One of my most vivid memories of school — a religious boarding school in the North of India (still going strong) by the name of Woodstock — is of the repeated expression of, and warning against, the sin against the Holy Spirit. The warning appears with slight variations in each of the three synoptic gospels. In Mark (chapter 3) it takes this form – Jesus is speaking:
28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”
In Mark this warning comes in close proximity to the rejection of his family, an ironic commentary on later sentimental conceptions of the Holy Family (which reminds me of something, to which I will return towards the end — but see the photo at the beginning):
31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
So those Christians who idealise the Christian family as, in some sense, the cement of society, get scant support from the Lord they adore.
However, to return to the sin against the Holy Spirit, the sin for which there is no forgiveness, an eternal sin, as Jesus says, which was, to a greater extent than might seem reasonable, the bane of my childhood. It was so vividly inculcated, and the warnings were so grave and of such ponderous import, that I wondered, for years, especially when my hormones were raging during adolescence, whether I had not, in fact, long ago committed the unforgivable sin, and was bound, ineluctably, for hell, something else that was taught so effectively that, to this day, the word ‘hell’ is enough to make me break out into a sweat of anxiety.
I recall that, in his TV documentary, Root of all Evil? (a title, I hasten to add, which Dawkins did not himself choose), Richard Dawkins interviews a woman, brought up in a fundamentalist sect of Christianity, which indoctrinated the fear of hell from very early ages. Here is the interview:
Or, if you want to listen to the uncut interview:
It’s a wickedly effective means of control, and still, sixty years later, as I have said, just the bare thought of hell still has the power to evoke fear. Jill Mytton is not the only one for whom only the mention of hell is full of menace. The locus classicus of this kind of fear-inducing use of hell is perhaps to be found in the movie version of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, where John Gielgud, playing the part of Father Arnall, describes for his young charges the torments that await them.
The power of this threat should not be trivialised. Even when it becomes impossible to believe in it, really, it still seems to plumb the depths of guilt and unworthiness, and the threat of hell has blighted more lives than most people imagine. Reading through the Qu’ran, one cannot miss the emphasis on the horrors that await the evildoer or the unfaithful one. But add to that, that there is nothing you can do, and that whatever you do, whatever reparation you try to make, will never be sufficient to blot out the sin that covers you like a pall, and the sense of being trapped in one of Hieronymus Bosch’s fantasies of hell seems quite overpowering, suffocating even.
I am reminded of Don Cupitt’s words in The Old Creed and the New, where he speaks of hell as “the worst idea that we poor humans have ever had,” and then, more fulsomely, as follows:
At the core of monotheistic faith is an experience of black all-consuming terror, the terror of a damned soul that knows it cannot die. 
And he goes on immediately to remark that
that is why we have been so frightened of breaking the rules, and so fascinated with the spiritual power wielded by those who administer the rules. 
And this leads him to suggest that
we must [now] strive to free ourselves from all ideas of an objectively existing infinite concentration of sacred authority and power — a sort of sacred black hole — and of that Power’s self-delegation to the leadership in the Church. 
That is too culture-specific. Islam, if anything, has a more destructive conception of objectively existing infinite concentrations of sacred authority and power, under the cover of which human beings are capable of doing the most horrible things to each other. After all, if there are sins that cannot be forgiven, if one’s grasp on the rewards of the afterlife is so tenuous, then almost any evil can be justified were it to save only a few from the conflagration to come.
You must understand that belief in hell and its torments, especially for those who are taught to fear it when very young, can be a belief of enormous power, sufficient, in itself, to cast a young mind into a pit of despair — though even minds not so young may never quite free themselves of the terror of it. As Baird Tipton says in his article, “The Dark Side of Seventeenth-Century English Protestantism: The Sin against the Holy Spirit” (Harvard Theological Review, 1984):
Again and again, the historian of late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English Protestantism encounters the testimony of terrified men and women who suspected that they themselves had sinned against the Holy Spirit and were beyond forgiveness. Instead of a gospel of salvation, many would-be Christians found a religion of damnation, prepared to consign them to everlasting alienation and despair. 
The biggest problem lay in the vagueness and ambiguity of Jesus’ saying about the sin against the Holy Spirit. While it has been interpreted in various ways in Christian history, there is no definitive understanding of what constitutes the unforgivable sin. Whether it is blasphemy or apostacy, or whether it refers to a stepwise decline into obduracy and impenitence, the sense that there is a state of sinfulness so great that, in the words of the English divine, Thomas Bedford, in a homily preached at Paul’s Cross in 1621,
[t]here is no recovery, it is like the Jawes of hell, if once a man be slipt down thither, there is a mega chasma a great gulfe to hinder all passages of return. Wherefore it is the wisdome of a Christian to take hede how he traceth in these steps, for the paths thereof are the paths of death. 
Such warnings can overpower even the strongest defences of the young, or even the defences of those who, for whatever reason, are morally sensitive and unsure, who have been indoctrinated with a sense of the exalted authority of their pastors or priests or popes.
In this connexion, Nicholas Humphrey’s Amnesty Lecture, “What Shall We Tell the Children?“, is of special interest. It’s a lecture that has received scant attention. Indeed, there seems to be a sense that, in some sense, Humphrey had said the unsayable, and the less said about it the better. For, in that lecture, Humphrey addresses himself to religious indoctrination, which so many regard as an untouchable subject. Families are so often thought of as mini-republics, or, in some cases, more accurately, as mini-kingdoms — every man’s home his castle, as it were — that it is thought wrong to interfere with the passing on of family traditions, however horrible these may be — and stories of damnation and of torment that will never end are as horrible as it gets (which, incidentally, is one reason why, despite some apparently enlightened morality expressed in his parables, I am convinced that the figure of Jesus can never be morally rehabilitated). According to Humphrey,
children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it.
Later, commenting on the US Supreme Court judgement in Wisconsin v. Yoder which found in favour of the Amish right to limit the education of children, Humphry remarks that “[t]he Amish … survive only by kidnapping little children before they can protest.” According the Syllabus to the judgement in Yoder:
The evidence showed that the Amish provide continuing informal vocational education to their children designed to prepare them for life in the rural Amish community. The evidence also showed that respondents sincerely believed that high school attendance was contrary to the Amish religion and way of life, and that they would endanger their own salvation and that of their children by complying with the law.
Notice that higher education was not only contrary to the Amish way of life, but would, in the opinion of the Amish, endanger their own salvation and that of their children, and that, on this basis, the court found in favour of Yoder, which was to find in favour of withholding higher education from Amish children, a decision which has seriously destructive implications for American children generally.
And this, of course, brings us to the point to which I promised to return: namely, the place of the family in Christianity. Unlike the Amish, who think they are reflecting, in their way of life, something of the quality of life commended by Jesus, Jesus himself had little respect for the family at all. He said that he had come to set men against their fathers, and daughters against their mothers — not peace, but a sword, he said:
[Matthew 10:] 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
The idea that parents have proprietary rights over their children does not derive from Jesus, nor should courts be deciding in favour of parents teaching their children whatever seems right to them, restricting their education, or relying on crackpot prayers and anointings when they are sick. Despite the claims regularly made that religion provides the moral cement of society, it is clear that whoever dreamed up the Jesus of the gospels — and it is by no means certain that many of the sayings attributed to Jesus, even if there were an historical figure at the centre of the Christian myth, were actually said by the person whom so many are prepared to worship as Lord — “his” message is deeply ambiguous and troubling. If you search a digital version of the Christian Bible, you will find that hell appears on the scene at the same time as Jesus. And while it is entirely possible to have versions of Christianity in which hell is not mentioned at all, this bears little resemblance to the Christianity of the ages. When Christians sing, at Easter, the well-known hymn, “The strife is o’er, the battle done,” they are rejoicing that “the gates from heav’n's high portal fell,” and that, through the torment and death of Christ, and, of course, his glorious resurrection, ”the yawning gates of hell” are closed:
He closed the yawning gates of hell;
The bars from heaven’s high portals fell;
Let hymns of praise His triumphs tell! Alleluia!
But not, after all, quite closed. Generations of Christians have lived, and many still live, in terror, lest they be found wanting in the last day, or lest they have committed that one sin for which there is no forgiveness, and they be sent to hell, where the fire burns with consummate intensity, and burns forever.