The Unforgivable Sin
The concept of sin runs throughout Christianity. From the Original Sin to our day-to-day sins, this one idea is part of a large theme of repentance and forgiveness. But many have wondered if there are any sins so heinous and so evil that they simply cannot be forgiven? The answer, much like the Devil, is in the details.
Types of Sin
For the non-religious, the concept of sin can seem strange and ridiculous. Sin as a construct then warrants more explanation. Regardless of your opinions on Christianity, it’s important to understand sin for no other reason than how pervasive it is in our modern morality and by extension our laws too.
To drastically simply millennia of Christian doctrine, there are two types of sin — mortal and venial, though it should be noted that for many Protestant Christians there can be far more ‘shades of grey’ here.
A ‘Mortal Sin’ (sometimes also called ‘Cardinal Sins’) is the most grievous form of sin. It breaks the sinner’s relationship with God. To be considered a mortal sin, a sin must meet the following criteria:
It must be intrinsically evil or wrong
The person must do it deliberately
The person must have full knowledge that what they’re doing is evil or wrong.
Some traditional mortal sins include the breaking of any of the Ten Commandments, but there are many, many more. Mortal sins usually range from the widely accepted evils like murder, to the far more controversial like masturbation and abortion. An example of mortal sin would be a person deliberately and consciously killing another person, which is obviously an evil act.
Having committed mortal sin, the Catholic Church at least maintains that unless that person repents before death, they will go to Hell. Most commonly, the Sacrament of Penance must be performed as well for the soul to return to God.
Venial sin on the other hand, is not thought to destroy the relationship with God, though it does harm it. While we might imagine that venial and mortal sins have a strong dividing line between them, sometimes it isn’t that simple. Most agree that for a sin to be considered venial, it must fail to meet one of the above criteria.
For a crude example: a poor man stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family could be considered to have committed a venial sin. He committed his sin deliberately and with knowledge it was wrong, but perhaps the act is less evil because he did it to feed his starving family.
There are many who might not make such a distinction however, which demonstrates the larger problem of venial sin — almost all sin, in one way or another, can fail to meet the above criteria in the right circumstances, leading many to question how valuable the concepts of mortal and venial sin truly are.
The Unforgivable Sin
For Catholics, the concept of unforgiveable sin doesn’t truly exist, though there are a few outliers. The reasoning goes that God’s love is infinite and that as long as we repent before death, any sin can be forgiven, even the most heinous, hence the prevalence of deathbed confessions.
Should you die unrepentant though, in a ‘state of mortal sin’ (having committed a mortal sin and not had the Sacrament of Penance or repented), you were bound for Hell. Those who die with venial sin had to endure Purgatory before being welcomed into Heaven.
Sadly, this was the traditional reasoning for those who died by suicide going to Hell. Suicide itself was a mortal sin, and by its very nature the victim could not confess. Thankfully the Church has now softened its stance on this, no doubt bringing much comfort to those left behind.
There are some things that may be considered ‘unforgivable sins’ however, just not in a traditional sense. For example, the Catholic Church will usually refuse to bury unrepentant heretics, schismatics, notorious apostates, with many having been excommunicated too. This leaves the individuals in a strange position, for while their sins are forgivable, they are not, due to their excommunication and it would take truly extraordinary circumstances to change that, though reconciliation with the Church following excommunication is not unheard of.
The other instance and the origin of the concept of the ‘unforgivable sin’ is found in the Gospel of Mark:
‘Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’ (Mark 3:28–30)
For context, here Jesus is answering a challenge levied against Him by numerous Jewish teachers after they have accused Him of being possessed by the demon Beelzebub, claiming it to be the only way He is capable of expelling demons. It also seems to suggest that blasphemy is an unforgiveable sin.
Many theologians have pondered this over the centuries and it is now widely thought to be an incorrect interpretation. God forgives all sins after all. The Gospel of Matthew sheds more light on topic with his recounting of the scene.
‘Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.’ (Matthew 12:32).
What seems to be being said is that, even though the teachers are in the presence of God, they deny and rebuke Him, remaining stubborn and unrepenting. As we’ve seen, while blasphemy would be a mortal sin, it would not an unforgiveable one, but their denial of Jesus renders them unable to receive forgiveness or to repent.
Does sin even matter?
The idea of unforgiveable sin is for all intents and purposes false, or exists only in technicalities. It owes it prevalence in society today to media, where the idea of a sin even God can’t forgive looms large in many of our stories.
Many people have abandoned the idea of ‘sin’ altogether, seeing it as archaic and repressive, a view particularly held by the growing numbers of atheists and agnostics. And I’ll be the first to admit there are some points where I agree. The world changes. What once may have been wrong may no longer be considered so.
Whether atheist or agnostic, Catholic or Protestant, or any other faith for that matter, it is important to understand the concept of sin in order to understand the world we live in. Christian morality is so deep-rooted in many of our societies and our laws today, as is the notion of sins, and many of us don’t think to look for them, let alone question them.