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What Is the Unforgivable Sin? Readers’ Mailbag.

Important question this week!

QUESTION:

I wondered if you have written a blog which talks specifically about the ‘unpardonable sin’.

RESPONSE:

Well, it’s been a while.  But I get asked this question a good bit, and almost always it is a fearful request – by someone who is afraid they’ve committed it.  So it’s worth addressing the issue again.   I think the NT is pretty clear on the matter, even though few people actually look carefully at what it says about it.

In a famous passage in Matthew, Jesus talks about the “unforgiveable 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.” (Matthew 12: 31-32).

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 …

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Does Basic Information about the NT *Matter*? My Pop Quiz
My Faux Pop Quiz this Semester

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    saavoss  August 27, 2020

    Question regarding Matt 12:31-32.
    What does the term “Holy Spirit” mean to a Jewish peasant-preacher-teacher in circa 30 C.E. ??

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2020

      It’s hard to say. It would have been called “The spirit of holiness” in a Semitic language, and I suppose it would be understood to be the most sacred spirit that has been sent from or that represents God (as in the OT: Genesis 1)

      • Avatar
        Britt  September 8, 2020

        I read in Barclay’s commentary that Jesus would have been been speaking of the Holy Spirit in an Old Testament sense, where the Holy Spirit is what revealed truth to people. Thus, in blaspheming you are rejecting the revealed truth. Is that an accurate understanding?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 9, 2020

          Well, it’s part of it. But the immediate context is most important.

  2. Avatar
    Victor  August 27, 2020

    Thank you for a great post!
    I have a question about the Holy Spirit in general. How did this concept evolve into a separate person within the Trinity, equal to the Father? Was it a byproduct of the development of the concept of Jesus as God? Back in my Christian days, this third person in the Trinity always seemed to me like something unnecessary to the doctrine, more like a quality/emanation of God that by some accident was assigned personified existence.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2020

      It starts already in teh NT, when Xns began saying that when jesus left God sent his “replacement” termporarily, his “Spirit (either God’s or Jesus’s) to be with the disciples; thus e.g., John 14, 16; Acts 2; Romans 8, etc. Eventually they were thought to be distinct beings but equal, but since there can only be one God, the three must “be one.” Hence the trinity.

  3. Avatar
    flshrP  August 27, 2020

    I had been taught that after a Christian is confirmed and, thereby, received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that to reject the Christian faith, i.e. to commit the sin of apostasy, is unforgiveable. Since that act amounts to rejecting the Holy Spirit and, hence, to reject all three persons of the Trinity. It is the ultimate weapon of fear and guilt that the Christian Church wields to keep believers from leaving the faith.

    It’s the Christian Church going nuclear on someone who even thinks about leaving the faith. Of course, this occurs strictly on the imagined supernatural level regarding Christian apostates. Islam ratchets up the punishment for apostacy by going thermonuclear and making execution the punishment for that sin on our actual level of existence.

  4. Robert
    Robert  August 27, 2020

    Bart: “… 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 … 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. … ”

    So why will people be forgiven for speaking against the Son of Man???

    Is it because no one could possibly be expected to know who the heck Jesus was talking about when he referred to בר אנשא?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2020

      Yeah, I’ve wondered that too. Maybe he means something like “I don’t like the cut of your jib”… Ok, but seriously, the saying is obviously not dominical but derives from early Xn missionary efforts. Somehow that has to figure into the equation, but I’ve never figured out how.

    • Avatar
      Hamza  September 13, 2020

      There’s an interesting similarity between that Hebrew expression and the name of the one who stood with Jesus, son of Miriam, at the direction of Pilate before the Sanhedrin.

  5. Rick
    Rick  August 27, 2020

    Professor, what is your assessment of the likelihood any of the passages in Mathew 12 “go back to Jesus lips”?
    If they do it would strongly support Jesus belief he was the messiah. But, the whole thing also reads like a story to hang eternal damnation on the Pharisees. That “ The unforgivable sin is rejecting the divine source for Jesus’ life and work or, in short, rejecting Jesus.” Is just a bit too convenient.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2020

      I don’t think this story can go back to Jesus, no; it is a saying that evolved int he context of followers of Jesus having trouble convincing fellow Jews that he was the Son of God.

      • Avatar
        Britt  September 8, 2020

        Bart, why do you think this saying does not go back to Jesus? Is is attested to in 3 of the Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas. Thanks.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 9, 2020

          Sorry — you’ll need to repeat the saying here before asking your question, or no one will know what you’re asking about.

    • Avatar
      Tempo1936  August 29, 2020

      That’s makes sense. Just like religion over the past 2000 years threaten people w eternal damnation unless they believe everything the leaders say.

  6. galah
    galah  August 27, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,
    When you say, “the demonic powers” you’re paraphrasing I suppose. Was this Jesus’s view of the Roman Empire?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2020

      Probably. But he would have thought it really was controlled by supernatural divine but malevolent powers

  7. Avatar
    veritas  August 27, 2020

    “For some interpreters, THAT suggests that atonement for sin can come after death.” Oftentimes back in my Mormon days, this interpretation was strongly believed. That someone like Hitler, has a chance to be redeemed and forgiven after he died through atonement (personal cleansing/ suffering) and then he too may be exalted.. That is one reason baptism for the dead is huge among Mormons, They believe those who died in sin, still have a chance and will be saved on behalf of the living person who proxies that work for them.. I concur, the only unforgivable sin was/is blaspheming the Holy Spirit still today. Many believe murder, but I think when you look at Gen.4;15, and how Cain was protected from God even though he killed Abel, murder, although serious, and today, in some places, punishable by the death penalty, has a redemptive chance through some personal and serious cleansing and grace from God through Christ. Good post.

  8. Avatar
    Jimmy  August 27, 2020

    Off topic but I have a question about a crazy comment I heard today and do not know where else to ask it. The comment was John 21 is the original ending of Mark but redacted for that community . I have never heard this before. I read John 21 a few times and I cannot see for the life of me how anyone could see a connection between John and Mark. Is there something to this of is it just crazy talk?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2020

      Yeah, I’ve heard that before too. Yeah, there’s nothing to support it and ten thousands things against it. Writing style, vocabulary, theology, and continuity with the rest of the Gospel, just to pick four….

  9. Avatar
    Hume  August 28, 2020

    Bart I found a spelling error in your new book! Can I check the next book, or better yet come to the next dinner if it’s in Ontario????!!! 😉

  10. Avatar
    bengrubb  August 28, 2020

    wow! You are a surgeon with scripture and I can sense the Holy Spirit in the truth you are speaking. An atheist speaking words empowered by the holy spirit. How long has your blog been up? You must have converts! (my word does not return void) Calling all converts on Barts blog–share with Bart the exact word or words that he used that caused your conversion to Jesus and explain how God spoke through him..

    “The unforgivable sin is rejecting the divine source for Jesus’ life and work…” why did you add ” in short, rejecting Jesus.”? Why didn’t you leave it with an ambiguous “rejecting the Holy Spirit” ( oh you were asked for an answer–sorry). As you said the context is clear he is speaking to the religious leaders and to them “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” is very specific (has nothing to do with Jesus!). Is Heb 6 a acceptable source for clarification?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 30, 2020

      Because the point of the passage is that Jesus’ opponents claimed that what *he* was doing was not by the psirit.

      • Avatar
        bengrubb  August 30, 2020

        umm….. the claim is that what he was doing was by a “different” spirit. The religious leaders know the spirits and are therefore condemned.

  11. Lev
    Lev  August 28, 2020

    Is the ‘mortal sin’ (NRSV translation) that is spoken of in 1Jn5:16-17 related to this unforgivable sin? It seems like it is just as serious, and implied that non-mortal sin can be prayed for and God will return life to that sinner, but for the mortal sinner…. not so much.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 30, 2020

      I’d say they’re unrelated, since they are by different authors who didn’t know what hte other was saying….

  12. Avatar
    AstaKask  August 28, 2020

    So what consequences would committing the unforgivable sin have? It could still be atoned for, right?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 30, 2020

      I think the idea is that the person who commits it would never be allowed into the kingdom of God.

      • kt@rg.no
        kt@rg.no  September 1, 2020

        With reference to my post below, I allow myself to disagree with you, Sir.

        This passage was even an integral and important part of the Gospel of Thomas, but the unification is essential and vital througout the Gospel, and in addition to this, as the saying 49 says ,,, “” For you come from it (and) will return to it. “.
        If they percieved it correctly,,,,it seems that it is hope for even me 🙂

        • Bart
          Bart  September 2, 2020

          I don’t think we can use the Gospel of Thomas to interpret the Gospel of Matthew. Try to do it for the whole of the two Gospels, and notice what you’ll come up with!

          • kt@rg.no
            kt@rg.no  September 3, 2020

            As you’ve pointed out, the Matthew gospel is the most jewish gospel, and trying to connect Jesus to David/Moses and even Abraham, and seemingly in many ways, Judaism. The literal and on the surface practising of the jewish Law, the Hebrew scriptures, one could get a quick fix (forgiveness) for all sins through their practice/rituals on the on the Day of Atonement,,,yeah,,an easy quick fix “formula”.

            From the deeper persepctive, you still might “miss the goal” (sin) for connecting to the source (from where you came from,,according to Thomas). This non forgiveness, in heaven (Thomas) or “age to come” (Mt.) who might be this transition to the perfected world beyond is for me that Jesus (in Matthew) is attacking the religious establishment (Pharasees) for their interpretation of this practise or understanding of sin. From this persepctive, it seems to me that Jesus emphacize that there is no quick fix to transform/evolve or develope a closer relationship (transform/come closer/get to the kingdom- to the devine source/God (the “spirit” would then be the “bridge” to the “transcendental home”).

            From this persepctive, I find similarities between Matthew and the Gospel of Thomas, and it gives me basically similar meaning.

    • Avatar
      Hamza  September 14, 2020

      The unforgivable sin is unmitigated cruelty, precipitated by a pathological condition which renders the soul irredeemable.
      Compassion, charity, fasting, forgiveness and prayer sustains the soul.

  13. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  August 28, 2020

    Is the reference to the Holy Spirit in these verses (of Matthew 12) a reference to the Trinity? I think I remember reading that the Gospel of John is the only source for the doctrine of the Trinity. Thank you.

  14. Avatar
    seandavey  August 28, 2020

    (possible typo in the 4th from last paragraph: “is talking about” -> “isn’t talking about”)

  15. Avatar
    Stephen  August 28, 2020

    So…who (or what?) is the “Holy Spirit” in this context? Looked at through a trinitarian lens it is capitalized as a proper name, but Matthew certainly didn’t think of the HS in Nicaean terms. What does Matthew mean when he uses the term? A divine quality or attribute? An emanation of God that assumes a separate existence perhaps? Where are we here in the development of the concept of the Holy Spirit?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  August 30, 2020

      He appears to mean the Spirit that comes from God (as in the OT, say Gen. 1:2).

  16. Avatar
    thelad2  August 28, 2020

    Greetings Bart. Blog hopping today. Hope you will allow me an off topic question. Just finished reading a post from your colleague, James Tabor (Taborblog), where he’s wondering about the actual origin of Paul’s “received” information. Did it come from Paul’s conversations with Jesus’ original apostles and other early Christians or, as Paul sometimes indicates, did it come directly from Jesus? This is especially important when considering Paul’s understanding of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23). If Paul believes Jesus told him the story of the Last Supper during some mystical connection, then would that not throw all the NT’s later Last Supper traditions into doubt? Tabor goes on to wonder if, perhaps, all of Paul’s gospel (and his apocalyptic predictions) is based on his mystical connection with Christ and not on real world events. Interested in your thoughts. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 30, 2020

      Yup, they are interesting questions. My sense is that Paul heard it from others and assumed that Jesus was talking through them (as happens all the time, still today, among Christians).

  17. Avatar
    fishician  August 28, 2020

    1. Do you think these words actually go back to Jesus? 2. There is a South Park episode where the boys become convinced that if they die before confessing their latest sins they will go to Hell. Sure enough, Kenny is run over and killed on their way to confession. I think the idea of your sins being forgiven in the age to come is meant to cover this: no one is perfect, don’t sweat it! Unless you’re blaspheming against the HS. 3. I recently noticed in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus performed no miracles in Jerusalem, where he was under close scrutiny. Perhaps Jesus’ statement about blasphemy against the HS was meant to squelch skeptics? Even today many believers seem hesitant to question questionable miracle stories.

  18. Avatar
    hankgillette  August 28, 2020

    “The unforgivable sin is rejecting the divine source for Jesus’ life and work or, in short, rejecting Jesus.”

    Does that mean that a Christian who becomes an atheist has committed “the unforgivable sin”?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 30, 2020

      I suppose so.

      • Avatar
        Taufik Mukti  August 31, 2020

        But, if that ex-Christian goes back to the faith, would he be forgiven (again)?

        If you browse Reddit Christianity, there are “ex-atheists” there.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 2, 2020

          That’s a theological question. I’m only talking about what the term originally meant. The author of the text doesn’t say more than he says! All he says is that attributing the works that Jesus did through the Spirit to the Devil is unpardonable.

  19. 1SonOfZeus
    1SonOfZeus  August 29, 2020

    Gospel of Thomas line 44. I know the word for line in Greek as well.

     hate the tree.”

    (44) Jesus said, “Whoever blasphemes against the father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven either on earth or in heaven.”

    Jesus
    Blasphemes
    Father forgiven
    Blasphemes
    Son forgiven
    Blasphemes
    Holy
    Not Either

    Either not
    Holy
    Blasphemes
    Forgiven son
    Blasphemes
    Forgiven father
    Blasphemes
    Jesus

    Bart, have you heard of

    THE HISTORICAL ORIGINS OF FREEMASONRY

    THE LEGEND OF THE DIONYSIAC ARTIFICERS

  20. Avatar
    Zak1010  August 29, 2020

    Dr Ehrman

    Blasphemy is an English word. What is it in Aramaic or hebrew?

    I have seen the term , Holy spirit, Holy Ghost, and God in different Bible versions / translations ( better word).
    The semetic language translation means to : reject , cut out, rid yourself or cover. Hence, the unforgiven sin is to deny, reject or cut out God.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 30, 2020

      I’m not sure (rather doubt) that the words go back to Jesus (in Aramaic); we have them only in Greek , and there the word happens to be the very work that gets put into English as “Blasphemy,” Greek βλασφμηία (spelled in English letters: BLASPHEMIA).

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