In the preceding discussion, we delved into the inquiry of whether atheists, particularly secular humanists, derive their moral principles from Christianity. Our exploration involved scrutinizing what is universally acknowledged as the paramount commandment within Christendom. Now, we pivot to the flip side of the argument – investigating the antithesis. We aim to uncover what is deemed the most egregious sin, juxtaposed against the widely held belief regarding the gravest moral transgression one can perpetrate against an individual. It is crucial to underscore that our focus here is on transgressions against the individual. Wrongs may escalate in severity based on the number of people affected, whereas the pinnacle of sin can only be committed against a deity. Brace yourself for this intriguing exploration.
Let's establish a foundational understanding by providing precise definitions for key terms. In the context of our discussion, a "sin" is delineated as a transgression against God—an act that runs counter to the will, nature, or command of a deity. Within Christian theology, sin assumes a central position as a moral issue. To be moral is synonymous with aligning oneself with the nature and will of God, rendering that which deviates from God's will or nature as immoral—a sin. This foundational definition should stand on uncontested ground.
Now, as we navigate this discourse, the crux of differentiation emerges with our next definition. From the perspective of myself and numerous other humanists and atheists, a moral transgression is characterized by actions that impede, discourage, or inflict harm upon human well-being. It is acknowledged that this viewpoint may not enjoy universal acceptance, but it resonates with a substantial majority as a practical guideline in everyday life. This deliberate distinction in defining morality serves to illuminate the foundational disparities between humanistic and Christian moral frameworks. This distinction also underscores a pivotal contention: there is a compelling argument that humanists do not derive their values from Christian theology, nor are these values contingent upon the existential status of God. This proposition is poised for demonstration through our ongoing exploration.
The pivotal inquiry now centers on identifying the most egregious sin one can commit, and a clear response emanates from the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew 12:31: "Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven." The crux of contention lies in the interpretation of blasphemy. Irrespective of the theological discussions on soteriology and the keys to salvation, the act of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit stands out as the ultimate transgression. It holds this distinction by being the sole sin that remains unforgivable, even in the presence of the atoning blood of Christ.
Various interpretations surround the concept of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, with scholars engaging in ongoing debate. Nevertheless, a prevailing and widely accepted definition suggests that it involves the denial of Christ. Kenneth Berding, in an article for the Biblical Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) University, presents a compelling case, particularly drawing from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 12, verses 8 through 10: “And I say to you, everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man will confess him also before the angels of God; but he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him” (Berding, 2021). This interpretation posits that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit involves an ongoing denial of Christ, emphasizing its gravity as the one sin that remains unforgivable.
Emphasizing the crux of our discussion, the precise definition and subtleties of blasphemy may be tangential to our focus. What remains paramount is the recognition that blasphemy represents the unforgivable sin—one that even the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ fail to absolve. In the broader context, where Christ is positioned as the ultimate redeemer and savior of humanity, this exception makes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit the gravest transgression in the eyes of both the Father and the Son. It stands as the singular sin that defies the cleansing power of redemption.
As an aside, it's noteworthy that this perspective aligns seamlessly with the foundational tenets of Jewish and Christian theology regarding the profound influence of words and their ability to shape reality in these traditions. The notion that "in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God" underscores the creative power of language, where God speaks reality into existence. Jesus further reinforces this concept by asserting that defilement emanates not from what enters the body but from what proceeds from the mouth—the spoken word. In the context of Christian theology, it is fitting that the most severe sin would manifest as a spoken word, aligning with the theological emphasis on the potency of language. It is acknowledged, however, that while many interpret the denial of Christ as a matter of the heart, there exists a divergence of views regarding whether it is articulated through words or internal conviction.
Armed with an understanding of the most severe sin, we now turn our attention to the gravest harm one can inflict upon another individual. While perspectives on this matter can be subjective, a commonly acknowledged pinnacle is the act of taking another human life. The finality of death marks a permanent cessation of the individual's well-being.
From my personal standpoint, I contend that rape constitutes the utmost egregious act. This assertion rests on the profound and lasting impact it has on the victim, manifesting not only in physical harm during the act but also in enduring mental scars that often persist for many years. The compounding effect of these wrongs intensifies with the age of the victim, with younger individuals suffering more egregious damage from either act. This underscores the gravity of harm inflicted and its enduring consequences.
The gravity of taking a human life lies in the irrevocable loss of all the potential moments that person could have experienced. Life, by its nature, is finite, and every individual possesses a limited number of moments in their natural existence. The act of killing abruptly terminates this sequence of moments, extinguishing all the future experiences, accomplishments, and contributions that the victim might have encountered.
Moreover, the impact intensifies when the victim is younger, as their potential life moments are disproportionately greater. This underscores the profound tragedy of prematurely ending a life that held the promise of a more extended, diverse future.
Conversely, when considering the divine perspective, the concept of God as an infinite being reinforces the stark contrast. God exists beyond the confines of time, having experienced an eternal past and destined for an infinite future. This juxtaposition accentuates the gravity of the finite nature of human life and the irreversible loss caused by the act of taking it away.
Indeed, within the framework of Christian theology, the concept of harm directed towards the Christian God is paradoxical. The divine nature, being omnipotent and transcendent, renders God impervious to true harm. Actions that may be deemed offensive or contrary to God's will, such as blasphemy, do not inflict genuine harm upon God, as God's well-being is inherently invulnerable. The divine essence cannot experience suffering, harm, or death.
Even in the narrative of Jesus' death, the theological interpretation underscores that it was a temporary state, followed by resurrection and ascension. From this perspective, any suffering endured by Jesus during that period is finite and ultimately transformed into eternal glory and praise.
The comparison to human experiences, such as the enduring mental anguish suffered by victims of trauma like PTSD, doesn't translate to the divine. The idea of a perfect divine mind being susceptible to ongoing mental distress is considered incompatible with the nature of a perfect and infinite deity. The theological paradigm maintains that God exists beyond the realm of imperfections, vulnerabilities, and the enduring consequences of harm.
This lies at the crux of the matter; in Christian theology, the gravest transgression is deemed to be the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. It's an ontological impossibility for an atheist to subscribe to such a view, and for a humanist, considering blasphemy as the ultimate sin appears downright absurd. Within the humanistic ethical framework, the most egregious acts are typically identified as rape or murder.
I'd venture to wager that, in practical terms, even the staunchest Christians, in the heat of a moment, would hesitate to rank blasphemy above the act of taking another person's life. Picture this: if you had the power to thwart a murder, would you pause to ponder whether the intended victim had committed blasphemy? Highly unlikely. Even if you were aware that the potential victim had blasphemed, the notion of allowing a murder to unfold on the grounds that blasphemy outweighs the sin of killing seems implausible. Practical moral judgments often diverge from theological abstractions in the crucible of real-world decision-making.
As in the previous discussion, a conspicuous disparity emerges between the values held by atheistic and humanistic perspectives in contrast to the hierarchy outlined in Christian theology regarding the severity of sins. To assert that, within Christian theology, the act of killing another human is deemed a greater offense than blasphemy requires a disavowal of fundamental gospel tenets.
One might raise objections rooted in the Sixth Commandment or the second greatest commandment— "Love thy neighbor as thyself." However, it is imperative to recognize that "Thou shalt not kill" is not the foremost directive; it stands sixth in the commandment sequence. Moreover, all commandments, including the injunction against killing, are secondary to the supreme commandment: "Love God." Jesus himself, in unequivocal terms, designates the paramount importance of loving God as the greatest commandment. In navigating this theological landscape, the weight assigned to different transgressions underscores the intricacies of Christian moral doctrine and the primacy accorded to the love and reverence of God.
In light of these considerations, it becomes a ludicrous exercise in sophistry to assert that atheists or humanists pilfer their values from the Christian deity. The bedrock of humanistic and atheistic principles revolves around the profound valuation of our fellow humans, particularly those with immediate relationships like children, siblings, and parents. In stark contrast, Christian theology mandates the prioritization of God above all else, inevitably diminishing the intrinsic value assigned to our fellow human beings. When scrutinizing these foundational and elemental values, it is absurd to insist that our ethical compass is somehow stolen from a god who, according to Christian doctrine, commands us to place Him above all.
Moreover, the absurdity compounds when one acknowledges that many values enshrined in the Torah and teachings attributed to Jesus find their roots in older religious traditions. The likelihood of assimilation into Judaism and later Christianity from pre-existing belief systems challenges the notion of exclusive ownership of moral principles by any one religious’ tradition.
In navigating the convoluted landscape where Christian theology and humanistic values intersect, a stark divergence emerges, exposing a fundamental dissonance. The clash between the priorities of divine allegiance and human connections raises serious questions about the claim that atheists and humanists borrow their moral foundations from a deity who mandates the subjugation of human value to divine decree.
Upon closer scrutiny of these ethical landscapes, it becomes apparent that moral principles are not proprietary to any singular belief system. Rather than an exclusive domain, the fabric of moral values is interwoven with threads drawn from diverse religious traditions, each contributing to the mosaic of human ethics. The true discourse should not be centered on claims of moral ownership but on the shared pursuit of understanding, empathy, and the continuous refinement of our collective ethical consciousness.
I’ll conclude with a parting shot, a bit of cheeky blasphemy. Remember to love God, above all else. That is an order from God, or else. It doesn’t matter what else you do. You can be forgiving. You just better not talk smack about God…that he won't forgive.
Kenneth Berding, What is the Unforgiveable Sin? What is Blasphemy against the Spirit? The Good Book Blog
Talbot School of Theology Faculty Blog