Robert Buchanan and “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot”

By Addison Hodges Hart

If there is a theme that is both central to Christian revelation and yet obscured by much that has for centuries passed for “sound” Christian theology, surely it is the idea—so evident in the teaching of Christ—that at the very heart of created existence is divine love. Working in and through everything is the loving Father, who makes no distinction in his munificence: “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). In Jesus’ view, this dispassionate, non-discriminating love is what makes the Father “perfect” (teleios), and it is precisely this “perfection” of love that followers of Christ are exhorted to emulate: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

Christian theology has often forgotten, or at least not emphasized sufficiently, this primary truth. Instead we have been led to believe that “justice” precludes compassion and mercy whenever God’s righteousness is offended, which apparently happens quite a lot. And so we have Jesus’ admonitions related to the avoidance of “Gehenna” transformed over time by officious churchmen and “doctors” into fearful threats of “eternal” torture in “hell”. God, in this doctrinally “developed” view, is not so much a loving Father as a vindictive judge. Add to that the later, frankly barbaric Augustinian doctrine of predestination as enunciated in the West—that only a comparative handful of the elect, chosen from all eternity in the inscruta­ble counsels of God, will be spared everlasting torment, and that only made possible through the shedding of Christ’s blood as a “satisfaction”—and you have a dogma that is not only devoid of real love, but also of any logical coherence. “Hell”, in that scenario, can only mean unrelenting punishment visited on souls who have done nothing themselves to merit it, apart from being born (and, really, whose fault was that?). It’s as if Jesus, when speaking of forgiveness and “damnation”, had never once suggested that one could be forgiven both “in this age” and also “in the age to come” (Matt. 12:32); or as if he had said merely, when speaking of final judgment and punishment, that those condemned “will never get out”, rather than, as he actually is recorded as having said, that they “will never get out until [they] have paid the last penny” (Matt. 5:26). I would suggest that that little word “until” is rather significant.

The point I’m coming to here is not a denial of “hell” in the sense that Jesus used the metaphor of “Gehenna”. It is not a denial even of “punishment”, if by “punishment” is meant something that doesn’t merely chastise and cause pain, but something that actually corrects and sets a person right. “Punishment”, that is, that rehabilitates and restores. For that remedial outcome “torture” and “torment” do not work, and even the term “punishment” is not a particularly useful one. All I am doing here, by the way, is summarily repeating what the great Scottish writer and (often maligned) theologian George MacDonald said on the matter a century and a half ago (see his Unspoken Sermons, particularly the sermon entitled “Justice”). My point is merely this: if the primary theme of Christ’s “good news” is the love of God, that divinity is characterized by infinite compassion and grace, that sin is swallowed up by mercy, that justice is a manifestation of love and therefore has as its end the reclamation of all things—if, in other words, God “desires all human beings to be saved”, “is the Savior of all human beings, especially of those who believe”, and does not will “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (1 Tim. 2:4, 4:10; 2 Pet. 3:9)—then it follows that “hell” is a means, not an end, for the sake of salvation. Not the best means by a long shot, and not an unavoidable means because of the cross; but a means nonetheless.

And that brings me to the subject of this essay, which is about a minor poet of the nineteenth century and his poem. The poet is Robert Williams Buchanan (1841-1901), a name no longer familiar to most readers, although at one time he was held in fairly high regard. He gained a measure of notoriety when he harshly—and originally pseudonymously—criticized Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites. In his Appreciations of Poetry, Lafcadio Hearn commented upon that damaging incident:

Hard headed Scotchman as he was, [Buchanan] manifested in his attitude to his brother poets a good deal of the peculiar, harsh conservatism of which Scotchmen seemed to be particularly capable. And he did himself immense injury in his younger days by an anonymous attack upon the morals, or rather upon the moral tone, of such poets as Rossetti and Swinburne. Swinburne’s reply to this attack was terrible and withering. That of Rossetti was very mild and gentle, but so effective that English literary circles almost unanimously condemned Buchanan, and attributed his attack to mere jealousy. I think the attack was less due to jealousy than to character, to prejudice, to the harshness of a mind insensible to particular forms of beauty.

But Lafcadio Hearn—himself a fascinating character in his own right (we have him to thank, among his many outpourings, for that wonderfully curious volume, Kwaidan, which brings together Japanese ghost stories and Japanese entomology); and I will be drawing a great deal from his lecture on Robert Buchanan in what follows here—also had this to say of Buchanan, though, as it happens, mistakenly:

But the time has now passed when Buchanan can be treated as an indifferent figure in English literature. In spite of all disadvantages he has been a successful poet, a successful novelist, and a very considerable influence in the literature of criticism. Besides, he has written at least one poem that will probably live as long as the English language, and he has an originality quite apart and quite extraordinary.

Contrary to Hearn’s prediction, Buchanan has nonetheless become an “indifferent figure in English literature”, and the “one poem” that Hearn marks out as having had the potential to “live as long as the English language” is now mostly forgotten.

Well, to be honest, it’s an odd poem, certainly a period piece, and there is no use pretending it’s a great poem. Tastes have changed considerably since Buchanan wrote it and Hearn praised it. Modernism has intervened and not for the worse. Speaking only for myself, I much prefer, say, Eliot and Auden and Larkin and R. S. Thomas to Buchanan and many of his greater contemporaries. Yet, still, I have an abiding affection, if not for all of Buchanan’s oeuvre, at least for this one poem of his. Again, I find I agree with Lafcadio Hearn when he says: “If you know only this composition, you will know all that it is absolutely necessary to know of Robert Buchanan.”

The title of the poem is “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot”. And, in fact, I think it could effectively be set to music and sung in true ballad style—surely there must be some group of musicians out there, folk or medieval or Americana, who could take on this task and do it right. The poem is undiluted nineteenth-century “gothic”; Buchanan might have disliked the Pre-Raphaelites, but the imagery in it could have made a fitting subject for one of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. Its atmosphere is gloomy and dark, and it puts me in mind of Ray Bradbury’s description of what he called the “October Country”: “That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay.” Buchanan was, after all, a Celt.

“The Ballad of Judas Iscariot” is, of course, a religious poem. For quite a few readers, sensitive to such things, it will be seen as straddling the boundaries of acceptable “orthodoxy”, if it’s not seen as well within the borders of “heterodoxy”. As Hearn says of it, “[T]he great production of Buchanan is a simple ballad, … [it] is a beautiful and extraordi­nary thing, quite in accordance with the poet’s peculiar views of Christianity…” And, if this were not enough, he writes a little further on: “All that could be said against it from a religious point of view is that the spirit of it is even more Christian than Christianity itself.” Now this last sentiment of Hearn’s (who was himself unequivocally at odds with the organized religion of his day) should be understood as an ironic indictment of precisely the sort of Christianity described in the opening salvos of this essay. At this point I can do nothing better than reproduce at length Lafcadio Hearn’s explanation of Buchanan’s rationale for his “Ballad”, which puts a finger on exactly where the “orthodoxy/heterodoxy” difficulty lies:

Before we turn to the poem itself, I must explain to you something of the legend of Judas Iscariot. You know, of course, that Judas was the disciple of Christ who betrayed his master… Afterwards Judas, being seized with remorse, is said to have hanged himself; and there the Scriptural story ends. But in Church legends the fate of Judas continues to be discussed in the Middle Ages. As he was the betrayer of a person whom the Church considered to be God, it was deemed that he was necessarily the greatest of all traitors; and as he had indirectly helped to bring about the death of God, he was condemned as the greatest of all murderers. It was said that in hell the very lowest place was given to Judas, and that his tortures exceeded all other tortures. But once every year, it was said, Judas could leave hell, and go out to cool himself upon the ice of the Northern seas. That is the legend of the Middle Ages.

Now Robert Buchanan perceived that the Church legends of the punishment of Judas might be strongly questioned from a moral point of view. Revenge is indeed in the spirit of the Old Testament; but revenge is not exactly in the spirit of the teaching of Christ. The true question as to the fate of Judas ought to be answered by supposing what Christ himself would have wished in the matter. Would Christ have wished to see his betrayer burning for ever in the fires of hell? Or would he have shown to him some of that spirit manifested in his teachings, “Do good unto them that hate you; forgive your enemies”? As a result of thinking about the matter, Buchanan produced his ballad.

And it is at this juncture that Hearn says that all that can be said against the ballad is that its Christianity is more truly Christian (i.e., “Christ-like”) in spirit than Christianity (in its most rigidly ossified doctrinal form) had become.

Hearn’s lecture then gives most of the text of the poem, interspersed with his comments, and I will follow him here, though I will reproduce the entire text. But, before Hearn presented Buchanan’s poem, to set the stage he first explained its medieval folkloric background:

In order to understand the beginning of the ballad clearly, you should know the particulars about another superstition concerning Judas. It is said that all the elements refused to suffer the body [of Judas] to be committed to them; fire would not burn it; water would not let it sink to rest; every time it was buried, the earth would spew it out again. Man could not bury that body, so the ghosts endeavoured to get rid of it. The Field of Blood referred to in the ballad is the Aceldama of Scriptural legend, the place where Judas hanged himself.

And with all that in mind, Hearn gives us the text of the ballad. I would remark before I do the same that the dualism of body and soul is a striking feature of the poem. The great conundrum for the soul of Judas, his own Sisyphean task, is what to do with his body, since none of this world’s elements will receive it. In effect, this becomes the living hell of the dead Judas—the bearing of his own suicide’s body. For a poem that will, as we will see, undermine the notion of an everlasting (and thereby unjust) punishment, I can think of few images more truly hellish in nature than Buchanan’s vision of Judas’s torments.

‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Lay in the Field of Blood;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Beside the body stood.

Black was the earth by night,
And black was the sky;
Black, black were the broken clouds,
Tho’ the red Moon went by.

‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Strangled and dead lay there;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Look’d on it in despair.

The breath of the World came and went
Like a sick man’s in rest;
Drop by drop on the World’s eyes
The dews fell cool and blest.

Then the soul of Judas Iscariot
Did make a gentle moan—
‘I will bury underneath the ground
My flesh and blood and bone.

‘I will bury deep beneath the soil,
Lest mortals look thereon,
And when the wolf and raven come
The body will be gone!

‘The stones of the field are sharp as steel,
And hard and cold, God wot;
And I must bear my body hence
Until I find a spot!’

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot,
So grim, and gaunt, and gray,
Raised the body of Judas Iscariot,
And carried it away.

And as he bare it from the field
Its touch was cold as ice,
And the ivory teeth within the jaw
Rattled aloud, like dice.

As the soul of Judas Iscariot
Carried its load with pain,
The Eye of Heaven, like a lanthorn’s eye,
Open’d and shut again.

Half he walk’d, and half he seemed
Lifted on the cold wind;
He did not turn, for chilly hands
Were pushing from behind.

Whose are the “chilly hands” we can only guess. I imagine they belong to the “ghosts” that Hearn mentions in his retelling of the original legend.

The first place that he came unto
It was the open wold,
And underneath were prickly whins,
And a wind that blew so cold.

(Whins, it should be mentioned, are thorny shrubs or gorse.)

The next place that he came unto
It was a stagnant pool,
And when he threw the body in
It floated light as wool.

He drew the body on his back,
And it was dripping chill,
And the next place be came unto
Was a Cross upon a hill.

A Cross upon the windy hill,
And a Cross on either side,
Three skeletons that swing thereon,
Who had been crucified.

And on the middle cross-bar sat
A white Dove slumbering;
Dim it sat in the dim light,
With its head beneath its wing.

And underneath the middle Cross
A grave yawn’d wide and vast,
But the soul of Judas Iscariot
Shiver’d, and glided past.

This, in my opinion, must be the most disturbing image of the entire poem. At least it should be for those who believe in Christ’s bodily resurrection. I don’t presume to know Robert Buchanan’s belief regarding it, and I would have preferred that he had not included these verses at all. But, he did, and we have to take the poem as we find it.

That said, however, it’s also true that, as Lafcadio Hearn points out, Buchanan knew that Christ’s and the two thieves’ bodies had been removed from the crosses on Calvary. They had not been left there to decompose, and so the three skeletons in the ballad must mean something other than the immediately obvious. They do not constitute a denial of the resurrection. Hearn suggests the following meaning to explain the baffling image:

The ghostly hand had pushed Judas to the place of all places where he would have wished not to go… [W]e may suppose that the whole description is of a phantasm, purposely shaped to stir the remorse of Judas. The white dove sleeping upon the middle cross suggests the soul of Christ, and the great grave made below might have been prepared out of mercy for the body of Judas. If the dove had awoke and spoken to him, would it not have said, “You can put your body here, in my grave; nobody will torment you.” But the soul of Judas cannot even think of daring to approach the place of the crucification.

That is as good an explanation as any, I suppose, and I think it at least comes closest to what Buchanan intended.

The fourth place that he came unto
It was the Brig of Dread,
And the great torrents rushing down
Were deep, and swift, and red.

He dared not fling the body in
For fear of faces dim
And arms were waved in the wild water
To thrust it back to him.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Turned from the Brig of Dread,
And the dreadful foam of the wild water
Had splashed the body red.

Regarding this particular image, Hearn writes: “There is here a poetical effect borrowed from sources having nothing to do with the Judas tradition. In old Northern folklore there is the legend of a River of Blood, in which all the blood ever shed in this world continues to flow; and there is a reference to this river in the old Scotch ballad of ‘Thomas the Rhymer.'”

In this way, then, Judas’s betrayal of Christ’s blood is connected to all the bloodshed of human history. This is an image that might just possibly suggest at once the greatness and horror of Judas’s guilt, and likewise an implicit first indication of the hope of redemption even for so grave a crime.

For days and nights he wandered on
Upon an open plain,
And the days went by like blinding mist,
And the nights like rushing rain.

For days and nights he wandered on,
All thro’ the Wood of Woe;
And the nights went by like moaning wind,
And the days like drifting snow.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Came with a weary face –
Alone, alone, and all alone,
Alone in a lonely place!

He wandered east, he wandered west,
And heard no human sound;
For months and years, in grief and tears,
He wandered round and round,

For months and years, in grief and tears,
He walked the silent night;
Then the soul of Judas Iscariot
Perceived a far-off light.

“Days and nights … months and years” pass “in grief and tears”. This is both purgatory and hell that Buchanan describes, and the two are one. “Punishment” is, as we are about to see, remedial. Now a light—far off, dim—is beginning to shine for Judas:

A far-off light across the waste,
As dim as dim might be,
That came and went like the lighthouse gleam
On a black night at sea.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Crawl’d to the distant gleam;
And the rain came down, and the rain was blown
Against him with a scream.

For days and nights he wandered on,
Push’d on by hands behind;
And the days went by like black, black rain,
And the nights like rushing wind.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot,
Strange, and sad, and tall,
Stood all alone at dead of night
Before a lighted hall.

And the wold was white with snow,
And his foot-marks black and damp,
And the ghost of the silvern Moon arose,
Holding her yellow lamp.

And the icicles were on the eaves,
And the walls were deep with white,
And the shadows of the guests within
Pass’d on the window light.

The shadows of the wedding guests
Did strangely come and go,
And the body of Judas Iscariot
Lay stretch’d along the snow.

The body of Judas Iscariot
Lay stretched along the snow;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Ran swiftly to and fro.

To and fro, and up and down,
He ran so swiftly there,
As round and round the frozen Pole
Glideth the lean white bear.

‘Twas the Bridegroom sat at the table-head,
And the lights burnt bright and clear—
‘Oh, who is that,’ the Bridegroom said,
‘Whose weary feet I hear?’

Hearn writes:

But only the body [of Judas lies stretched along the snow]. The soul which has carried it does not lie down, but runs round and round the lighted hall, where the wedding guests are assembled.

He runs, I believe, in amazed excitement and, perhaps, an awakening joy. The reason is both painful and obvious:

What wedding? What guests? This is the mystical banquet told of in the parable of the New Testament; the bridegroom is Christ himself; the guests are the twelve disciples, or rather, the eleven, Judas himself having been once the twelfth. And the guests see the soul of Judas looking in at the window.

But not all within are glad to see the betrayer without. There is something of the elder brother’s anger at the Prodigal’s return in the grumbling of the apostles in the stanzas below, and also something of the harshness of a church ready to condemn. Here are the ballad’s final stanzas:

‘Twas one look’d from the lighted hall,
And answered soft and slow,
‘It is a wolf runs up and down
With a black track in the snow.’

The Bridegroom in his robe of white
Sat at the table-head—
‘Oh, who is that who moans without?’
The blessed Bridegroom said.

‘Twas one looked from the lighted hall,
And answered fierce and low,
’Tis the soul of Judas Iscariot
Gliding to and fro.’

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Did hush itself and stand,
And saw the Bridegroom at the door
With a light in his hand.

The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
And he was clad in white,
And far within the Lord’s Supper
Was spread so broad and bright.

The Bridegroom shaded his eyes and look’d,
And his face was bright to see—
‘What dost thou here at the Lord’s Supper
With thy body’s sins?’ said he.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stood black, and sad, and bare—
‘I have wandered many nights and days;
There is no light elsewhere.’

‘Twas the wedding guests cried out within,
And their eyes were fierce and bright—
‘Scourge the soul of Judas Iscariot
Away into the night!’

The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
And he waved hands still and slow,
And the third time that he waved his hands
The air was thick with snow.

And of every flake of falling snow,
Before it touched the ground,
There came a dove, and a thousand doves
Made sweet sound.

‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Floated away full fleet,
And the wings of the doves that bare it off
Were like its winding-sheet.

‘Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
And beckon’d, smiling sweet;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stole in, and fell at his feet.

‘The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!’

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.

The conclusion, some will notice, is reminiscent of George Herbert’s poem “Love”:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

The theme of love and forgiveness overcoming sin and unworthiness is similar, as is the image of the banquet and the Lord’s Supper as the sign and sacrament of divine love. The difference between the two poems is that, while Herbert’s is a sort of parable about the sinner’s approach to his merciful Lord in the here and now, Buchanan’s “Ballad of Judas Iscariot” takes that same theme beyond death and hell and stretches it to its ultimate limit, to include in mercy’s embrace the worst of sinners as the greatest expression of grace imaginable.

In my own opinion (and the reason why I have an abiding affection for this quirky ballad), nothing less than that can or should ever be attributed to God. What Buchanan does is show us a striking and strangely moving vision, one that—again, in the words of Lafcadio Hearn—“is even more Christian than Christianity itself”. Whatever heterodoxies the author himself may have entertained, his ideal vision is as “Christian” as Christ and Christ’s good news of a loving God, whose unchangeable will is—no matter how long it may take (and “length of time” means nothing in eternity)—“that all should reach repentance”. To my mind, that is the greatest “orthodoxy”—“right glory”—one could ever accord to God.

* * *

Fr Addison Hart is a retired pastor and college chaplain presently living in Norway. He is the author of The Letter of James: A Pastoral Commentary, The Hour, the Woman, and the Garden, Strangers and Pilgrims Once More, and The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd.

(4 September 2016)

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21 Responses to Robert Buchanan and “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot”

  1. takeoffthelid says:

    I did a musical treatment of The Ballad of Judas Iscariot in 2017. I find the poem very intriguing. Here’s a link to the recording on iTunes.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Robert Fortuin says:

    Thank you for this essay, well done.

    One wonders why, historically, forgiveness has not been imagined by Christians to extend to Judas. Or perhaps it has, but not much talked about?


    • Western Christianity has no real concept of forgiveness, other than a passing nod and a wink towards it. Pastors and priests may speak of God as love, but it is a limited love at best, one that is more human than divine. It is easily offended, being that it belongs to the God who is not loving heavenly Father, but stern and cold Judge first and foremost. One can speak of a thing without a deep and intimate knowledge of it, much as I would read a book on physics or some other science, and even speak of the phrases in the text, but have no real understanding of them.

      If there is no forgiveness for Judas, then there is none for me. I betray the Son of God every time I sin, and I sin every day.


      • Robert Fortuin says:

        That’s a bit of a broad brush. But I do agree insofar as there is no hope for Judas, there’s no hope for me.


        • Grant says:

          I would also caution against embracing the notion of ‘Western’ vs ‘Eastern’ theologies to absolutely, certainly not to the point that they are overall have nothing in common, or do not even have the same or shared theological understanding of God and reality. While you might hear this polemic, sonetimes more so from the Byzantine East since the rise of Neo-Patristic systhesis, and of course you find it among Latin Catholics, I just read a forum post from one such on a board that had nothing to do with Christianity, being a gaming board, and ut was full of fear and conspiracy theories, I would ask everyone if they remember to pray for him to be delivered from his fears, hates and delusions od darkness).

          Deep wounds exist between both and none of us are good at listening to our Lord about seeing to the log in our own eye before in love attending to the speak in our brother’s eye, nor trying to resolve our differences and sins before we go to sleep and not do so in anger. Most of us do not care nearly as we should about the Church being one as He and the Father are one. We nod but nurse old wounds and grievouses and use them as justifications for our state and negative views, and very little do we even attempt to live forgiveness, wanting the other to prove themselves to us or find fault. One sude may ir may not have better orthodoxy, but they don’t have better orthopraxy, this being weeds of hate, fear and unforgiveness that restricts and strangles our spiritual life corporately. We are far to complacent and comfortable with theses strifies and divisions when we should be seeking God’s mercy and for Hus forgiveness.

          But although I do think the West broadly overused and became dominated by the Roman court model, and often used it not just as a figure to illustrate but as if it were an depiction of actual concrete truth of the matter, leading to forensic analysis not as a helpful tool in the spiritual life (say in confession perhaps) but became projected upon God and the comos as an absolute reality. And often moreso it became on which transformed the Gospel by fallen human notions of justice rather than the Gospel transfiguring and transforming our notions if justice. And combine that with Augustinian prdestination fron a misreading if Romans in it’s Latin translation definitely set in place what I judge destructive tends and language that caused misconceptions and harm. And ut is true that these were not as prevalent in the Easts but it would be a mistake to think you won’t find such settiments and views in the East (just read some of John Chrysostom’s homilies) or St Justianian and so on. And it is a mistake not to see great attestations to Gid’s all embracing love and forgiveness in the West (Julian if Norwich, in his way St Francis if Assisi, Mesier Erkhart, George MacDonald and even contradictory St Augustine himself).

          And of course there is more than one East, there is the Byzantine, Armenian, West Syriac and East Syriac (the Holy Apostolic Assyrian Church of the East if which St Isaac of Nineveh of a part) which also has and Indian contingent and for a long time a Chinese and even Japanese communities along a Patriarch of China in which they interfaced and used and transfigured the ideas of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism in Christ showing Him their completion and fulfillment (reading about that Church, the Jesus stele recounting their history in which Christianity was called by the Chinese emperor the religion of light, and to learn about the sonewhat misnamed Jesus Sutras is fascinating).

          Any the Church us broad and full of fallible people and theologies that have misunderstood Christ to conditioned by a particular falken time, concepts, biases, mistakes un languages and fallen hunan traditions, back then by the mistajen sense that such articulations were the divine will itself and beyond question leading to fearing God and seeking for Chirst to protect us from His Father. This is a monsterous distortion that certain Western treads that often became dominate at least in liturgical language that made this even mire of an issue here. But you will still find it (sonetimes very strongly) in Fathers and sone traditions in the Easts to, just aa you will find continued attestations to God’s absolute love and forgiveness in the West. As someone who also leans more Eastward I thought I would caution you from falling to much in to tge largely false polemic of a complete and irreconcilable East and West Christianity. Differences yes, different approaches and perspectives sonetimes (though not always) yes but on the whole and at the cire I don’t believe they are irreconcilable.


  3. Nathan says:

    So fascinating!!! Thank you!!


  4. Tanner says:

    What would the response be to Jesus saying that it would be better for Judas had he not been born?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chittwood2 says:

      That doesn’t fit the Universalist narrative, does it? Nor does His statement that the sin against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven “in the world to come”.


      • I would add that Jesus uses hyperbole often in the Gospels (e.g. “Hate your mother and father.”)

        While reading the book of Job, I noticed that Job says the same thing about himself: it would have been better if he had never been born. And God agrees with Job and disagrees with his prosperity friends. Reading the book of Job in light of apokatastasis is worth the effort.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Grant says:

          Indeed, some of the infernalist persuasion (by no means all of course) do insist that some things, say some parables and warnings are both to be taken a certain concrete or literal manner, and to be understood a certain way and in that an absolute resonance and on it’s own without looking to the whole Gospel, other statements or parables and most of all how such an interpretation fits into the love of God as revealed in Christ (rather the Gospel and the understanding of God and His love is conditioned by the particular interpretation).

          We can think for example of the above warning to Judas, or the warning of the sin against the Holy Spirit (though if it is to be taken as some insist why did Christ bother warning the Pharisees in question, they had already called the work of the Holy Spirit the work of Beelzebub so if there was no forgiveness why bother, unless there is more to it than that and we shouldn’t take one part of a statement, teaching or scene on it’s own to understand God’s revelation in Christ and the nature and working of redemption and forgiveness). As you say hyperbole was a standard part of Our Lord’s teaching to illustrate a point, and most of the same who would insist on absolute literal understanding here would not do so concerning other hyperbolic statements such as cutting off our hands or gouging out our eyes if they offend. I haven’t seen many with their eyes put out having blinded themselves or going around one-handed, clearly they accept that here extreme hyperbolic expression not meant to be taken literally is being used to being illustrate and bring sharp clarity to a point (afterall it’s warning of Gehenna, if are to take other statements literally should they not be consistent in their interpretive approach here too). But no, we can rather obivously see it is not to be taken literally, anymore than the Messiah is as you say telling us to actually hate our mothers and fathers. A similar point could be made of the parable of the rich man ans Lazarus, there are those who insist we can only understand it as refering to the actual post-mortem situation of humanity and/or God’s Final Judgement but they are being selective wanting that be taken literally but not the nature of salvation or condemnation it depicts in the parable. Where of course Lazarus is saved because he had nothing,that alone is why he feasts at Abraham’s Bosom while the rich man had everything and didn’t give to Lazarus and finds himself in torment in Hades. Nothing is given to say Lazarus is just or even sort God’s forgiveness as such, just that God turned his ill-fortune around and he would suffered gained salvation no matter the reason for suffering. You coudl read in that he was righteous and penitent but the parable doesn’t say that, rather if we take it literally then he was saved only because he had nothing and should rightly direct everyone to live in absolute poverty since that would insure salvation. But of course Lazarus isn’t the point of the parable, the rich man is and his lack of mercy and compassion and greed and that these are destructive to himself as much as Lazarus. Which again is to say even those who insist this must be read in some manner literally aren’t consistent in this interpretive application that I have seen and acknowledge figurative and hyperbolic expressions in Christ’s teaching, nor that the Gospel should be understood from just one or two verses in isolation, particularly to understand something like how to treat our parents, whether we should go around gouging our eyes out or salvation.


        • Chittwood2 says:

          Matthew 12:30-32 Young’s Literal Translation (YLT)

          30 `He who is not with me is against me, and he who is not gathering with me, doth scatter.

          31 Because of this I say to you, all sin and evil speaking shall be forgiven to men, but the evil speaking of the Spirit shall not be forgiven to men.

          32 And whoever may speak a word against the Son of Man it shall be forgiven to him, but whoever may speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this age, nor in that which is coming.
          None of this sounds hyperbolic to me. Not in the least.
          If it were NOT possible to continuously reject the offer of forgiveness and the pleading of the Holy Spirit, then why would Christ warn anyone of this eventuality?

          I truly believe that everone has hope of reconciliation with Christ between physical death and His return in glory – even Judas Iscariot – and even men like Stalin. But I do not believe reconcilliation extends beyond the Eschaton.

          I hope that everyone who posts here is correct and that I’m wrong, but having spent decades reading the scriptures, the Fathers, the Divine Liturgies and numerous theological works I’m unconvinced that those who continuously reject Christ will be offered reconcilliation for ages upon ages upon ages upon ages, ad infinitum, until He finally, somehow overcomes their refusal.


          • Grant says:

            Again while in the end we all must come to our own conclusions I would say again to be cautious of using one saying or verse to determine the answer to which doctrine has it right on the last things and the final judgement (eternal torment, conditional immortality or universal reconciliation).

            First as Thomas Tallbott as pointed out, there are other verses and saying which equally say if we just read them on their own that all will be saved, parables that insist all will be saved, and in the end people of each side can provide their lists of proof-texts say because of this the other position is clearly wrong. In the end we either decide that the New Testament is hopelessly contradictory in which case who knows, or we will privilege one set of texts and sayings over others, they will act as our literary vantage point and key in reading the rest of the Gospels and New Testament (including the texts that seem to agree with the ones we take to be the key ones). Problem is our prior hermeneutical understanding and the particularly theological influence, bias and view will condition how we read it and which texts we take to be foundational and provide that key, which in itself leads to an impasse.

            Therefore such things cannot be decided on singular sayings or proof-texting but on a consideration of the Gospel as a whole, in light of the God revealed in Christ, in light of Pascha and considering for example John H siting Hart wrote below. Also again, as I mentioned if one is to demand that one saying must be taken literally and in an absolute manner, and as revealing a clear evidence of the failure of universalism and that some will be (or can be lost), then to be consistent it must be all taken in that manner.

            Taking in then the above teaching about the sin against the Holy Spirit, I would make a few comments, first again as I said above, why would Christ bother telling the Pharisees this, since they had already called the work of the Holy Spirit the work of Beelzebub so they had already done this, and had spoken against the Holy Spirit. What would be the point since they couldn’t be forgiven if we accept this on it’s own, is Christ being triumphalist over them, or mocking them? The sense doesn’t make sense of me if this is the case. though maybe you could argue it was for the benefit of the disciples and the crowd, but still seems a little cruel.

            We might also ask the question, to use the above translation, in this age or that which is coming, does this refer to the fullness of God’s Kingdom, the new heaven and earth, or the beginning of that age in principle, which was inaugurated in the Resurrection, though I would wonder if we should such an absolute statement (again on it’s own, to me a kind of hyperbolic absolute is being used to underscore a point, particularly as it seems to contradict other statements or nature of the Gospel as a whole, to me at least).

            But in anycase, taking this absolutely literally and as giving an unquestionable final statement on the nature of judgement (that universalism is not so, or at least potentially so) and assuming that the age to come does indeed mean solely the final state of things, than then the whole thing must be taken by those who forward this as literal to be consistent. Therefore, on this teaching, Judas is clearly saved or will be, since he did not commit this sin, and the above teaching clearly says ‘all sin and evil speaking shall be forgiven to men’ apart from evil speaking against the Holy Spirit.

            So if this is this is to to be taken as clear teaching on what is and will not be forgiven forever, and where salvation will be found, than anything else shall be forgiven, and forgiven no matter what (no condition or mention of repentance are state here). So here one must just make sure people don’t (and Judas didn’t) say evil things against the Holy Spirit, nothing else is required, however still would contradict the Lord’s Prayer, where unforgiveness would seem to prevent forgiveness, yet again, taking this on it’s own and making it decisive and determinative in our understanding of the Final Things, then that’s wrong, since ‘all sin and evil speaking shall be forgiven to men’ only evil speaking against the Holy Spirit shall not. Also the judgement of the Sheep and Goats would have the Lord contradicting Himself (in the same Gospel according to Matthew) where judgement is revealed/rendered in how we loved those in need, which was and is Christ, yet here ‘all sin’ shall be forgiven apart from evil speaking against the Holy Spirit.

            Am I being a little absurd, yes, but it’s not to get at anyone and certainly not at you, I understand where you are coming from and your struggle with this issue, and I’m not trying to force you against where your conscience says or what you believe to be the truth. However I say the above to make a point, proof-texting doesn’t really help or decide an issue or consider something such as which doctrinal position of the Dogma of Last Things (eternal torment, conditional immortality or universal reconciliation), but a whole interpretation of Scripture, of the Gospel and the nature of God as revealed in Christ, and interpreting texts such as this in that whole light and understanding, to understanding what is being said here. Is the finality as true as some would assert, I don’t believe so, but in all cases would caution against proof-texting, or insisting that something must be interpreted on one clear and apparently literal manner and taken on it’s own in both understanding and indeed deciding the situation (in this case demonstrating sins that condemn people to eternal torment without possibility of forgiveness) as then the whole thing must be in such a manner, leading to the absurd situations and contradictions I highlighted above.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            The greater hope may indeed prove wrong; but in this case we will have dreamt a God who is so much more beautiful, so much more loving, so much more powerful and glorious than the God who cannot save the obdurate and wicked. Yet how can this be possible? How can our dreams be more wonderful than reality?


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Tanner, it is an indication of the severe gravity of the matter and its repercussions. It should not be understood literally – it is a deliberate, rhetorical overstatement: for surely God, He who upholds everything at every moment, could have prevented Judas’ birth, if that were better. Why stop at Judas? God could have simply not created all of us, the whole created order. Why bother? No death, sin, pain, misery, etc. Would have been better, not just for Judas.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. John H says:

    Tanner, obviously you intend Jesus’ words to be interpreted literally, in which case the logical implication is that Judas is eternally damned. OK, let us assume that you are correct. Then consider the following argument raised by David Bentley Hart regarding the price that would be paid by an ostensibly good God and indeed the entire cohort of the Blessed in heaven if even one incorrigibly wicked soul were cast into hell forever:

    We need not imagine, in traditional fashion, that the legions of the damned will far outnumber the cozy company of the saved. Let us imagine instead that only one soul will perish eternally, and all others enter into the peace of the Kingdom. Nor need we think of that soul as guiltless, like Vanya’s helpless child, or even as mildly sympathetic. Let it be someone utterly despicable—say, Hitler. Even then, no matter how we understand the fate of that single wretched soul in relation to

    God’s intentions, no account of the divine decision to create out of nothingness can make its propriety morally intelligible. This is obvious, of course, in predestinarian systems, since from their bleak perspective, manifestly, that poor, ridiculous, but tragically conscious puppet who has been consigned to the abyss exists for no other purpose than the ghastly spectacle of divine sovereignty. But, then, for the redeemed, each of whom might just as well have been denied efficacious grace had God so pleased, who is that wretch who endures God’s final wrath, forever and ever, other than their surrogate, their redeemer, the one who suffers in their stead—their Christ? Compared to that unspeakable offering, that interminable and abominable oblation of infinite misery, what would the cross of Christ be? How would it be diminished for us? And to what? A bad afternoon? A temporary indisposition of the infinite? And what would the mystery of God becoming man in order to effect a merely partial rescue of created order be, as compared to the far deeper mystery of a worthless man becoming the suffering god upon whose perpetual holocaust the entire order of creation finally depends? …Once again who would the damned [even if just Judas alone] be but the redeemers of the Blessed, the price eternally paid be God for the sake of the Kingdom’s felicity?

    David Bentley Hart, God, Creation and Evil, Journal of Radical Orthodoxy 3, No.1 (September, 2015) at 12-13.

    So, if we take Jesus words literally, than Judas becomes our Christ and the Father becomes less than the Good as such, and so, not God as He has been conceived by classical Christianity for centuries.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Chittwood2 says:

    There is FAR more than “one verse” and there are far more opinions among the Fathers than those suggesting universal human apokatastasis.

    Posting here, a blog that’s almost entirely composed of convinced universalists, I’m actually surprised at the moderate tone used to “refute” my belief. I have no ax to grind, though I’m tempted to believe some who post here have one that prevents their objective view of the issue.

    I have a member of my immediate family who died nine years ago for whom I pray almost daily that he will come to his senses and see with true remorse how wrong he was concerning several crucial moral issues where he placed himself on the side of the ungodly. Knowing the fact that Christ isn’t looking for reasons to keep anyone outside His Kingdom but only looking for any reason to bring them in gives me hope – a hope for everyone – but I see no reason whatsoever to believe that such hope extends for all eternity since I can’t reconcile that with the Divine Liturgy itself, which is older than the New Testament. When Cranmer changed the liturgy he changed the faith for “men pray what they believe”.

    I sincerely hope that you and everyone else here are correct in your universalism. I don’t plan to post here again because I see no good reason to “spoil the party”.


    • Grant says:

      Oh I openly acknowledge that many Fathers did not advocate universalism (though it was by no means as minority a view as some would contend) and as I said above their are sayings in both Scripture and in the Liturgies that would seem to clearly on themselves advocate for either universalism or for some being lost. Ultimately how we see the full shape of the Final Judgement, and which verses, sayings and so on we privilege and take to be key and determinative in giving us keys to interpret and understand the rest of Christian revelation (including those passages that seem to conflict with our key ones, those will be conditioned by the our view and key passaged and interpreted in their light) will be decided by our larger understanding of God as revealed in Christ and the Gospel, and hermetic we bring to our experience of Christian life.

      Please don’t feel like you need to stay slient on my or anyone else’s account, I certainly don’t wish to silence you, most of my Christian experience is the opposite, as in the parish I attend pretty much all fall in some manner into affirmation of eternal torment, it’s just accepted. It certainly can difficult when you know many would think you view to be heretical, so in this blog is an unusual situation where I am maybe among the majority view point 😉 , but I certainly don’t want any to feel silenced (as I know that feeling to well). And I can’t speak for others but I don’t feel as if you are spoiling the party.

      I am sorry for the loss of your family member and the grief you and your loved ones must be going through, death is the enemy, thankfully we know it is defeated, by death He defeated death and as St Paul assures us it will be destroyed. I know this worry with my own brother’s death, when he died of cancer, he was no Christian, and in some ways was far away. But I know He was and is enfolded in the Lord’s unfailing love and mercy, and as death is defeated it cannot hold him, but that he belongs to God. I pray confidently for his salvation and healing since that is nothing less than Our Lord’s will and desire, and I know I will see him again in the resurrection and things between us will be healed. I shall pray for your releative, yourself and your family as well if don’t mind, and if you can remember my brother (his name is Sean) in one of your prayers I would be grateful.

      Anyway, whatever you decide, to continue posting or not, it has been nice interacting with you, may God bless you and keep you in Christ always.


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks to Addison Hart and you for this – new to me, as is (so far as I recall) Buchanan (unless as “Fleshly School of Poetry” critic), as is this work of Hearn (whom my great grandfather in some sense succeeded at The Cincinnati Enquirer)!

    I wonder if MacDonald knew, and anywhere writes of, him? And Williams? – as some of the imagery of the poem strikes me as inviting comparison with some in Descent into Hell (and other perhaps with some in All Hallows’s Eve).

    My guess as to the three crosses would include the idea of the reuse of them, with the grave (as Christ’s) being emphatically empty.

    I wonder if the attention to body and soul of the dead Judas is consciously related to that informing St. John of Damascus saying “Although Christ died as man, and His holy soul was separated from His spotless body, nevertheless His Godhead remained unseparated from both – from the soul and from the body” (Orthodox Faith, III.27)?

    I suspect Buchanan is consciously interacting in some way with the “Lyke-Wake Dirge” – e.g., the “whins” here and “Whinny-muir” and “whinnes” there, and “the Brig of Dread” here and “Brig o’ Dread” there – and the general Purgatorial theme, as well as “Fire and fleet and candle-lighte, / And Christe receive thy saule” there and the developed “lighted hall” here.

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