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Blasphemy, Hell and the Holy Spirit

Mark 3:20-35 (2024)

There is so much going on in this reading we have from Mark today it’s difficult to pick a key area of focus.

Unusually Jesus isn't on the road but is back home in this reading…..and one of the things that standouts for me is the struggle his family, including Mary his mother, are having with his ministry. 

What is he doing? Has he lost the plot? He’s putting himself in danger… Often Mary is portrayed as this perfect disciple of her son …..and I like the fact that this story shows us the complexity of the faith journey, even for Mary, the human realities of doubt, questioning, getting things wrong and challenge. Sainthood is much more complex than it’s often portrayed. 

The main thing though I want to explore with you is the idea of the ‘unforgivable sin’. You may have heard of this - it’s mentioned in this reading and also for example in Matthew’s Gospel. Is any sin unforgivable and if there is -  is the only one the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? And what is this? 

So what is blasphemy?

Bishop Robert Barron says blasphemy has traditionally been understood as an attack on God or the things associated with God - usually verbal attack or a written attack. It’s from the Greek word that means to injure and so it's seen as an injury to God. Thomas Aquinas says that blasphemy is an active injustice - why because we owe God thanks and praise because God has given us our very existence  - so above all we owe God thanks and praise. Blasphemy undermines that and attacks God and therefore it's an act of great injustice.

Thomas Aquinas continues to help us here and he suggests that it's not as though God is injured by the act of blasphemy - God can't be injured, God can't be affected negatively by his creatures -  God isn't rendered less than - God is not insulted in that kind of emotional way. Rather precisely as an active injustice the act of blasphemy hurts us and here's why: We owe God's thanks and praise and in that act of thanking God we rightly order ourselves in making God the highest priority and the rest of our interests and preoccupations fall into right ranking and into right order accordingly. 

Bishop Barron when discussing this idea goes on to use an image of the Rose window in gothic churches: In the centre of the rose which is a great circle  - is a depiction of Christ the Divine and then around that centre, in ordered harmonies, are all the other pictures and they are all connected by spokes. The idea is they represent our minds, our wills, our passions, our bodies, our public and private life  - all of us with Christ at the centre of our lives. In this way the rest falls into harmony around it. So coming back to blasphemy  - blasphemy is an attack on the centre -  it's a kind of denigration of the centre and an injustice which leads ultimately to the falling apart of the individual and in turn to wider society. 

Ok now let's look at the account we have been given today about blasphemy: 

The Methodist theologian Morna Hooker says that up until this point Jesus has met opposition from local scribes and Pharisees but these men in the story are from the capital and have more authority and these men are interested in the nature and source of Jesus' authority.  Since they disapprove of his teaching and his religious practice they take exception to all of his activity.  His exorcisms are attributed by these men to Satan  - note how this is in contrast to the acknowledgment by the unclean spirit that Jesus is the Holy One of God. The activity of Jesus cannot be ignored by Pharisees. His extraordinary authority over demons must derive from some supernatural agency and since his teaching and attitude do not agree with theirs and since they are the guardians of the law of God then the logical and inevitable inference is that Jesus’ power is satanic.

In reply to this charge we have three sayings of Jesus.  First the idea that Satan is warring against himself is shown to be illogical and he explains this through the parable of the divided Kingdom or household. If this explanation is to be rejected then the scribes must think again about the nature of authority which Jesus exercises.   Then the true explanation of Jesus’ activity is supplied in the parable of the strong man whose household is being plundered by someone who has bound him.  

Clearly the meaning is that the strong man or Satan has been bound by someone stronger namely Jesus who is now plundering his household.  Satan is bound and in his expulsion of the demons Jesus is rescuing his captives and plundering the household.  

The final saying speaks of the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  Whatever difficulties this saying involves and will look at those in a moment,  the context makes quite plain how Mark understood it.  Jesus spoke these words because the scribes had said he has an unclean spirit.  what they should have said of course was that he had the Holy Spirit.  The religious leaders have  seen supernatural work in Jesus but instead of recognising it as the work of God's Holy Spirit they have attributed it to Satan.  The irony of it is that in doing this they have identified themselves with the kingdom of Satan - they see good as evil and called truth falsehood.  

In Matthew’s Gospel we have a similar reaching 

'He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says 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" (Matthew 12:22-32).

In looking at this text from Matthew, James Atkins makes the same conclusions as  Morna Hooker regarding Mark.  He says much of the confusion over the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit with reference to Matthew is caused by the fact that people do not recognize that this statement is only one in a series that Jesus makes and because they do not recognize that it begins with the word "therefore," or a better translation might be ‘though this’.  

In the preceding verse, Jesus asserts (v 30) that one must ally with him or be opposed to him and "through this" he tells us (v 31) that the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Blaspheming the Spirit is thus a failure to repent and ally oneself with Jesus. Since this can always be done blasphemy against the Holy Spirit must be a final refusal to repent, or final impenitence. 

The teaching of much of the western church, following Augustine and a whole host of subsequent theologians, is that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a final refusal of Jesus and God’s love. Saint Thomas Aquinas who sums it up in this way: ‘'blasphemy' does not properly consist in offending against the Holy Spirit in words; it consists rather in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross’. So not about words (blaspheming)  and more about actions and our response to God. 

There is always a choice. God offers us love  - but is always up to us to accept it. I’ll come back to this. 

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago famously commented that we live in a culture where “everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven’. I think he is right  (in this instance)  -  if you see what's happening in social media, in the news this week we see exactly this - everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven.

Our Faith is different - or is it when you read these texts about unforgivable sins - and it's actually not just about taking the Holy Spirit’s name in vain but about a final rejection of Jesus. 

Often these phrases about blasphemy about the Holy Spirit come and are used in isolation  - and we can be left thinking - isn't God all forgiving? Where is God's grace in these phrases on unforgivable sin? If you are brought up in muslim country and don’t know Jesus or you had a terrible time because of religion and have become an atheist, are we saying in not coming to Jesus or turning from Jesus we will never be given? How can that be? So very many people would be affected by this? How can this be love? 

The key message is don't read passages from the bible without the broader context of the message and meaning of God's Word in its fullness - specifically both the teaching and actions of Jesus throughout his life  - and I would argue most importantly during his passion and after his resurrection. 

What brought the Lord to the cross was a demonic army of hatred, stupidity, violence, cruelty, institutional injustice, betrayal, denial, and gross indifference to the will of God. It was the greatest possible blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The cross itself served as judgement on human folly and wickedness. But what was Jesus's reaction  - to forgive those who were killing him. 

At the same time, the accounts of the Resurrection of the Lord repeat this grace - to the very people who had denied, betrayed, and abandoned him, Jesus does indeed show his wounds, lest they forget their sin, but then he utters the incomparably beautiful word “Shalom.” And let me press the point, for Jesus was not only a man but also God. Therefore, they tried to kill God and God offered peace and reconciliation. 

In light of the Resurrection therefore I believe we can say that everything in principle can be forgiven. 

Which brings me back to choice. Traditional church teaching has evolved, perhaps rather unexpectedly, says that the palace or state of  hell (separation from God) is probably empty. God puts choice at the heart of his love for us and we can choose to be with him or not. For this final choice to be real hell needs to exist  - but through God’s love and patience and grace none ultimately choose it.

I’ll end with  quote from Julian of Norwich was shown this understanding in the 14th century and she writes: 

‘One point of our faith is that many shall be damned….The Holy church teaches me that all these shall be condemned everlasting to hell. And given all this, I thought it impossible that all manner of things should be well, as our Lord revealed at this time. And I received no other answer in showing from our Lord God but this: ’What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall keep my word in all things and shall make all things well’. 

This is the Good News of our faith  - of a loving God who is gracious and amazing he will make all things well and bring us home to him.


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