The idea of blasphemy, especially in this context, is to denigrate the Holy Spirit (and the entire Godhead) in such a way that it harms the message of the truth. But, as we noticed in the phrasing of Luke 12:10, the term may also indicate that the blasphemy is directed towards (εἰς) the Holy Spirit.
There are many difficult questions to answer in Christianity. Does God stand outside of time? What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Who really was the streaker in Mark’s gospel? But one that has always challenged me is the nature of the unforgivable sin.
The Sin in Scripture
In Luke 12:10, Jesus tells us that what a man blasphemes “to the Holy Spirit” (εἰς τὸ ἅγιον πνεῦμα) will not be forgiven. In two other passages, we hear Christ make this declaration in a specific context:
“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, [Jesus] said to them… ‘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’” (vv. 24–25, 31–32).
“‘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’” (vv. 28–30).
We can rightly understand these passages by placing them alongside a few more. In 1 John 5:16–17, John writes,
“If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.”
Intentionally not praying may seem like a strange concept, but we find parallels to it in Jeremiah 7:16 and 11:14, where God commands Jeremiah not to pray for the people. More directly, the author of Hebrews says,
“…it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:4-6).
Some Not-So-Helpful Theories
Now, there have been a lot of bad theories concerning the identity of the unforgivable sin. Those who claim it is murder or adultery would exclude David and others. Fornication and suicide would exclude Samson who made the Hebrews “Hall of Faith.” If we say it is any kind of blasphemy, that would exclude Paul, who wrote in 1 Tim 1:13, “though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.”The Didache saw the Matthew passage specifically as the testing of a prophet while making prophesy.
Joel Green claims that “for Luke, blasphemy of the Holy Spirit refers to committing apostasy in the face of persecution.” Granted, we sometimes see cases of apostasy that are (at least from our perspective) hopeless. John Foxe records the story of Nichomachus in the 3rd century who initially refused to sacrifice to pagan idols. After torture, he recanted and denied Christ. But immediately after recanting, he fell down in agony and died. At the sight of this, a 16-year-old Christian woman, Denisa, exclaimed, “O unhappy wretch, why would you buy a moment’s ease at the expense of a miserable eternity!” She then faced her death without faltering.
Yet even those who deny Jesus and His message may be forgiven if they repent. There is hope for Pharisees, just as there was hope for the Apostle Peter, Thomas Cranmer, and any who ultimately returns to claiming Christ.
Trapped in an Iron Cage
Because Christ calls the unforgivable sin “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” it’s helpful to understand what is meant by “blasphemy.” The term is defined as speaking “in a disrespectful way that demeans, denigrates, maligns” and comes from two words joined together that mean “to harm” and “a report, news.” The idea of blasphemy, especially in this context, is to denigrate the Holy Spirit (and the entire Godhead) in such a way that it harms the message of the truth. But, as we noticed in the phrasing of Luke 12:10, the term may also indicate that the blasphemy is directed towards (εἰς) the Holy Spirit.
So what is this sin? It is a pattern that has led a person into such a rejection of Christ and the Gospel that they cannot come to a point of repentance. Such a state is depicted in Bunyan’s metaphor of the man in the iron cage in Pilgrim’s Progress.