In my previous post I discussed one of the passages of the New Testament that has traditionally been used to support the idea of Purgatory, the place that most of the “saved” go after death to be purged of their sins (Matt 5:26 “you won’t get out of there until you have paid the last penny”). In my judgment this passage is not talking about what happens in the afterlife, even though it has been read that way. With another passage, the matter is not quite so clear.
In a famous passage, again in Matthew, Jesus talks about the “unforgivable sin”: “Therefore I tell you every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven; and whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit it will not be forgiven, either in this age or the ages to come.”
As you might imagine, over the Christian centuries there have been numerous interpretations of what that *one* sin was, especially by concerned believers who were worried to death that they had already committed it and so are destined to hell. I’ve heard all sorts of suggestions, some of them rather bizarre (It’s premarital sex! It’s masturbation!), and others not bizarre but equally scary (It’s any sin committed by a Christian after they have been filled with the Holy Spirit!).
As with most passages of the New Testament, the surest way to provide an interpretation of what Jesus is talking about is by seeing if there is any context for his words. And here the context is both clear and probative. The saying comes at the end of a passage in which Jesus has had a dispute with his Jewish enemies, the Pharisees. In Matthew 12:22 Jesus heals a man who is possessed by a demon that makes it impossible for him either to see or speak. The crowds are amazed at the miracle and ask whether Jesus might be the messiah, the “son of David.” The Pharisees argue no, that “It is only by Beelzebul, the leader of the demons that he casts out demons.” That is, Jesus is empowered by the Devil, not God.
This leads Jesus into a famous harangue, that no kingdom divided against itself can stand, so if Satan is opposing Satan (i.e. if Satan empowers Jesus to overthrown the demonic powers of Satan) then he is defeating himself, which makes no sense. The contrary does make sense, it is by the power of the Spirit of God that Jesus does what he does. And if that’s so, people need to be alert and aware, “The kingdom of God has come upon you”
Then he argues that any sin a person commits can be forgiven, but NOT the “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit… Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or the age to come.” Now the matter is clear. Speaking a word against the Spirit, or blaspheming the Holy Spirit, means attributing the power in Jesus to the Devil rather than to the Spirit. It is rejecting the truth that Jesus comes from God and is empowered by God, insisting instead that his work is the work of a force opposed to God. The unforgivable sin is rejecting the divine source for Jesus’ life and work or, in short, rejecting Jesus.
Having said that, what matters for the discussion of Purgatory is that in this passage Jesus specifies that this particular sin will not be forgiven either in “this age” or in “the age to come.” That means that this sin is unlike every other sin. But it also clearly implies that there are not only some sins that will be forgiven in this age, but also yet other sins that will be forgiven in the age to come. And THAT suggests that atonement for sin can come after death. Which could mean that a person could be punished after death for some sins, before being brought into a heavenly existence. And so it is a passage used to argue for the existence of Purgatory, a place where sins are atoned for in the afterlife.
There are several things to be said about this interpretation. To begin with, the passage actually doesn’t say anything at all about a place that people go to after death in order to atone for sin (a place eventually called purgatory).
In fact, it also doesn’t say that people have to atone for sins at all (or be “purged” of their sins). It talks about sins that will “be forgiven.” It doesn’t say anything about anyone having to suffer in order to have their sins forgiven. (If I forgive you a debt of that hundred dollars you owe me, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I require you to be flogged first.)
Even more important, one should not read modern Christian ideas of the afterlife into this passage. What does Jesus mean by “the age to come”? He doesn’t mean what most Christians today mean. He’s not talking about the place your soul goes after you die. The historical Jesus didn’t think that people die and their soul goes to one place or another. He wasn’t a modern American Christian; he was an ancient Jewish apocalypticist. For him the “age to come” was not heaven when you die. It was the Kingdom of God that was coming to this world in the (near) future.
As an apocalypticist Jesus believed that God was soon to intervene in history to overthrow all the forces of evil that are making life so miserable for people. God will then set up a good kingdom here on earth, the Kingdom of God. That’s why he says, in this very passage, that the defeat of the demonic powers in his own ministry shows that “the Kingdom of God has come upon you.” The end of all things was very near. The powers were already being defeated. They would be defeated in a major and decisive way at the end of this age. For Jesus, that would come very soon. “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.”
For Jesus, people will still live in that earthly kingdom of God. Their sins will be forgiven there. Or at least virtually all of their sins. The only one that won’t be forgiven is that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, committed by anyone who claims that the power manifest in the life and work of Jesus did not come from the Spirit of God but was from the powers of darkness.
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