11 August 2009


Q: What is the unforgivable sin?— B

A: There are many sins recounted in the Hebrew Bible but none are ever called unforgivable sins. Sometimes the punishment for sinning is death, but repentance is always possible before punishment.

In the Christian Scriptures, there are three verses that take up the subject of unforgivable sin. In the Book of Matthew (12: 31-32), we read, “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come.”

The same idea that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable is found in Luke 12:10 and Mark 3:29.

What constitutes such blasphemy is not so clear, but generally the idea is that rejecting God and God’s good news for salvation is the most radical and thorough rejection a person can make, and thus it separates the blasphemer most profoundly from the community of faith. This is not so much a punishment for the sinner as it is a fact about the sinner’s willful rejection of God’s grace.

If I were to translate this sentiment about unforgivable sin into my own life list, I’d probably include the following sins as fundamental, although the concept of unforgivability from a forgiving God is not sensible to me and one that I cannot accept into my own faith life. I believe that God can forgive all sins provided the sinner is truly contrite. Here’s my list of unforgivable sins:

• Murder, torture and abuse of any human being, but particularly the murder, torture and abuse of children and animals. These are more than unforgivable; they are incomprehensible. These violate the most basic dignity of the human person and deny God in our broken world.

As for lower-level unforgivable sins, I would include:

• Losing hope. Tomorrow may not be better than today, but when you stop hoping that tomorrow will be better than today, you are lost.

• Believing that you deserve everything you have. The beginning of a prayer life is understanding that we’ve been given more than we deserve, that we really need to thank God for the extra blessings.

• Believing that your burdens exceed your blessings. Every day we awaken to life, our blessings are greater than our burdens. Spending all your time thinking about what God has taken from you blinds you to the overwhelming abundance of what God has given to you.

• Believing you are worthless. Being made in the image of God is two blessings. The first blessing is being made in God’s image. The second blessing is knowing that you are made in God’s image. If you don’t know this, you must learn it, before you start believing the worst things hateful people say about you.

• Not caring about the big questions: Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there a purpose to life? What happens after I die? All these are eternal mysteries, not mere problems, and they deserve our time and prayerful attention. Just thinking about them ennobles, confirms and transforms us.

• Never understanding the difference between wisdom and intelligence. Being smart is knowing what is. Being wise is knowing what matters. Wisdom takes years of living. By my calculation, there are enough smart people in the world but not enough good people.

• Admiring famous people, not good people. The world is filled with amazing good people who are making the world better, or at least helping to keep it from getting worse. The good ones ought to be the celebrities, but the world doesn’t work that way yet.

• Thinking that children are a nuisance. Children can be noisy or smelly, but they’re never a nuisance. Robert Frost said that a baby is God’s opinion that life should go on. We should have the same opinion as God.

• Keeping score. Remembering every insult and every betrayal and every time some other person did not properly respect us is a waste of time and almost always leads to a sour disposition.

There are other unforgivable sins, but these will do for now.
By Rabbi Marc Gellman

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