In Matthew 12:22-37, Jesus heals a demoniac, prompting the Pharisees to repeat their claim that Jesus did his exorcism through the power of Beelzebub. Jesus responds that this is absurd, for Satan would not undermine his own kingdom by freeing people from demons. That would be against Satan’s own self-interest! According to Jesus, his exorcisms were signs of the binding of Satan and the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Then, Jesus makes a statement that has baffled and troubled numerous Christians. He asserts that those who blaspheme the Son (Jesus) can receive forgiveness, but those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, in this world or the world to come. Jesus then says that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks: good words flow out of people with good hearts, while evil words flow out of those with evil hearts. Jesus then emphasizes the importance of words at the last judgment: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (NRSV).
What is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Suppose I hit my little finger with a hammer and curse in anger? Did I just blaspheme the Holy Spirit? John Bunyan thought he had blasphemed the Holy Spirit when he expressed a desire for Jesus to leave him. That dismay put him in a spiritual pit for a long time!
Most Christians treat blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as an attitude. For them, the Pharisees knew that Jesus was the Messiah on the basis of his miracles, yet they rejected him anyway. Their continual rejection of Jesus placed them in a position where they could not believe and be saved. According to many Christians, if a person is worried about having committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then he most likely has not done so, since he is displaying an attitude of repentance. The Pharisees, however, could not repent, for they were dismissing the very evidence for Jesus’ Messianic status. People could reject Jesus and later repent after they recognized their ignorance. But if they rejected Jesus’ miracles and good works on behalf of the Kingdom, then what more could Jesus do to convince them? They are in a state of spiritual hopelessness, for their hearts are hard against God himself.
Jesus told the Jewish leaders in John 10:37-38: “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” For Jesus, the miracles that he did were obviously from God, and the Pharisees should have known that, especially when they were doing similar works themselves. And, of course, when they did them, they claimed they were from God! So why did they assume that Jesus’ exorcisms were any different? But their attribution of them to Beelzebub was evidence of their opposition to God’s goodness and the corruption of their hearts.
The popular Christian answer has a lot of merit, but I have at least two problems with it:
1. Most Christians treat the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit primarily as an attitude of rebellion. And, indeed, Jesus does criticize the Pharisees’ hearts. But he also focuses a lot on their words, for he affirms that useless speech can lead to condemnation at the final judgment. And I prefer to translate artos as “useless” or “without redeeming value,” not as “careless.” In my opinion, Jesus was not condemning the Pharisees because they misspoke or said something without a whole lot of thought. Rather, Jesus believed that what they said was bad.
Matthew 12:32 states, “Whoever speaks 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.” The word translated as “speaks” is an aorist, which means a single incident as opposed to a continuous activity. A Greek professor of mine once said that the present tense is like a movie, whereas the aorist is like a snapshot. Therefore, Jesus was criticizing the Pharisees’ single statement that Beelzebub had helped out his exorcisms, not just their continual mindset. Those who view the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as a continuous attitude should address this point. Jesus says that anyone who says one word against the Holy Spirit will receive no forgiveness. Sure, the word proceeds from a heart that is continuously corrupt, but the word is still what condemns someone.
Pat Robertson was the first preacher I heard who addressed that point. He was asked about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit on the 700 Club, and he replied that it was a single rather than a continuous act, since Matthew 12:32 uses the aorist. But (if my memory is correct) his advice for Christians was not to worry too much about it, since God is merciful. Then why did Jesus get into this whole discussion of forgiveness and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, in the first place?
(UPDATE: My understanding of the aorist have changed since I wrote that post. There are different uses of the aorist, so the use of the aorist in Matthew 12:32, by itself, does not necessarily mean that Jesus was condemning a single act.)
2. My second point may not be too crucial, but I do see a need to make it. For most Christians, Jesus was saying that those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit cannot repent. But Jesus doesn’t explicitly say that. Rather, he stresses that they will not be forgiven. Granted, repentance is what leads to forgiveness, and a person cannot be forgiven if he is unable to repent. But Jesus may mean, “Look, that sin is so bad that God will not forgive it. Watch out, people!”
These are problems that I have with the prevalent Christian interpretation. Now here are three of my problems with the passage itself, or at least people’s use of it:
1. Jesus acts as if his miracles are obvious signs that he is from God. But the Bible says on many occasions that false prophets are able to do signs and wonders (Deuteronomy 13:1-5; Matthew 24:24; II Thessalonians 2:9; Revelation 13:13-14). Pharaoh’s magicians could duplicate some of Moses’ miracles, for example (Exodus 7:11, 22; 8:7, 18). Such a motif appears in Christian literature. In Frank Peretti’s The Visitation, for instance, a false prophet does healings that initially help people yet eventually turn out bad. So if the bad side can do miracles, then why should we be so shocked that Jesus’ miracles failed to convince the Pharisees? Of course they can say that the bad side was helping Jesus out! That was an option in the Bible: that a false prophet can do some pretty miraculous things.
When I was a kid, I heard a sermon by a preacher from an Armstrongite church. As Armstrongites usually do, this guy was criticizing Protestants, especially those from the charismatic movement. Essentially, he was attributing their miracles to demons. “So these guys cast out demons. Big deal!” he said. “Satan can tell demons to leave someone. He put them in the person, after all.” I was just a kid, but my jaw dropped. “Isn’t that the same argument that Jesus was trying to refute?” I thought. “And Jesus said that this argument was blaspheming the Holy Spirit!” That brings me to my next point:
2. Many charismatics act as if anyone who disagrees with them on spiritual gifts is blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Their logic runs like this: The Holy Spirit is the one who influences charismatics to speak in tongues and prophecy. To certain Christians, these activities look rather bizarre, if not downright creepy, so they either attribute them to Satan or say that they aren’t from the Holy Spirit. For charismatics, since these Christians are criticizing an activity of the Holy Spirit, they are blaspheming him.
But can’t there be room for doctrinal disagreement, without saying that people from a certain side are placing themselves permanently outside of God’s forgiveness? It’s not as if non-charismatics are hardening themselves against God (even though many of them do seem to put God in a box). There are many charismatics who act as if they’re special because they have these gifts while others do not, and they want everyone to pat them on the backs. But do they have to say that those who don’t pat them on the backs are on their way to hell?
3. Now that I’ve bashed both non-charismatics and charismatics, allow me to talk about liberal Christians. They too have appealed to Jesus’ statement on blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. I once had a Harvard professor who believed that non-Christians could be saved on account of their good deeds. He was once a conservative Christian who maintained that Jesus was the only way to God, but he changed his mind when he met some nice Jewish people. One rabbi he knew did many good works. He loved God and helped the poor. When he prayed, his prayers were answered.
“Now, you could tell me that all of this was from Satan,” he told me. “But that’s what the Pharisees told Jesus. And Jesus said that, if they couldn’t acknowledge goodness when they saw it, then you can’t do anything for them!” For my professor, a refusal to acknowledge the goodness of non-Christians resembled the Pharisees’ denial of Christ’s good deeds.
Indeed, that is a hard one. So now we have to compromise on Jesus being the only way, or we’re in danger of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. It seems that, according to a lot of interpreters, it is virtually impossible not to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, unless one buys into the interpreters’ own peculiar ideology.
My professor may have a point. I don’t know. A person’s theological or religious construct can influence how he reacts to certain phenomena. If a Christian believes in total depravity, then he will try to explain away the good deeds of non-Christians, depicting them as not truly good (ergo Jonathan Edwards’ The Nature of True Virtue). Similarly, the Pharisees tried to explain away Jesus’ deeds to fit their own construct. “This guy can’t be from God,” they thought. “He doesn’t keep the Sabbath properly. He rejects the traditions of our elders. He dares to forgive sins, something that only God can do. His miracles must be from Satan!”
But, then again, maybe they were supposed to accept Jesus’ miracles on the basis of their own religious construct. Jesus made the point, after all, that they saw exorcism as good, since there were Pharisaic exorcists. Why was it right for them to do it and not Jesus? And some (such as Brad Young) have argued that Jesus was not really going beyond the pale of Judaism, for there were rabbis who (like Jesus) were open to plucking grain on the Sabbath for a little snack. According to this view, the Pharisees’ criticism of Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 12:1-8 was part of an inter-Jewish dispute, not an accusation that Jesus was completely overturning Judaism. If that is the case, then maybe the Pharisees should have been open to Jesus and his miracles, but they weren’t because they were grasping onto their power, which Jesus dared to threaten.