A study of Mark 3:29 and what is commonly called blasphemy against the Holy Spirit–from Leben 7.
“But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven (NIV), but is in danger of eternal damnation.” (KJV)–Mark 3:29
The statement we have presented to us as coming from Jesus’ mouth in Mark 3:29 has surely caused as much fear, condemnation, and confusion as any single verse in the Bible. It is worthy of our serious study, however, to address a yet more damaging misunderstanding—what the assumed meaning of this passage implies about the character of God.
What kind of God is our God?
Not all doctrines are created equal. Some have more sweeping implications and consequences for our belief system than others. Those beliefs within what we call “orthodoxy” that wrongly teach concerning the nature and purposes of God, and thus that misrepresent God himself, are those we should be most diligent to study and root out, even if to do so invokes criticism for going against said orthodoxies. When God is misre-presented, we must speak up, even against the charge of unorthodoxy. Because if orthodoxy is wrong, it must be changed rather than its errors ignored.
What is commonly referred to as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” represents one of these important and pivotal studies in which the very character of God himself is at stake.
The apparent irrevocable judgment of this passage has weighed heavily on the hearts of multitudes through the years, producing a totally erroneous view of God, and probably keeping many out of the kingdom of God. It is no exaggeration to say that for some this passage is the single greatest stumbling-block preventing a life of intimacy with God.
Guilt may be at root. But a far deeper problem exists here than that—the corrosive effect it has on our portrayal of God’s nature.
“A God who would do that,” the objection runs, “is not a God I could worship, or even believe in.”
It is a valid argument—not against the existence of God, but against wanting a relationship with him if that is the kind of God he is. And that is the larger point: What kind of a God is our God?
Is it legitimate for non-Christians to examine what we say we believe, and on that basis formulate perspectives about what God is like? If our beliefs cannot withstand their scrutiny, even their criticism, that is no occasion for defensive argument, but rather for self-examination. We need to be aware of what the world says, and then make sure our beliefs hold consistent water.
In addition to those who object to the implication of this passage on intellectual grounds, there are others who feel that there is no hope for them. In their heart of hearts, they are haunted by a word or phrase from their younger years which they fear might qualify as the horrifying unforgivable sin.
In the minds of some, this passage even jumps out as a scriptural “I dare you,” a sort of spiritual Russian roulette with eternal consequences. I dare you curse the Holy Spirit! the brain taunts.
A childish notion? Perhaps. But underlying it remains a serious misapprehension bolstered by the ominous words we cannot dislodge from our minds.
All this misunderstanding is based on an incomplete translation of this passage. It is a translation guided by opinion and interpretation that is not found in the Greek original. It is a translation bolstered by tradition and passed down from new version of the Bible to new version, shedding no new light, merely continuing to support the orthodoxy of the translators. Thus the errors persist—justified by the ambiguities inherent in the passage—and many are misled as a result to wrong perspectives about God.
An examination of that mistranslation will follow. But first it is necessary to lay some groundwork.
Detours and foundations
There are some who occasionally find my writing difficult because I spend time laying foundations before getting to the points I want to make. Fully half the book Is Jesus Coming Back As Soon As We Think? is not really about Jesus’ return at all but about how we read the Bible. It is the most serious writing I have ever done on biblical study itself. That book is probably more foundational to my thought and my approach to Scripture even than Leben. If we are not reading the Bible properly, how can we get to the depth of meaning we desire? Foundations have to be laid.
I hope you will indulge me with your patience in this present case. Most of us at some time in our lives have been troubled by the implications of the “great sin”—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In order to get beneath the surface and do the detective work required to figure out the real meaning of the passage. I would like to begin with a detour concerning a passage prior to the one we shall consider, specifically the two verses Mark 2:1 and 2:15. I think you may find it interesting and thought-provoking. And it will put us on a position to unlock the secrets of Mark 3:29.
I often say that I never go through a study of Mark’s gospel without spotting new clues I have never observed before. As I read through the account recently, suddenly two words from Mark 2:1 leapt off the page—the news went around town that he was at home.
At home! I thought to myself.
Jesus was…at home?
Remembering Jesus’ words, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20, RSV) I had never considered the idea of Jesus actually having a place he called home. Some commentators assume the reference here is to Peter’s home. But there is nothing in the text to suggest it. Such an explanation suits our precon-ceptions. We have an image of a ragtag band of thirteen men traipsing around the countryside, carrying their bedrolls, eating beside a campfire, camping out in the hills, always on the move. So naturally “at home” must mean Peter’s house or simply represents another way of saying he was “back in town.”
But let us lay aside our preconceptions and ask, “What if…?”
We know that Jesus often spoke figuratively. When his mother and brothers come looking for him, he replies, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, and my mother.” It is a figurative statement. It obviously cannot be interpreted to mean that he had no actual mother, brother, or sisters. Might the foxes and birds comment also point to a deeper truth than whether he had a home or not. Indeed, consider the context. Immediately after the fox remark Jesus answers a second would-be disciple with a literal impossibility: “Let the dead bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:22) He was speaking figuratively. Perhaps this is true in both instances. Therefore we mustn’t use the foxes and birds statement to preclude the possibility of a home. Such comments tell us nothing either way.
We know that the opening phases of Jesus’ ministry occurred in and around the Galilean town of Capernaum. It was a hub for fishing, for a detachment of Roman soldiers, for local government, and for religion. How large the town was we have no idea, but it was more than a mere village. Peter, Andrew, and Matthew lived here, presumably also James and John, and possibly other of the disciples. And as Capernaum was a center of Jesus’ activities throughout a good portion of the gospel, it is clear that prior to this time he had established many contacts here and considered Capernaum his headquarters, as it were.
It is more than just a casual association. Jesus lived in Capernaum. At some point he moved from Nazareth, and by the time the gospel opens, Capernaum is called his “home.” And in Capernaum I think the possibility exists that he had a place of his own, a home from which he came and went and where he slept and ate when he was there.
The big question is why had he moved from Nazareth, and when. We can only conjecture.
Had he perhaps relocated after Joseph’s death from the hilly region of Nazareth eighteen miles away? If so, why, and how long ago? There is no indication that he just came to Capernaum and started preaching. He lived there. And apparently had for some time. People knew him
Certainly God had long been preparing him for the ministry which would ultimately come. For reasons we cannot know, it seems likely that Capernaum on the shores of Galilee was the central location from which God wanted him to launch his ministry.
A look at the Greek of Mark 2:1 seems to confirm the possibility that Jesus might have had a home of his own. The original says that he was εν οικω—EN OIKO—at home, at the house. There is no sense of it only meaning “in town” or in someone else’s house. It is the same word used in other contexts for “one’s own house” and always refers to the place a person lives. From this it seems clear that even after his ministry began, Jesus continued to maintain some sort of personal living quarters, a home.
To repeat: εν οικω are words that often mean at one’s own house.
Other fascinating questions come to mind. Did he merely rent a room or a small apartment? Might he have rented a room from Peter or another family in town? Or did he own a house of his own? If he had lived in Capernaum for some time, how did he support himself? Mark calls him a carpenter. Did he have his own workshop? Was it part of the house? Did he work for someone else? With Joseph now gone, the family growing up, perhaps business opportunities limited— maybe one of his brothers had moved from Nazareth with him to establish a carpentry trade.
Must we observe Luke and Matthew’s approach, not associating Jesus with such plebeian pursuits as supporting himself, maintaining a home, paying rent, operating a business, or owning property so as not to tamper with his halo? Do questions such as these lessen his Saviorhood?
I say no. Jesus did not float onto the scene out of some nebulous spiritual fog at thirty years of age. He grew out of reality. His ministry emerged out of real life. He got tired and hungry. He had to make a living, go to the bathroom, buy food and clothes. He had family responsibilities.
What did he do when he ran out of food, when he needed a new robe, or when the straps of his sandals finally gave out? Do we actually think he just snapped his fingers and miraculously provided for his every need by divine fiat? No, he knew life fully as a human being. He went to the market, the shop, or the cobbler like anyone else. He bought things, whether it be a robe or a sack of flour. He fixed meals. Finding a coin in a fish or multiplying loaves of bread is the exception, not how Jesus lived his life from day to day. He lived a real life.
Idealized icon…or real man
If we do not bring a certain gutsy boldness into our reading of Scripture, our perspectives will always be infected with unreality.
That’s how liberal theology worms its way into our thinking, cutting off Jesus’ feet, disconnecting him from life. We’re left with a floating Jesus reminiscent of some medieval painting, whose halo glows but who’s not real. A plastic, dashboard Jesus—an icon not a human being. We’re left with a “Christ figure,” or as Rudolf Bultmann, the German liberal theologian, has it, a “Christ myth.”
The glowing Jesus fable is not just a fiction of liberalism. Fundamentalists detach Jesus from reality too. We sing the words of the favorite hymn, never pausing to reflect on the unreality they imply: He’s the lily of the valley. He’s the bright and morning star. True enough…on one level. But such figurative images spiritualize Jesus off the ground too, subtly turning him into a floating white-robed Savior whose feet never really get tired, dusty, or smell. He’s not the “lily of the valley,” he was a man.
The opening words of Mark’s gospel get it right: Jesus (man) Christ (Messiah), the Son (man) of God (divine.)
An incredible thing to call anyone, man and God!
Jesus was both. We have to retain his full manhood in order to apprehend what his Godness in the flesh truly means. The reality of his manhood imbues his Saviorhood with all the more wonder.
Therefore, I am bold to ask: Is it possible, that there was more normalcy to Jesus’ lifestyle than we realize? When I examine the gospels from this perspective, I find myself noticing all the homes where Jesus and the disciples ate and stayed. As fond as Jesus was of the poor, he and his disciples spent a great deal of time in what might be called “middle class” surroundings. Think of all the houses where we know they spent time—that of Mary and Martha, Peter, the prominent Pharisee with whom he had dinner, Zacchaeus, Simon the leper where he was anointed with ointment of nard, not to mention the home of Mary, John Mark’s mother, where Mark grew up. He visited, ate, slept, and taught in these middle class and wealthy houses. As deeply ingrained as are our images of his teaching in the countryside and by the sea, he spent just as much time teaching indoors.
And one of these homes Jesus used for his ministry just might have been his. Jesus may have been hosting a Bible study at his own house when interrupted by the paralytic coming down through the roof!
This detour brings to the surface a serious difficulty facing the Bible reader that many do not consider. That is the simple fact that Bible translation is not an objective undertaking. All translations reflect the opinions, viewpoints, and biases of those who compile them. Bible translators skew their word choices in ways that substantiate their own doctrinal preferences. Subtleties of usage, tense, and actual word meanings from the original languages often disappear from sight to be replaced by doctrinally biased word selection.
No matter what translation we use, we are not reading a perfect rendition of the original Greek or Hebrew, but an interpretive rendition as seen through the eyes of its translators. Obviously this does not invalidate Bible reading. It simply means that things are not always what they appear. To some degree it cannot be helped. Passages are occasion-ally ambiguous and one has to fall back on instinct to determine what a particular portion of Scripture means. The serious student must therefore dig, ask questions, and read between the lines.
I happen to use the New International Version along with several others, and have no major complaint with any of them. But when the NIV translators render Mark 2:15 as, “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house…” they did so by interpretation. They allowed an opinion of what the verse might mean to dictate how they rendered God’s Word.
There is nothing within the text to suggest whose house is indicated— Levi’s, that of Jesus, or someone else’s. The literal reading goes like this: “And it comes to pass he reclines him in the house of him…” The antecedent of the word him is completely unspecified. So they fell back on opinion, and “interpreted” the passage rather than “translated” it.
Jesus had said to Matthew (also called Levi), “Follow me,” and then Matthew followed. The sense I get of the exchange is that Jesus led the way from Matthew’s tax collecting office to his own house, not Levi’s. As they went, perhaps they ask some of Levi’s friends and acquaintances to join them. Before long it is a crowd, with the Pharisees tagging along behind watching and wondering what is going on.
I call this translation problem a “serious difficulty,” but it is only serious with respect to a few key theological orthodoxies that are based on severely opinionated misrepresentations of original Greek terms or phrases. For the most part, insofar as how it effects our normal daily Bible reading, the problem is a minor one. Most examples are relatively harmless. It will not really effect your life or mine in whose house Jesus and Matthew sat “reclining at table.”
So I will continue to read the NIV though these interpretive glitches probably exist on every page. As I read, therefore, I keep my eyes open and my brain alert. I do not want inadvertently to swallow someone else’s opinion and assume it to be the immutable Word of God.
This is what we are up against. Sometimes we must look beyond what our translators present to us. Translations have orthodoxy built into them, even at the expense of accuracy.
Matthew 25:46 is one of the more glaring examples of an egregious mistranslation. I cannot imagine that all translators are ignorant of the nuances of Greek meaning inherent in the two words they so badly mistranslate as “eternal punishment.” Yet nearly all perpetuate the orthodox doctrine by ignoring those nuances. Indeed, the mistranslation of Matthew 25:46 and Mark 3:29, and the dreadful implications about the character of God resulting from them, stem from a mistranslation of two of the forms of the same word: αιωνιον—AIONION and AIONIOU—αιωνιου.
So we have to look beyond the traditional rendition of certain passages. The NIV of Mark 3:29 has it, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.”
The King James is even more hideous: “But he that blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.” No wonder people labor under terrible guilt from the words.
Will vs. shall
Four troublesome words occur in Mark 3:29 where the NIV, and most other translations, badly err: will, never, guilty, and eternal.
To my ears, the translation as given implies exactly what people fear—that the blasphemer has been pronounced guilty, that God himself renders the verdict, and that the judgment is irrevocable. In the cases of all four of these words, however, I would argue that each has been mistranslated, leading to a completely wrong perception of what Jesus said.
Examining these words in more detail will shine a helpful light on this apparent judgment of permanent guilt which is not an accurate rendition of what Jesus said at all.
Let us investigate the time sequence of the verse. The phrase “will never be forgiven” implies two things about the timing—it implies that the judgment is a future judgment, and that it is a permanent one.
Additionally, the word will makes the judgment one that is passed upon the blasphemer from the outside. Obviously, it is not a neutral judgment, it is a passed and condemnatory sentence—a life-sentence. The judge is God, who chooses to “will” permanent and eternal judgment upon the sinner.
To “will” requires volition by somebody. Someone has to exist as the causative force behind the verb. “Will” is not a verb of impersonal passivity but of decision and volition. It requires a personal will-er. A rock cannot will, a cow cannot, in any “personal” sense, will. Someone has to choose to exercise that active “will.”
The word “will” can also be used to indicate the future tense. But there are two ways to express the future—will and shall, one personal and implying the chosen act of willing, the other an impersonal statement concerning the future.
“Will” carries with it motive. “Shall” does not. Shall indicates the neutral future. Will indicates a willed and chosen future.
Noted grammarian William Strunk clarifies the distinction by saying that “will expresses…determination or… consent. A swimmer in distress cries, ‘I shall drown; no one will save me!’ A suicide puts it the other way: ‘I will drown; no one shall save me.’” (The Elements of Style, p. 58)
In the case of Mark 3:29, the translators have not written “shall never be forgiven,” but “will never be forgiven.” This implies a chosen “will” exerting itself which results in the future and permanent condition of judgment by God.
If shall had been used, it would merely indicate a neutral future state in which forgiveness did not exist. Or consider what a difference would be conveyed if the words read “cannot” be forgiven. In other words, if the matter was out of God’s hands entirely.
But neither shall nor cannot is used, but “will never be forgiven,” a purposeful, willed judgment by God.
But it is all wrong.
The word will does not appear in the text at all!
It is an “interpretive” addition. Neither does shall appear in the text. There is no sign of the future whatever.
The tense indicated in this verse is the present. The translators turned the present of the original into the future of a tyrannical orthodoxy. Why…I cannot even begin to comprehend.
The distinction is a magnificent one!
The translated word never is far more troublesome even than the word will, and likewise does not exist here in the Greek. The original employs the word not rather than “never.”
The passage literally reads, “has not forgiveness.”
It is a state of present “condition,” not future “judgment.”
What a damaging liberty the translators took by changing has not forgiveness to will never be forgiven. Not only did they change the original from present to future, they made it a permanent future.
But Jesus is speaking of no future condemnation nor judgment from God’s hand at all. He is speaking of a neutral present fact, a state of affairs that exists—has not forgiveness.
Can you not feel the enormous difference between has not forgiveness (present tense, state of neutral conditionality, no outside judgment) and will never be forgiven (future tense, willed and permanent condemnation which extends forever into the future)?
There is all the difference in the world! The entire force of the passage is altered.
If we return to the text as Mark wrote it, God no longer occupies the role of a judge passing sentence. It is all the more likely that he is standing by with tears in his eyes, powerless to remedy the situation with forgiveness until a change in this condition is made.
For a passage with such enormously critical implications, it is astonishing, even shocking, that more care has not been taken by translators through the years to get it right.
In this particular phrase, the KJV is closer with its “hath never forgiveness,” though still substitutes never for not and implies a permanency not to be found in the Greek text. The only translation that gets it right is Young’s Literal Translation (1898): hath not forgiveness.
εις τον αιωνα—unto the age
Following the word “forgiveness” in the text appear the above three words—εις τον αιωνα.
I place them here in their original Greek not to imply a greater level of erudition than is the case, but for a very simple reason. I want us to look at these three words, whether we can “read” them or not, and ponder them. Maybe it will simply give new meaning to the expression, “It’s Greek to me!” But it is important for us to realize that each of these Greek characters, funny squiggles and all, and the words they represent, actually flowed from the ink in Mark’s quill. Mark wrote these words eis ton aiwna. He knew what they meant, even if we don’t, and he wrote them down on a papyrus roll as a direct quote from the Lord’s mouth, told him by Peter, an eyewitness. Not only did Mark write these words, Jesus spoke them. If Jesus spoke them and Mark wrote them, to my mind, that makes these three words very important.
And yet when it comes to our English translations, believe it or not, these three words simply vanish.
εις τον αιωνα…EIS TON AIONA— when translated, mean unto the age. When you read this passage in your Bible, however, you will not see these three words. They are gone.
When you open your Bible to Mark 3:29, what you ought to read are the words: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit has not forgiveness unto the age…”
What you will actually read will not be so dramatically different. Only a few words will be changed. But they are sufficient to have perpetuated an entirely false doctrine about the nature and duration of God’s potential forgiveness, as well as implying a capriciousness to his judgment. It is the same false doctrine perpetuated by the mistranslation of Matthew 25:46, the falsehood that God’s forgiveness is finite.
It is not hard to see how “has not forgiveness unto the age,” comes to be rendered “will never be forgiven.” Translators assume “unto the age” means forever. They then convert “not… forever” to never. What in the original indicates a present condition that may not last forever is changed to a future condition that will last forever. Thus the passage is completely changed.
It is easy to see what the translators have done. But it is wrong. Should it not cause us concern, despite the peculiarity of the phrase “unto the age,” that our English translators have omitted these words entirely, and then changed the entire meaning of the original?
To probe yet further into this mystery, we will need to look at the root of the word age, from the phrase “unto the age.” If the condition of unforgiveness lasts “unto the age,” what does that mean? How long is it? We will examine that question momentarily.
ενοχος—liability not guilt
First, however, continuing through the verse, let us examine the word the NIV translates guilty—ενοχος… ENOCHOS—which the King James renders far more accurately as in danger. Yet even the King James does not get close to the truer sense of liable, being subject to a charge that has been brought. “Indicted” would be more like it.
The sense of the Greek is that an indictment has been issued and justice will ultimately be rendered. But the verdict is still out. Everyone must have his or her day in court. The intriguing nuances of the phrase “…has not forgiveness, but is liable/in danger of…” are full of interest. Liability implies only indictment. Most translators, however, dispense with the uncertainty implied and jump straight to the verdict, passing sentence and pronouncing guilt before a final determination of justice is made. They turn the indictment into guilty…case closed.
At every point, the seemingly tiny liberties taken by the translators lead to huge consequences never intended by Jesus. When he spoke these words, he was not pronouncing sentence, he was pronouncing “liability,” the danger of potential judgment if the situation is not changed. In a sense he was saying, “A case will be brought against those who…” But translators have turned it into something quite different.
Sin not condemnation
Then we need to address the “damnation” from the King James, an atrocious rendering. Various Greek manuscripts differ in what word Mark actually wrote at the end of the 29th verse—“is liable for sin,” or “is liable for condemnation.”
The Nestle text, probably correct, ends the verse with αμαρτηματος— HAMARTEMATOS—a form of hamartia which simply indicates sin. The Textus Receptus (upon which the King James was based) has it κρισεως—KRISEOS, which, though it is often translated as “condemnation,” more correctly notes a continuation of the justice-theme of enochos, involving a process of investigation for purposes of passing judgment and rendering justice. It conveys the sense of judicial authority or a tribunal. In neither case, whichever of these two words Mark intended, is “damnation” anywhere close to what Jesus said. Even if the KJV translators encountered the incorrect word kriseos, their mistranslation of it as damnation was horrendous. Being liable for a sin is a far different thing than being sentenced guilty and permanently condemned.
We now encounter the most serious difficulty in this passage—the word rendered in most translations eternal.
Let us look at the Greek. The word in question is αιωνιος—AIONIOS—whose form AIONIOU appears in the text of Mark 3:29, and whose form AIONION appears in Matthew 25:46.
In αιων, we encounter one of the most fascinating words in all New Testament Greek, fascinating yet enormously complex and fraught with controversy, for it has no precise parallel in English. It is a word with myriad nuances that simply “do not compute” into English.
You will notice that its root is exactly the same as that for one of the three missing words above. Yet that repetition has been removed from what we read in English. What does remain has been mistranslated, so that we never see Mark’s repeated use of the word “age” in the text at all.
The root for these two words is αιων—AION—a word with a long history in the Greek language. Its literal meaning is age, or era, from which we quickly recognize the similarity to our word “eon.” Its adjectival form AIONION, literally “having to do with AION,” is usually given as of or unto or for “the age.” That its forms are often repeated contributes to the various “eternal” translations, as “now and ever” (in Jude 25—“before all the aionos and now and unto all the AIONAS”…rendered now and ever); and “for ever and ever” (in Rev. 1:6—“unto the aionas of the aionon”…rendered for ever and ever), and similar multiple constructions.
The depth and complexity of AION is illustrated by the remarkable fact that it can actually be translated by two opposite words, both of which may be accurate, thus making infinitely more difficult our attempt to unravel the meaning of any text where it is used. “Unto the age,” or “lasting for the age,” can mean temporary (lasting until the age ends), or it can mean permanent or eternal (lasting for all the ages.)
What an interpretive quagmire! Yet we find the ambiguity never more pronounced than in Mark 3:29, where the translators make the unforgiveness eternal, but where I am convinced from other factors that Jesus actually meant temporary (or “potentially” so.)
That several of the forms of AION are sometimes rendered in English for the age of the age, or for ever and ever no doubt explains why the word eternal has come to be the usual translation. But this may convey a very inaccurate meaning from what was intended if the sense of aion is supposed to be finite, potentially temporary, and of indefinite length. The word has few equals in New Testament Greek for complexity! Imagine the difference had the King James translators in 1611 rendered Matthew 25:46 as, “and these shall go away into temporary chastening punishment of indefinite length that will last for the duration of the age of their rebellion,” or had rendered Mark 3:29 as, “has temporary unforgiveness for the duration of his spiritual blindness.” How indeed might our orthodoxies of the afterlife and the infinitude of God’s forgiveness be different had more care been paid to the translation of some of these key verses.
Furthermore, aion contains two interrelated components, one of duration and another of quality. In this second sense, it is sometimes rendered life.
Examples are numerous in the Greek classics of the use of AION and its derivative forms, from Aristotle to Homer to Plato, all intermingling the sense of life and time, with the sense of unknown indefinite duration. The word signifies a period of continuous duration as long as a certain epoch may last, but which gives way at the end of that “aeon” to another era of different characteristics. Here is where the “temporary” quality is seen. In this sense, it is similar to what we might call “an age,” or a “dispensation.” What is important to note is that the word rarely implies “forever.” In most cases, the translation eternal is simply incomplete.
I am reminded of a word such as “paradise.” Obviously the chief sense is of a perfect quality of life. And yet there are hints around its edges of timelessness, of perfection where time stands still…yet which might not last for all time. In other words, “perfection for an era.”
The complexities and etymological history of the word aion are numerous and far reaching.
Of this dual complexity of life and age, W.E. Vine comments that aion, “signifies a period of indefinite duration, or time viewed in relation to what takes place in the period. The force attaching to the word is not so much that of the actual length of a period, but that of a period marked by spiritual or moral characteristics.” (Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 41)
Vine’s words when applied to Mark 3:29 completely alters the thrust of Jesus’ words.
It may surprise you to lean that AION, AIONION, and its forms are used over 150 times in the New Testament, approx-imately the same number of times as the forms of AGAPE. Yet AION is a word scarcely studied or mentioned even by knowledgeable students of the Bible. Wherever you look in the New Testament there are forms of the word. But no one knows it. To bring aion into the light and attempt an open-minded understanding of its complexities, especially in light of Matthew 25:46, would bring many darknesses of evangelical theology into fresh new light of biblical truth. But while Evangelicalism as a whole remains satisfied with these dark corners in its belief system that are not so “literal” as may appear, and as long as its leaders and laity have no hunger for such new light, AION will remain one of the New Testament’s best kept secrets.
Several passages may interest you—among numerous instances— where the forms of AION, AIONIOS, and AIONION are used. You will quickly see how variable are the renderings and how many of them have been altered.
Luke 1:33—AIONAS (“unto the ages”)… rendered forever.
John 9:32—AIONOS (“from the age”)… rendered Since the world began (KJV); has ever (NIV).
1 Corinthians 2:7—AIONON (“before the ages”); 10:11—AIONON (“ends of the ages”)… rendered before the world (KJV); before time began (NIV), and; ends of the world (KJV); fulfillment of the ages (NIV).
Ephesians 2:7—aiosin (“in the ages”); 3: 9—AIONON (“from the ages”); 3:11— AIONON (“of the ages”); 3:21—AIONOS (“of the age”) and AIONON (“of the ages”)…rendered in the ages to come (KJV), and; from the beginning of the world (KJV); for ages past (NIV), and; eternal purpose (NIV), and; throughout all ages (KJV); for ever and ever (NIV).
Hebrews 1:8—AIONA (“unto the age”) and AIONOS (“of the age”); 6:5—AIONOS (“a coming age”); 9:26—AIONON (“completion of the ages”)…rendered for ever and ever, and; the world to come (KJV); the coming age (NIV), and; the end of the world (KJV); the end of the ages (NIV).
2 Peter 3:18— AIONOS (“unto the day of an age”)…rendered forever.
Jude 25— AIONOS (“before all the age”) and AIONAS (“now and unto all the ages”)…rendered both now and ever (KJV); before all ages, now and forevermore (NIV)
Revelation 1:6— AIONAS (“unto the ages”) and AIONON (“of the ages”) …rendered for ever and ever.
Consider the following renditions of Mark 3:29 as indication that at least some translators have attempted to address the complexities involved.
“…but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, he remains for ever unabsolved: he is guilty of a sin of the Ages.” (New Testament in Modern Speech, R.F. Weymouth)
“…yet whoever should be blaspheming against the holy spirit is having no pardon for the eon, but is liable to the eonian penalty for the sin.” (Concordant Literal New Testament)
“…but whoever may speak evil in regard to the Holy Spirit hath not forgiveness—to the age, but is in danger of age-during judgment.” (Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible)
“But whoever shall revile against the Holy Spirit hath no forgiveness, unto times age-abiding,—but is guilty of an age-abiding sin.” (The Emphasized Bible, Joseph B. Rotherham)
These vague attempts to render the complexities of AION and its forms into English are understandably obscure. It is perhaps not surprising that gradually in the course of time a word such as “eternal” would be found as the simplest way to avoid the ambiguities inherent in the problem of translation.
But it is a seriously incomplete solution, especially in a case, such as we find here, where it conveys a very wrong idea about God’s forgiveness. The meaning in this verse may be temporary, or it may be eternal. How long the condition of sin will last is up to the sinner. It simply indicates a “state of condition” that exists for an age, whatever that age may be, and whatever era of different characteristics and quality may follow it.
As Vine says, “The force… is not so much…actual length…but…a period marked by spiritual or moral characteristics.”
Why blasphemy closes the door to forgiveness
Let us now turn back to the beginning of the verse to ask what it means to “blaspheme” against the Holy Spirit. Is it an act, or a condition of mind and heart?
At this point in Mark’s gospel, the scribes and Pharisees, seeing Jesus’ miracles with their own eyes, have called them the work of Satan. This Jesus calls “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”: Reviling the work of God by calling it the work of the devil. It is more than a childish string of cursing. It is the non-recognition of the Holy Spirit’s work. What the scribes and Pharisees have done is far worse than merely remaining unintentionally oblivious to God’s activity, as many are until the light dawns in their hearts. These men have gone so far as to attribute God’s doings, to which they themselves are eye-witnesses, to the devil. For that it rises to the serious charge of blasphemy.
When properly understood, then, Mark’s next words make more sense. Jesus is responding to the willfully wrong attribution of God’s work to Satan.
It is thus a condition of heart, not a single act, spoken word, or outburst.
As long as such an attitude persists, forgiveness cannot find a home. Not recognizing the work of the Spirit closes the only door through which forgiveness can enter. And such lack of forgiveness will continue for the AION, as long as the door of recognition is shut, for the duration of that age defined by the “moral characteristics” of a closed and antagonistic heart. Forgiveness cannot enter through a closed door.
The reason is simple: Recognition of God and the humble acknowledgment of his work is the door through which the Holy Spirit enters.
The verdict resulting from the sin of non-acknowledgment is thus a self-imposed judgment— jus-tice rendered, not by God, but against oneself by attributing God’s work to Satan. For that blasphemy the sinner is liable. He is not yet condemned, only indicted. Unless such condition is changed, he will be condemned—but self-condemned.
The situation, as Jesus utters it, is one of present moral condition, stating how things exist now, but not how they may exist in the future. Liability for the sin exists, but final judgment has not yet been passed. There remains time to alter the outcome.
And as it is self-rendered, the potential judgment of that indictment can also be reversed. How? By recognizing the Spirit’s work and thus ending the present “age” of blasphemy.
The one source
Forgiveness cannot be manifested until its Source is recognized. This entire passage from the beginning of Mark 2 when Jesus came “home” from the healing of the paralytic until now, has been occupied with the theme of sin and forgiveness…and the Source of forgiveness.
When Jesus said to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” he was making a claim in front of the Pharisees’ very eyes—“I am the Source of forgiveness. Every day you recite the words, God is One. So if I claim to forgive sins, what does that say about me?”
In Mark 3:29 we come to the climax of what has been building since Jesus came home—the ultimate consequences of their denial of that Source, their denial that he is also that “One,” who is God himself.
The consequence is: Unforgiveness.
Forgiveness requires that its Source be recognized.
But, unforgiveness is only for the age. It is for the age of non-recognition. It lasts for the duration of that moral condition.
Unforgiveness is age-enduring. The sinner is guilty of a sin against the kind of life, and the Source of that life, which produces forgiveness.
The AION of unforgiveness may be eternal. It will indeed be eternal if the blasphemer—he or she who refuses to acknowledge the Spirit’s work in his own heart—never chooses to end it.
If and when the Source comes to be recognized, then the “age” of that moral condition of non-recognition, is past. Forgiveness is at last able to flow in.
Unforgiveness only lasts to the age…but not beyond. The moment the door is opened and recognition dawns, that AION of unforgiveness instantly ends.
A new era of healing and spiritual recognition—indicating both a new time and a new quality of life— has come!
A new moral and spiritual AION dawns!
If I were rendering Mark 3:28-29 interpretively, I would paraphrase it thus: “I tell you the truth, men will be forgiven all their sins, careless words, and thoughtless attitudes. But whoever speaks wrongly of the work of God’s Spirit and does not acknowledge that work in his own heart, cannot yet experience forgiveness as long as that blindness persists. He is liable for a sin that prevents him from recognizing the truth. That sin will remain with him for as long an age as he refuses to open the door of his understanding and humbly acknowledge God for who he is.”
I would not be supposed to mean that the word “never” should be stricken from the divine lexicon. There are indeed some things that God will never do:
God will never cease the relentless knock of his Fatherly love on the stubborn heart’s doors of his wayward children as long as a single one remains lost. God is not even capable of “never” forgiving. To never forgive contradicts his very nature!
Do we have a great God or what!
He is not a God who will arbitrarily and endlessly punish to all eternity, refusing to forgive, will-ing, choosing “never” to forgive. Rather he is a God who is anxious to forgive, and who seeks all opportunities for the entry of his Spirit into the wayward human heart.
Verily, he is not the unforgiving tyrant of erroneous orthodoxies, but he is rather the always forgiving, the ever-forgiving, the ceaseless forgiving God and Father of Jesus Christ!
OS D AN BLASPHEMESE EIS TO PNEUMA TO HAGION OUK ECHEI APHESIN
But whoever blasphemes against the Spirit Holy, has not forgiveness
(closes the door in his own heart to the work of/ (forgiveness cannot find an opening to enter)
is in a moral condition of rejecting the work of)
EIS TON AIONA ALLA ENOCHOS ESTIN AIONIOU HAMARTEMATOS
unto the age, but liable is of an age-lasting sin.
(as long as such state persists/ (indicted/self-condemned) (for the duration of the condition)
as long as such heart condition exists)