The Unpardonable Sin (Part 2)
There is another reference to the so-called “unpardonable sin” in the book of Matthew as well. So, in the interest of thoroughness, we will now examine it too.
Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 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.
There are several important points to notice here:
- The good news of this passage seems to be frequently overlooked. As in the similar passage of Mark 3:28-30, it should be noted that every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven. That is really good news! If blaspheming the Holy Spirit is an exception, it is the only one, and therefore every other sin will be forgiven.
- It does not say that the person will never be forgiven but rather that they will not be forgiven in this age or in the age to come. This, of course, raises the question of what is being referred to by the “age to come.” Those who wish to promote belief in eternal torment tend to insist that the “age to come” means eternity, but this view is difficult to support.
It must be remembered that Jesus lived in a particular age or era. He was speaking prior to His own death and resurrection, an event that surely ushered in a new age. At His death, the veil in the temple tore in two, signifying a change in the relationship of humanity to God. Jesus’ time on earth (including His life, death, and resurrection) was an incredibly significant turning point in history. Calendars around the world (even secular ones) still divide history into the age before Christ (BC or BCE) and the age after Christ’s birth (AD or CE). Furthermore just a few decades later in AD 70, the Jewish temple and sacrificial system was completely destroyed and has never recovered. These were radical changes. For these reasons, it is reasonable to conjecture that the age to come might refer to the church age following Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the short age between Jesus' resurrection and the destruction of the temple, or to the age following the destruction of the temple and its religious practices that had defined Judaism up until then. It is also possible that the “age to come” could refer to the age of the millennial kingdom described in Revelation 20 (or possibly some other age in history). It is not necessary to be dogmatic about what the “age to come” refers to, but since we see more than one age to come described in the Bible, it seems likely that the coming age refers to one of those and not to eternity. That eternity is not in view should also be clear by the fact that eternity is not properly an “age” at all, but rather would encompass all ages—past, present, and future.
Thus, it is clear that not being forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come, does not necessarily denote that a person will never be forgiven. This age and the coming one is a specific limited duration of time (2 ages). The number of ages that comprise all of time is simply unknown.
- Finally, even if the text did say that a person would never be forgiven for this sin, this still tells us nothing about the penalty for not being forgiven. What do I mean by this?
Well, as an example, I happen to have some debts, including a mortgage and a student loan. I am pretty sure that these debts will never be forgiven. I could hope otherwise, but I’m pretty certain that I’ll have to pay them off. But not being forgiven my debt does not mean that my bank is going to torture me forever. I simply have to pay the debts, and once I have paid, I don’t have to pay anymore. For my student loan, payment is almost complete. For my mortgage, not so much.
But even if I default on my loans, I will not be tortured forever. Instead, there will be appropriate consequences for defaulting that depend on the amount that is owed. The same is true of prison sentences. A person is incarcerated based on the severity of their crimes, but once they have served their time, they are free. If the crime was stealing a Snickers bar, the time served will obviously be less than if the crime was hijacking a 747 at gunpoint. This proportionality corresponds to the oft-repeated biblical principle that all people will be judged according to what they have done. It is noteworthy that neither the debts nor the crimes are ever pardoned in the above scenarios, but this does not mean that the penalty is eternal conscious torment.
Instead, the punishment for sins is measured according to the offense and is limited. Indeed, the parable of the unforgiving servant makes this point.
Matthew 18:21-35 (ESV)
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
It must be noted that this parable is a response to a question—namely, how many times we should forgive someone who wrongs us. It seems that Peter’s aim in asking the question was to find out how little he had to forgive. To correct this attitude, Jesus made it clear that we should always forgive (the expression 70 times 7 in the Greek is typically interpreted to mean complete or boundless forgiveness*) and thereby imitate God who will have mercy and freely pardon all who turn to Him (Isaiah 55:7). We see this abundant mercy and forgiveness of God play out in the king’s forgiveness of the servant who owed him the enormous sum of 10,000 talents. Yet this servant refuses to forgive a fellow servant, who owed him a far smaller sum, and furthermore brutally and mercilessly mistreats him. For this reason, the king was angry with the hypocrisy and cruelty of the unmerciful servant and had him imprisoned “until he should pay all his debt.”
Notice that he was only to be imprisoned until he repaid his debt. Now, it is clear that 10,000 talents is a very large debt, but it is certainly not an infinite one. In fact, the text specifies the amount: 10,000 talents, not infinite talents. The popular notion that the debt was infinitely large is contradicted by the text and reason. The word “until” tells us that there is a limit to the punishment, that it comes to an end. That is what “until” means.
But beyond the fact that Jesus is speaking of an end to the punishment of the cruel and unmerciful servant is the point of the parable in context—namely, that we must freely forgive others that wrong us. Forgiving others is so important that it is given as a necessary condition that must be fulfilled in order to receive forgiveness from God:
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Why does Jesus tell us these things? It seems that in order to participate in the kingdom of Heaven that Jesus repeatedly described in the Gospels, we must be willing to become like our Father in Heaven, who is merciful and forgiving. Holding grudges and condemning other human beings are dross that must be removed. So, it seems that God causes us to experience the consequences of our unforgiving attitudes until we are willing to forgive in order to refine us and make us like Himself.
Now, with this in mind, I cannot help but notice that many Christians seem content to be forgiven of their own enormous debts but begrudge this same forgiveness to their fellow man. It seems far too common that we are overjoyed at our own forgiveness, but then pronounce the most unmerciful of all possible condemnations upon others, many of whom simply have not heard the gospel or understood it. I have heard of Christians who are bothered by the notion that God would save people from religious traditions that are different from their own (even if these individuals come from Christian traditions and profess belief in Christ). Why does the salvation of others bother people? It seems to be because they are unwilling to show mercy to others for their perceived doctrinal misunderstandings and imperfections (even though these offenses are not even directed at them). Is this not the same attitude that Jesus spoke against in the unmerciful servant? Is it not this attitude that caused the king to turn him over to the jailers? He was unwilling to forgive the sins of others, unwilling to show mercy.
But what if he learns his lesson? What if he forgives? Is it possible that his incarceration might be cut short if he learns to forgive for, as Jesus said, “if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you”? Perhaps this is the real debt of the unforgiving servant, the debt of a hard heart that, once softened, is paid in full. Perhaps this is the purpose of judgment, to replace our unmerciful hearts of stone with hearts of flesh that are merciful as our Father is merciful.
Is it possible that we, as Christians, have exhibited the heart of the unmerciful servant toward others by pronouncing a judgment of eternal hell on them, disobeying Jesus’ direct command to judge not, lest we also be judged? If so, I believe that God can soften our hearts as well so that we can become forgiving like He is. I pray that we are willing.
Finally, we will end with some wise words from one of the most influential of the early church fathers, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, who understood that nothing is impossible for God, but rather that even the blasphemers who deserved the worst of punishments would come to wholeheartedly serve God. Alluding to Matthew 12:30-32, he states that those who committed the “unpardonable sin” are “liable to the severest chastisement” and “shall have remission neither in this world nor in that which is to come. But God is able to open the eyes of their heart to contemplate the Sun of Righteousness, in order that coming to know Him whom they formerly set at nought, they may with unswerving piety of mind together with us glorify Him, because to Him belongs the kingdom, even to the Father Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen” (On Luke 10:22 and Matthew 11:27, Section 6).
Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Citations and Notes
Athanasius of Alexandria. On Luke 10:22 and Matthew 11:27. Translated by Archibald Robertson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2805.htm