A number of years ago, the local Baptist Church put on an amazing Last Supper Pageant. As live music played and spotlights turned the upper room into the world’s stage, twelve impassioned actors examined their very souls and wondered, “Am I the one?” Even as Jesus was dipping the fateful piece of bread to hand to Judas Iscariot, the other disciples realized that not one of them was pure: all of them, in one way or another, had let their teacher down.
“Do quickly what you are going to do.” In a kind of ironic counterpoint to the language of ordination, Judas becomes the one set apart, not for service to God, but for God's betrayal. Others may have betrayed Jesus in small ways, but Judas Betrayed the Lord in Big Ways. Judas did not just deny Jesus or desert him; he handed him over to the authorities who would so cruelly take his life. Dante puts Judas in the very bowels of Hell, the lowest of the low, below Brutus and Cassius who betrayed Rome. For all eternity, Judas is devoured by Satan, the skin on his back flayed by the devil’s implacable claws. This is a strange gloss upon the myths of the heavenly goddess Nut swallowing the Egyptian sun at day’s end so that he may be born more gloriously than before the next morning, upon Cronos, father time, swallowing his children, thinking he can stop them, only to have them reborn as the gods and goddesses of Mt. Olympus. Is Judas really so safely removed in Hell? Is betrayal more powerful than resurrection? And if even evil can be resurrected, wherein lies our hope?
Such was the horror of the ancient church toward Judas that the first theologians declared that he could never be redeemed, never transformed, never saved. Jesus became not only savior, but jailer, saving us from the worst evils, keeping Satan and his minions irrevocably damned in Hades. It was easier that way, to get rid of evil once and for all and threaten people with eternal damnation. But we know that Hell is not a safe prison at all, because evil crops up all the time. More damage has been done to our souls by threatening us with eternal punishment than anything I can think of. If I'm already lost, then why should I even try to find the good?
People like to paint Judas as somehow the agent of fate, a much needed cog in the inexorable machinery that brings Jesus to the Cross for a Mel Gibson extravaganza of saving violence. Judas and Pilate are often bundled into a doctrine called felix culpa, “happy guilt.” Though they themselves are evil, God uses their evil to bring salvation to the world. Fate, predestined, a done deal.
The only problem here is that Fate was the state religion of Ancient Rome, not a teaching of the Church. Grace is a Christian teaching. Free will is a Christian teaching. Grace and free will break through the illusion of fate, like hands parting a filmy curtain. The only way I can say accurately that Jesus was fated to suffer and die is to acknowledge that as a human being there were three sufferings he could not escape, because no human can escape them: the suffering of birth, the suffering of sickness, the suffering of death. St. Paul understood that the cross was a terrible form of deliverance when he wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (2:7-8)
What if Judas is less a scapegoat than sign? What if Jesus invited evil into his inner circle in order to reveal it? In John's Gospel, evil is almost always depicted as night, as darkness, which is to say, evil arises when we are ignorant of what we are capable, or worse, if we deny it. If he does nothing else, Judas shows me that I cannot escape my own dark side any more than I can escape God. Which is why I suspect that no Hell is forever, no matter what Dante might say.
Still, it is impossible to live in this age of Darfur, Rwanda, the AIDS crisis, Auschwitz, the Killing Fields, ethnic cleansing, prison camps, torture, crippling ideologies and midnight arrests and disappearances and not wonder about the problem of evil, to seek, somehow, to contain it, as Dante contained Judas Iscariot in the lowest reaches of the underworld. The world's atrocities are too much to deal with. I want to think that they might be cast into the outer darkness and never come back.
But they do, even as every year, Holy Week comes back and makes me face things I would rather not face. Who is the God I serve, the God of life or the God of death? I think this may be what Jesus asks Judas. It may be Judas’ faith in the power of death rather than his betrayal that destroys his soul. Others betrayed Jesus and repented. By killing himself, Judas gave no one time to forgive him. I wonder had he managed to live through it all, I wonder whether even he might have found new life.