(Un-)Forgiveness: Mark, Hebrews, and the Go-Go’s

I wrote this shortly after I had completed a major research project on the Gospel of Mark; and between my reading of the Letter to the Hebrews and our group discussion of it. Also, I listen to rock’n’roll when I’m staying up late writing and reading. Now you know how Mark, Hebrews, and the Go-Go’s ended up in the same essay.

 
 

You’re unforgiven

so go on living

knowing that I’ve unforgiven you

and my thanksgiving

came the day

I saw it was OK

to unforgive you

– The Go-Go’s

 

Maybe I’m oversensitive, having just spent 36 straight hours with the shadowy Gospel, Mark the Dark. But there’s something that really bothers me about Hebrews. It’s something that also used to bother me about Mark until yesterday, when I finally came up with a satisfactory understanding of it. It’s the same ambivalent feeling that I have about that song “Unforgiven” from the Go-Go’s 2004 CD God Bless the Go-Go’s (snippet above). It’s hard-driving rock’n’roll, and with lyrics like that, it’s a great break-up song if you’re the one who’s been dumped.

But now that I’m over my latest break-up (pretty much), I’m not as comfortable with the song. It’s clever, making “unforgive” a transitive verb, and part of going on after love lost is reclaiming your ego. But the sentiment seems so… un-Christian. Forgiving is good, not forgiving is not so good, but unforgiving someone? It seems too cold-hearted and permanent.

The troublesome Mark passage that I’m referring to is 3.29, when Jesus says, “…whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Same problem – it seems so cold-hearted and permanent, very un-Christ-like. I rescued this passage for myself in the context of the surrounding story. The religious authorities have just accused Jesus of knowing how to cast out demons because he is a demon himself, in league with the Devil; this passage is part of his response. He knows that really, he is God, so he is warning the priests and scribes that it’s dangerous to say God and the Devil are the same thing, because then you cut yourself off from access to salvation. It all comes from a misunderstanding of Jesus’ identity.

That rationalization doesn’t work with some of the Epistle to the Hebrews, though, like 6.4-6: “…It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance.” (NIV) What?!? After I’ve repented and been baptized and forgiven, I’m still at risk of losing it? To be sure, “fall away” here means more than missing Sunday service – it carries the connotation of treachery or betrayal. But if a Christian converts to Judaism or Islam for a time – faiths that deny the truth of the Christian gospel – before realizing the error of their ways, is Hebrews saying they can’t ever come back?

Everything I understand about our Christian view of God says that God loves us so much that God acts with grace when faced with human sin. But this and similar passages in Hebrews seem to be saying that even grace has its limits. I’m not one to cherry-pick the parts of the Bible that I like, and pretend that the rest don’t exist. But I don’t know how to reconcile this passage with the Gospels or Paul. I suppose it’s a project that I’ll have to take on later. I’ll add it to my Biblical theology to-do list.