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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2023-03-26T13:06:30-04:00April 8th, 2023|Afterlife, Historical Jesus|

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  1. MeridaGOround April 8, 2023 at 7:52 am

    Saul of Tarsus / “Saint Paul” confesses that he was a blasphemer of Christ Jesus (1Tim1:12 ff) and “the chief of sinners” — yet he was forgiven for persecuting the Holy Spirit (the bodiless voice of Jesus encountered on the road to Damascus, Acts 9:4 ff).

    Was he dealt a “Get Out of Jail FREE ” card?

    ~eric. MeridaGOround dot com

    • BDEhrman April 9, 2023 at 1:59 pm

      He luckily repented before he died. Otherwise it would have been cookies….

      • MeridaGOround April 9, 2023 at 6:46 pm

        So, confession/repentance gets us out of the pressure cooker of remaining unforgiven?

        • BDEhrman April 10, 2023 at 12:59 pm

          Yup. Even for the worst of sinners.

          • Charlie37 April 11, 2023 at 7:00 pm

            What if someone dies while in an act of sin, but believes and asks forgiveness. I can’t help but wonder about all the suicides of good people (famous and regular Joes) that have decided to end their lives.
            Persons that come to mind are Robin Williams, Cheslie Kryst, Daisy Coleman, Audrie Pott, and many others that thought that was the only way to end pain.

            Some people have actually posted in the news/media that Robin Williams and Daisy Coleman were possessed and devil worshippers.
            I don’t think we understand enough about the brain to know or appreciate what trauma does to the mind and body (and a person’s soul/spirit so to speak).

            It’s repulsive to see the Christian comments about where people think Robin Williams went because he took his life. Does that automatically doom someone? I’m sure many Christians have died unexpectedly in an act of sin, whether knowing or unknowing.

          • BDEhrman April 15, 2023 at 5:58 pm

            Yes, for some people suicide is the unforgiveable sin since you are no longer alive to ask for forgiveness.
            It’s a horrible and calloused teaching, in my view..disabledupes{928249fa99d89702e2f97234ecf9cfc9}disabledupes

  2. dabizi April 8, 2023 at 9:15 am

    “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.”

    By this measure, Saul of Tarsus was a blasphemer and an unforgivable sinner. Yet he repented and afterwards seemed unbothered. Paul, and presumably other early Christian converts before the gospels (even after Q/M/Mark), must not have believed that having previously blasphemed against Jesus and God’s Spirit was an unforgivable sin. Perhaps the passage was a later addition that Jesus did not say.

    • BDEhrman April 9, 2023 at 1:59 pm

      He luckily repented before he died. Otherwise it would have been cookies….

  3. giselebendor April 8, 2023 at 10:06 am


    Did Jesus actually say the *Holy* Spirit”?Such an expression was not in the HB,the only Bible he knew.The HB texts refer to ” *His* Holy Spirit” or ” *Your* Holy Spirit” as adjectives,the Spirit’s holiness being an attribute of God,but not a noun as in the independent “Holy Ghost”that it later became as part of the Christian Trinity.

    I read the Matthew verses in Aramaic (Syriac)and twice it mentions just “the Spirit”. The third time,”Holy” is in parenthesis.

    Might it have been added later,for theological reasons?

    I can see in your crystal clear explanation why it was so vital for Jesus to establish the spiritual holiness of his work’s origin and nature,rebutting the charge of “demonic” origin.(BTW,”Beelzebul” rather than “Baal-z’vuv”,as in Hebrew- literally “Lord( Baal) of (the) Fl(y)(ies)”-is an amusing transliteration).

    Establishing Jesus’ godly status is of course what matters.But it also seems to me that “the Spirit”,as in the HB “Ruakh Elohim”,the Spirit of God,meaning breath,spirit and wind,relates to “becoming human”,transcending the animal state and the “flesh”,not only connected with Jesus’ works,but with the godly nature of each and every human being.Blaspheming against God’s Creation gift to humans “made in his image”,would be a total rejection of God himself,thus truly unforgivable in those days.

    • BDEhrman April 9, 2023 at 2:04 pm

      I think the Aramaic speaking Christians early on began to speak of God’s spirit (which does, of couurse, show up from the outset in the HB) as the “spirit of holiness,” and that Semitic expression (used by Paul in Rom. 1:3-4) came into Greek as “Holy Spirit. Christians early on saw the creation account as involving all three members of the trinity — with the Spirit of God hovering over the water (big translation issues there, as you know) and God announcing “Let US make the human in OUR own image”….

      • giselebendor April 11, 2023 at 8:14 am

        Touchée…… indeed Creation was a plural affair!Now you got me thinking:what does “in OUR image mean,how do the plural divine images affect the created humans?Different people? Races? Male and female?I need to listen to your Genesis series I think,maybe you answer it there.

        Speaking of forgiveness and sins,I was rereading Mark’s scene of the leper in the synagogue.Jesus forgives his sins-already a problematic , unauthorized substitution for God- without mentioning repentance.

        Both the Baptist and Jesus mention repentance,but only in the context of the
        Kingdom and the imminent End,not as a Judaic moral
        all-encompassing life guidance.

        The scene in the Synagogue must have indeed outraged the Pharisees.
        Jesus blasphemes several times: forgiving sins as God;not even knowing what these sins are;not mentioning the pre-requisite of repentance;taking forgiveness lightly;and all this in the Synagogue, adding the healing,considered a creative action,on Shabbat,a holiday made in remembrance of God’s Creation.Couldn’t Jesus have cured the man on Sunday?

        The Jews are made to look hard -hearted,legalistic,hostile,
        inflexible. But as far as they knew,these actions were not permitted,as we are not permitted to do illegal things.

        Why doesn’t Jesus make a clear connection between true repentance and forgiveness?In the Synagogue, he doesn’t even suggest that the leper be baptized.

        • giselebendor April 11, 2023 at 8:49 am

          I commingled healings from both chapters 2 and 3, , (not very successfully),forgot to tell.

          The question is the same,though..

          Also, the guy with the “withered hand” is not said to be a leper. My bad.

        • BDEhrman April 15, 2023 at 2:32 pm

          On the “we” and “us” of Genesis 1, the typical scholarly position is that God is speaking with his divine council (of angelic beings). Repentance and forgiveness are tied together in some places (John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins; Jesus’ last words in Luke, etc.) My sense is that the theme of repentance leading to forgiveness was so well established at the outset of hte Gospels that whenever “repentance” is mentioned forgiveness is assumed. As to Jesus forgiving *without* repentance, E.P. Sanders argued that this is what the Jewish leaders found most hateful about jesus’ activities. I’m not sure if it’s historical or not.

  4. paul.wright April 8, 2023 at 4:46 pm

    Off Topic: I’ve been seeing TV ads for season 3 of the series “The Chosen,” about Jesus’ life, by Dallas Jenkins (son of Jerry Jenkins of Left Behind fame). Are you familiar with it? At a friend’s urging I watched Season 1 when it came out (I haven’t seen season 2). I thought it was well done, but I was very surprised by the creative liberties taken with the biblical stories. Sure, any video depiction of Jesus must fill in details missing from gospels, but major portions of the episodes I saw were completely made up — nothing like it in the Bible. Then it hit me: This is what the original gospel-writers did! They took their material, edited and rearranged it, and added “fresh” (made up) material when they felt it necessary. So I am grateful to “The Chosen” for providing a modern example of what must have been going on in the first century. Furthermore, I can imagine a future, in which print media have fallen into misuse and all information is communicated by video, where the official, inerrant, “gospel” truth is The Chosen!

  5. Giorgi_Lagidze April 8, 2023 at 5:41 pm

    Hi Bart ! Wanted to take a quick chance to ask this.

    Origen said Josephus didn’t believe Jesus to be the Christ. There’re a couple of ways how people explain How Origen knew.

    Option 1: Josephus was a Jew. “Though not being a Christian” is a description of every Jew known to Origen.

    Option 2: Feldman reverted the opinion in 2012 believed TF was interpolation in its entirety, but still leaves a possibility that there could have been something. He bases this on Origen’s saying.

    Well, I don’t buy Option 1. Just because Josephus was a Jew shouldn’t make him non-believer. I believe there’ some christian Jews as well in.the.first.century.

    In “Did Jesus Exist”, you say: ““The problems with this passage should be obvious to anyone with even a casual knowledge of Josephus. We know a good deal about him, both from the autobiography that he produced and from other self-references in his writings. He was thoroughly and ineluctably Jewish and certainly never converted to be a follower of Jesus. ”

    Do you base your logic on Origen’s saying or on TF or something else? From your words, it appears you base it on.the.autobiography. Does Josephus mention that he was not a.christian?

    • BDEhrman April 9, 2023 at 2:14 pm

      Origen would certainly have known if Josephus had become a Christian, and would have heralded it; but that’s not the main reason for my view (I’ve never even give that point much thought). The Testimonium certainly shows that Josephus did not believe in Jesus; I agree with what I think is still the widespread view that even though portions of it have been interpolated by later scribes, the central assertions of it come from Josephus. But even if someone wants to argue that it’s a complete interpolation, I should think the autobiogrpahy would be definitive. I twas published just a couple of years before his death. He certainly never says that he did not become a Christian; but he never says that he did not become a Mithraist either; or that he emigrated to Persia; etc. Christianity was a very tiny sect in his day if he had become a follower of Jesus, he would have certainly made a big deal of it. I don’t think there’s any way he even thought about it for a second.

      • Giorgi_Lagidze April 9, 2023 at 2:28 pm

        Thanks Bart for the answer.

        “Origen would certainly have known if Josephus had become a Christian, and would have heralded it;” – So since Origen didn’t quote Josephus, Thats where your view comes from that Origen thought Josephus didn’t believe, but how would he know other than his work ? since Origen found nothing, thats what he based his saying that we know of.

        Question 1: Do you agree on this ?

        Question 2: So, do you believe that if TF is fake(100%), Origen would still figure out the fact that Josephus didn’t believe Jesus to be the christ ? but how would Origen figure this out ? do you base this because Origen never found anything from Josephus that would say Jesus to be the Christ ? I’m trying to see if TF is fake(100%), Origen would still have a way of detecting this. If he would have a way, then this increases the probability that TF could be 100% fake. If Josephus didn’t say anything about Jesus, then Origen could guess that Since Josephus didn’t say anything, he didn’t believe in Christ. That’s how it increases the probability of TF(fake), even though there’s still chance it’s not.

        • BDEhrman April 10, 2023 at 12:56 pm

          My view is that if the greatest Jewish historian of the first century had become a follower of Jesus the followers of Jesus would have paraded the information *everywhere* and it would have become common knowledge; apologists (Justin, Tertullian, Origen) would have been all over it. I don’t see any way Josephus converted.

          • Giorgi_Lagidze April 10, 2023 at 1:00 pm

            Well, then Feldman seems wrong when he says in his 2012 book.

            ““The version of the Testimonium in the Antiquities, if it was known to Origen [d. 253], apparently must have included something about Jesus, since otherwise Origen would have had no reason to claim that Josephus did not accept Jesus as Christ. This would imply that Origen had a text similar to that of Jerome and Michael the Syrian affirming that Jesus was thought to be the Messiah.”

            He bases the possibility of having TF in Josephus on Origen’s saying. If you don’t see any way how Josephus might have converted to a follower of Jesus, Origen would see it the same way(without having TF). It’s a common sense. Hence, I don’t see why being TF in Josephus should be based even 1% on origen’s saying. Thoughts ?

          • BDEhrman April 15, 2023 at 2:13 pm

            I’m afraid I don’t understand your question (I don’t know what “having/being TF in Josephus” means, e.g.) Could you reword?

          • Giorgi_Lagidze April 15, 2023 at 3:35 pm

            What I meant was: from what you read from Josephus’s autobiograpy, you concluded that there is no chance he would be a christian.

            What Feldman states is he leaves possibility that there was something originally there about Jesus and he leaves this possibility because Origen said he didn’t believe Jesus to be the Christ.

            What I said was Feldman is not fully correct, because basing something on what Origen said is wrong. If you could figure out from Josephus’s book that he wasn’t a christian, well, Origen would figure it out the same way, hence Origen could have said what he said for this reason.

          • BDEhrman April 17, 2023 at 8:02 pm

            It’s not just Josephus’s autobiogrpahy. It’s *everyhting* we know about Josephus from his writings. And from the fact that if he had become a follower of Jesus the followers of Jesus would have trumpeted it to the skies. There weren’t ANY major Jewish converts mentioned by the early Christians, who were proud indeed of teh converts they did nake.

      • Redhash April 10, 2023 at 11:07 pm

        Good post. I was raised Mormon, the church taught us denying the Holy Ghost was only possible for a few people (I saw one of our Apostles say “Most people in this congregation are incapable of blaspheming the Holy Ghost”).

        In short, Mormon doctrine uses Judas as an example. We were taught you have to have a “Perfect knowledge” of the truth, and then turn your back on it. Judas knew Christ was the Messiah, and still betrayed him.

        I guess that’s a much more friendly interpretation than simply masturbating or pre marital sex!

  6. jhague April 11, 2023 at 8:32 am

    1. “…in which Jesus has had a dispute with his Jewish enemies, the Pharisees.”
    The Pharisees were not really Jesus’ enemies, right? The Pharisees were more the enemies of the authors of the NT at the time of the writing.

    2. “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.”
    Do you think that Jesus actually said these words?
    It seems that this entire situation, Jesus heals a man, has argument with Pharisees, states the unforgivable sin, did not happen.

    • BDEhrman April 15, 2023 at 5:40 pm

      1. They are certainly enemies of the Gospel writers, but given their prevalence in the stories about Jesus it seems reasonable that he had serious disagreements withthem as well. 2. Not in its present form, no — it assumes that Jesus is the Son of Man and it’s not clear to me that Jesus talked about “the Holy Spirit”

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