What is “the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost”? (Matt. 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30; Luke 12:10)
From J.W. Hanson’s Bible Threatenings Explained.
”Wherefore I say unto you, all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor the world to come.” (Matt. 12:31-32)
“all sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme; but he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation; because they said, he hath an unclean spirit.” (Mark 3:28-30)
“And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven.” (Luke 12:10)
What is this sin? It consisted in ascribing the power by which Jesus wrought his wonderful works to Satan. He was accused of being aided by Beelzebub, of having an unclean spirit, and of working his miracles by the power of an evil spirit. From this it follows that but very few persons are exposed to the doom here threatened, inasmuch as very few have ever committed this sin.
But if we take this language literally, we must hold that all other sinners, of every character and kind, will be saved, because just as positively as the Scripture declares that these blasphemeies shall never be forgiven, it declares that all others literally and absolutely shall be forgiven. “Verily I say unto you all sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme.” The sin against the Holy Ghost is the only sin that shall not be pardoned. All other sinners, thieves, liars, murderers, all except that very small number that accused Jesus of receiveing diabolical help, shall be forgiven. Does not this show that the terms of the passage are not to be taken literally? Does it not appear that men must either believe that all kinds of sinners, and all of them, except this small number, must be pardoned, or else that the rest of the language is not to be taken literally? It is asserted just as positively that all others shall be, as that these few shall not be forgiven.
If the “shall” and “shall not” are to be understood literally, then the number of the damned is entirely limited to the very few who actually saw Christ’s miracles, and ascribed them to Beelzebub. No one since, and no one hereafter can be damned, for all other sin but that shall be forgiven. This saves all mankind except those few persons who said, “he [Christ] hath an unclean spirit.” This reduces hell to a mere mote in the universe, and excludes all now living, or who hereafter shall live, from any exposure to it.
What does that language mean? Campbell says this is “a noted Hebraism;” that is, a term of speech common among the Jews, to teach that one event is more likely to occur than another, and not that either shall or shall not occur.
Dr. Newcome says: “It is a common figure of speech in the oriental languages, to say of two things that the one shall be and the other shall not be, when the meaning is that the one shall happen sooner, or more easily, than the other.”
Grotius and Bishop Newton are to the same purport. For illustration, when Jesus says, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away,” he does not mean that heaven and earth shall actually pass away, but they will sooner fail than his words. It is a strong method of asserting that his words shall be fulfilled. This is common in the Bible.
“Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold.” (Prov. 8:10)
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.” (Matt. 6:19-20)
”Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbors; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompense be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.” (Luke 14:12-13)
“Labor not for the meat that perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you; for him hath God the father sealed.” (John 6:27)
The plain meaning is, all other sins are more easily forgiven than this. The words “never,” “neither in this world nor the world to come,” do not change the sense, but only strengthen and intensify the Savior’s meaning that this is of all sins the worst.
The popular impression that ‘the world to come” here means the life after death is an error.
Dr. Clarke well observes: “Though I follow the common translation, yet I am fully satisfied the meaning of the words is, neither in this dispensation, viz., the Jewish, nor in that which is to come. Olam ha-bo, the world to come, is a constant phrase for the times of the Messiah, in the Jewish writers.”
Wakefield, Rosenmuller and Hammond also give the same opinion. And it should be added that the word “never” is no part of the original Greek. That is, not under either dispensation, or age (aion–mistranslated “world”), will this inexcusable sin be less than the greatest of transgressions.
Bishop Pearce declares: “This is a strong way of expressing how difficult a thing it was for such a sinner to obtain pardon. The Greek word aion seems to signifyage here, as it often does in the New Testament (see Matt. 13:40; Matt. 24:3; Col. 1:26; Eph. 3:5-21) and according to its most proper signification. If this be so, then ‘this age’ means the Jewish one, and ‘the age to come’ (see Hebrews 6:5 and Eph. 2:7) means that under the Christian dispensation. The end of the world took place during the time of the apostles. ‘Now once in the end of the world hath he [Christ] appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.’ (Heb. 9:26). ‘Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples; and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.’ 1 Cor. 10:11.”
Gilpin observes, “Nobody can suppose, considering the whole tenor of Christianity, that there can be any sin which, on repentance, may not be forgiven. This, therefore, seems only a strong way of expressing the difficuolty of such repentance, and the impossibility of forgiveness without it. Such an expression occurs Matt. 19:24: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter heaven;’ that is, it is very difficult. That the Pharisees were not beyond the reach of forgiveness, on their repentance, seems to be plain from verse 41, where the repentance of Nineveh is held out to them for an example.”
Clarke says: “Any penitent may find mercy through Christ Jesus; for through him any kind of sin may be forgiven to man, except the sin against the Holy Ghost, which I have proved no man can now commit.”–Clarke on 1 John 5:16. And again: “No man who believes the divine mission of Jesus Christ, ever can commit this sin.”
These are all “Orthodox” commentators, whose opinions were certainly not formed by prejudice in favor of our views of the passages in question. They agree with what seems the meaning of the Savior, that this sin is of all others most inexcusable. But that any sin is literally unpardonable, by a God and Father of infinite love and mercy, is nowhere expressed or implied in the Bible.
Mark’s language “hath never forgiveness” should read “has not forgiveness to the age,” but is liable to aionian judgment; that is, to an indefinite penalty.
Note: This chapter is taken from J.W. Hanson’s “Bible Threatenings Explained” from 1883. Some points made by the author may not be perfectly in sync with modern scholarship.