What does it mean to blaspheme? What is blasphemy?
Blasphemy is derisive language or any other insult against God, His character, and His system of proper worship. It is reflected in Old Testament law through the third commandment (do not take the Lord's name in vain), in the pre-Mosaic law against murdering those made in the image of God (Genesis 9:6), and in the straightforward command to not blaspheme God's name (Leviticus 24:16). David considered it a grave offence to disrespect God by harming His anointed ruler (1 Samuel 24:6), even if that anointed one was trying to kill him. Ananias and Sapphira committed a type of blasphemy when they discounted God's omniscience and holiness and pretended to donate more to the church than they actually had (Acts 5:1-10). And Jesus was executed because the priests and Pharisees believed He blasphemed by claiming to be God (Matthew 26:65).
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"Disrespectful speech or representation of God" is a broad definition, and it's very easy to fall into. God is Creator of the universe, absolute Sovereign, and our fallen minds don't have the capacity to fully comprehend Him—how can we accurately represent Him? Is inaccuracy tantamount to disrespect? This very concern is what drove the Israelite scholars to condense God's name to the unpronounceable "YHWH." Still, God-followers do blaspheme. Paul not only denied Jesus' deity, he tried to force Christians to do the same (Acts 26:9-18). David's sin incited others to blaspheme God's name (2 Samuel 12:14). And Jesus' family refused to acknowledge His deity (Mark 3:21).
Civil laws designed to prevent blasphemy have had mixed results. Scientists such as Copernicus and Galileo were charged with blasphemy for daring to posit that the earth was not the center of the universe. The Spanish Inquisition sought out blasphemers to punish. John Calvin and Martin Luther have both been accused of blasphemy and of supporting the death penalty for blasphemers. In many European countries, where religious and political leadership intermingled , blasphemy against God was equated with treason against the State.
From the perspective of Judaism and Christianity, true blasphemy can only be committed against the true God; however, other religions also raise charges of blasphemy. When Nebuchadnezzar threw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego into the furnace, he was essentially charging them with blasphemy—in this case, the act of denying Nebuchadnezzar's deity (Daniel 3). Years later, when King Darius consigned Daniel to the lion's den, it was for the same reason (Daniel 6). Countless Christians lost their lives in the early days of the church because of their refusal to worship the Roman emperor.
State-sponsored protection of the name and character of the Christian-Judeo God is all but gone. Great Britain abolished laws on blasphemy in 2007; the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution effectively nullifies blasphemy laws, although states had such laws up until 1952. Currently, some the most active anti-blasphemy campaigns are carried out in the name of Islam. Some charges, such as derogatory writing and pictures meant to inflame emotion, might legitimately be considered blasphemous from a Muslim's point of view, but most charges are contrived. Accusations of blasphemy more likely have a personal motivation—from the desire to get a job to an argument about property. Since "blasphemy" has such a broad definition, it's easy to accuse someone.
Christians today need to walk a fine line when encountering blasphemy in the socio-political arena. In a perfect world, everyone would acknowledge the sovereignty and holiness of God. Everyone would revere His name and appropriately represent His character. Unfortunately, that isn't going to happen anytime soon. Trying to legislate blasphemy out of existence would be foolish. In multi-ethnic countries, a law against defamation of one religion may very well lead to protection for all religions. But since the most basic tenets of a religion can be considered blasphemous to a believer of a different faith, we may find ourselves legally unable to express even our basic beliefs.
How should a Christian see the issue of blasphemy? Of course, we should start by worshiping our God as holy and doing our best to represent His true character to others. Blasphemy has two sides, however. When dealing with a person whose "god" is not a god, we must understand that, although it's impossible to blaspheme someone who doesn't exist, we must avoid being deliberately cruel to another person. In the vast majority of cases, it is unnecessary to make intentionally derogatory comments about another's belief. Ephesians 4:15 says to speak the truth in love. "Truth" requires we explain the falsehoods in the opposing belief and the truth of our own. But "love" means we're not insulting about it.
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