Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

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What is blasphemy?

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5 minutes to read What does it mean to take God’s name in vain…and why does it matter?

The concept of blasphemy refers back to Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 5:11:

You shall not misuse the name of Yahweh your God, because Yahweh will not leave unpunished anyone who misuses his name.

The Hebrew phrase here translated “misuse” literally reads to “take up/bear/carry the name of Yahweh for what is false/worthless/empty.”

Although this connoted in particular making an oath in God’s name which one had no intention of keeping (cf. Leviticus 19:12)—and by extension perjury—it also referred to the cultural practice of performing magic by invoking the name of a deity (cf. Acts 19:13). More generally, it included ascribing worthless attitudes or actions to God; hence, attributing demonic miracles to God—or God’s miracles to demons—is called by Jesus a blaspheming of the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28–30).

Why does it matter if we treat Yahweh’s name as if it is worthless?

The general principle this commandment relates back to, is that God’s name represents God himself in such a substantive way that the name is God. In the Old Testament, השםhashem, “the name”—often refers to the actual person or presence of God (e.g., Isaiah 24:15; 30:27; Proverbs 18:10; Psalm 75:1; John 17:6). Here’s a particularly good example:

Look, I am about to send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, because he will not forgive your transgression, for my name is in him. But if you listen attentively to his voice and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. Exodus 23:20–22

Notice how similar this is to the way the word of Yahweh represents God in passages like Genesis 15:1–6 and 1 Samuel 3. Looking back on these scriptures from the vantage point of the New Testament, we can easily see that the name of God and the word of God are appearances of Jesus.

So if I had to paraphrase a general principle around the idea behind the third commandment, it would be something like this:

God is what goodness, value, and truth consist of. These things are who he is—they are in his name, and his name is in them. Therefore, do not speak of his name in a way which might deny who he is. It is bad for you because of what it does to your own character and how you relate to him; and it is by definition evil and wrong and false, so he will judge you for it.

This, incidentally, is something the Jews took so seriously that they developed a system to avoid ever saying the name Yahweh, in case they blasphemed him. Rather, they would say adonai, “lord.” It was such a persistent superstition that you still find it in most English Bibles, where Yahweh is mistranslated as “the Lord.”

Is the modern expression “oh my God” really blasphemy?

Most unbelievers—and a few professing Christians—use the expression oh my God as general-use exclamation without any kind of conscious religious overtones. If they don’t intend for it to refer to God himself, does it still count as blasphemy?

I think it counts as the worst kind of blasphemy, and here’s why:

If you don’t know what God means, then you can’t sin by saying “oh my God”—rather like the Chinese guy I used to work with could hardly be described as swearing when he inaccurately copied the language of his colleagues and said “sun on the beach” when a computer repair went wrong. But no one in the Western world is ignorant enough of who God is to claim that kind of innocence (not to mention, what ignorance they do have seems quite culpable in most cases). Thus, the fact that they don’t consciously intend to speak of God when they say, “oh my God,” just shows that they have made his name so worthless that they seldom remember it refers to him at all. It is the most extreme kind of blasphemy: a taking up of God’s name in the most devaluing possible way.

This is even more clear-cut, and more severe, when it comes to the ever-popular “Jesus,” “Jesus Christ,” etc. While God can be a somewhat generic term, Jesus is a very specific person. Indeed, I think the attractiveness of his name for uses where other cuss words are also common is a clear indication that people know exactly who it refers to—and reflects their relationship with him.

What about other cusses like jeez and crikey?

I don’t really have a problem with these—indeed, I have little problem with most cusses. I think some Christians are far too easily offended by words which, to the person uttering them, are simply expressive rather than obscene. Obviously Christians should not be obscene themselves, nor deliberately cause offense; but if I am talking with people who use fuck and all its fantastic conjugations as an expression rather than an obscenity, I am doing neither by using it similarly in their presence. Rather, I am being all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19–23).

But I especially have little patience for Christians who think that terms like hell or damn—or worse, heck, darn and the like—are for some reason unutterable as expressions of disgust or annoyance. I just have no idea where the biblical precedent is for that attitude. It seems more like they think expletives of any form are unacceptable, regardless of how mild. Similarly, words like jeez, and cripes are just obviously not examples of blasphemy, because they simply don’t refer to God. To claim that when someone says “jeez” they are taking Jesus’ name in vain is like claiming that when I call you a dunce for thinking that, I am referring to John Duns Scotus.

One overlooked blasphemy

There is one form of blasphemy—or at least, something that seems likely to constitute blasphemy; and why chance it?—which flies under most Christians’ radar. That is the use of the term holy in various expressions. “Holy cow” is a common one, though I’m sure you know another even more popular. I’m inclined to think expressions using holy can be considered a form of blasphemy, since it “makes nothing” of the one attribute which the Bible takes pains to identify with God. It is the only attribute used three times of God in Scripture (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8); and it is the title given to the Spirit of God (Isaiah 63:10 for example, and just about everywhere in the New Testament).

Now, to some extent you can make similar arguments about expressions like glory be and good heavens—maybe even for the love of Pete. If these are devaluing glory and goodness and love, then it seems to me they do tread awfully close to the third commandment.

Something to think about. Maybe you could help out and post some entertaining, Christian-friendly expressions in the comments eh?



Thanks, Bnonn. I continue to enjoy reading your blog – it is always thought provoking.

I want to follow up on the issue of minced oaths. Let me give a story from my childhood:

When my brother and I were young, we came up with a clever plan to call each other bad names in fun (and sometimes not in fun). “You’re an idio…!” “Your stupi…!” “You’re a complete moro..!” See, by leaving off the final syllable, we were actually NOT calling each other bad names – it only sounded like it. We were so clever!

Our parents quickly disabused us of that notion. It was obvious to them (and to us) that the slightly altered word still had the same reference. I was still calling my brother “stupid” regardless of whether I uttered the last syllable.

Now, let’s take “Jeez!” as an example. You’ve listed at least four categories of blaspehmies, from the most severe to the least. How is it that the person hitting his thumb and yelling “JESUS!” can avoid committing the most wicked blasphemy and get himself safely to the category of least serious by dropping the last syllable?

After all, “Jeez!” isn’t a word that occurs in a vacuum. You say that you cannot be guilty of swearing by saying “oh my God” if you don’t know what the syllables “god” mean. Similarly, nobody knows who John Duns Scotus is, and have no clue that “dunce” might be traced to him. But that is not true of “Jesus” in our culture. That name is still very much a part of our language and national discourse. If a foreigner asked most any American “Where does this funny word “Jeez” come from?”, I’ll bet most everyone could identify the derivation.

One might argue “But wait, the difference is that when you call someone “stupi” instead of “stupid”, you know fully well what you’re saying. When someone uses “Jeez!” they’re not consciously referring to the Son of God. And since they’re not referring to him, they’re not blaspheming.” But that same argument could be used by the unbeliever yelling out “JESUS!” He could argue “I had no thought of God whatsoever when I yelled that word. It was just syllables that burst out of my mouth by habit. I wasn’t consciously referring to God at all.”

That’s not a valid defense, as you rightly point out. That’s the worst kind of blasphemy. Why should “Jeez” be considered laughably innocent when the word (and person) it refers to is very obvious?

Let me push the example a bit more. What if the person who hit their thumb yelled out “JAY-sus!” or maybe “JEEES-UM” Like, “Jeez”, the name of God’s Son has been slightly modified. Does that also safely move the yell out of the category of severe blasphemy to innocent yell?

I don’t want to inappropriately bind anyone’s conscience on this, but I’ll just end on a personal realization, I can say that the condition of my heart has been the same whether I yelled out “Jesus!”, “Jeez”, “Damn it!”, or “Darn it!” or even just “Crap!” Whatever the word is, it’s usually come from a quick, intense flash of anger. And sin takes that opportunity to push out the worst word that comes to mind immediately. So I don’t think it’s surprising that white-hot anger leads to expletives that have a theological derivation. The words often express a burst of rebellion against God. While I wouldn’t use this as proof positive that minced oaths are wicked, I think that they’re not as innocent as one might think.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Hey David :)

How is it that the person hitting his thumb and yelling “JESUS!” can avoid committing the most wicked blasphemy and get himself safely to the category of least serious by dropping the last syllable?

Well, if that was what he intended to do, then he couldn’t. If he thought “jeez” really meant “Jesus”, obviously that would be blasphemy. But I don’t think most people are aware of that etymology at all. I used to say it all the time and had no idea it was a “minced oath” until someone told me the etymology. So I’m rather dubious that most people are aware of its origins as you suggest. But if “jeez” just does not mean “Jesus”, then it just is not blasphemy. (Btw, if we hadn’t gotten the name Yeshua through Latin and German, “Jesus” wouldn’t be blasphemy either!)

Btw, I’m not saying oaths in general are typically innocent. Rather, I’m offering reasons to think that oaths are not intrinsically immoral—even oaths with a blasphemous etymology. So I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with your comments about thumbs and hammers.

Samuel Vink

Hey, what happened to your article on general cussing/profanity? I’m having trouble finding it and wanted to send it to someone

Samuel Vink

Oh, okay. Well, I hope to see an update some day with your current thoughts on that stuff


Hi Dominic. I loved your article on translating the divine name as Lord. I’m going to have to disagree with you on the use of language a bit. I’ll come with the scriptural evidence. Basically, the misuse of the tongue is greatly understated and is a massive problem around the world. God created with words, he heals with words, he punishes and predicts with words, and he will put down sin, death, and the devil i.e., His enemies with words. Most physical wounds will heal but a harsh word spoken at the wrong time can scar the spirit or soul. It’s kinda like the opposite of Proverbs 25:11.