In a few of my posts regarding universal reconciliation Michael has raised the issue of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit as the "unforgivable sin." Truth be told, I haven't thought much about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, but some people online, as I've been poking around, see it as a sort of test case for universalism. So it seems that something should be said about this. My thanks to Michael for raising the issue and spurring me to think about it.
The relevant texts are these (ESV):
Matthew 12.22-32Now let me be clear. I don't have any great pearls of wisdom on this. I've not studied these texts in detail, but I plan to. So for this post I'd just like to share some impressions. My goal is simply to show how someone with my theological sensibilities might read these texts.
Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, "Can this be the Son of David?" But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, "It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons." Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, "He is possessed by Beelzebul," 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 children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"—for they were saying, "He has an unclean spirit."
My first impression: the text seems odd to me. One of those textual anomalies sprinkled throughout the Old and New Testament. Like baptism for the dead:
1 Corinthians 15.29That isn't to say we should ignore these textual oddities. Just to say, given their strangeness, that a Midrash seems appropriate. In light of that, if my reading of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit texts seems a bit "creative" that is because I think texts like these encourage such creativity.
Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?
Besides, creative exegesis isn't unknown in the New Testament. Consider how the Apostle Paul reads the Old Testament. For example, look at Galatians 4:
Galatians 4.21-31First, note that Paul explicitly states that Scripture is speaking non-literally: "These things may be taken figuratively." Really? Says who? Paul, I guess. The point is, if Scripture can speak "figuratively" I don't think literal readings are always the gold standard of exegesis. At least not for Paul.
Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.
These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written:
"Be glad, O barren woman,
who bears no children;
break forth and cry aloud,
you who have no labor pains;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband."
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? "Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son." Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
But it's more than just figurative. It's a quite forced figurative reading. Paul starts obviously enough: Sarah represents promise/freedom and Hagar represents law/slavery. But then, in an unusual move, Paul states that Hagar, the historical mother of the non-Jews, is actually representative of the Jews. Conversely, Sarah, the historical mother of the Jews, is actually the mother of the non-Jews.
Lets be clear, there is no way the Genesis writer had this meaning in mind. Further, no one until Paul would have even considered reading the story in this way. The women just don't match up with who they are supposed to match up with.
And it gets even more strange. Paul goes on to say that Hagar is Mount Sinai. Again, where does he get this? To quote from the note in my study bible: "The equation of Hagar with Mount Sinai has no basis in the Genesis story."
All this is exceedingly strange reading of Genesis, but we can see what Paul is trying to do: He's trying to get the symbol of slavery--Hagar--aligned with the Law/Sinai, Jerusalem, and the Jews. This alignment frees Sarah up to be the mother of promise and get her aligned with the Gentiles and a Jerusalem from "above."
In the end, Paul's analogy is well taken. But what is shocking, even disturbing by some accounts, is his use of Scripture.
I've gone into this detour because I'd like to create some wiggle room as I approach an odd text. There's some strange texts in the bible and strange readings of texts. So strangeness, it seems to me, isn't always to be taken as a sign of wrongness. Even the Apostle Paul floated some extraordinarily strange readings of the bible. Let us follow his example.
Now back to the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit texts.
To start, what exactly is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? Both stories, Matthew and Mark, center on a case of exorcism. In both stories the opponents of Jesus attribute his power over demons to the Devil. Jesus responds with some logic--How can Satan be opposed to Satan?--and concludes with comments about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
My take from these stories is that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit seems to be attributing a work of the Spirit to the work of the Devil. And, I'd guess, vice versa: Attributing the work of the Devil to the work of the Spirit.
If this is an accurate description I think we can see how Jesus would characterize this as being the very worst of sins. I think of a compass pointing in the exact opposite direction. North is South and South is North. Good is Evil and Evil is Good. The Spirit is the Devil and the Devil is the Spirit.
In short, blasphemy of the Holy Spirit represents the complete disintegration of the moral compass. No, that's not quite right. Because disintegration implies a sort of random brokenness. But what Jesus seems to be talking about is polar opposition. Not randomness. Directionality. And pointing in the exact opposite direction.
And so Jesus says that this sin will not be forgiven.
And what might that mean?
Well, what is forgiveness? One way to think of it is as the opposite of punishment. If you don't forgive someone you choose to have them face the punishment or consequences. They get no grace from you.
Okay, so Jesus says every sin will be forgiven, every sin will receive grace, except one sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. What this seems to suggest to me is that there is some location in the moral universe that can't receive grace. This location where Good is Evil and Evil is Good, a place we might describe as total depravity or ultimate rebellion against God.
I think someone like a Hitler is either in or very close to this space. Someone whose moral compass was completely upside down.
But let me pause. Is Hitler fully in this space? Was he the complete negation of God? Was there no overlap between Hitler and God? My hunch is that even Hitler had a modicum of virtue in his life. That he was capable of some sympathy and pity, if only toward people he cared for.
And this makes me wonder if anyone, even the most evil amongst us, can ever get to the point Jesus warned about. If not, then what we see in Jesus' teaching is a use of hyperbole to offer a warning, a presentation of the worst case scenario, even if unrealistic, to make a point. Jesus posits the limit case to make a diagnosis about the upside-down moral sensibilities of the scribes and Pharisees. He's saying, look down the road you're heading. See where it goes?
But let's say someone actually could blaspheme the Holy Spirit. Why would such an act be unforgivable?
Well, let's remember how I think of God. A universalist thinks every act of God is an act of love, for the benefit of the creature. Even if this act is punishment (think of a parent punishing a wayward child). So imagine a person going in the exact opposite direction from God. How could God forgive that? That place in the moral universe, a space as bad if not worse than Hitler, isn't anything that could be forgiven. Which means that the only option is punishment, to the max.
That seems to make sense. If we posit the worst offense we expect little by way of grace. Rather, here we'd expect punishment to the max. And most, I figure, would assume that this is what someone like Hitler should get. Not a bit of grace but a lot of punishment.
So it seems straightforward: The worst sin gets full punishment. No forgiveness.
So is that incompatible to the doctrine of universal reconciliation?
Not the way I see it. Again, punishment for a universalist isn't antithetical to the love of God. Punishment is a manifestation of the love of God. And it seems, per Jesus's teaching, that the love of God can only reach the very worst of us (if this sin truly is possible and not hyperbole) through pain. I seems that at the worst part of the moral universe forgiveness would make the situation worse (I'm assuming because what is being forgiven here is completely antithetical to God). So no forgiveness is given at this location. Those in this space will only be saved by carrying the full wight of punishment.
So that's what I think. For today at least. The very worst sin reaches the nadir of grace where the love of God exists only as wrath. I'm not sure if this space exists, or if humans can reach it. But if we can I think the logic at work in Jesus's teaching is fully compatible with the inescapable love of God.