Profanation: The Unforgivable Sin?

Profanation: The Unforgivable Sin? November 3, 2011

In the comments on my previous post, Kendall pointed out that it’s important to be careful with the way we talk about “profanation.”  Without a doubt, I think the teachings on profanation are some of the most frightening in the Writings, and I think it’s important to look at them more closely.  I’m going to go into a fair amount of detail and use some fairly extensive quoting, because I think it’s an area that can’t very well be dealt with simply.

The Writings teach that profanation is basically the mixing of evil with good, or the mixing of  falsity with truth.  It happens when a person lives in goodness and acknowledges truth, and then rejects these.  When a person does this, it is much more harmful than if they had never accepted the truth in the first place.  The Lord didn’t use the Word “profanation” when He was in the world, but He did teach the concept:

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest; and finding not, he says, I will return to my house whence I came out; and when he comes, he finds it swept and adorned. Then he goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and entering in, they dwell there; and the last things of that man are worse than the first. (Luke 11:24-26).

And while He didn’t link the two teachings together, He did talk about the sin that could not be forgiven:

Wherefore I say unto you, Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men; but° the blasphemy of the Spirit shall not be forgiven men. 32 And whoever says a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but° whoever shall say it against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this age, nor in that to come. (Matt. 12:31, 32).

Even though on the surface these two teachings seem unrelated, the Writings say they are both about profanation.  The second passage is explained in Arcana Coelestia 9818:

“To say a word against the Son of man” denotes against truth Divine not yet implanted or inscribed in the life of man; but “to speak against the Holy Spirit” denotes against the Divine truth that has been implanted or inscribed in the life of man, especially against the Divine truth about the Lord Himself. To speak against this, that is, to deny it after it has once been acknowledged, is profanation; and the profanation is of such a nature that it utterly destroys the interiors of man; and from this it is said that this sin cannot be forgiven.

In other words, a person blasphemes the Son of man if He blasphemes the Lord but has never really known or acknowledged the Lord in the first place.  That’s forgivable.  But a person blasphemes the Holy Spirit if he at first knew and loved the Lord, but then rejected Him.  And that is said to be unforgivable.

The scary part of the teaching is the idea that once a person has profaned, there is no hope for forgiveness.  But why is that?  As Kendall points out, it’s because the person doesn’t want to repent and receive forgiveness.  Arcana Coelestia 9013 and 9014 (which I recommend reading in their entirety) talk about the same concept, although rather than using the term “profanation”, they mostly refer to “spiritual deceit” and “hypocrisy,” and say that those who are in these evils are meant by blasphemers of the Holy Spirit.  Arcana Coelestia 9013 says,

That it will not be forgiven them is because hypocrisy or deceit in connection with Holy Divine things infects the interiors of man, and destroys everything of spiritual life in him, as was said above, insomuch that at last there is nothing sound in any part of him. For the forgiveness of sins is the separation of evil from good, and the rejection of evil to the sides, which cannot be done with him in whom all good has been destroyed.

And Arcana Coelestia 9014 says,

How it is in regard to this can be seen from what was shown in the paragraph above (n. 9013), namely, that in spiritual things, deceit, that is, hypocrisy, cannot be forgiven. The reason is that deceit is like poison, for it penetrates even to the interiors, and kills everything of faith and charity, and destroys the remains, which are the truths and goods of faith and charity stored up by the Lord in the interiors of man, which being destroyed nothing of spiritual life any longer survives.  Wherefore when such persons supplicate the Lord for forgiveness, and promise repentance, which is signified by “fleeing to the altar,” they supplicate and promise nothing whatever from the heart, but only from the mouth. Therefore they are not heard, for the Lord looks at the heart, and not to words abstracted and estranged from the heart. Consequently for such there is no forgiveness, because no repentance is possible with them.

It is believed by many within the church that the forgiveness of sins is the wiping out and washing away thereof, as of filth by water; and that after forgiveness they go on their way clean and pure. Such an opinion prevails especially with those who ascribe everything of salvation to faith alone. But be it known that the case with the forgiveness of sins is quite different. The Lord forgives everyone his sins, because He is mercy itself. Nevertheless they are not thereby forgiven unless the man performs serious repentance, and desists from evils, and afterward lives a life of faith and charity, and this even to the end of his life. When this is done, the man receives from the Lord spiritual life, which is called new life. When from this new life the man views the evils of his former life, and turns away from them, and regards them with horror, then for the first time are the evils forgiven, for then the man is held in truths and goods by the Lord, and is withheld from evils. From this it is plain what is the forgiveness of sins, and that it cannot be granted within an hour, nor within a year. That this is so the church knows, for it is said to those who come to the Holy Supper that their sins are forgiven if they begin a new life by abstaining from evils and abhorring them.

From all this then it is evident how the case is with hypocrites, who through deceit are filled with evils as to the interiors, namely, that they cannot do the work of repentance; for the very remains of good and of truth in them have been consumed and destroyed, and therewith everything of spiritual life; and because they cannot do the work of repentance, they cannot be forgiven. [emphases added]

There are a few things that strike me in these passages.  First of all, they talk about “deceivers and hypocrites” as being those who cannot be forgiven.  And yet I don’t think any of us think that we have committed an unforgivable sin if we’ve lied.  It’s clearly talking about something else: about a person who has become so engulfed in spiritual deceit that everything they do is a lie.  Secondly, these passages say that a person can’t be forgiven because they don’t want to repent, even if with their lips they promise repentance.  I think Kendall’s right in suggesting that if we want to repent and be forgiven, it’s a sign that we haven’t reached a point where we’ve committed an unforgivable sin.  And in fact, the bulk of the teachings in the Writings seem to indicate that as long as we’re in this world, it’s not too late – “man is held constantly in a state of possible repentance and conversion, for the Lord is constantly present and urging to be received” (True Christian Religion 720).

Another teaching that I’ve found really helpful is that there are different degrees within profanation, just as there are lesser and worse degrees of any other evil.  Divine Providence 231 lists seven degrees, from the most mild – making jokes from things in the Word – all the way up to the most severe.  It is this last and most severe degree that is meant by the Lord’s words about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  Here’s a part of that passage:

Seventh, the kind of profanation committed by those who first acknowledge Divine truths and live according to them, but afterwards depart from them and deny them. This is the worst kind of profanation because such persons mingle things holy and profane to such a degree that they cannot be separated; and yet these things must be separated in order that men may find their place either in heaven or in hell. As this cannot be effected, however, in the case of such persons, all that is human, both intellectual and voluntary, is rooted out and, as was said before, they come to be no longer men. …

The profane of this kind are meant by the lukewarm, of whom it is thus written in the Revelation:

“I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.  So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15, 16).

I admit that the possibility of this kind of profanation scares me.  But it does help that it is not describing people who simply fail to live up to what they know to be true – it’s about people who “depart from” the truths and deny them.  I still worry about doing this, but I think to really commit this degree of profanation, a person has to intentionally deny and live against what they know to be true.

That description of the Lord “spewing out” the lukewarm is frightening, but one of the most hopeful and encouraging passages I came across was the treatment of those verses in Apocalypse Revealed.  It’s talking about the church of Laodicea, which represents people who profane, by sometimes living according to the Word and at other times rejecting it.  That Divine Providence passage explicitly links them with the worst degree of profaners.  And yet, the message the Lord sends to that church isn’t, “Give up, it’s hopeless.”  It is, “I counsel you to buy from Me gold tried in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments that you may be clothed, and the shame of nakedness may not appear; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.  As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten; be zealous, therefore, and repent” (Revelation 3:18,19).  The summary of the internal sense, from Apocalypse Revealed 154:

18 I urge you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be enriched,

An admonition to acquire for themselves the goodness of love from the Lord by means of the Word, in order to become wise,

and white garments, that you may be clothed,

in order to acquire for themselves genuine truths of wisdom,

that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed;

so as not to profane and adulterate the goodness of heavenly love,

and to anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.

so as to heal their understanding.

19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.

Because they are loved then, it must be that they are introduced into temptations or trials,

Be zealous, therefore, and repent.

in order for this goal to come about from an affection for truth.

The Lord’s advice for those who are in profanation is to repent – and there is a promise that they can be healed

I see forgiveness and mercy in all these passages.  Still, I want to be careful that I don’t minimize for myself or anyone else how terrible profanation is.  The Lord’s Divine Providence acts specifically to protect people from profanation.  Heaven and Hell 456 refers to passages from Arcana Coelestia that teach, “The lot of profaners in the other life is the worst of all, because not only the good and truth they have acknowledged, but also their evil and falsity remain, and as these cling together, the life is rent asunder (n. 571, 582, 6348).”  And Swedenborg was not even allowed to give detailed explanations of the meaning of leprosy, since it corresponded to profanation and “heaven is horrified at the bare mention of what is profane” (AC 6963).

But on the other hand, I do think it’s valuable to realize that there are degrees within profanation just as there are within other evils, and that though I know I have profaned on some of the lower levels at least (at the very least I know I’ve made jokes from and about the Word), that doesn’t mean I’ve committed the worst kind of profanation.  And looking further even into the teachings on the worse degrees of profanation, the majority of the passages to me seem to hold out hope for repentance and forgiveness.  It’s only if a person intentionally and completely rejects the Lord, and lives a life of intentional hypocrisy and deceit, that he can’t be forgiven, since he won’t really repent – and the Lord does everything in His power to keep that from happening.

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