Asking the clergy: Are there unforgivable sins?
By JIM MERRITT
Religious faiths generally prescribe ways for sinners to repent and receive forgiveness — an opportunity offered even to convicted murderers on death row. Yet some sins are so shocking, one wonders if there is a limit to a loving God’s grace. This week’s clergy discuss the limits of forgiveness as well as other ways of perceiving unwholesome and harmful acts.
Rabbi Alysa Mendelson Graf
Port Jewish Center, Port Washington
Jewish tradition teaches that for transgressions against people, forgiveness comes when we truly make peace with one another. When you do not forgive someone who has hurt you when he or she truly repents and seeks forgiveness, then you become the sinner. Every year, we even have a day, Yom Kippur, and the entire month preceding it, set aside to give us the nudge we need to do the work of repentance and forgiveness that our tradition demands. However, there may be some sins that we do not have to forgive. These are not your ordinary, everyday sins, which most likely feel far from ordinary to the person who has been hurt. They are sins that exemplify extraordinary and unforgivable avarice and evil, committed under the influence of the Yetzer Ha-Ra — the Evil Inclination — within every human being. We cannot, for example, forgive by proxy. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the Jews killed in the Holocaust, “It is preposterous to assume that anybody alive can extend forgiveness for the suffering of any one of the six million who perished.” And yet, though righteous indignation is seductive, unresolved anger is toxic. In those cases where forgiveness is impossible, we must still find a way to let go and make peace with ourselves.
Venerable Kottawe Nanda
Chief monk, Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center, Port Jefferson
In order to answer that question, first we must define the terms used. First, the term “sin.” This is not a word that is used in Buddhism. Rather what we say is that every choice can be classified as either wholesome (beneficial) or unwholesome (harmful). The performer of any intentional action will always eventually experience a corresponding result; for example, someone who kills will tend to die young, either in this life or in a future life. Thus, although we do not call murder a “sin,” we would say that it is an unwholesome action because it causes harmful results for the person who performs it. Next, the term “unforgivable.” This term is based on the idea that there is a cosmic judge who decides whom to forgive and whom not to forgive. This is not a concept found in Buddhism. Rather what we say is that each action produces a corresponding result. So although a very strong action (such as killing one’s parents) generates a very strong bad result, once that result has been experienced, the cycle is complete, and the performer of the action can continue as they were before performing the deed in question. Thus, there are no “unforgivable sins” in Buddhism. There are some actions that generate extremely unpleasant results, but such results are temporary, not permanent. It is still advisable to avoid committing unwholesome actions, as the results can be extremely unpleasant and can last for a very long time; but no result is permanent.
The Rev. Vicky Eastland
Pastor, Brookville Reformed Church, Brookville
I have often heard it said that suicide is an unforgivable sin because the person cannot ask for forgiveness after the fact, but I don’t find any biblical support for that belief. But when I was young, I used to think that I would go to hell if I committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Gospel of Matthew (12:31, 32) says, “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.” As I grew older, I came to understand this passage within its biblical context. Jesus was referring to the teachers of the law that were attributing Jesus’ healings to Satan’s power, not the power of the Holy Spirit. I have come to a deep belief that God’s love covers all sin. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection, sin no longer holds any power over us. Christ died for the sins of all to bring us to God. I believe Jesus’ death and resurrection covered all sin. We are now free to live in the love of God as we love and serve others out of our sense of gratitude for this pardon.
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