Pascha and the Apokatastasis of Judas Iscariot

But what about the Iscariot‽ The fate of Judas is the challenge most often posed to anyone who dares to proclaim the greater hope. Christians have long debated whether few or many will be saved. St John Chrysostom appears to have been particularly pessimistic: “Among thousands of people there are not a hundred who will arrive at their salvation, and I am not even certain of that number, so much perversity is there among the young and so much negligence among the old.” This pessimism characterized the judgment of the Church in most times and places, avers Avery Dulles. In the modern age Christians have become more hopeful. Even a fairly traditional theologian like Pope Benedict XVI has conjectured that “the great majority of people” will be saved, albeit through purgatorial suffering. But on one point eschatological pessimists and optimists agree: there is at least one human being who will be damned—Judas, son of Simon, betrayer of God Incarnate. How could it be otherwise? Not only did he treacherously hand Jesus over to the Sanhedrin, but he compounded the offence by the mortal sin of suicide. The prosecution rests.

In recent centuries a few brave voices have questioned the finality of this verdict. In the 19th century, for example, the Scottish poet Robert Buchanan sang of the final reconciliation of the apostle in his “Ballad of Judas Iscariot.” After aeons of wandering in desolate places, the soul of Judas finds Jesus waiting for him at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.

The supper wine is poured at last,
The lights burn bright and fair,
Iscariot washes the Bridegroom’s feet,
And dries them with his hair.

More recently the great Reformed theologian Karl Barth has proposed silence regarding the final destiny of the Iscariot—on the one hand, affirming the election of humanity in Jesus Christ; on the other hand, declining to proclaim apokatastasis:

If we follow the Evangelists, then, it would be both hasty and illegitimate to give a final answer one way or the other. In the form, at least, in which have put it, the question can only be left answered. The better course is clearly to consider the unresolved contrast: Jesus, on the one side, in the full sweep of His absolute care for His Church and therefore for the world, to which He addresses Himself through the service of His Church, in the full sweep of the radical restitution of the basic corruption of the world, and of Israel and of His Church, and therefore of the completion of His own election, His whole mission as the Son of God and Man; and Judas on the other side, for his part only the object of this care, only the bearer and representative of this basic corruption, only the rejected whom God has taken to Himself in the election of Jesus Christ, to whom God has turned Himself in the mission of Jesus Christ. On the one side, Jesus for Judas too, indeed for Judas especially; and on the other side Judas against Jesus, against the very Jesus who is for him, who gives Himself wholly and utterly for him, who washes his feet, who offers him His broken body and shed blood, who makes Himself his. The New Testament gives us no direct information about the outcome of this extraordinary “for and against.” Really none! It does not describe Judas’ repentance in such a way that we may draw an irresistible or even a probable conclusion as to a final and conclusive conversion of Judas in this life. It does not open up for us any prospect of the completion of such a conversion in the hereafter. Nor does it say anything about the inadmissibility of such a conversion. It striking fails to make use of the tempting possibility of making Judas a plain and specific example of hopeless rejection and perdition, an embodiment of the temporal and eternal rejection of certain men. It emphasizes the unambiguous contrast on both sides. On the one hand, it places no limits to the grace of Jesus Christ even with regard to Judas. It sets Judas against the brightest radiance of this grace. And on the other hand, it does not use even a single word to suggest that Judas is an example of apokatastasis. (CD, II/2:476; cf. Roger Olson, “Was Karl Barth a Universalist?“)

The test case of Judas invites us to think more deeply on the mysteries of divine grace, atonement, and the coming kingdom.

* * *

Preachers, theologians, and bloggers, of all denominational stripes and commitments, declare the unconditional love of the living God as revealed in Jesus Christ. But the betrayal of Judas pushes this unconditionality to the limit. Just how unconditional is unconditional? The popular view might be described as “unconditional but.” God loves us absolutely and completely, not because we have merited this love, not because we have fulfilled a minimal set of obligations and duties, not because any internal force compels him to love and forgive, but because he is Love in the utter freedom of his trinitarian life. The gospel is unbounded grace, without strings and hidden qualifications. “God loves you unconditionally,” the preacher, theologian, or blogger tells us—and our hearts rejoice. This is news almost too good to be true. But then there’s a pause and a clearing of the throat. “But … there is one thing you do need to do.” Call it faith, decision, conversion, repentance, confession, commitment, personal response, good works, obedience, asceticism. The but is always there. We need to actualize and make real the love of God in our lives. We need to abandon our sins and repent of our selfishness. We need to renounce our attachments. We need to prepare ourselves for theosis. And if we do not, we, like Judas, will be forever excluded from the beatific vision. The threat of eternal damnation doesn’t even need to be stated. Hidden in the liberating proclamation is the dismaying but that throws responsibility for our salvation back upon ourselves. Whatever wonderful things God has done for us, the but remains. There just doesn’t seem to be a way for the preacher to get around it, at least not without falling into the heresy of antinomianism. There is always the but. Life in time, our life as becoming and process, seems to require it. And with that but the unconditional love of God effectively becomes conditional—not perhaps from God’s point of view (the theologian is quick to point out) but most certainly from ours.

It’s all quite logical. As long as the prodigal son remains in his pig sty, he cannot enjoy the feast his father has prepared for him. If the prisoner does not walk through the now-open cell door, he’ll never be free. If an unknown benefactor deposits $1,000,000 into my checking account yet I do not write any checks, I remain as poor as I ever was. If we refuse the summons of Jesus to come out of our tombs, we shall never know the light of day. The necessity of the but seems obvious. The preacher doesn’t have to use it to say it, and the hearer will always insert it, even if it isn’t spoken.

Orthodox preachers need to challenge the synergistic but and resist the temptation to fall back into conditional promise (see my series “Preaching the Gospel as Gospel“). I acknowledge the difficulties. Not only do our bishops and congregations expect the but, but so does our commonsense. How is it possible for God to fulfill an uncondtional promise without violating our autonomy? Philosophy cannot offer a rational account of the eschatological existence bestowed in baptism. Our freedom in Christ is mystery and aporia. Authentic gospel-speaking requires more than acknowledgement of the antinomies of grace. It requires bold proclamation that refuses to take “no” for an answer.

* * *

When we consider the treachery and cowardice of Judas Iscariot, consummated in suicide, we appear to hit a limit to the unconditional love of the Almighty. How can Judas be saved when he rejected incarnate Mercy? “Here is our dilemma,” writes Ray Anderson: “if there is no limit to God’s grace, then how will God judge those who rebel against him, or who sin against that grace?” (The Gospel According to Judas, p. 59). In response, Anderson reminds us that Judas, like the other apostles, was an answer to prayer:

In the case of Judas, we are forced to think through the implications of the calling of Judas into discipleship as an answer to prayer. We are confronted with this question: If Judas can become a disciple through the grace of God and live in fellowship with Jesus for three years, can he, in the end, become disqualified and removed from God’s grace by his own act of betrayal and suicide? Doesn’t this also raise questions about our own relationship with God? Is grace really conditioned upon our faithfulness toward God, or upon God’s faithfulness toward us?

If we have difficult in viewing Judas the betrayer as an answer to prayer, it may reflect a deep misunderstanding of the grace of God. If we view grace as conditional, dependent upon our obedience and faithfulness to God, we will hold ourselves responsible for the answers to prayer. At the very least, we will expect repentance and faith as a condition for God’s forgiveness. We will tend to see God’s grace as the possibility open to us if we actualize faith through repentance. We thus think of our sin, and the death that sin produces, as determining our fate—except if we repent and accept God’s grace before we die. Any person who does not repent can be viewed as excluded from the possibility of divine grace and love. (pp. 59-60)

Peter denied Jesus three times, but on Easter morning the risen Christ appeared to him, and he was saved. Judas betrayed Jesus and took his own life, and the New Testament offers not a whisper of hope. The divine Son died for the sins of the world, the gospel proclaims, but what of the sins of Judas? By cross and resurrection God destroyed death, yet Judas is self-damned in death.

An astounding irony in the biblical story of Judas is the tragic coincidence of his death and the death of Jesus. At the very moment that Judas is enacting the human drama of sin and death, Jesus is enacting the divine drama of redemption and atonement. As Judas carries the terrible logic of sin to its ultimate conclusion, as though there were no grace and no forgiveness, Jesus contradicts it by taking sin upon himself and dying the death that will perfect the logic of grace and forgiveness. The first man dies without receiving what the second man is dying to give him. (p. 92)

We confess that the atonement of the Savior applies equally to Judas as it applies to us; but (we add) he cannot now be saved, for in the mortal sin in which he died, he definitively closed himself to grace. As some Roman Catholic moral theologians might say, in his betrayal and suicide Judas exercised his fundamental option and irrevocably oriented himself in rejection of the Good. That death stands as that final point beyond which alteration of personal orientation is impossible is traditional doctrine, both for Latin and Eastern Christianity. “After death there is for men no repentance,” writes St John of Damascus (De fide orthodoxa II.4). Death thus conditions both human freedom and divine grace. Death has the final word. It’s as if Pascha had never happened. In an ancient Irish homily, Judas is said to be the first person to reinhabit hell after its harrowing: “And unhappy Judas, after the betrayal of Christ, fell into despair, and put a noose round his neck, and in desperation hanged himself in his misdeeds, so that his soul was the first on which hell was shut after the Captivity had been rescued from it by Christ” (Leabhar Breac XVIII)—bad timing indeed.

Following in the steps of Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance, both of whom reject apokatastasis, Anderson challenges this disheartening construal of the gospel:

We know that God loves the world and sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die so that all may be saved. We know that in dying and being raised again, Jesus is the mediator for all humanity who are under sentence of death. We know that the Spirit of God is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus risen from the dead, who has the power to give life where there is death, and to create faith where there is unbelief. This knowledge of sufficient so that we need not speculate about the eternal destiny of those created in the image of God beyond what is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. We know that in Christ, all who are in the world are loved by God.

Our focus should rest not on who of us are God’s chosen ones, but on Jesus as the elect one. He is the beloved Son, chosen before the foundation of the world to be the lamb slain for the sins of the world (Rev. 13:8). The radius of the love of God for the world extends to the circumference of all who are in the world. Because all are consigned to death as a consequence of sin, Jesus removed the power of death for all in dying for all. … The sin of unbelief has its consequence in death, as does all sin. But if death has been removed from humanity as the final world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then the sin of unbelief as well is brought within the relation between the Father and the Son. (pp. 83-85)

If Jesus be risen from the dead, then death is defeated and hades has been emptied (see Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell). So the Orthodox sing at Pascha :

When thou didst descend to death, O Life Immortal, thou didst slay Hell with the splendor of thy Godhead.” (Saturday Vespers)

Hell has been made empty and helpless through the death of the One. (Sunday Matins)

On this day thou didst rise from the tomb, O merciful One, leading us from the gates of death. On this day Adam exults and Eve rejoices. (Sunday Matins)

Counted among the dead thou didst bind the tyrant, delivering all from the bonds of Hell by thy resurrection. (Sunday Liturgy)

In light of the Son’s victory over death, we must not deny the possibility of the post-mortem conversion of Judas Iscariot … or of Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, or Pol Pot. No matter the heinousness of the crime or the incorrigibility of the sinner, “death no longer has the power to sever humanity from the bond of God’s choice through Christ. The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that he is the ‘first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth’ (Rev. 1:5). Death no longer determines the fate and final destiny of any human person. Our destiny is finally determined by God, not by our sin nor the consequence of that sin. … There are many ways of dying, but only one kind of death. And the power of this death over the fate of humankind has been nullified through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” (Anderson, pp. 85-86).

Judas haunts the memory of the Church. We confidently sign his certificate of perdition, yet his ghost walks among us still. John the Seer speaks of the twelve foundation stones of the New Jerusalem, upon which are carved the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Rev 21:14). Will the name of Judas be written on one of them?

There is an old legend that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated it for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards it. The walls of the pit were dank and slimy, and he kept slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the way back down. It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb up again. After many more falls and efforts and failures he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around a table. “We’ve been waiting for you, Judas,” Jesus said. “We couldn’t begin till you came.” (Madeleine L’Engle, The Rock That is Higher, p. 268)

With all our might we resist the happy ending—hence our preference for generalities. The Barthian assertion that all are elected in Christ or the Byzantine declaration that in the Incarnation human nature has been deified can be just as abstract—and for that reason, evangelically inconsequential—as the liberal claim that generic Divinity loves everyone. The gospel becomes concrete and liberating when, in the mode of unconditional promise, we dare to proclaim Pascha to persons with names and faces and histories of deplorable wickedness and crushing failure.

The gospel becomes gospel when we dare to hope for the salvation of Judas.

(Return to first article)

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13 Responses to Pascha and the Apokatastasis of Judas Iscariot

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I listened with interest to D B Hart’s lecture in the previous blog, and if we say Judas is irrevocably damned do we not do what D B Hart rightly argues against – make our true Saviour not Jesus who died for our sins but was raised up but Judas who was eternally damned for them?

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  2. Michelle says:

    We need to know hell in its fullness before we can ever hope to know and truly understand the harrowing of hell through Christ, correct? I mean, how could we truly know the one without the other? Whether or not the purpose of the prayers of the Church describing the harrowing of hell are meant to show that all will be universally saved I do not know, nor am I referencing them as such when I say we must know hell in it’s complete truth before we can know it’s harrowing in truth. What I do know (I think) is that if the Scriptures are the embodiment of our salvation in written form, incarnate on paper and ink for our benefit, and thus Judas’ story is the necessary written revelation of despair unto hell in its fullness for our understanding. And though this written form of despair and hell is necessary, I’m not sure that is written down with the intent of proving that hell will definitely be populated after the Final Judgment.

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  3. elijahmaria says:

    Suicide can be, perhaps justly, perceived as a rejection of God through despair. It can also be conceived as the rejection of self through sorrowing and repentance for one’s being, one’s behavior. Not that the rejection of self is a good thing since we should know ourselves as a Temple of the Holy Spirit and always beloved by the Bridegroom. But we do not always know that in a manner that allows us to live it here. I think that the perfunctory relegation of Judas to hellfire is premature in the extreme. I also think that it is one thing to hope for individuals, and quite another to presume universal salvation.

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  4. Mike H says:

    This series of posts has been excellent. Thought provoking and challenging. Thank you.

    There is something about the story of Judas – as individual and as archetype – that becomes very personal and disallows one to dance around the fringes of the claims of the gospel. It brings out of the shadows the sorts of questions that one is afraid to ask or “shouldn’t ask”.

    It gets to the heart of what terms like grace, judgment, love, forgiveness, unconditional, etc. mean in the context of a particular narrative as well as a meta-narrative. It’s impossible to NOT be confronted here with the sobering claims of tradition, questions of whether there is a depth of depravity to which God will not go, if there are sins that cannot be forgiven, things lost that are too lost to be found, wrongs that cannot be undone, if time itself is forever against us and arcing towards tragedy, if there is a moment at which point it is quite simply “too late” for anything but death. Too late.

    These aren’t questions of wishful thinking or optimism, but questions about the gospel and what it even is. News? An event? An offer? A promise? All of these? In what way?

    Thanks for the series.

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  5. Mike H says:

    That “before we die” is bolded in the Ray Anderson quote strikes me as important.

    Over at his blog, Richard Beck has written on “death-centered Christianity” – he uses the term “thanatocentrism” (Thanatos is the personification of death in Greek mythology). Not death-centered in terms of “death worshipping” or “death obsessed” but rather the moment of physical death of the individual as the central and determinative moment of their existence. The moment of physical death as the fulcrum around which everything revolves – the moment toward which the past inexorably hurdles and by and after which the future is determined. Like an hour glass. It necessarily impacts how we view our present.

    In his chapter on Judas in “Dancing With Wolves While Feeding the Sheep” Anderson acknowledges and critiques this thanatocentric lens by examining the various ways that Calvinism and Arminianism (or any free-will approach) approach the “final judgment” within a thanatocentric framework. For the Calvinist, it’s simply the reading of the verdict that had been predestined from time immemorial. For the Arminian, the verdict is based upon the exercise of free-will. In both cases though, the “final judgment” is, in the end, the reading of a verdict that has already been determined – a revealing of a fate sealed at the moment of death for good or ill.

    Anderson suggests, however, that the gospel reveals that the moment of our death is not the determinative event in terms of the trajectory of our existence. Death has been defeated. In other words, the way I interpret his thoughts anyways, “final judgment” is not merely the pronouncement of a verdict in a courtroom, but rather a free action of God that can’t be separated from God’s grace, love, and salvific will.

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  6. Minimus says:

    I think Pope John Paul II said in Crossing the Threshold of Hope that we couldn’t know definitively whether Judas was in Hell or not.

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  7. bradjersak says:

    Thots on Mark 14:21?

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    • Mike H says:

      Tom & Iain had a good dialogue about this verse in the comments of Fr A’s blog post from 11/2 – “The Irrelevant Repentance of Jesus”.

      Even taking into account the lucidity and precision of some of the violent “texts of terror” in scripture, I don’t know if there is a more theologically terrifying clobber-text verse than this one. And not just as a particularly powerful bible-verse grenade lobbed on a biblicist battlefield, but as words uttered by Jesus.

      To hear Jesus speak the words “It would be better for him if he had never been born”… about me? Or anyone for that matter. What could be worse? It raises a host of questions about the nature of God (…we can create a final reality in which it would be ‘better’ if God had not created or imparted life at all?) & what one has to explain away elsewhere in order to make this text axiomatic.

      I suppose the first thing to do is identify what one actually hears as THE “plain reading”:

      “Your future punishment will be so bad that it would be better for you if you had never been born”.

      Details of this perceived divine punishment aside, it doesn’t seem unreasonable based on this “plain reading” to infer that since it would be “better to never have been born at all” that whatever awaits is necessarily final and unending. The last word. It doesn’t end or lead to anything else. And it is terrible beyond imagining. But is that what’s being said? Is this unambiguously talking about retributive (or self-inflicted) unending afterlife punishment?

      There are places where scripture records someone cursing their own birth. Job 3:1. Jeremiah 20:14. There are probably others.

      The fact that one curses the day of their own birth doesn’t make it the final truth or claim on their life. Yet it is their experience – a life marred by shame, guilt, suffering (whether self-inflicted or not), and the sense that what’s done is done and cannot be made right. Interestingly, Mark’s account proceeds to talk about Peter’s denial a few verses later….

      And so Mark 14:21 could refer to the experience of living in that reality – the real perception and experience of the one about whom Jesus is speaking – as the sheer realization that one’s life and ideology has brought death. That description need not be the final word, a sort of “but you’ll get yours in in the future” from the lips of Jesus, but rather a description of the very thing that Jesus overcomes. If we cannot be saved from ourselves I’m not sure that there is truly such a thing as salvation.

      Suppose, however, that we come to the conclusion that the words aren’t uttered as a description of the present or future (but not necessarily final) experience or perception of Judas, but as a description of an objective reality. This isn’t Judas cursing his own birth after all (though his later actions display that level of regret). So might they by hyperbolic? I don’t intend to use hyperbolic as a cheap escape clause, but in the same sense as other hyperbolic phrases (or apocalyptic language). A way to assign significance and/or the depth of error?

      But perhaps this falls flat. Wouldn’t be the only place in scripture where attempts to harmonize the pieces like a math equation appear suspect. As isolated words they’re simply terrifying. They seem so…..final. But any verse can be “final” if taken by itself. To the degree that it is problematic at all (and for some people it’s not problematic in the least) it’s only problematic because the larger narrative of God’s love and grace in Christ makes it so. And for that reason it can’t be read apart from that larger narrative/those other verses.

      Just my $0.02.

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      • bradjersak says:

        Works for me. Seems legit. Esp if Jesus sees the awful experience of despair and suicide … last supper is not the time to minimize the forthcoming torment even on the way to apoc.

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    • gleehug says:

      Ecclesiastes 4:3

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  8. bradjersak says:

    “I think, when Judas fled from his hanged and fallen body, he fled to the tender help of Jesus, and found it, I say not how.”
    – George MacDonald

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    • gleehug says:

      Now, early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people consulted against Jesus, to put him to death. And they bound him, and carried him away, and delivered him up to Pontius Pilate the governour. Then Judas, who had delivered him up, seeing that he was condemned, repented; and gave back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying; I sinned in delivering up innocent blood. But they said: What is that to us? look thou to that. Then he threw down the pieces of money in the temple, and withdrew: and after his departure, was choked with anguish.
      Matthew 27:1-5 A Translation of the New Testament: by Gilbert Wakefield, B.A., from the second London edition.

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