Sunday, June 10, 2012


This is based on Mark 3:20-35.

If you visit enough religious sites on the web, you're likely to see an ad for "The God Who Wasn't There."  When I saw the film listed on Netflix, I finally decided to watch it. Basically it is one man's argument that Jesus never existed and was a myth used by Paul and the early church. Brian Flemming, the documentary's writer and director, interviews a handful of experts, mostly of a skeptical bent, with the notable exception of one: the principal of the Christian school Flemming attended as a kid. The principal obviously doesn't know that the alumna who is interviewing him is planning on challenging him on the basis of his faith.

Sadly, Flemming does not confront the educator on his principle failing: not teaching Flemming how to do research properly. Many of Flemming's "facts" are wrong; his timeline is off; and he really doesn't understand one key doctrine that he features prominently--blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Flemming seems to think that this means having doubt in God's existence, period. And because Jesus says this is an "unforgivable" sin, Flemming feels this is tantamount to mind control and is meant to stop people from questioning and therefore thinking.

It may very well be that this little religious school left him with that impression. It's too bad that Flemming didn't pick up any commentaries or even examine more closely the context of the Scripture in which this appears. If he had, he'd find a solid consensus that this passage does not say anything remotely like what he thinks it does. But this is a verse that disturbs a lot of people so we ought to look at just what is does and doesn't say.

By this point in Mark, Jesus' ministry is rubbing the Pharisees the wrong way. That was easy to do. The Pharisees were a religious group that not only were nitpickers about the Torah, the law of Moses as set down in the first 5 books of the Bible, but also experts in the traditional interpretations and applications of those laws over the centuries. You could get in trouble with them even if you obeyed what the Torah specifically said but didn't do it as laid out by the generations of rabbis whose interpretations were recorded in the Talmud, a commentary on a commentary of the Torah.

If you wanted to keep people from accidentally falling off a cliff, you would put up a fence. But you wouldn't put it at the very edge of the cliff. Someone might walk right up to the edge, lean on the fence and go over. You'd set the fence back from the cliff by several feet. The rabbis often did something similar with the 613 commandments of the Torah. For instance, in Exodus 23:19 and a couple of other places, the Hebrews are forbidden from boiling a young goat in its mother's milk. The reason is not given but it may have been a pagan practice. But scholars of the Torah, in order to make this absolutely impossible, forbade serving dairy and meat together. In orthodox Jewish homes, they have 2 sets of dishes, one for dairy and one for meat. Supposedly, the inspiration for Paul Simon's song, "Mother and Child Reunion," was his eating a cheeseburger, something an observant Jew would never do.

Some of these hedges around the Torah could get quite burdensome. Hebrews were not to work on the Sabbath. But what constituted work? The rabbis eventually enumerated more than 3 dozen categories. They debated whether one could eat an egg laid on the Sabbath. They prescribed a certain number of steps you could take--outside one's house, of course, or otherwise you might find yourself pausing in mid-stride just walking across a room. But what if your family lived in a camp? Rabbis decided that you could count anything that could be enclosed with a string as your home. After Hurricane Andrew I read about a neighborhood of Orthodox Jews whose first priority was to put up this very long string that had been strung along the telephone poles around their community, so that they could move freely on the Sabbath.

Jesus healed on the Sabbath and that was enough to inflame the Pharisees. Now they weren't merciless about this. You could medically treat someone on the Sabbath if they otherwise might die. But Jesus healed people who weren't in a life and death situation and so the Pharisees felt they could wait until after sunset. Jesus pointed out that the Sabbath--all of the Law, really--was given for our benefit, not the other way around. Why shouldn't he relieve these people of the burdens that made every day of their lives hard work and allow them the rest and refreshment of the Sabbath as well?          

Yet the Pharisees saw Jesus as an evil influence, a bad example, letting people slack off with regards to the minute details of observing the law. But how could they explain Jesus' amazing ability to heal those who were mentally and physically ill? Isn't his ability to do such great good a sign that, like the prophets of old, he was filled with God's Holy Spirit?

At that time, people believed that disease was caused by entities invisible to the naked eye called demons. Some people today feel superior because we know that many diseases are caused by entities invisible to the naked eye called germs (as well as toxins, DNA, nutritional factors, etc.) Regardless of that, they were almost as helpless in dealing with most diseases then as we are becoming in dealing with the ever growing number of antibiotic-resistant germs. So Jesus' healing ability was a godsend. But the real theological problem for the Pharisees was how could this slacker (when it came to the Law) cast out unclean spirits? It must be an evil ruse! Jesus must be casting out demons with the help of the prince of demons!

Beelzebul is literally "the lord of the flies" and possibly "the lord of dung." It is a Hebrew pun for the name of a Canaanite god, the "Exalted Baal." By Jesus' day, it became a synonym for Satan, which means "adversary." When Jesus hears this accusation, he immediately shows them how stupid this is. Why would the adversary be attacking against his own forces? If your enemy is fighting himself, that spells his eventual collapse.

The alternate solution, Jesus points out, is that the adversary is being defeated by someone more powerful than he. If you're going to loot a strong man's mansion, you're going to have to tie up the strong man. Rather than Jesus being in league with Satan, it makes more sense to conclude he is stronger than his adversary. But the Pharisees don't want to go there, so they would rather see the obvious good he is doing as some really subtle kind of evil.

That's when Jesus brings up blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It is not disbelieving in God's existence. The Pharisees certainly believe in that. But they don't recognize God at work when they see it. They see God's goodness and say it is evil. They have talked themselves into such a state that they deny the clear evidence of the God they supposedly follow. That is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.

Why is it unforgivable? Because a person who sees good as bad is certainly not going to submit themselves to that badness. When I worked as a Psych Tech on the psychiatric floor, before I was a nurse, my coworkers and I would have to take turns looking after the patients in the locked ward. Here we had patients who were a danger to themselves and others as well as those who might wander off. The most seriously ill patients would end up there--the suicidal person, the patient in the manic phase of bipolar disease, the extremely delusional patient. It was just them and me and a panic button.

One day I noticed that a schizophrenic patient we'll call George was looking at me very intently. A depressed person doesn't usually look mentally ill but a person who sees things that aren't there or who is listening to voices that aren't there has a particular look to their eyes that you pick up on after a few years of working with them. George had that look and despite the distractions of TV and the other patients, his eyes were on me alone. For my part I was mentally measuring the distance between me and the big red panic button on the wall above and to the right of where I sat. Suddenly George jumped up, pointed his finger at me and said "Chris, in the name of Jesus Christ I command you to be gone!" To his visible dismay, I did not vanish. But I realized I could not work with George anymore. He saw me as evil and so he wouldn't confide in me or listen to me, much less receive any care at my hands. If he saw me as a demon incarnate, he could never trust me or see anything I did as good.

That's what Jesus saw when the Pharisees accused him of being in league with the devil. As N.T. Wright says, "Once you label what is in fact the work of the Holy Spirit as the work of the devil, there's no way back. It's like holding a conspiracy theory: all the evidence you see will simply confirm your belief." The Pharisees weren't mentally ill. They had so blinded themselves with their spiritual ideology that they saw good as evil because it suited their purpose and would never trust Jesus. Which meant he couldn't help them.

When the New Testament speaks of believing in God or Jesus, the word really means trust. To be sure, it could be used in the sense of simply thinking something was true, whether you actually relied on that belief or not. But primarily it meant trust. The book of James points out the difference when it says, "You believe that there is one God? Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder." Sadly, due to certain dumbed-down presentations of the gospel, a lot of people think that as long as they simply believe God exists, things between him and them are fine. But they don't change their lives and this is pointed at by non-believers as evidence that God doesn't exist. In his film, Flemming excoriates such so-called Christians precisely because, unlike fundamentalists, they don't display the courage of their convictions. I've seen patients who professed to believe the doctors but not enough to change the lifestyles which have led to the problems they wanted the doctors to cure. The greatest physician in the world can't cure a non-compliant patient. You can do the surgery and put in the stitches but if the patient won't let anyone change the dressing or clean the wound site or if he won't take his medication, he could still die.

You can't work with people you can't trust or who don't trust you. It is the Spirit's specific role to work on the hearts and minds of those who turn to God. But they have to have faith in him; they have to trust him. And the first step in the Christian life is to accept God's forgiveness of your sins. God can't forgive you if you won't let him. Ironically, the sin that is unforgivable is not letting yourself be forgiven.

We all start out resistant to the Spirit. And accepting forgiveness means admitting we have done things that need to be forgiven. That's hard. The most difficult part of recovery from a substance abuse problem is admitting you have a problem. The work of getting better cannot begin until denial is overcome. If you deny you have a problem, if you say that black is white, if you see those who want to help you as meddlers and busybodies, as people wishing to do you evil rather than good, you can't be helped.

But of course, if they change their mind, they can be helped. That’s the thing. If you can change your mind, if you have a change of heart, you can be saved. In order to remain unforgiven, you have to persist in resisting the goodness of the Spirit. Paul thought the Christians were bad Jews and he persecuted them and tried to make them deny Christ. Then Jesus appeared to him and Paul changed his mind and became the foremost missionary for Christ. Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is an eternal sin only if the person continues to hold that God's Spirit is evil and does evil and won't let him in.  

There are some people, who, like Flemming, have read or heard this passage of scripture and began worrying that they have committed it. But as we've seen that's not the unforgivable sin is. It is not denying Christ. Peter did that in the high priest's courtyard the night Christ was betrayed and yet Jesus forgave him. It is not doubt. it is not questioning. It is not thinking. It is not even seeing evil as good. Nazis and Klansmen and even murderers have seen and felt the Spirit at work and have realized that what they thought was good was evil and have come to Jesus for forgiveness and healing and salvation. Jesus asked God to forgive those who were in the process of crucifying him. And one of the people in Flemming's film, a lawyer with a blog called the Raving Atheist, is now a Christian. If you can worry about being forgiven, if you want to be forgiven, God can forgive you. God loves you so much he will forgive you anything if only you ask. But he will not force you to accept his love or forgiveness. You have to let him in. So in the end the only thing that can stop God from forgiving you is you.


  1. This is my third attempt at a comment. I've lost the other two trying to publish them, so this time I'll say only, what a thought-provoking yet comforting sermon. As always, another good one!

  2. Getting back to an earlier comment I attempted. I wonder if you or any of your other readers have thoughts about my hope that those who are too angry, confused, alienated, and/or rebellious to ask for and accept God's forgiveness will be forgiven anyway should they die before coming to the realization of how much they need this reconciliation with God. It would be too late to help them gain the peace and joy in this life that such reconciliation can bring, but hopefully will be forthcoming for the next. I do believe that God does this. Your thoughts?