What is the Unpardonable Sin? Am I Doomed?

Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Joe M:

Hi Lee

I’ve been a sinner all my life. I even married a woman 9 years ago and I was unfaithful to her many times. We went to church. I tried counselling and medication and prayer groups yet I kept going back to drugs and sin. Now I have been convicted and am sure that I have committed the unpardonable sin and am destined for hell.

What does it mean to blaspheme against the Spirit?

Thanks for the good question, Joe.

You are not alone in thinking that you have committed the unpardonable sin, and there is no hope for you. It breaks my heart to hear how many people believe they are already doomed to eternal hell because of what they’ve said or done.

But I am here to tell you that as long as you are still walking this earth, there is hope for you.

Heaven remains within your grasp. God very much wants you to join the heavenly community. And if you want to join that heavenly community, it remains your choice. It is not God who banishes you from heaven. Only you can banish yourself from heaven. And the key to attaining heaven is in loving God and loving your neighbor.

Achieving heaven will not be easy if you are deep into wrong and destructive ways of thinking, feeling, and living. But it is possible if you wholly commit yourself to walking the difficult and painful path out of those evil and sinful ways of life.

We’ll pick up these themes later in the article. Meanwhile, let’s take up your question.

The idea of an unpardonable, unforgivable, and eternal sin is based on these words of Jesus in the Gospels:

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:28–29)

Even most traditional Christian churches believe that the unforgivable sin involves much more than just verbally uttering blasphemies against the Holy Spirit. (See the Wikipedia article on “Eternal sin.”) It is generally interpreted to mean active resistance to God by refusing to repent from sins and continuing to live an evil and rebellious life. And I agree with that!

Before we dig deeper into this question, here’s a general principle to keep in mind:

Our sins are unpardonable only as long as we continue to commit them.

When we change our heart and our actions, pardon is there for us. That’s because we are no longer committing the unpardonable sin. God forgives the sins of our past (see Ezekiel 18:21–23). And we are not condemned for sins we are not committing.

Let’s take a closer look.

The unpardonable sin

Let’s look at the Bible passages that talk about the unpardonable sin.

Jesus speaks about the unforgivable sin in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. But his words do not come in isolation. They are in response to a specific situation, and to charges against him by the religious leaders of the day related to his actions in casting demons out of people who were demon-possessed.

So right from the start, it’s clear that the unpardonable sin is not only about words. It is also about actions.

Let’s read the passages from the Bible.

First from Matthew:

Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

“Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:22–32)

To make it perfectly clear that he’s not just talking about words, but about what’s in the person’s heart, from which the words flow, Jesus then goes on to say:

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Matthew 12:33–34)

As is often the case, Mark offers a more compact version of the story:

And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”

So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.” (Mark 3:22–30)

Luke puts the story in a wider context. It’s too long to quote here. You can read the whole thing in Luke 11:14–12:12. The Gospel of Luke starts where the others do, with Jesus casting out demons. But it broadens the picture to include not only the resistant scribes and Pharisees, but also those among the common people who resisted and questioned his preaching, teaching, and healing. Here is the part where it talks specifically about the unforgivable sin:

Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has the power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

“I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” (Luke 12:1–10)

As you can see, though Jesus does talk about speaking against the Holy Spirit as an unforgivable sin, there’s much more to it than mere words. What he’s talking about here are words that come from a person’s heart, and are expressed in that person’s life. We’ll return to that in a moment.

Accepting Jesus Christ and then falling away

First a slight detour.

If you’re really fired up on this subject, you can also read two related passages in the Epistles: Hebrews 5:11–6:12, which deals with those who first accept the goodness and enlightenment of God and the Holy Spirit, and then fall away from it; and Hebrews 10:19–39, which similarly deals with those who accept Jesus Christ into their lives, but later are in danger of falling away from that faith and life.

The general message in these passages is that if we accept God into our lives and begin to live a good and godly life, but then fall back into our old ways again, we are in even worse shape than when we were before we committed our life to God.

Jesus himself gives us this message in this brief parable:

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24–16)

This is a matter of basic human psychology.

If we’ve started out on a new life and have begun to experience some of its benefits and satisfactions, but then fall back into our old ways, how much harder is it to pick ourselves up again?

Many people never recover from such a relapse. They throw up their hands, admit defeat, and no longer even try to fix up their lives. And when they do, it is their own resignation that causes them to fall into the “unpardonable sin”—which in this case means continuing to live an evil life and making no effort at all to change and reform oneself. As I said in the introduction, our sins are unpardonable only as long as we continue to commit them.

And yet, it’s still not impossible for us to reform after a relapse. It’s just a lot harder.

The general message of these Bible passages is this: Once you’ve started on a path, steel yourself for the journey and keep moving forward. As the old saying goes, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

For more on this, see the article: Don’t Look Back! Press Onwards and Upwards!

Words, actions, and motives

Many people who have heard about the unforgivable sin are deathly afraid of saying the wrong words and ending out in hell. They seem to think that if they utter a string of curse words against the Holy Spirit, God will strike them down with a thunderbolt so that they’re dead, dead, dead.

But the Bible is quite clear that mere words by themselves don’t mean anything. Here are just a few passages from the Gospels that make this point:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)

And from later in the same Gospel:

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered. (Matthew 21:28–31)

In other words, if our words and actions don’t match, it’s the actions that matter.

And although he was dealing with a different issue at the time, Jesus makes the connection between our words and what’s in our heart in this passage:

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” . . .

Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (Matthew 15:10–11, 15–20, italics added)

In other words, the Bible is not concerned with mere words. It is concerned with words that reflect the state of our heart. And the same is true even of our actions. While actions are important, what’s most important for our spiritual state is the heart from which the actions come.

Another way of saying this is that when it comes to our spiritual state, it is the motives from which our words and actions flow that are most important.

  • If we say and do things out of a desire for power, pleasure, and possessions for ourselves, then we are indeed on the highway to hell.
  • However, if we say and do things intending to help other people, but we misfire and hurt them instead, though we do need to rethink our words and actions, we are still headed toward heaven rather than toward hell.

In short, the Bible doesn’t take anything in isolation. There’s nothing we can say or do that by itself will cause us to go to eternal hell. Rather, it’s when our motives, beliefs, words, and actions, are all working together to serve only our own interests, regardless of how much damage we do to anyone else, that we are committing the unforgivable sin.

Why is the unpardonable sin unpardonable?

Why is it unforgivable?

Because we have no interest in being forgiven.

When we actively oppose God’s will by persistently engaging in selfish, greedy, and destructive words and actions, we put ourselves in direct opposition to God, and we reject God’s forgiveness.

God always loves and forgives us, no matter what we say or do. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether we are willing to accept God’s forgiveness. And that’s impossible to do when we keep right on saying and doing the evil and false things that flow out of a selfish and greedy heart. (For more on this in the context of human relationships, see: Repentance: The Unpopular Partner of Forgiveness.)

Once again: Our sins are unpardonable only as long as we continue to commit them.

The problem is, when we confirm and harden ourselves into selfish and greedy ways of thinking and acting, it becomes very difficult for us to stop saying the destructive words and engaging in the evil actions that flow from our selfish and greedy heart. We become crystallized into an evil and destructive pattern of life, and we lose any desire to change.

Could we still be forgiven if we were to genuinely repent and begin a new life?

Yes, we could.

God is always ready to forgive us. God is always ready to lift us out of the personal hell into which we have fallen, and raise us up into the heaven of living from love for God and love for our fellow human beings.

It’s not that God will never forgive us if we actively speak and act against the “Holy Spirit”—meaning against God’s active power for good in our world and in our own heart. Rather, it’s that once we’ve become hardened into a selfish, greedy, self-indulgent, and evil life, the chances of our repenting and turning our life around become slimmer and slimmer.

And once we die, even that slim chance has come to an end. Once we die, the pattern of our soul becomes fixed, like a clay pot that has been fired in a kiln. It is no longer possible for us to change because we have already made our choice, and our choice is to enjoy engaging in evil, sinful, and destructive ways of living.

We then go to hell, not because God sends us there, but because we ourselves insist on going there. For more on this, see: Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?

What is the unpardonable sin?

The unpardonable sin, then, is not merely speaking careless words against the Holy Spirit. It is not even committing some terrible sin against God.

Rather, the unpardonable sin is when we persistently speak and act against the will of God because our heart is bent on gaining power, pleasure, and possessions for ourselves, regardless of who else we trample on in the process.

Keep in mind that Jesus’ words about the unforgivable, eternal sin were aimed especially at the religious leaders of the day, who persistently opposed him at every turn, accusing him of acting from the Devil, of having an evil spirit, of violating the sacred law of God, and of blaspheming against God—even though his words were words of truth, and his actions were actions of healing and of love.

It was their persistent, stubborn, and dogged opposition to everything Jesus said and did that prompted Jesus to speak of them as committing the unforgivable sin, which is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It was the fact that they continually opposed the work of the Holy Spirit—which is the power of God to transform human lives—that he said that they were committing an eternal sin.

And the fact is that most of them continued to bitterly oppose the love, truth, and healing power of Jesus. In the end, they engineered his execution by the Romans in order to rid themselves of a man whose spiritual and divine power was threatening their own authority and influence over the people, and the wealth and power they gained from it.

It is this sort of dogged opposition to the power of God in both words and actions, from a greedy and power-hungry heart, that is the unpardonable sin. And it is unpardonable because once we’ve become hardened into a heart and a life that is completely opposed to God’s will, we will most likely persist in it to the end of our lives on earth, and right into the afterlife.

To borrow Jesus’ words, neither in this age nor in the age to come can we be forgiven when we persist in evil words and actions from an evil heart.

Have I committed the unpardonable sin? Am I doomed?

Here’s a reality check:

If you’re worried about having committed the unforgivable sin, then you haven’t actually committed it.

People who are engaged in the unforgivable sin of being totally committed, heart, head, and hands, to a selfish, greedy, evil, and destructive life do not care whether they’ve violated God’s will. They don’t care whether they’re going to heaven or to hell. They don’t care about anything other than achieving their own goals, which usually involve amassing greater money and power and pleasure for themselves, often by depriving other people of their money, power, and pleasure.

In fact, people who have committed the unforgivable sin take great pleasure in their evil words and actions, and in grinding other people down in order to enhance their own wealth and status.

In short, people who have committed the unforgivable sin have destroyed their own conscience. They no longer even think about whether the things they do are right or wrong. They simply follow the desires of their evil hearts, and say and do whatever is necessary to achieve their corrupt goals.

If you are worried that you might have committed the unforgivable sin, that means your conscience is still active. If you have been “convicted” of sin in your own mind and heart, that in itself shows that redemption is still actively available to you because you are willing to admit that the things you have been doing are wrong, evil, and sins against God.

The pathway out of “unpardonable” sin

Of course, you still have a lot of work to do.

You can’t keep right on sinning and expect to end out in heaven. That’s not how it works.

If you are engaged in adultery, theft, murder, jealousy, and other evil thoughts, desires, and actions that are harming the people around you and destroying your own life, you have some serious work to do.

The hard truth is that as long as you continue to engage in these evil desires, thoughts, and actions, you cannot be forgiven, because you keep on saying and doing the very things that are dragging you down to hell and causing you to reject God’s forgiveness.

In short, although God does forgive all of your sins, even the most terrible ones, that doesn’t give you a get-out-of-jail-free card. You still have to do the work of repenting and turning your life around.

God will help you to do that if it is truly what you want, and if you are willing to commit yourself wholeheartedly to the task. But you must make that decision and commitment for yourself. God cannot do it for you.

And then you must do the hard work day after day of leaving your old ways behind, and building a new and better life based not on self-absorption, self-indulgence, and addiction (which is a form of slavery to evil), but on putting God’s will first in your life, and focusing on loving and serving your fellow human beings.

It’s not going to be easy.

But it is possible.

And if you do that work day in and day out, seeking the help you need, and picking yourself up whenever you start falling back into your old ways, then you will, in the end, find your way out of your old evils and addictions, and into a good life of loving God above all, and loving your neighbor as yourself.

Here are some articles to help you do just that:

This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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11 comments on “What is the Unpardonable Sin? Am I Doomed?
  1. Rami says:

    Hi Lee, sorry if you’ve dealt with this in the article, but could you elaborate a bit on the relationship between Divine forgiveness and freely insisting upon hell because of the hellish life we’ve led? What does it mean to be pardoned if hell is something we choose ourselves? It would seem to me the the idea of God’s forgiveness for our sins characterizes our afterlife as something determined by whether or not we repent and receive it, and condemnation to hell as not only an inner condition we burden upon ourselves. Have I misunderstood Swedenborg in this regard?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and questions. I’m a little unclear about what you mean by, “and condemnation to hell as not only an inner condition we burden upon ourselves.” Is that what you meant to write? If so, what, exactly, do you mean?

      However, I’ll take a stab at what I think you’re asking. (Warning! Mind-bending material ahead!)

      Here are two general principles Swedenborg offers in relation to your question:

      1. God’s will is for all people to go to heaven, and God never condemns anyone to hell.
      2. However, God will not override and nullify our freely made choice to go to hell rather than to heaven.

      Many Christian (and non-Christian) concepts of salvation are based on the idea that God changes his mind when humans repent and believe in Christ (or God). The idea is that before we repent and believe, God is angry at us and judges us to hell, whereas after we repent and believe, God’s attitude changes toward us, so that now God has mercy on us and saves us from hell.

      There’s a reason people believe that. There’s even a reason that the Bible itself (not to mention many of the other sacred texts of humanity) makes many statements that make it sound as if that’s how it works.

      People who are in a low, earth-bound spiritual state need to believe that God is angry at them and will punish them if they sin. If they didn’t believe that, they’d have no “fear of God”—or really, respect for God—whatsoever, and would think that they can do with impunity whatever selfish, evil, and destructive things they want. They would thumb their nose at a “weak” God who doesn’t have the will or the power to punish them.

      That’s why God allows us to think that God is angry at us, judges us, and sends us to hell. God knows that without such a belief, many of us would never turn our lives around. For people in a low spiritual state, fear of God’s wrath can be a great motivator!

      But according to Swedenborg the reality is entirely different.

      The reality is that God is never angry at us, never condemns us, and never sends us to hell. Just the opposite! God is pure love, and God feels nothing but love for us, though that love is tinged with sorrow when we choose to speak and act in evil and destructive ways, to our own eternal pain and ruin.

      The reality is that God never changes his/her mind toward us. God is eternally the same, and never changes from anger to mercy based on human actions. Rather, God always feels and acts toward us with love and mercy, and never with anger and condemnation.

      The change that takes place when we move from damnation to salvation is not a change in God, but a change in us.

      And that change involves our turning around from being driven by ego, self-absorption, greed, and selfishness to being motivated by love for God and love for our fellow human beings. This change in us does not bring about any change in God. Rather, it brings about a change in us, from a state of rejection of God’s love and forgiveness to one of acceptance of God’s love and forgiveness.

      To bring this to bear on what I think is your question:

      God’s forgiveness of us is constant. There is nothing we can say or do, no matter how evil, that will cause God not to love and forgive us.

      Even if we insist upon hell through hellish choices and a hellish life, God still forgives us. However, we refuse to accept God’s forgiveness because our heart and life is turned away from God, and rejects everything that comes (directly) from God.

      So God’s forgiveness of our sins is not determined by us or by our actions. It is a constant from God to us.

      But our acceptance or rejection of that forgiveness is determined by us and by our actions.

      Now, so far this may make it sound as if we, and not God, determine everything when it comes to our future life in either heaven or hell.

      And that’s how it’s supposed to look to us.

      If we didn’t have a sense of determining our own fate, we would not be human, and we would just hang down our hands and expect God to do everything while we do nothing. That’s not what God wants. So God does give us the ability to choose between good and evil, and puts that choice—which determines our eternal fate—in our hands.

      From that human perspective, yes, we burden ourselves with hell, and we also make our own choice for heaven.

      However, Swedenborg clarifies that if we go to heaven, it is actually God’s work, whereas if we go to hell, it is our own work. Another way of saying this is that all good and truth come from God, and are God’s in us, whereas all evil and falsity come from human beings, and are our own in us. (Though even evil and falsity are merely human-twisted forms of God’s good and truth.)

      Why does this matter?

      Because if we make a choice for heaven, it is actually due to God’s power and presence that we are able to make that choice, and follow the pathway to heaven. Nothing good and true that we have is our own, or is self-generated. It all comes from God. So if we make a choice for good, all we’re really doing is opening ourselves up to the good (and the forgiveness, which is actually the same thing) that God is continually offering to us, and that continually flows into us from God as much as we are willing to accept it.

      This means that seen from a divine rather than a human perspective, forgiveness and salvation are not something we humans do for ourselves. By ourselves it’s actually true that we contribute nothing to our salvation, as traditional Christians say. That’s because everything that saves us (love, wisdom, forgiveness, and so on) comes from God, and is God’s in us. The very power to make the choice for good is God’s gift to us, and is continually maintained in us by God. If God were not continually present with us and flowing into us in this way, we would all rush headlong into hell. That’s what would happen if it were truly up to us, and there were no power or influence from God.

      One way to picture this is to think of human beings as containers, or cups, created by God. We did not make ourselves, nor did we determine our own form or capabilities. What we can do, because God has given us that ability, is turn the cup around one way or the other, so that it is either right-side up or upside-down.

      • If we turn the cup right-side up, then the cup that is us is turned upward toward God, and is open to receive and be filled by the love, wisdom, and power that flows down to us from God.
      • If we turn the cup that is us upside-down, then God still flows down to us with divine love, wisdom, and power, desiring to fill us, but because the bottom of the cup is facing upwards, everything that flows toward us from God bounces off the bottom of the cup, flows down either side, and goes right past us without filling us. We are open only to the evil and false influences that flow up to us from hell below.

      So according to Swedenborg, two things are simultaneously true:

      1. Our salvation depends entirely on our making a choice for good rather than for evil.
      2. Our salvation is accomplished entirely by God, and not at all by ourselves.

      These may seem contradictory. And traditional Christian theology—especially Protestant theology—has gotten badly off track precisely because its theologians have been unable to resolve this apparent paradox.

      Swedenborg speaks of this using the somewhat mind-bending phrase, “as if of self.” We are, he says, to believe the truth and do what is good as if we were doing it by ourselves and through our own power, but we are to recognize that in reality, everything good and true in us is God’s, is God in us, and is done by God’s power working in and through us.

      This could lead to a whole book’s worth of further response to your questions, which really are excellent ones!

      I’m not prepared to write a book on the subject at this particular moment. So for now I’ll refer you to two more articles that might help.

      About the whole mind-bending issue of exactly who and what we are in relation to God, and what God does vs. what we do, see the article: Containers for God.

      And about forgiveness vs. acceptance of forgiveness, but addressed in terms of our human relations with one another, see: Repentance: The Unpopular Partner of Forgiveness. The same principles covered in the article apply in our relationship to God and God’s forgiveness.

      I hope all of this addresses your questions in at least some measure. If I’ve missed what you were asking, or you have further questions and ponderings, please don’t hesitate to come back at me. These are great questions, probing some of the deepest issues of spiritual and divine reality, and the relationship between God and human beings. It takes a lot of mental bending and stretching to get the ol’ mind wrapped around ’em. For me, it’s an ongoing process. I understand these things better as the years go by, as life experience piles up, and as I become gradually less foolish.

  2. Rami says:

    Yes Lee, quite a bit of mind-bending material to be had, intersecting with so many different areas of Swedenborg’s theology (and I suppose it’s ultimately impossible to broach one subject without broaching all of the interconnected ones). Sorry if I hadn’t properly clarified what I was asking with the way I had worded my question, and you did (more than adequately) address many of the issues linked to that question, though I think my central one still remains: what is the role and meaning of forgiveness if God does not judge us into heaven or hell, and heaven and hell rather being something we choose ourselves (with heavenly states ultimately being the work of Divine grace)? If heaven or hell is something we naturally gravitate toward based upon the inner state we forge through our choices, what is there to necessarily forgive?

    Is ‘forgiveness’ to imply that sin is an offense against God (which I equate with offenses against each other), and is as such something that drags us down to hellish states unless forgiven or pardoned? Or forgiveness something that is maybe understood as making a conscious decision to accept the Divine grace that enables us to make an inward transformation out of hellishness and into more heavenly modes of thinking, acting, and being? If so, if the term ‘forgiveness’ ultimately symbolic of this more ineffable transformative experience?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      Thanks for clarifying your question. I’ll take another swing at it, and we’ll see how far it flies this time.

      I do think you’re moving in the right direction with the questions of your second paragraph. Forgiveness is much more than God simply saying, “I forgive you,” and making things all better. Yes, God forgiving us does have good effects in itself. But it is also inextricably connected to the inner transformation of which you speak.

      To take the first one first, we humans by ourselves are never anything but evil. That’s because by ourselves means without God, and all good comes from and is God. So when we are separated from God, the only thing we have is the evil that we humans create by twisting the good that comes to us from God.

      Further, even when we have accepted God into our lives, and are on the path of “regeneration,” or spiritual rebirth, we are still not clean and pure.

      Swedenborg states quite clearly that when we repent and begin a new life, our old evils and sins are not washed away from us like dirt washed away with water; rather, they are simply moved from the center to the sides of our life. (Traditional translations of Swedenborg often use the word “removed” for this process, which makes it sound like they’re entirely gone, but the Latin removere should really be translated, “moved away.”) Any evil we have thought or done is never completely wiped away. Rather, it is pushed farther and farther away from the focus of our life, so that it is no longer the driving force in our life. And that is possible only because God continually holds us back from our own evil desires when we are willing to have God do so. (See, for example, The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine #166; Arcana Coelestia #9014:3; True Christianity #614.)

      To use a visual and ocular example, consider someone whose cornea is clouded by disease so that his or her vision is dim. What happens when we are spiritually reborn is not that the cloudiness vanishes altogether; rather, it is moved from the center to the sides, so that the focal point and primary field of vision is now clear, but the peripheral vision retains some of the old cloudiness.

      A more experiential example is that of an alcoholic who has stopped drinking and gotten sober, but who is still susceptible to the addictive lure of alcohol, and must be continually vigilant. For many alcoholics, a single drink would be enough to plunge them right back into active alcoholism.

      Because our evils are never entirely wiped away, but are merely pushed more and more to the sides, we do need God’s active forgiveness day in and day out to keep us on the path toward heaven.

      None of us is perfect. All of us slip from time to time, thinking, feeling, saying, and doing things we know we shouldn’t. But if our primary motive (“ruling love,” as Swedenborg calls it) is good, being focused on love for God and/or love of the neighbor, then God regularly forgives us when we slip, and our knowledge and experience of that forgiveness makes it possible for us to pick ourselves up again, dust ourselves off, and get back on the path toward heaven.

      According to Swedenborg, even the angels themselves sometimes slip into false and unworthy thoughts and feelings, such as the idea that they themselves are good, and have completely conquered all of their evil thoughts and desires. When they have these sorts of thoughts, they are allowed to slip back into the experience of their old evil thoughts and feelings—which are, in fact, still very much a part of them—until they recognize that they themselves are not, in fact, good, but only God is good, and everything good in them is not their own, but God’s in them. Only then can they rise up again from the place where they have fallen, and resume their life in heaven.

      So even for those on the path to heaven, and indeed, even for those in heaven, God’s forgiveness is still required because not a single one of us is pure, innocent, and good. Every single one of us still has faults, and we still sometimes think, feel, say, and do things that are not good, and that need God’s forgiveness so that we can get back on track.

      If God were not to forgive these things, we would be constantly pushed lower and lower every time we slip and fall, and there would be no hope for us.

      The fact that God always forgives us doesn’t take anything away from the power of God’s forgiveness. Although it is a constant, we shouldn’t take it for granted in the sense of not appreciating it, any more than we should take the light and heat of the sun for granted in its role of sustaining all life on earth. If the sun were to stop shining on the earth, it would not be all that long before the entire earth was a lifeless rock.

      So even in the traditional sense of our needing God’s forgiveness for our sins because we are all sinners, God’s forgiveness is a powerful force in our life that continually sustains us and keeps us from falling down deeper and deeper toward hell and into the depths of hell. Knowing that we are forgiven whenever we do thoughtless and mean things gives us the strength we need to continually correct ourselves as we walk the path toward heaven.

      And that is true because forgiveness is not just a sentiment God feels toward us, but is, as you suggest, a transformative power in our life. But this comment is getting long, so I’ll take that up in a separate comment.

      • Jason says:

        I have been struggling so much with this very concept recently, and you have just confirmed pretty much everything I think God has been telling me. First let me just give you a back story, I have smoked cannabis daily since 17 or 18 years old, and I’ll be thirty this year, I took other drugs as well, but I stopped all that at about the age of 23/24 after I nearly killed myself taking far to many drugs (Im not going to name them as not to promote them, but I think cannabis is a problem many people struggle with as it is so popular these days hence why I have named it).
        Anyway When I found God and was “born again”, I quit everything stopped drinking, smoking weed, watching porn, even looking at women lustfully, I quite literally had a revelation of God’s Holiness. And lasted like that for about 6 weeks, I was unemployed at the time also, and had just come out of a 7 year relationship, to which we ended on very bad terms. To put it lightly I was an emotional wreck before I was saved, but God healed me to a large extent of that great gaping hole in my heart, and I had such joy in my heart which I had never experienced in my life. I therefore went around like I was perfect, acting as righteously as I could and telling everyone of this revelation of God I had had. But as the Bible says,”You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked”. And I was acting just like that, I had all these revelations of God and completely believed that was it for me, I’m “healed” so to speak, done, the finished article.
        So as I said, I lasted about 6 weeks like that, maybe 2 months, acting very self righteously, until my Birthday came along, so to cut a long story short I used it as an excuse to have a spliff, then that was it, I just completely fell back into it, but worse this time. I was buying a large amount every night smoke the lot, and convince myself that was it and I would quit tomorrow, that lasted about two months.
        After that, I had almost given up trying to quit because its just been so hard. When the temptation comes, its all you can think about, and it doesnt go away until you have more. I have prayed to God so hard to take this affliction away from me, but nothing seems to work. Anyway so many times when I have been alone praying and reading the Bible I have been utterly distraught with fear that God has left me, and it causes all causes sorts of problems, you start believing God hates you, and cannot possibly forgive you because of this horrible addiction, and I have spent whole nights awake in bed tormenting myself, over this addiction, and the horrible thought that God has left me completely, but He always reminds me, whether it be through the Bible, or just little synchronicity in my life which I have started looking out for, that He is ALWAYS there. I think until you believe completely you are saved, from whatever you do in the future as well, and God is on your side, your mindest becomes then more of a matter of not “This is simply to hard for me”, instead I am now thinking “God WILL get me through this” and it becomes so much easier., Some of my best moments of worship recently have been when I have t simply accepted Gods love and grace for what it is,, and not condemn myself into a horrible corner. When Jesus said, whatever comes out of a mans heart defiles him not what goes into his mouth, I think that pretty much sums up Christianity. Its not how self righteously we act, its whats in our hearts, and how much we love other people. If we condemn ourselves we will ultimately reject Gods grace and harden our hearts through fear, which causes to act badly. when we realise He is there with us always, no matter how horribly we act, so long as we repent, He will forgive us, the whole worlds changes, you stop worrying, and just learn to love other people. We are all going to stumble throughout our lives, and through these times of hardship we learn a deeper faith, we learn to cling on to God and never let go, and things are revealed to yourself you forgot were still part of you, evil nasty things, that surface and by the process you learn from it, and how not to act in the future.
        God is only just starting to show to me that we are cleansed sanctified and justified before God, when we are born again. Im not entirely sure whether we can lose our salvation, but I am personally moving towards the notion that when God says its impossible for us to be plucked from His hands, thats exactly what He means, that nothing we can do on this earth will take us away from Him, we are justified by our hearts and what was in our hearts when we were born again. We are His children, you are a saint. The devils got a grip of you but he will let go if you trust in God. Just turn to God ask him for your faith back, and He will give you a way out.
        I wont lie, Im still in the grips of temptation, but now I just know God will sort this out, so Im just going along for the ride. Things just seem to have a funny way of working themselves out when you trust in God rather than your own righteousness.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Jason,

          Thanks for stopping by, and for telling your story.

          My immediate reaction is that evangelical Christian churches do a disservice to newly “saved” people by telling them that when they accept Jesus their sins are all washed away like dirt with water.

          That’s not how it works. When we turn our life toward Christ, that is only the start of a lifelong process of being saved.

          Yes, the initial experience does often make it possible for us to lay down particular sins at Jesus’ feet, and leave them behind. But underneath it all, we are still the same person. Your experience of having a previous sin, addiction, and so on come roaring back after an initial period of euphoria is not at all uncommon. Many people experience this, and many drop away in despair of their own salvation at that point.

          But that is the point at which our salvation gets real. When our feet come back to earth after the initial uplift of accepting Christ into our heart, then starts the real work of salvation, in which we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

          I don’t know you personally, and even if I did I couldn’t say what your future will hold. But I do believe that those who don’t give up, but keep going and keep working on their own lives while trusting in God’s power and taking advantage of the human angels who come their way to help will, in time, be able to conquer and move beyond the struggles and temptations that have been holding them down for years or even decades.

          I could go on, but instead I’ll refer you to a few other articles here that might be helpful:

          Godspeed on your spiritual journey!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      Now let’s dig into the connection between forgiveness and transformation.

      At its root, forgiveness is simply a function of love.

      In human relations, we tend to forgive those we love, and to not forgive those we don’t love—and especially not those we hate and consider enemies. Parents, for example, commonly forgive all manner of misbehavior engaged in by their own children, while condemning the same behavior in others’ children. I’m not saying that’s a good thing. Just that it’s how we humans tend to tick.

      When it comes to God, there is forgiveness for all people because God loves all people. And the forgiveness itself is simply one form of God’s love as it flows out to human beings. When God’s love encounters human evil, one of the things God’s love does in that situation is to forgive the evil.

      So we can think of forgiveness as an action taken pursuant to love for those who are engaged in evil.

      However, as explored in the article, “Repentance: The Unpopular Partner of Forgiveness,” that forgiveness has no practical effect unless there is repentance, meaning a change of direction and life, on the part of the one forgiven.

      Parents commonly forgive their children, even when their grown children commit crimes that land them in jail. And that is understandable. Parents love their children, and want them to be happy. But if their children do not see the error of their ways, but continue to commit crimes, all the parents’ forgiveness does is to add fuel to the fire, emboldening their children to continue commit evil while basking in undeserved love from their parents.

      The only way the parents’ love and forgiveness can have a good effect is if their children recognize that their actions are wrong, and commit themselves to no longer engaging in those actions. That’s what’s meant by “repentance.”

      Swedenborg takes up this issue in the form of rejecting the idea, common in traditional Christianity, that when our sins have been forgiven by God, they are wiped away and are no longer a part of us. That, Swedenborg says, is exactly the opposite of the truth (in functional terms from the perspective of our human life). How it works, rather, is that when our sins are moved away from the center of our life through repentance and living a new and better life, then they are forgiven. (For a clear statement of this principle in Swedenborg’s writings, see Divine Providence #279, 280.)

      In other words, although God continually forgives our sins, we are not actually forgiven, meaning that God’s forgiveness has no effect in our lives, until we have set those sins aside and are no longer committing them because we have recognized that they are wrong and against God’s will, and have committed ourselves to not committing them anymore, but to living a good life instead.

      So the very act of repentance, or personal transformation, is an act of accepting God’s forgiveness, which is the same thing as accepting God’s love. The action of God’s forgiveness, or love, if we allow it to act in our lives, is to lift us up out of the evil and sin in which we’ve been mired, and into a life of love and goodness.

      Another way of saying this is that in our own human life and experience, there’s really no difference between being forgiven by God and leaving behind our old evils and sins in favor of a new life of love for God and for the neighbor. In a sense, that spiritual transformation in us is God’s forgiveness, or love, working in us and changing our lives from evil to good.

      So yes, I agree with your final statement that “the term ‘forgiveness’ is ultimately symbolic of this more ineffable transformative experience,” while not disagreeing with the more traditional idea that we require God’s forgiveness because on our own we are sinners and are continually falling into evil—as explained in my previous comment.

  3. Rami says:

    Also, I really appreciate the illustrative value of likening our relationship to Divine grace to that of a cup, but I would like to ask a hopefully clarifying question about what it might imply: if a cup turned away from God is analogous to rejecting the goodness that flows from God, does that person necessarily still ‘experience’ that goodness, but just refuses to acknowledge it for what it is? Is there an ‘inner self’ that is always aware of ones Divine nature and the Divine realities that are constantly at work within it, and a human, worldly, ‘outer self’ that can reject and try to suppress this awareness, making the outer self the *only* self? If it’s appropriate to look at the human being as composed of two ‘selves,’ is it even possible for the inner/higher self to ever really be closed off to God? Is the cup always filling, only it’s us who choose to not acknowledge this, and allow that goodness to flow upward into our lives and ultimately the lives of others?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      Good question.

      The example of the cup is, of course, a simplification of an immensely complex reality. It gives the general idea, and in that way it’s a good example. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

      To get right to it, Swedenborg says that every human being, spirit (evil or good), and angel has an inmost level, which he calls the “soul” in a technical sense. (He also uses “soul” in the more common sense as a synonym for the human spirit as a whole.) About that inmost soul:

      • It is in direct communication with God, being the place where we receive our life from God.
      • It is beyond our conscious awareness. As I understand it, our inmost soul is the vantage point from which we would look at everything else if our consciousness were raised to the highest level we are capable of being raised to. And like the eye, it cannot see itself.
      • It is beyond our reach or ability to affect, so that it is preserved pure and inviolate in everyone, even the worst devils in hell.
      • For evil people and evil spirits, then, it is not corrupted, but rather is closed off from below.
      • However, even in evil people and evil spirits, some life from it seeps down through the somewhat porous barrier that closes it off from the rest of the person, which is what makes it possible for us to continue to live, and to have eternal life.

      To fit this into the cup analogy, the cup that we can turn right-side up or upside-down is not our entire self. It is only the lower, conscious part of our self. Even if we turn that conscious part of ourselves upside-down, we still have an uncorrupted inner soul that receives life from God, and transmits enough of that life through a somewhat porous “bottom of the cup”—which is the barrier we erect against God—so that we can continue to live.

      Unfortunately, as that life passes through the pores in that barrier, it is twisted from good into evil by our own evil nature (which is the barrier), so that by the time it reaches our conscious awareness and our active life, it is evil and destructive rather than good and constructive.

      And yet, it still keeps us alive.

      To tie this in with your earlier questions, in this way God’s forgiveness, which is a function of God’s love, maintains in existence even the evil spirits in hell. Without God’s love and forgiveness continually flowing in, they, too, would cease to exist.

      More practically, they would plunge down into lower and more evil levels of hell than they currently inhabit. Even in hell, God is continually keeping the spirits there from slipping downward into still worse hells. So although the evil spirits there block and thwart the will of God to raise them out of hell and into heaven, God’s will is still done in preventing them from falling into still worse hells, meaning into even more evil lives.

      To round things out, the barrier that we put up against God may be erected anywhere along the spectrum of levels between our inmost soul and our outmost, most sense-oriented life. And it is erected above the highest level of our life that we have corrupted, so that the levels of our spirit above that level are not corrupted.

      The reason this is important is that the higher the level of our spirit that we reach and corrupt, the deeper into hell we plunge ourselves. So it is one of the laws of Divine Providence, according to Swedenborg, that we are not allowed to regenerate, or be spiritually reborn, beyond the level that we are capable of maintaining to the end of our life. For an extended essay on this, see Divine Providence #221-233.

      Those who do gain access to the deeper levels of the human spirit through regeneration, but then backslide into evil and corruption, commit what Swedenborg calls “profanation,” which is the mixing together of spiritual good and evil. Their lot in hell is the worst and most grievous, since they have destroyed the higher, spiritual and heavenly levels of themselves, compared to most people who only destroy the outward, earthly and world-focused parts of themselves.

      As an example of “profanation,” or corruption, in human society, a corrupt priest or politician can do far more damage than a corrupt factory worker, because the priest or politician has gained access to spiritual power over parishioners, in the case of the priest, and political power over citizens, in the case of the politician. That is why society rightly comes down much harder on corrupt clergy and politicians than it does on laypeople and on ordinary citizens, even if they have committed the same crimes. “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).

      Yet even for those who have profaned and corrupted their higher, spiritual levels, there is still a barrier between those destroyed levels and their inmost soul, which remains uncorrupted, and continues to serve as a conduit for life from God to flow into them.

      Back to your questions, although even evil people and evil spirits have those higher, uncorrupted levels, or at least an inmost, uncorrupted soul that is in communication with God, because of the barrier they have erected between themselves and those higher levels, they have no conscious awareness of those parts of themselves. From their own perspective, it is as if those levels of their own being did not exist. Their entire conscious life and experience is lived in the lower parts of themselves of which they are conscious—which are the same parts of themselves that they have corrupted and turned toward evil.

      So for all practical purposes, their life consists entirely of the life of the evil parts of themselves below the aforementioned barrier.

      Having said that, occasionally, according to Swedenborg, the devils in hell are allowed to experience their higher selves temporarily, when they have some legitimate reason for wanting to go up to heaven, such as to help angels “realize” how much better life is in hell (as the evil spirits in hell think), or to provide newly arrived spirits in the “world of spirits,” where all people first go after death, with an example of what evil and hell are really all about.

      When this happens, the evil spirits are able to see quite clearly how evil, corrupt, and vile their life in hell is. However, even then it is only their intellect or thinking mind, that temporarily rises above the barrier that normally prevents them from having any experience of their higher self. Their heart, or loves and motives, remain situated in the evil desires that keep them in hell. And since the head and the heart cannot be long separated in the spiritual world, they soon sink back down into the community of hell where they live, and resume their evil lives. Before long they have either forgotten all about their brief experience of a higher awareness, or have twisted it into a false picture that supports the evil life they love.

  4. Garrett says:

    Hebrews 6: 4-6 states (In the King James Translation)

    4 For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost,
    5 And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come,
    6 If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.

    I’m led to believe by these verses that it is impossible for someone who has fallen away from God to be saved. And falling away is exactly what I’ve been doing for about a year.
    I’m torn between if it’s too late for me or not, as I am confused as to who this even applies to. A believer, an unbeliever? And how so according to whom it applies.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Garrett,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and your good question.

      Hebrews 6:4–6 does sound scary, doesn’t it?

      But first, I don’t think the writer really intends to make this an absolute rule, and second, I believe he is talking about people who have gone very deep into spiritual life, and then turned back.

      On the first point, it is common for writers and speakers to make absolute statements for rhetorical effect, in order to “put the fear of God” into their listeners. The meaning, though, is not so much that this is an absolute rule, but rather, “Just don’t do that. It’s extremely dangerous.”

      It’s a matter of human psychology that if you say, more precisely and accurately, “most all people who do this will never survive it,” your average idiot who hears that statement (and we’re all basically idiots, aren’t we?) will say, “Yeah, most people. But I’m not most people!” And then they’ll go ahead and do it anyway, figuring that the rule applies to everyone else, but not to me, because I’m special! I’m not like all those other idiots!

      However, in practice, even when a rule is stated as an absolute there are almost always exceptions. For example, you’re always supposed to stop at a red light, and stay stopped until it turns green. But what if an ambulance with lights and siren screaming is stuck behind you and it can’t get through unless you move? In that case, you must drive through the red light to get out of the ambulance’s way.

      I believe Hebrews 6:4–6 is, in a simple reading, a case of stating a rule in absolute terms so that people reading it won’t think, “Yes, but I’m one of those special exceptions to that rule.” The intent is to get people to pay attention and listen, and not fall back once they have accepted and begun a life of faith.

      On the second point, a careful reading shows that this passage is not about your average Joe or Jane Christian who goes to church and struggles to be good and a believer in the face of doubts and persistent bad habits and sins. Rather, it is about someone who has gone very far in the Christian life, become a truly new person who is steady in the faith and has become a thoroughly reformed and renewed person, and then forsakes the spiritual life and goes back to a life of sin.

      The passage talks about people who were “enlightened” and “have tasted the heavenly gift,” and were “made partakers of the Holy Spirit.” These are people who have “tasted the good word of God” and “the powers of the world to come.”

      Most ordinary Christians never get that far. Most ordinary Christians are not particularly enlightened, and are still very much struggling with the things of this earth rather than tasting the heavenly gift, partaking in the Holy Spirit, and tasting the powers of the world to come.

      This passage is talking about mature Christians who have long since left behind the various struggles with the things of this world, and have become reformed and renewed in heart, mind, and actions, so that, as Jesus said, “their yoke is easy and their burden light.” In other words they have fought the good fight, and have, through Christ’s power working in them, achieved a truly good and spiritual life.

      If such people then turn back, and return to an evil, selfish, and sinful life, they mix together the spiritual good they had attained with worldly evil and sin. Such a mixture of good and evil—called “profanation” in traditional religious terms—is practically impossible to undo. Though theoretically as long as they are still living on this earth they still could repent, their spiritual life has become so destroyed by turning their back on it when they had attained a high level of spiritual life that they will rarely, if ever, actually repent and resume their spiritual walk.

      I believe this is the situation Hebrews 6:4–6 is talking about when read more deeply and carefully.

      Now perhaps I’m being a bit presumptuous, but I suspect that you are more on the level of an average Joe Christian who accepted Christ, did your best for a while, but still struggled heavily with all of your old bad habits of heart, mind, and body, never entirely overcoming them so that you no longer had any temptation to fall back into them. I doubt that you were enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift and the powers of the world to come so that you were a thoroughly renewed and reborn person, having, through the power of Christ working in you, left all of that far behind you and become a totally new person, no longer even tempted to indulge in your old sins.

      In short, I doubt that by the time you fell away, you had progressed far enough in maturing as a Christian so that this passage is really talking about you. (If I’m wrong about that, feel free to give me a virtual slap in the face! 😉 )

      From what you have said here, I believe that repentance and a return to a spiritual path in the footsteps of Christ is still very much available to you. If Jesus told his disciples to forgive a brother who sins against them not seven, but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:21–22), how much more will Jesus forgive you if you sincerely re-commit yourself to believing and following his teachings?

      Meanwhile, here are two more articles that you might find helpful:

      I hope this helps. And remember:

      For God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26)

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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