how I landed there.
But those Christians won’t ever find real certainty even in the most authoritarian flavors of Christianity. The New Testament is a hopeless mishmash mess. In its early history, it was edited, revised, and re-edited. The final product reflects the changing and often competing opinions and goals of many different groups that were all vying to be the big authority figures in the new religion.
Sure, the Old Testament works about the same way. Granted. But its believers simply don’t need to fear being wrong like Hell-believing Christians do. Being wrong could cost those Christians absolutely everything — forever.
So the unforgivable sin becomes a major problem for Christians. Without adequate definitions in the religion as a whole, they can’t ever really know if they’ve committed this sin or not. And so they’ll continue to worry and fret, beg for reassurance from Christian leaders who know just as little as they do, and likely be just as dissatisfied with the answers as I was long ago.
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