The Bible’s View
Can Blasphemy Be Forgiven?
JESUS CHRIST on one occasion told certain Pharisees: “Every sort of sin and blasphemy [abusive speech; slander; impious word] will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the spirit will not be forgiven. For example, whoever speaks a word against the Son of man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy spirit, it will not be forgiven him.” (Matt. 12:31, 32; An American Translation; The New English Bible; Weymouth) This gives rise to such questions as: Why may blasphemy against the Son of God and his Father be forgiven? How might a person blaspheme them and yet not also be reviling God’s spirit? What does it mean to blaspheme the holy spirit?
The Bible provides a specific example of one who blasphemed God and Christ but did not become guilty of unforgivable sin. This one was Saul, or the apostle Paul, prior to his conversion. Paul wrote to Timothy: “Formerly I was a blasphemer [abusive speaker] and a persecutor and an insolent man.”—1 Tim. 1:13; compare An American Translation; The New English Bible.
Before his conversion, Paul regarded disciples of Jesus Christ as apostates deserving of death. He felt that the Mosaic law approved of his course, for that law stated regarding an apostate: “You must not accede to his wish or listen to him, nor should your eye feel sorry for him, nor must you feel compassion, nor cover him protectively; but you should kill him without fail.” (Deut. 13:8, 9) Convinced that he was right, Paul continued to act against Christ’s disciples in a high-handed, arrogant manner and so revealed himself to be an “insolent man.” As a persecutor of Christians, he was one like those of whom Jesus said to his disciples: “Everyone that kills you will imagine he has rendered a sacred service to God.” (John 16:2) Paul was guilty of blaspheming or speaking abusively of the Son of God. His hatred for Christ’s disciples demonstrated that he viewed Jesus as an impostor and thus he reproached the Christ. By speaking abusively of the Son, Paul was also guilty of blaspheming the Father whom Jesus represented.—John 7:29; Matt. 27:39; Mark 15:29; Luke 23:39; Jude 8, The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures.
After his conversion, the apostle Paul came to appreciate how perilously close he had come to committing the unforgivable sin. In his letter to Timothy, he acknowledged the great mercy that had been shown him and also indicated why he could be forgiven. We read: “I was shown mercy, because I was ignorant and acted with a lack of faith.” (1 Tim. 1:13) Note that Paul, before his conversion, did not knowingly fight against God and Christ. He was ignorant, blind to the truth about the Son of God, and so without faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the appeal of the dying Stephen, whose murder Paul approved, was also in Paul’s behalf: “Jehovah, do not charge this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60) At heart, Paul really wanted to do what was right, as is evident from his zeal for Jewish tradition and his strict adherence to the teaching of the Pharisees.—Phil. 3:5, 6.
Hence, when Jesus Christ himself imparted understanding to him, the persecutor Saul did not hesitate to change his course. Soon he found himself among the hated, persecuted, abusively spoken-of disciples of the Son of God.—Acts 9:3-25; 18:5, 6.
The case of Paul can serve as an encouragement to all who, in ignorance, may have proved themselves to be fighters against God and Christ. Their blasphemy or abusive speech can be forgiven them if they repent. The apostle Paul himself made a strong point of this, saying: “Faithful and deserving of full acceptance is the saying that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am foremost. Nevertheless, the reason why I was shown mercy was that by means of me as the foremost case Christ Jesus might demonstrate all his long-suffering for a sample of those who are going to rest their faith on him for everlasting life.”—1 Tim. 1:15, 16.
How, then, is it that one can be guilty of the unforgivable sin? Persons who with full knowledge deliberately oppose God and Christ, hide the truth and propagate falsehoods make themselves guilty of sinning against God’s spirit—a sin that cannot be forgiven. This is what certain Pharisees did in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. They were eyewitnesses of the miracles and powerful works of God’s spirit operating through Jesus Christ. But they refused to glorify Jehovah God. For selfish reasons, they attributed to Satan the work of God through Christ. In this way they sinned against God’s spirit.—Matt. 12:24-32.
Other incidents reported in the Bible also illustrate that certain religious leaders deliberately placed themselves in opposition to the operation of the holy spirit. After Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the dead, they were determined to have Jesus put to death. (John 11:47-53) But that was not all. The Scriptures tell us: “The chief priests now took counsel to kill Lazarus also, because on account of him many of the Jews were going there and putting faith in Jesus.”—John 12:10, 11.
Later, when soldier guards stationed at the tomb brought back a report that Jesus had been raised from the dead, the chief priests were determined to hide the facts. What did they do? The Bible answers: “After these had gathered together with the older men and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient number of silver pieces to the soldiers and said: ‘Say, “His disciples came in the night and stole him while we were sleeping.” And if this gets to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him and will set you free from worry.’”—Matt. 28:11-14.
So, the Scriptures make it clear that sin against the spirit involves acting knowingly and deliberately against the undeniable evidence of the holy spirit’s operation, as did the chief priests and certain Pharisees in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. However, anyone who may in ignorance blaspheme or speak abusively of God and Christ can be forgiven, provided that he is genuinely repentant. Nonetheless, since it is possible for a person to blaspheme against God’s spirit, this emphasizes the importance of keeping as far away from sinful speech as possible. (Jas. 3:2-10) We should strive to imitate the example of the apostle Paul after his conversion. He said: “I pummel my body and lead it as a slave, that, after I have preached to others, I myself should not become disapproved somehow.”—1 Cor. 9:27.