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, observes 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 strikingly 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.
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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.
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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 conversion 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 shy away from 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.