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Are Unforgivable Sins Real?

The notion that there might be a sin or sins that are absolutely unforgivable, even by a bishop, is pretty terrifying.  Given what the Church teaches about the sacrament of confession and reconciliation, it’s hard to see how a priest or the bishop wouldn’t be in a position to provide some way back to God.  What’s more, isn’t baptism, the originating sacrament of faith, supposed to be able to cleanse all sins?  A clean slate?  A totally new beginning?

Well, it’s Jesus himself that tells us that there is an unforgivable sin, just one.  So, as unnerving as it might be to find out what it is and that we’ve already committed it, we’d best just plunge ahead!  What can this totally unforgivable sin really be?

All three of the synoptic Gospel authors record Jesus describing this sin, while two of them, St. Mark and St. Matthew, provide the same background story to what was really going on.  So, let’s go back to the beginning of the story as St. Matthew records it in Matthew 12:22-24:

22 Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute. He cured the mute person so that he could speak and see. 23 All the crowd was astounded, and said, “Could this perhaps be the Son of David?” 

So, Jesus was going about his usual business of preaching, healing, and casting out demons from the possessed.  The crowds brought him one of these possessed people, so badly impacted by the demon that he was rendered both blind and mute.  As was his custom, Jesus completely healed the man in body and soul, liberating him from the demon and restoring his eyesight and speech.  The crowd around him was astonished, not just by the miracle, but by the probability they all felt that maybe this Jesus really was the Messiah!

It’s worth our considering how the double miracle of casting out the demon and restoring the man’s eyesight and speech so powerfully motivated the crowd’s conclusion that Jesus might really be their longed-for Messiah.  Why did they draw this conclusion?  They knew that throughout their history the promise of Messiah had been given to them by God.  They knew that Messiah would be attended by a great demonstration of God’s power, along the lines of Moses’ revelation of the law.  They knew that God had to showcase who Messiah was by such a demonstration of divine power to rule out other charlatans who might try to pose as the real Messiah—something, incidentally, that had been going on in Israel at this very time.  And how could God do that?  Only by linking Jesus’ messianic authority to God’s miraculous ratification!  So, when the crowds heard Jesus’ teaching and saw that divine ratification in his many miracles, they were becoming convinced that yes, this Jesus might indeed be the foretold savior!

Other people in the crowd were drawing the same conclusion, but they were not very pleased.  They saw the ascendency of this peasant carpenter from Galilee as a serious challenge to their religious power in Judea.  The most hostile party to Jesus, the Pharisees, knew that they had to break the link in the people’s minds between Jesus’s teaching authority and God’s miraculous verification of that authority.  So, they offered an alternative interpretation of the miracles:

24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “This man drives out demons only by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” (Matthew 12:34, NABRE)

Before looking at Jesus’ rebuttal to the Pharisees, let’s consider what they were really saying.  Yes, Jesus was doing some pretty impressive supernatural activity, but we all know that supernatural activity can be performed by people in league with the devils.  Since Jesus was casting out demons, it follows, the Pharisees maintained, that it must be the Prince of the demons himself, Beelzebul, who was behind Jesus’ power!  The effect of this argument was not merely to discount Jesus’ character in the eyes of the crowd, for the Pharisees also meant to disrupt the inference the people had been making about the miracles vouching for Jesus’ messianic authority, and not just for that day, but for all days thence.  For if miracles could not be trusted to vouch for divine authority, then how could God vouch for his Son?

It's worth keeping in mind that Jewish history offered many cases of God providing miraculous signs to vouch for his prophets, among them, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha and Daniel.  And in cases where rival miracles were in play, God overcame the demonic power being displayed.  Think back to the standoff between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.  Elijah challenged them to a divine contest to see whose god could send fire from heaven to ignite an altar sacrifice.  In spite of the prophets of Baal imploring their god all day long to send the desired fire, nothing happened.  It’s hard to imagine that the prophets of Baal would have accepted this challenge if they didn’t think that Baal would actually respond to them.  And it’s worth remembering that in the ancient world, the demons took an active role in pagan religion and politics.  So, the prophets of Baal had seen Baal perform supernatural works!  But God intervened in this case to block Baal—a demonic “god”—from doing anything to vouch for his prophets.  And then when it was Elijah’s turn, God struck his altar with so intense a heavenly fire that it consumed not just the sacrifice but the entire altar as well.  God backed his prophet, big-time!

Think also to the conflict between Moses and the sorcerers of Pharaoh.  Moses said that he represented the God of Israel who required Pharaoh to let his people go.  When Pharaoh challenged Moses’ divine credentials, Moses performed the signs that God had authorized him to use, casting his rod to the ground and watching as it turned into a living snake.  But then something remarkable happened.  The wizards of Pharaoh stepped forward and threw their rods onto the ground too.  Just as happened in Moses’ case, all of their rods turned into snakes!  So, contrary to what he did with Elijah and the prophets of Baal, God allowed the Egyptian sorcerers’ demonic gods to provide visible supernatural power to their devotees.  But then God turned the tables on them.  After allowing them to reveal themselves as lying behind the sorcerers’ power, the God of Moses overcame that demonic power by enabling Moses’ snake to devour all the other snakes before returning to Moses’ hand as a rod again!  As Moses launched the campaign of plagues against Egypt, the sorcerers were able to duplicate the first couple of plagues, turning water into blood and causing frogs to run all over the land.  God allowed this display of demonic power, again to showcase that evil supernatural power lay behind Pharaoh's false claim to divinity.  But from the third plague onward, the sorcerers found themselves unable to duplicate the miracles of the God of Israel.  They admitted as much to Pharaoh, saying that they were beaten, that this was indeed the real finger of God.  In fact, the situation became utterly humiliating for them, for in the plague of the boils, God struck down the sorcerers so severely that they couldn’t even walk to appear in court to confront Moses.

What do we learn from the details of God’s past miraculous action?  First, when God wants to vouch for a divine message, authenticating it as truly coming from him, he does so in a big way, with supernatural signs and miracles.  Why?  Because only a supernatural cause can produce a supernatural effect.  Second, there are other supernatural beings in the universe other than God.  These are the angels, and while many of them are good, some of them are not.  While in the ancient world all of the angels were then called the “gods,” we now understand that the fallen angels, the dark gods, were the beings we now call demons.  They were real then, and they are real now.  Third, the demonic mission is to thwart God’s efforts in the world, especially as they pertain to the redemption of human beings.  Fourth, when it comes to God’s revelation of redemptive truth in the world, the demons accordingly try to disrupt, corrupt, and block it.  In the cases of both Moses and Elijah, the demons wanted to gain the adoration and obedience of the peoples to them rather than to God Most High.  So, fifth, in any contest where God permitted the demons to use their supernatural but limited, finite powers in a contest of authenticating his prophets, God always exercised the greater power to squelch the demons, thereby showing his omnipotent superiority, demonstrating that he was the true God, the greatest in power and goodness and truth.  In fact, if God had not intervened to vouch for Moses and Elijah, the people of Israel would have been left in quite the conundrum about whether to trust those prophets.  Anybody can claim to speak for God.  But the true prophet must be backed visibly by God to vouch for that authority.

So, let’s apply all of this history of the relationship between God, the demons, and the Israelite prophets to the situation with Jesus.  Here was Jesus, not just a prophet of God, but the Messiah, the Son of God himself.  To showcase and authenticate his message and his identity, he performed an avalanche of miracles.  The demons tried to resist him by sending the people they possessed to confront Jesus on more than one occasion.  In each case, Jesus stopped them in their tracks and overcame not only the effects of their power, but blew them right out of the victims of their possession.  It was a stunning demonstration that he carried an authority that lay above the demonic.  And what power is that?  The power of the Most High God.  And that’s exactly what the crowd around Jesus was thinking!

So, since a direct supernatural confrontation failed, the demons tried a new tactic.  They instigated the Pharisees to deceive the people about the logical link they were making behind God’s awesome display of power and its authentication of Jesus as divine.  Jesus’s power, they insisted, was not the power of God, but instead the power of the demonic, but since Jesus had just tossed a demon out of somebody, it must be that he was himself possessed by the most powerful demon prince, Beelzebul!

Before looking closely at Jesus’ rebuttal to the Pharisees, let’s consider the full import of their argument.  If Jesus’ power is actually demonic, then obviously, he cannot be the Son of God and the Messiah.  But there is something much larger at work here, something that goes beyond Jesus’ specific case in that one instance: how could any miracle ever be counted upon to vouch for a divine messenger, if a critic could simply dismiss it as demonic?  What’s more, how could God vouch for any of his actions in the world if any supernatural effect could be attributed to demons?  Essentially, the Pharisees’ argument implied that God could not be known or heard in the world, because it was always just as reasonable or more reasonable to think that demons sourced these signs than that God did.

Now, consider the effect if you could never conclude that God had acted in the world?  How would the Israelites have known that God loved them and delivered them from slavery in Egypt into the promised land?  How would we know that God sent his Son into the world to die for our sins and rise again with the promise of new life in baptism?  How would we know that the Spirit had authorized the creation of the Church and emboldened her with such supernatural power that her sacraments could grant the forgiveness of sins and union with God in the Eucharist?  We couldn’t.  We would be forever cut off from God, for these critics and their demonic backers would have concocted a situation in which there was literally nothing that God could do to get our attention!  And our salvation would accordingly prove impossible.

And now we come to the crux of the matter: if you the block the believability of the action of God in the world, you cut yourself off from any hope of salvation.  You have blocked any hope of divine forgiveness which can come solely through God’s action in the world.  This is a terrible sin to commit, to so twist human reasoning in yourself or others that it could never believe God!  And here’s the clincher: it’s unforgiveable.  Why?  Because God doesn’t wish to forgive people?  No, not at all.  It’s unforgiveable because to be forgiven we must accept the offer of God’s salvation, but how can we recognize such an offer if we render ourselves incapable of believing in any divine action in the world?  The ostrich who permanently puts his head into the sand cannot see light, but that is not the fault of the sun.  Thus, to attribute to the demonic the supernatural power of the Most High God when God is vouching for his divine messengers and his own Son is to cut oneself off forever from the possibility of believing the reality of the gift of salvation.  We cannot be baptized unless we confess to the truth of God’s offer of salvation!  So, baptism cannot save you from this sin, not because baptism is too weak, but because you could not meet the faith conditions necessary to enter into the sacrament of baptism.

Jesus calls this unforgiveable sin the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  Why?  Because when God speaks in the world, he does so through the Intellect of God, the Eternal Word, his Son.  But when God acts in the world, he does so through the Action of God, the Love of God, the Holy Spirit.  Thus, when God seeks to vouch for his prophets, his Son, and his Church through the astonishing divine power revealed in the Exodus, in the Incarnation, and at Pentecost, those authenticating signs are enacted by the Holy Spirit.  To spit on the Spirit’s authentication blocks you from ever believing God’s loving offer of forgiveness.

Unfortunately, this sin is alive and well in our world, especially in our academic disciplines.  One philosopher in particular comes to mind, a fellow named David Hume, who wrote a book in the 1700’s in which he maintained that one could never reasonably attribute any miraculous event to God since one could never justifiably believe that a miracle had occurred.  In spite of the rebuttals that have been justly leveled at this absurd and patently circular argument (you can check out C. S. Lewis’ decisive critique of Hume’s argument in his Miracles), I have encountered too many academics and philosophy students who smugly ignore all supernatural attestation to God’s revelation in Judaism and Christianity on the supposed ground that miracles are in principle impossible to believe.  How can such people believe in God’s offer of salvation in Jesus then?  They cannot.  They have cut themselves off from the Spirit’s authentication.

Because this situation is so dire, Jesus pulls out all the stops in answer to the absurdities contained within the Pharisees’ argument, so let’s look closely at how he replies:

25 But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste, and no town or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself; how, then, will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own people drive them out? Therefore, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and steal his property, unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore, I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And 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 (Matthew 12:25-32, NABRE).

First, Jesus argues that Satan cannot undermine his own demonic minions without undermining his own kingdom: if Satan drives out Satan, that is incoherent.  Let’s take a closer look to see why.  Satan’s mission is to thwart God in the world.  Since God is the good, the true, the beautiful, and the most real, it follows that Satan’s efforts are to motivate and engage in evil, lies, ugliness, and illusion.  So, if Jesus teaches and lives goodness, truth, beauty, and created reality, and if Jesus overtly undermines demonic power on the earth by casting them out of people and the world, then what could even be meant by saying that Jesus operated in Satan’s power?  On that account we would say that when Jesus’ critic uses the term “Satan,” he must mean goodness, truth, beauty, created reality, love, and the suppression of every fallen angel—oh, but wait, that’s God!  Since the negation of a negation is the positive, Satan cannot oppose Satan without siding with God.

Second, if Jesus drives out demons by the power of demons, then the Pharisees’ own argument will apply to their Jewish exorcists!  How would anyone know that they weren’t likewise employing demonic power to exorcize demons?  Third, since Satan is not the source of Jesus’ power, but instead it comes from the Spirit of God, then we do know that the Kingdom of God has come, because the King has been authenticated by the Spirit’s supernatural signs.

Fourth, Jesus likens his mission to that of a plundering thief.  If someone intends to enter your house and steal your goods, he will be thwarted if a strong guard is there to stop him.  Thus, to accomplish the plunder, he must first capture and bind the guard.  How is this example relevant to Jesus’ case?  Jesus is the invader of the demon’s realms on the earth, come to crack their power and plunder their possessions.  In order to achieve this victory, he accordingly must bind their strong man, namely Satan.  So, Jesus over and again binds the demons to his word and throws them out of this world, defeating their power on earth and liberating their victims.  He accomplishes the ultimate plunder by providing salvation to human beings and taking the demons’ slaves away from them, just as Moses did in liberating the Israelite slaves from Pharaoh and his demonic overlords.

So, fifth, Jesus is on a mission and if you aren’t with him in his war of liberation for human beings enslaved to sin, then you are against him (read: the Pharisees).  You are either harvesting God’s people back into his kingdom or else you are with the demons seeking to scatter deceit, lies, and evil among people.  But when Jesus confronts and defeats them, it is the demons who scatter back to hell by Jesus’ divine authority, just as all those who attempt to block the Holy Spirit will find themselves scattered and running too.  For, sixth, God will forgive every sin and every blasphemy against even Jesus himself (remember how Jesus forgave even the ones crucifying him?).  But if you speak against the Holy Spirit’s action to authenticate God’s message of deliverance to the world, you cannot be redeemed ever, because you block yourself from ever accepting the authenticity of that divine offer.

Thus, we should never engage in sweeping rejections of God’s act in the world, what in philosophy we call universal or a priori dismissals of any possible miracles.  I say over and again to skeptical students that they won’t know until they look.  But too many people won’t even look.  Why?  Because they don’t want it to be true.  Openness to the evidence is the first requirement of the truth-seeking mind.  So serious is this first step that St. Paul classifies its violation as the cause of all the rest of our sinful disorders, where in Romans 1 he says that we commit our sins because we have already suppressed the truth.  Thus, the worst possible sin in terms of blocking our salvation is an epistemological one, one pertaining to the use of our knowledge faculty, our intellects.  We must love and follow the truth wherever it leads, even if, as C. S. Lewis once described of his own faith journey, it leads us “kicking and screaming into the kingdom of heaven.”

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