Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit: What is the Unforgivable Sin?
You've stumbled upon quite the brain teaser for any Biblical scholar. Over the centuries, Christians have disagreed sharply about what this text actually means. There is no shortage of different teachings you might hear about it. One such teaching that you've obviously heard is that to "blaspheme the Holy Spirit" means to say the words "God damn it." Let me start by saying: whatever blaspheming the Holy Spirit does mean, that isn't it.
How can I say that? Well, for three reasons. The first is simply context. One of the things we have to be careful about when reading the Bible is that the original authors weren't 21st century Americans writing to our culture. They were Jews living 2000 years ago under Roman rule where Greek was the universal language (like English is today). Their culture had its own unique set of moral problems, some the same as today (sexual immorality, greed, etc.) and some entirely different (pagan worship, child sacrifice, etc.).
So, if you consider their culture, the simple fact is that the expression "God damn it" didn't exist. People didn't walk around saying that whenever they were angry or surprised. So, it doesn't make any sense that Jesus would be referring to that phrase in 30 AD speaking to a crowd of people who would have no idea what he meant.
Second, the idea of saying "God damn it" is a very simple request: we are asking God to condemn some person or object to destruction because we are angry with it. You could argue that it is a prayer. Read Psalm 7:6, where David makes the same request of God in slightly different words: "Arise, O Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice" (Ps. 7:6). So, simply asking God to damn something is not a sin at all. However, what is a sin would be to do so "in vain"-meaning, for personal and selfish reasons rather than for reasons of God's glory. That is the meaning of the 4th commandment, "You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God" (Exodus 20:7), which is, by the way, forgivable.
And the third reason that I can tell you "God damn it" is not the unforgivable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is because the text itself (Matthew 12) tells us what Jesus was referring to.
"Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, 'Could this be the Son of David?' But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, 'It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.'" (Matthew 12:22-24)Notice that all the people did not even consider that Jesus was himself a demon. In fact, they immediately began to consider that He might be the Messiah, the "son of David," whom Jews had been awaiting for a long time. However, the Pharisees-religious elite who were intent on discrediting Jesus altogether-made an audacious claim. They said that He did these works by the power of Satan.
Actually, they called it Beelzebub. Here again we have to understand cultural context of 2000 years ago. Beelzebub was the name that Jews assigned to the most evil and deplorable pagan god. It was for them a name which figuratively represented everything opposed to God. It could be compared to our concept of "the devil" with horns and a pitchfork. It was derived from the name of one of the pagan gods nearby, and suffice it to say that anything related to a pagan god was deplorable, sinful, and evil.
So, whereas the people who saw Jesus' works were quick to believe that He was not only doing these miracles by God, but that he may also be the Messiah, the Pharisees identified His miracles as demonic and something to be feared. And, so, Jesus said of those Pharisees:
"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Matthew 12:30-32).It was the Holy Spirit, not Satan, who did the miracles that this crowd had seen. So, the ordinary sins of the people-"every sin and blasphemy"-could be forgiven. But for those who blasphemed against the Holy Spirit by saying that the Holy Spirit's works were actually evil and demonic, they could not be forgiven that sin.
The word "blasphemy" means to tell a slanderous lie, like spreading a vicious rumor. So, to blaspheme the Holy Spirit was to lie to the people about the source of Jesus' power in order to persuade them not to follow Him. That is the sort of sin that won't be forgiven. But, Jesus goes on to explain that it was not that they had accidently misspoken and now were condemned forever. This was no simple mistake on the Pharisee's part. The Pharisees were deeply evil. Jesus was describing their real hearts:
"You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:34-37).