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The Word Encountered
Solemnity of the Nativity
of Saint John the Baptist
June 24, 2018
John Kavanaugh, SJ

The Great Refusal

Sin against the Spirit. (Mk 3:28)

Often over the years I have been asked how there might be a sin which could never be forgiven. The occasion for the question was invariably the incident in Mark's Gospel where scribes from Jerusalem charged that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebul, expelling demons by the power of the prince of demons.

Jesus defends himself, saying that a “house divided against itself cannot stand.” Satan could never expel Satan unless he were to overthrow himself. Jesus, however, seems particularly incensed that people are so hardened in their resistance to him that they would claim he is possessed by the same unclean spirits he casts out. And this is what precipitates his harrowing assertion:

  “I give you my word, every sin will be forgiven mankind and all the blasphemies men utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. He carries the guilt of his sin without end.”

What is blasphemy against the Spirit? Why is it so devastating? How is it that such a sin could be so intractable before the will of God and the healing love of Christ? Well, it is generally agreed that in the context of Mark's Gospel, this particular sin is the act of attributing the Holy Spirit's work in Jesus to the power of the devil. Thus, goodness itself is construed as evil. Some commentators add that there is a willful, persistent blindness which cynically interprets all good as trash.

I believe that if hell has a population it is peopled by those who have blasphemed against the Spirit.
No matter the variety of interpretations, one thing seems quite clear. This blasphemy against the Spirit is a radical resistance to grace and redemption. The outright rejection of Jesus' healing mission is unforgivable-not because God hates this sin particularly, but because this sin against the Spirit is a recalcitrant refusal to accept forgiveness. More impenetrable still, it sees every good as a masked evil.

This is the ultimately corrosive logic of deception that first raised its head in the Garden of Eden. All the goods of the earth were made to look tarnished by the deceptions of the serpent. The only imposter presented as the most desirable good was the rejection of God's will in denying our creatureliness.

The rejection of truth and the clinging to the deception, which characterized the sin of Adam and Eve, haunts every sin we enact. Yet all sins, even murder, unchastity, and apostasy, can be forgiven. What cannot be forgiven is the refusal to be forgiven, because the forgiveness, the grace of the Spirit offered, is mocked as evil. The sin against the Spirit occurs when I say, “I refuse to acknowledge that I need forgiveness.” I refuse to be forgiven. I refuse to believe that God has answered. I refuse to believe even that there is good, for it is only another face of the evil I believe in. “He casts out Satan by the power of Satan.”

My own reflection on the unforgivable sin is this: I believe that if hell has a population it is peopled by those who have blasphemed against the Spirit. The weight of guilt without end is the weight of a lost soul burdened by the bitter thought that nothing is incarnate but evil and death. It is a weight that can be shared only by one who, in the words of Milton's awful antihero, could say, "Evil, be thou my good."

John Kavanaugh, SJ
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Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
The Word Encountered: Meditations on the Sunday Scriptures
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York (1996), pp. 34-35.
Art by Martin Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C). This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go
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