Salvation Anxiety and the Unforgivable Sin

There’s one thing that always used to bother me as an evangelical. Well, there are several things, but this one in particular. Jesus came to earth to die on the cross so that sins might be forgiven, but he also stated that there was an unforgivable sin. You could be forgiven all manners of transgression except this one. To the one who committed the unforgivable sin, the doors of heaven were forever shut.

The reason this bothered me was that I wanted to be completely sure of what this sin was so that I could make sure that I wouldn’t commit it. It scared me that there was a sin that I could commit that would mean hell no matter what, no second chances, no nothing. One thing that brought me a lot of comfort as an evangelical was knowing that no matter what I did I could repent and come to Jesus and my sins would be forgiven – except this one, of course. And that seemed odd. And important.

Mark 3:22-30

22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”

 23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”

The unforgivable sin is blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. And the million dollar question, of course, is what exactly this means. It’s rather vague and scholars have debated for centuries over the exact meaning of the “unforgivable sin.”

One interpretation I heard growing up was that the unforgivable sin was deliberately rejecting Christ, and that if you stopped rejecting Christ you were no longer sinning the unforgivable sin and were therefore forgiven. In other words, if you have heard the gospel, and understand it, and yet reject it, you are sinning the unforgivable sin; if you change your ways, however, and accept the gospel, then you will be saved. The unforgivable sin, then, is only unforgivable as long as you continue doing it.

This never made any sense to me. That’s not “unforgivable,” that’s setting conditions. It’s like if I were to tell my daughter “spilling the cheerios on the floor is unforgivable; however, if you pick them up and put them in the trash I will forgive you.” Seriously,w hat? The first part – “that’s unforgivable” – does not match the second part – “but I’ll forgive you if.”

In my own reading of the above passage, it looked to me like Jesus was saying that the teachers of the law were unforgivable because they said Jesus was actually acting on the devil’s power rather than in the power of the holy spirit, which constituted “blaspheming the holy spirit.” Thus, speaking ill of the holy spirit, or accusing the holy spirit of being satanic, is unforgivable.

I was also taught, though, that a Christian could not commit the unforgivable sin. This didn’t end my concern, though, because I was also told that if a Christian fell away from the gospel he was probably never saved in the first place. This made me nervous, as I’ve explained in my post about salvation anxiety, because it was often the case that a fallen away Christian had previously been indistinguishable from a “true” Christian. And besides that, the passage above does not specify that a Christian can’t commit the unforgivable sin.

I suppose some might say that by leaving Christianity after being raised in the truth I have myself committed the unforgivable sin. Of course, these same individuals would likely say I was never saved in the first place, and if I somehow “returned” to Christianity they would likely accept me with open arms rather than explaining to me that I had committed the unforgivable sin and therefore could not be saved.

In retrospect, it’s amazing how much emotional concern and how much scholarly ink has been spilled slicing and dicing the problem of “the unforgivable sin,” which is only mentioned above and in an identical passage in Matthew 12. And personally, I’m glad I don’t have to worry about all that anymore.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Anders

    I’ve heard that it was apostasy. You get one chance, but if you accept Christ and then reject him it’s the oven for you.

  • jamessweet

    In Mormon theology, the interpretation is that it’s when you’ve been given proof of the gospel and then reject it anyway. Like if Jesus physically appears to you in person, and you turn around and deny it. Those who had a testimony based on regular ordinary faith could reject the gospel, but then come back and have that forgiven. It’s only those who actually had it manifest to them and then rejected it who would be unforgiven.

    Which, when you think about it, is pretty safe: Since Jesus doesn’t actually go around appearing to people in real life, nobody in real life can actually be guilty of the unforgivable sin! heh…

  • Willy

    Dear Libby Anne,

    As long as you are (somewhat) worried about this, you have not committed the unforgivable sin. If you knowingly and purposely reject the Messiah, given to us by God, then you are in trouble. It is not a sin to doubt but it is to reject Him.

    With love

    • eric

      But if you reject him and then come back, you are forgiven, right? So how is rejecting unforgiveable?

      Libby – why not just take this at face value? If you curse, revile, or make other profane statements against the holy spirit, that’s it. Yeah, theologically the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime, but then again, no crimes do: this is just a more harsh punishment in a long list of over-harsh punishments.

    • Forbidden Snowflake

      If you knowingly and purposely reject the Messiah, given to us by God, then you are in trouble.

      What does that even mean? Believing in god but rejecting it anyway, like the just-angry-at-god straw-atheist? If she genuinely doesn’t believe in a god, then she isn’t “knowingly” rejecting it, even if it exists.

      • Willy

        Very true. There are, however, people who know that God is but just want nothing to do with Him. There are also people angry with Him.

  • gshelley

    How does this fit with Jesus’ claim not to be changing the law, and the later abolishment of the law after the death/resurrection?

    Would it be consistent with Christian theology to argue that before the resurrection, all sins apart from this one could be forgiven by the sacrificial practices, but after, even this one could be, or do Christians tend to believe sins weren’t actually forgiven by the sacrificial practices?

  • Willy

    @4 gshelly,

    Interesting thought. But Jesus never did abolish the Thorah, He fulfilled and accomplished it(for us).

    • G.Shelley

      OK, as a non Christian I can’t see the difference, but accepting there is one, could this fulfilment have changed what is unforgivable?
      I can see a logic in the idea that when Jesus made his statement there was no atoning sacrifice to wash away sins, so it could be that there were sins that couldn’t be cleansed with the traditional methods, but that wouldn’t necessarily follow that they couldn’t be cleansed afterwards.

      • Willy

        Good point. Personally, if I would be afraid to have overstepped the line (and I have) I would still go back to Him (and I have) and ask Him for forgiveness, because I do not see any alternative. For me life is not possible without His forgiveness and love.

  • AnyBeth

    Another candidate for the unforgivable sin:

    Were you ever confronted with the verses that say you must forgive others or God won’t forgive you? (Matt 6:14-15, Mark 11:25-26) My sister brought it up; I figure her way of dealing with the (not religiously motivated) child abuse (which she got less than me, but still) was to pretend it never happened and, when she couldn’t, to re-frame it all to be our fault. I never thought for long that I was going to hell because I didn’t forgive those who abused me and allowed abuse, but it still did a number on me, like I was awful and deserving of terrible bad just because I’m never going to go on as if nothing ever happened. People hurt me enough that I can never feel toward them as I would have had they not done so and, when I think of it, I’m still very upset/angry/disgusted about the instances. And the bible essentially says that because of this, I will never have absolution like others do, even the ones who so hurt me? It’s disgusting. I thought that as a Christian, too… only it troubled me a lot more then. Like you, I’m glad I don’t need to worry about that anymore.

    • Anonymous

      Forgiveness is about moving from hating someone to loving him, and loving someone doesn’t mean having warm and fuzzy feelings toward him, nor is it about lessening our hatred for the evils committed by him. It is about wishing for his good and hoping that he will become a better person. In other words, hate the sin but love the sinner. There is no need to feel the same way toward people as you would have had they not treated you so badly; you do not have to like them. Loving in this case is a conscious decision rather than a feeling. Likewise, the first step to forgiveness is making a conscious decision to try to do so.

      God Bless

      “But though natural likings should be encouraged, it would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings.”
      -C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

      • AnyBeth

        (TW: abuse)

        I am under no obligation to forgive my abusers by your definition. One of my abusers was an ex-uncle who sexually molested at least half a dozen females within my extended family when they were young, including both me and my mother. I should wish him well?! De ninguna manera! I find the notion disgusting! Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve wished him active harm, but I wish him no positive things and he’s one of two people I’ve known personally that I’d feel very relieved and perhaps even happy at their deaths because it’s the only way to be assured they’ll have no more victims. (The other person is a sociopath who thinks it right to control the lives and deaths of others, even to the point of trying to see to it that someone die. I knew him in his early 20s, as he was wanting to help people, particularly kids, by becoming a teacher, a counselor, a pastor… Hands down, the scariest person I’ve known. I think I’d be outright stupid to forgive him, as even the assumption that he can become a better person only plays right into his hands.)

        Hm. And about loving not meaning forgetting… in different context, I can agree, at least to an extent, but you are aware Christian teaching isn’t agreed on that point, right? I mean, there’s that bit about love in 1 Corinthians that includes “[Love] keeps no record of wrongs.” Combine that with the idea that Christians are supposed to love (the “new commandment”) and the verses I listed above and you have the idea that Christians ought to forgive immediately and never acknowledge past wrongs. This is how you get Christian leaders (among others) quickly forgiven of great wrongdoing and profound hypocrisy while remaining in very high standing if not still in their positions. You know, because any denial of such unconditional love and forgiveness is fundamentally unchristian. Heck, I got the same argument (from these sources) when I was part of the administration on a mid-level Christian message board for having the audacity to suggest we deny lifting a ban on a person who had (a) been banned multiple times before and (b) always earned a new banning within weeks of a prior bans expiring. It might not be you, but these types certainly exist and the Bible is used to justify such beliefs.

        Personally, I’m entirely against love being divorced from like. But one of the particular ways I was abused involved being given bad definitions. How you’re talking could fit in with some of those definitions …that served to divorce me from effective communication for years, including nearly all help I might need to recover from that and the rest of the abuse. I doubt I’ll forget my mother spitting these words at me, “I love you, but I don’t have to like you,” with as much contempt as I’ve ever heard. (While I doubt any offense could have made that appropriate, mine was being around while she was upset.) The redefining of love in particular set me up to be ripe for abuse, as I’d be more likely to accept as love things that aren’t love at all.

        I don’t know if this particular anon is going to read this, or even if much of anyone will. This person came here, read what I wrote about an idea I was glad to leave behind, especially because of how it relates to my abuse history… and then chose to dredge this up again from a year ago, just to tell me how I’m all wrong about it, as if I haven’t possibly heard most every permutation of how I’m wrong over the years. I’m much less than impressed. I still think the idea is disgusting and I find it terribly distasteful that the anon decided as they did, particularly under such circumstances. To the anon and anyone who would agree they did right, you aren’t helping. All you are doing is further distressing an already distressed person. All you’re doing amounts to a valiant attempt at re-opening an old wound. (I’m glad I’m sufficiently recovered from PTSD not to have flashbacks from this on the spot.) Intentions aside, it’s a lack of forethought or understanding that produced a cruel result. Please don’t do this.

      • Anonymous

        I’m sorry if I’ve distressed you; it really wasn’t my intention.

      • AnyBeth

        Thank you. I can appreciate that you didn’t intend distress and it’s good to see that you can appreciate that intentions aren’t everything. I hope you’ll remember this and do differently when you come across something similar in the future, at the least, not again attempting to correct an abuse survivor on something they’ve said they’re glad to be away from. And maybe not adding -hm- uncommon definitions for “love” to those you have reason to suspect have had that word used in very wrong ways in the past, that having the tendency to add to the confusion rather than clarify anything. If you or anyone will be more thoughtful now, this will have been well worth it to me. Again, thank you.

  • Didaktylos

    Not that I’m a Christian but I’ve done a bit of thinking along these lines and I would suggest that it ought to be something along the lines of taking it upon onself to make a definitive and categorical statement with regard to any person’s status regarding “salvation”.

  • Lunafox

    Libby, this is totally off topic but I can’t see another way to contact you. Are you familiar with “the Meeting” at all? It’s a non-denominational fundamentalist/evangelical group that’s primarily in the US but also has assemblies worldwide, and the organization I was raised it. Just wondering! Also, thanks for your work here….. it is greatly appreciated. :)

    • Libby Anne

      You can find my email address at the end of the “about” tab at the top of the page. I used to have a “contacts” tab but I kept getting spam so I took it down.

      And no, I have not heard of “the Meeting,” though the church I grew up in was nondenominational and I’ve heard of several other such groups. Feel free to email me, I’d love to learn more about it. :-)

  • lordshipmayhem

    I always thought the Unforgivable Sin was Episode One of Star Wars… that or wearing white after Labour Day.

    • Makoto

      Much like feeding mogwais after midnight – when are you allowed to start wearing white again? I’ve always heard no white after Labor Day, but not when it was cool to start again.

      I think the whole prequel trilogy counts as an unforgivable sin, though, not just Ep 1.

      • Cunning Pam

        Makoto, according to my grandmother the acceptable season for wearing white runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day (except of course for brides.)

  • Eclectic

    Well, as you may be aware, in 2007 there was a spate of youtube videos submitted for the Blasphemy Challenge, where people tried to commit this sin.

    If you ever do figure out what it is, please share it, because maybe if I do it loudly enough, the proselytizers will give up and go away.

  • One Brow

    My wife is a Baptist with OCD (I’m a mid-life conversion to atheism), and one of her issues is with the unforgivable sin. We have had many discussions about it.

    One version I learned of it is that the Pharisees saw the action of the Holy Spirit with their own eyes, and that to be unforgivable, you need to sin against the direct by misattributing the direct actions of Holy Spirit in front of you. Another, negative test I learned is that if you care whether you have committed the unforgivable sin, you haven’t. I use both with my wife.

  • Ashley Amber

    When I was 19, I woke up in the middle of the night convinced I had blasphemed against the Holy Spirit. The words “F— you, Holy Spirit” flashed through my mind over and over again. I woke up my mom because I was so freaked out over burning in Hell. Fortunately for me and my long-suffering parents, I deconverted two years after that.

  • Vicki

    The passage in question is a remnant from a time when Jesus was human. (based on a real person or fictional – the writings make him increasingly divine over time.) It is problematic to current doctrine because he says that you can blaspheme against him – just not the holy spirit. Most (non-fundi brainwashed) scholars think that the original saying was making the point – you can curse (just human) me – great teacher though I may be, but don’t curse god. That would obviously need to be tampered with, however, if you are a scribe in a community that says he is god. And so a confusing mess was made of the passage.

  • Ace of Sevens

    I think the root issue here is the author of Mark had a somewhat different conception that the author of Luke and Acts and the latter’s theology is trying to be imposed on the former. Most of these explanation make the unforgivable sin not sound like something you would describe as “blaspheming the holy spirit.”

    The odd thing is that, as you say, the text gives a solid example of what Jesus meant. Apparently, all those people who try to give rational explanation for miracles are doomed, assuming the holy spirit did them. Healing is probably the father, so you can blaspheme about that all you want, but don’t question speaking in tongues.

  • Conuly

    You know, what really bugs me is this whole “Satan can’t drive out demons, that’ll weaken him” argument is just weak. If by driving out demons from 1 person he got 100 new people converted, however accidentally, to his side, wouldn’t he do that? Basic cost/benefit here.

    • Anonymous

      But Jesus had been driving out many demons (Mark 3:10-11), not just one. And anyway, I do not think that anyone was converted to Satanism because of it.

      • Conuly

        No, they were converted to Christianity. But the watchers were arguing that Christianity was BAD, that is, inherently satanic.

        The number of demons is irrelevant. If they’re all in cahoots, there could be a bazillion of them.