What does it mean to “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit”?

Q. I would appreciate your teachings on “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven.” Thank you.

Please see this post for an explanation of that statement:

Have I committed the unpardonable sin?

In that post I say, among other things, “The ‘unpardonable sin’ that Jesus talks about (as recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke)”—also described as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”—is “the act of attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan. The reason this sin ‘can’t be forgiven’ is not because the person has done something so bad that it’s beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. The Bible stresses that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient for the forgiveness of any and all sins that any human being might commit. Rather, if we attribute the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan, then this will make us resist the work of the Holy Spirit, and His gracious influences will not be able to bring us to repentance and salvation. In other words, Jesus isn’t saying that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. He’s saying that it can not be forgiven, because it separates us from the very influence that’s meant to lead us to forgiveness.”

That is, the statement is descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s describing the position that people put themselves in when they try to dismiss Jesus and his teachings by saying that they come from an evil source. It’s not saying that God will permanently take the attitude of “no forgiveness” towards someone who happens to say or think a certain thing. I hope this is helpful; please see the rest of the post for a fuller discussion.

Why does God say in a couple of places in the Bible that He won’t forgive?

Q. Why did the Lord say, when he was instructing the Israelites about the angel he was sending ahead of them in the wilderness, that if they didn’t obey, the angel (acting on God’s authority) would not forgive them? And why did Jesus say, after teaching his disciples the Lord’s prayer, that if we don’t forgive, the Lord in heaven will not forgive our transgressions?

I can understand why you are puzzled about these passages, because the Bible teaches generally that God’s disposition towards us is always to forgive us and restore us when we confess our sins. So why would the Bible say in a couple of places that God will not forgive us? I think there’s actually something more than meets the eye going on in both passages.

To consider the case of the angel first, there’s a verb in Hebrew that means “to lift up and take away.” It might be used, for example, in a case where someone picks something up and carries it off. However, this verb is also used just to mean “lift up,” that is, to carry or bear; or just to mean “take away.” It’s often used in that second sense to refer to forgiven sin. For example, Nathan says to David after he confesses his wrong, “The Lord has taken away your sin.” That’s the NIV translation, and it brings out the literal sense of the word. Ten other versions, however, say what it signifies, for example, the NET: “The Lord has forgiven your sin.”

Many translations also see this second sense in the passage about the angel who will go ahead of the Israelites in the wilderness. For example, the NIV reads: “Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.” However, it seems to me that in the context, the first limited meaning, “carry or bear,” could well be intended instead. As the CEV (Contemporary English Version) puts it, “Carefully obey everything the angel says, because I am giving him complete authority, and he won’t tolerate rebellion.” So the meaning is not so much that sins won’t be forgiven, it’s that disobedience will be punished. And that’s what we see happen over and over again throughout the Israelites’ wilderness journey. Forgiveness of sin was still available through the sacrifices for sin that the law prescribed, but there were still consequences for sin. (Just as David’s sin was forgiven, but he nevertheless experienced consequences in his own life.)

As for what Jesus says, right after teaching the Lord’s Prayer, about God not forgiving us if we won’t forgive others, the rationale for this is explained well in the parable he later told about a servant who was forgiven a great debt by his own master, but who then went right out and insisted on repayment of a small debt by one of his fellow servants. When the other man couldn’t pay him, he had him thrown in prison. When the master heard  about this, he brought the first servant back in and demanded, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” And the master had the first servant thrown in prison.

So once again we understand the meaning from the context: The background is that we ourselves have first been forgiven all of our sins by God. In light of this, we should certainly forgive other people who wrong or offend us. But if we won’t do that, then what claim can we make on God’s mercy? We’re asking to be treated in a way we’re not prepared to treat others. And God simply says in response, “Have it your way.” So it’s not so much that we have to meet a certain condition to get God’s forgiveness, it’s that because we’ve already been forgiven, we should forgive others.

I hope these observations are helpful.

 

Were Adam and Eve historical, and if so, does this require a young earth?

Q. Do you believe in a historical Adam and Eve? If one does, do they need to believe in a young earth?

Please see this post for my thoughts on whether Adam was necessarily a historical individual. In that post I observe, among other things, that “the Hebrew word ‘adam is used in an intriguing variety of ways in the book of Genesis, where it figures prominently in the opening narratives. Sometimes it seems indeed to be the name of a single historical individual, as in this statement: ‘When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.’ But in other contexts (in fact, in the immediately preceding statement), the term refers more generally to humanity as created in the image of God. Note how ‘adam in that statement takes both singular and plural pronouns, and embraces both male and female: ‘When God created ‘adam, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘adam when they were created.'”

In light of such considerations, I conclude that the Genesis narrative, and other Scriptures such as Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians and Romans about humanity being “in” Adam—the passages I address specifically in that other post, do not “require Adam to have been a historical individual. We need to make our mind up about that question on different grounds, and I think it’s fair and reasonable to bring scientific accounts of human origins into conversation with the Bible as we do so.”

But does someone who does conclude that Adam and Eve were historical individuals also have to believe in a young earth? I’m perhaps not the best person to offer a judgment about that, so let me just say that I know some people who do consider them to have been actual individuals but who do not believe in a young earth. Rather, these people I know are intrigued by the findings of anthropological genetic research that suggest that all modern humans are descended from a single female—someone scientists refer to informally as “Eve.” This does not mean that this woman was the only female human in existence at the time when she lived; the scientific perspective would be rather that her offspring survived while the lines descended from other early women died out. But these people I know suggest that God chose this “Eve” in some way to be the first bearer of the divine image, and so she was the first human “created in the image of God.”

Apparently all modern humans are also descended from the same man, although he didn’t necessarily live at the same time as “Eve.” Rather, once again, the lines descended from other early men would have died off while his offspring survived. I have no expertise in this field and for all I know the findings may have been updated since I last heard about them, so I would encourage you to search more about this topic if you’re interested. But the bottom line for our purposes here is that while I personally don’t feel that the Bible requires us to consider Adam and Eve to have been historical individuals, even if we do, that doesn’t necessarily commit us to a young earth.

(If you are interested in how issues of biblical interpretation relate to questions of the age of the earth and of the origins of humanity, you can also have a look at another blog of mine, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation.)

 

Why does Isaac refer to Jacob’s “brothers” if he only had one?

Q. Did Jacob and Esau have siblings? When Isaac blesses Jacob (thinking that he is blessing Esau), he says, “Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.” This leads me to believe there were siblings, even though they are not mentioned anywhere else in the story.

This is a very perceptive question. I have to admit that even thoudh I’d read this episode many times before, I never noticed the issue.

I think it is unlikely that there were siblings. We learn earlier in Genesis that for a long time Isaac and Rebekah were unable to have children. Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, but he was sixty years old when Esau and Jacob were born, after “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife,” and “the Lord answered his prayer.” (As a side note, I don’t think Isaac waited twenty years before he started praying for Rebekah. Rather, I think this is an example of someone who persevered in prayer over a long time and finally had his request granted. It illustrates, as Jesus said, that we should continue in prayer and not give up.) But given these circumstances, it does seem unlikely that Isaac and Rebekah had further children, and indeed the Bible doesn’t describe them having any more.

So what, then, does Isaac mean by “your brothers” and “the sons of your mother”? Interpreters who do address the issue tend to take these phrases as referring to all related tribes. Ellicott says in his commentary, for example, that they would “include all nations sprung from Abraham, and all possible offshoots from Isaac’s own descendants” (in other words, all of the tribes and clans that eventually came from Esau). Keil and Delitzsch observe that Isaac’s entire blessing first envisions present agricultural prosperity (“an abundance of grain and new wine“), but it then looks forward to the “future pre-eminence of his son”: not only over “kindred tribes,” but also over foreign “nations and peoples.” In fact, “The blessing rises to the idea of universal dominion, which was to be realized in the fact that, according to the attitude assumed by the people towards him as their lord, it would secure to them either a blessing or a curse.”

Ironically, Isaac doesn’t realize that he is conferring all of these blessings on Jacob rather than Esau. But as events unfold and God works out His plan through the choices, good and bad, of human moral agents, Jacob becomes a transformed man, he is renamed Israel, and he becomes the ancestor of Jesus the Messiah. As a result, as Paul writes in Galatians, “the blessing given to Abraham” (and repeated to Isaac, and passed on here by Isaac to Jacob) “came to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus.” And so it is no longer a matter of being one of Jacob’s “brethren” (a member of a kindred tribe), but of assuming an attitude of loyalty and obedience to his greatest descendant Jesus as Lord, that enables a person to share in the blessings that are embodied in Isaac’s words.

 

Why doesn’t God make it unambiguously clear that He exists?

Q. I have a good friend who is a non-believer. I’ve been speaking to him, on and off, for many years, but he still questions God’s existence. During a recent email exchange, here is what he wrote. How would you answer his question?

“And then I say to myself, if there is a God, why wouldn’t he make his existence clear to all mankind in the present day? … What reason could there be to not show himself to mankind now in some unambiguous way??? A way that is not subject to a few individual reporters misstating facts or creating fiction?”

Actually, according to the Bible, God already has made His existence unambiguously clear. God has done this, for one thing, by imprinting evidence of his reality and character onto his creation: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” God has also made His existence clear by imprinting His moral laws on the human conscience. The Bible says, for example, that when people who do not have the law (that is, the Scriptures) “do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”

However, it is true that the witness of creation and conscience are not sufficient to convince a person of the existence of God if that person is relying on reason and empirical observation alone. The Bible says that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Faith is a capacity for knowing that requires trust. (The same Greek word is actually translated both as faith and trust in English New Testaments, depending on context.) I think God wants us to come to him by faith because He doesn’t just want us to affirm mentally that He is real; He wants us to enter into a relationship of trust with him. So God requires the first step to be something that will lead in the right direction. Gaining knowledge, by itself, can lead to pride, which leads us away from God; coming to understand through trust leads us towards God.

In one episode of the television series Bones, the character of Dr. Brennan, who is a skeptic, insists, “Faith is the irrational belief in something that is logically impossible.” Actually, faith is just the opposite. It is the reasonable belief in something that is quite possibly true, but which can’t be proved  through reason and observation alone. It is reasonable to believe in God; I would argue that it’s actually more reasonable than to deny the existence of God: All of our experience tells us that things don’t come from nowhere, they come from somewhere. Then where did we and the universe we live in come from? So God’s existence is certainly possible and it’s arguably reasonable. But it can’t be demonstrated the way we would demonstrate a natural phenomenon scientifically.

Nevertheless, faith is indeed a way of knowing. How, for example, can I be sure that my mother loves me? She fed and clothed me right from the time I was a baby—but maybe she just didn’t want to go to jail for child neglect. She says that she loves me—but maybe that’s because that’s just what mothers are supposed to say. The fact can’t be demonstrated empirically. But because I know my mother personally, I know that I can trust that these things truly are signs of a genuine love.

It’s the same way with God. Once we begin to approach Him through trust, we discover more and more that this trust is warranted. In fact, the trust itself is a gift from God to us to enable us to get to know Him: “We know  that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.

So the next time you speak with your friend, you might suggest to him that faith is a way of knowing that will allow him to recognize that God already has made His existence clear, but that God has done this in a way that requires people to approach him through trust. Your friend might counter that God ought to reveal Himself in a way that is accessible to reason and observation, because that is what people can be sure of. However, to claim that there is nothing that can be known certainly apart from what reason and observation can reveal is itself a faith statement. It’s like claiming that there is no light beyond the visible spectrum because we can’t see anything beyond the visible spectrum with our eyes. Logically there still could be—and with more powerfully instruments it has been show that there is—light beyond that spectrum that we simply can’t see with our eyes. Similarly, logically there could be realities in the spiritual world that reason alone could not be confident of, but which could be (and indeed are) accessible to us when we use the faculty and gift of faith that God intends to be part of the way each of us knows, and trusts, and knows.

What is the Bible trying to say at the end of Hebrews 11?

Q. Hebrews 11:39,40: Please help me understand what God is telling us as the summation of this chapter. Appreciate this site so much. Thank you. Just ordered The Books of the Bible NT.

Thank you very much for your kind words about this blog. I’m  glad you’re finding it helpful. I trust you’ll have a great experience with The Books of the Bible.

To respond to your question, Hebrews 11 ends this way: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” What God is trying to tell us through this becomes clear at the beginning of the next chapter: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In other words, we would expect that all the heroes described in what is sometimes called the “Hall of Fame of Faith” would already have been richly rewarded by God. Instead, we discover that they have not yet received their rewards. This might not seem fair to us, and so we ask why they haven’t been rewarded. The reason, we learn in these concluding words of the chapter, is that God wants all the faithful people down through the ages to receive their rewards together—perhaps as a single company united across time by their devotion to God through uncertainty, difficulty, and persecution. And that is supposed to inspire us to live up to the example of these faithful and courageous people ourselves. And just in case we need any more inspiration, the author of Hebrews describes Jesus in the same terms as the heroes of the faith who came before him, but also explaining that he is the one who  set the entire company in motion and who is the ultimate example of its character (“the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”).

So once we finish reading about all these faithful people, we’re not supposed to say, “Well, good for them.” We’re supposed to say, “God is counting on me to be like them!” And with the same kind of faith, we can be.

I can’t resist noting that this is a place where the traditional chapter divisions of the Bible, which were added many hundreds of years after its books were written, do us a real disservice in understanding its meaning. There’s not supposed to be any gap or break between “God is waiting to reward them and us together” and, “Therefore, let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” As you experienced, it’s hard to understand the first part without the second part. But the way we typically approach the Bible (a chapter at a time in sermons, study groups, or private devotions), we might not hear the second part until a day or a week later. In fact, we might never hear it at all if we’re in a topical study that has chosen Hebrews 11 for “faith” and will move on next to 1 Corinthians 13 for “love.”

So I commend you for puzzling over what really is a puzzle without what comes next, and for reaching out to ask about it. I also commend you for ordering a copy of the New Testament that doesn’t have any chapters or verses!

What does it mean to “love God for his own sake”?

Q. I recently watched a video on hell where a Christian philosopher asks “Why are [people] being good?” Then he goes on to say that people who preach about hell and incite fear in people are not creating a heart that will love God. He calls this “being good for your own sake.” I know the Bible says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” Yet, Jesus warns in Revelation that the church in Ephesus needs to “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” Jesus is using fear as a motivator here.

I do not see how you can love God for His own sake and not your own. You have to be thankful for something He does for you. What is genuinely best for you is to serve and love other people. Yet it is still all for your own sake because when you do something for another’s sake, you decide that sacrificing something “for their sake” is actually what is best for your sake! So we always should seek to do what is best for us, yet many people, like the aforementioned philosopher, view external motivators as impure. In light of this, what does it mean to be selfish from a biblical point of view? And, what on earth does it mean to love God “for His own sake?”

Actually, I understand what this philosopher is saying. Perhaps a helpful analogy might be to ask why we love our parents or our spouses. Is it only for what we get from them? Or is there something noble and excellent that we recognize in them that makes us love them independently of anything they might do for us? (With Valentine’s Day coming up, let me warn all of my readers: Don’t give that special someone in your life a card that says, “I love you because of everything I get from you”!)

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Jonathan Edwards, and in his work on The Nature of True Virtue, he defined it as a “disinterested general benevolence” that does “not properly arise from self-love.” Disinterested means without being in it for what we can get out of it ourselves, and benevolence means acting in goodness in the best interests of others. I think the philosopher on the video you saw was arguing in this same tradition.

I don’t believe that Jesus actually is using fear as a motivator when in Revelation he warns the church in Ephesus that if it doesn’t recapture its first love, he will have to take away its lampstand (that is, its very existence). Letting someone know the consequences of the course they’re on is indeed a vital warning, but it’s not designed to motivate them by fear. That would not be a lasting motivation; emotions always wear off. Rather, the person is supposed to be motivated by recognizing the difference between where they are heading and where they could and should be heading. The difference may represent a loss to themselves, but it is also a loss to others, and ultimately it is a failure to be a good steward of all the gifts and opportunities that God has so richly provided us so that we can fulfill our purpose. In that sense it is a failure to love God.

As for what it means to “love God for his own sake,” in his Treatiste Concering Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards wrote, “The first objective ground of gracious affections [i.e. those that arise from the saving work of God in our lives], is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things as they are themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest.” In other words, just as I suggested that we should be able to recognize something noble about our parents or spouses that would lead us to love them apart from anything we might receive from them, in an even greater sense, we should recognize that God is “transcendently excellent and amiable” [i.e. to be loved], and love God for that inherent excellence.

If these ideas are all new to you, and you’re puzzling over them, I would simply say that you have some great discoveries ahead of you. God did not create the world to be a place where everyone was inherently motivated by self-interest. Instead, it’s supposed to be a place where free giving out of love can flourish, creating more of itself until people delight to be a blessing to others far more than they desire to have things for themselves. So I guess I’d say … keep in listening to videos by that same philosopher!