The Twelve—the gospels name them; the tradition remembers their missionary service and martyrdom; the Church acclaims them apostles and saints. With one infamous exception—Judas Iscariot. Companion, disciple, and friend, chosen by Jesus to be a representative of the new Israel, a witness to the Lord’s miraculous works and with him a preacher of the coming Kingdom. He no doubt had many virtues and did many good works, but all of that has been forgotten. Judas is remembered for one defining act—his betrayal of Jesus. He is the traitor who sold his Master for thirty pieces of silver. Even his remorse, consummated in suicide, did not redeem him in the eyes of the Church. “For the Son of man goes as it is written of him,” declared Jesus, “but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21; cf. John 17:12). For 2,000 years Christians have heard these words as confirming the eternal perdition of the betrayer. For St Ephrem the Syrian, Judas’s perfidy reveals him as the embodiment of Satan:
How strong is his [Satan’s] poison,
upsetting the whole world.
Who can hold back the sea
of that bitter one?
Everyone contains drops of it
that can harm you.
Judas was the treasurer of his poison,
And although Satan’s form is hidden,
In Judas he is totally visible;
Though Satan’s history is a long one,
It is summed up in the Iscariot.
(Hymns of Paradise XV.15)
St Leo the Great suggests that Judas might have been forgiven, if he had sought the Lord’s mercy rather than abandoning himself to despair:
The traitor Judas did not attain to this mercy, for “the son of perdition” (Jn. 17:12), at whose right hand the devil had stood (Ps. 108:6), had before this died in despair; even while Christ was fulfilling the mystery of the general redemption. Even he perhaps might have obtained this forgiveness, had he not hastened to the gallowstree; for the Lord died for all evildoers. But nothing ever of the warnings of the Saviour’s mercy found place in that wicked heart: at one time given over to petty cheating, and then committed to this dread parricidal traffic.
On these impious ears in vain had fallen the words of the Lord, declaring: “I am not come to call the just, but sinners (Mt 9:13); or the words: “I came not to call the just, but sinners to penance” (Lk 5:32). Neither had he given thought to the clemency of Christ, Who ministered not alone to the infirmities of the body, but healed likewise the wounds of the injured soul; as in His words to the paralytic: “Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven thee” (Mt 9:3; and to the woman brought before Him who was an adultress: “Neither will I condemn thee, go, and now sin no more” (Jn 8:11), so that He might show throughout all His works that in this Coming He had appeared, not as the Judge of the world, but as its Saviour. But the godless betrayer, shutting his mind to all these things, turned upon himself, not with a mind to repent, but in the madness of self-destruction: so that this man who had sold the Author of life to the executioners of His death, even in the act of dying sinned unto the increase of his own eternal punishment. (Sermon 62, De passione Domini XI [PL 54]; in The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, II:183)
Perhaps Judas might have found salvation if he had truly repented, but instead he sealed his destiny by his suicide. Greater even than the horrendous sin of betrayal is despair of the divine mercy. St Catherine of Siena agrees:
This is that sin which is never forgiven, now or ever: the refusal, the scorning of my mercy. For this offends me more than all the other sins they have committed. So the despair of Judas displeased me more and was a greater insult to my Son than his betrayal had been. Therefore, such as these are reproved for this false judgement of considering their sins to be greater than my mercy, and for this they are punished with the demons and tortured eternally with them. (Dialogue)
Yet as evangelically correct as it may be to insist that Judas might have been forgiven had he repented, the popular tradition has seen his treachery as the decisive reason for his reprobation. In Dante’s vision of the Inferno, the ninth and final circle is hell is reserved for traitors. In its innermost zone, named Judecca, we find the Iscariot, placed head-first in the Devil’s mouth, his back ceasely flayed by the demonic claws, condemned to be the food of Satan in everlasting manducation.
Betrayal—no offence is more difficult to forgive. It breaks the bonds of friendship. We might say we forgive someone who has betrayed us, but can we ever trust them again? And if we cannot trust them, how can we be truly reconciled? Perhaps betrayal is the unforgivable sin of which Jesus spoke. For both betrayer and betrayed, it often seems that way. “I forgive you,” we say out loud; but silently we are thinking, “… but I can never forget.” Yet it is that forgetting that is necessary for healing and restoration. “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isa 43:12).
The heart of betrayal is love—that mutual affection that binds two or more in intimate community. In that love, as Ray Anderson insightfully diagnoses, we find “the source of betrayal and the seeds of treachery” (The Gospel According to Judas, p. 36). We may grievously injure a stranger, but injury alone does not constitute betrayal. Betrayal presupposes love, communion, and promised loyalty. Love is both its source and its object. Betrayal cuts its victim to the core of his being. The violation is profound, generating fury, rage, confusion, anguish. “Only when trust is first formed through shared life can it be broken, “writes Anderson. “And only the sense of outrage, fueled by a primitive moral instinct and carried out with the passion of love’s despair, can wreak the havoc and destruction in a family and among friends that betrayal causes. … For betrayal tears away the flesh of fellowship, leaving only the visible skeleton of love’s despair” (p. 37).
Judas is remembered by the Church as a traitor and son of perdition. Caiphas and Pontius Pilate are treated more kindly. They were agents in Christ’s execution, but Judas was a friend and intimate. Peter thrice denied Jesus, but he did not hand him over to his enemies. That honor was reserved for Judas alone. His sin belongs to a different category. Judas was chosen by Jesus, yet he broke faith, both with Jesus and with his fellow disciples. “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (John 6:70). How was such iniquity possible? Did not Jesus see into his heart? Did he not love him with a perfect love? Judas should have been there with Peter, James, and the others on Easter morning (yet how could there be an Easter morning without the betrayal?); but he wasn’t. The risen Lord did not appear to him. He was not present to hear Christ’s words of love and peace nor receive the Spirit that he bestowed upon them. His apostolic chair was empty. Somehow the treachery of Judas belongs to the mysterious providence of God. As the Apostle Peter tells the followers of Christ after the Ascension: “Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas who was guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry” (Acts 1:16-17).
Judas failed Jesus. Perhaps he was disillusioned; perhaps he felt that promises had been made but not kept; perhaps he even felt betrayed by Jesus. Whatever his motives, Judas could not undo the horrific consequences of the kiss:
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. (Matt 27:3-5)
Judas believed that by his sin he had excluded himself from the mercy of Jesus, and the Church has long concurred. Yet is this how Jesus would tell the story of Judas? Anderson does not think so: “The gospel story is God’s story of our lives as seen through his love and grace. None of us can write ourselves out of God’s story—not even Judas” (pp. 38-39).