In Mark 3:20-30 (revised and expanded a bit in Matthew 12:22-37), Jesus is accused by some “law experts” of being in league with “beelzebul,” the “prince of demons.” He responds with some famous but dense words:
“How can the accuser cast out the accuser? If a kingdom splits into two factions, it can’t last. If a household splits into two factions, it can’t last. So if the accuser revolts against himself and splits into two, he can’t last – his time is up! But remember: no one can get into a strong man’s house and steal his things unless first they tie up the strong man; then they can plunder his house.” (Mark 3:23-27)
And then he delivers this little brain exploder:
“I’m telling you the truth, people will be forgiven all sins, and blasphemies of whatever sort, but people who blaspheme the holy spirit will never find forgiveness. They will be guilty of an eternal sin!” (Mark 3:28-29)
Yikes! I mean, I guess this is a good news/bad news situation: On the one hand, 99.9% of our sins can and will be forgiven. So that’s cool. But then there’s the small matter of an “eternal,” unforgivable sin. Kinda sounds like a setup for inevitable failure. Like, “you can eat anything in the kitchen except that one cookie.” Well, great, now I can’t stop thinking about the cookie. So what is the unforgivable sin? Smoking? Cussing? Watching HBO after 10? No, it’s what Jesus calls “blaspheming the holy spirit.” Which means… Wait, what does that mean?
How To Blaspheme The Holy Spirit
The worst way to appreciate what Jesus is saying, I think, is to take this as a flat and literal statement about a cosmic technicality called “blasphemy of the holy spirit.” Various Christian thinkers and traditions have tried to quantify and police this sin with unsavory results. As with everything in the Bible (and all literature and everything else, for that matter), the best way to understand this strange saying is to consider the context.
The immediate context in Mark 3 is Jesus’ great popularity among the general public and the intense jealousy of the religious authorities who found him to be a threat. In Matthew the exchange follows a specific incident of healing and deliverance. In both versions it is suggested that Jesus must be in league with demonic forces to be able to perform such works of wonder. Jesus’ response exposes the absurdity of the accusation, as if the satan (“the accuser”) was somehow running around casting himself out of people. No, Jesus is not the “strong man” who rules the household, he’s the one who has come to bind the strong man and set his hostages free.
Additional comments from Jesus in Matthew’s telling of this incident provide further illumination:
“You must make up your mind between two possibilities: Either the tree is good, in which case its fruit is good, or the tree is bad, in which case its fruit is bad. You can tell a tree by its fruits, after all.” (Matthew 12:33-34)
This is the same basic principle for discernment and spiritual sensitivity that Jesus laid out in the sermon on the mount: if something seems good it probably is, even if it defies your expectations and prejudices; and, on the other side of the coin, things that seem ugly and harmful probably are, even if they come in a respectable or religious package.
The unforgivable sin is this: looking at something divine (love, healing, pardon, compassion, advocacy, empathy) and calling it evil (unclean, sinful, liberal, tolerant, dangerous). And why is this unforgivable? Not because it makes God mad or breaks a really important rule, but because it is the act of willfully cutting oneself off from the source and reality of all mercy and goodness. Because how can you embrace and experience the pervasive spirit of divine forgiveness if you’re running away from it and calling it evil?
Jesus taught that healing and forgiveness are in the air, they grow on the trees. The unforgivable sin is to pollute the air and burn down the trees because you’re so scared and angry that everything looks like a devil to you.