Rorate Caeli

Damned Lies: On the Destiny of Judas Iscariot

From the traditional Collect for Holy Thursday (Missale Romanum 1962), it is clear past all doubt that the centuries-old lex orandi of the Church teaches that Judas is lost, condemned forever to the fires of hell: 

O God, from whom Judas received the punishment of his guilt, and the thief the reward of his confession: grant unto us the full fruit of Thy clemency; that even as in His Passion our Lord Jesus Christ gave to each retribution according to his merits, so having cleared away our former guilt, he may bestow on us the grace of His resurrection: Who with Thee liveth and reigneth…

This conclusion was once taken for granted by everyone. Why, then, do so many people nowadays say that we “do not know” about Judas’s final destiny? To show that I am not exaggerating, take the former Father Thomas Williams of the Legionaires of Christ, in a ZENIT interview:

Historically, many have thought that Judas is probably in hell, because of Jesus’ severe indictment of Judas: “It would be better for that man if he had never been born,” as he says in Matthew 26:24. But even these words do not offer conclusive evidence regarding his fate. In his 1994 book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II wrote that Jesus’ words “do not allude for certain to eternal damnation.”

The Witness of Scripture

But does this position make any sense? Consider it, first, simply from the Scriptural evidence. Our Lord says: “The Son of man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of man shall be betrayed: it were better for him, if that man had not been born” (Mt 26:24). Now, of a man who falls into mortal sin but then repents—such as Peter, who also betrayed Christ, or Saul, who persecuted Jesus by hunting down Christians—it is impossible to say “it were better for him if he had not been born,” that is, “if he had never existed at all.” For it is only those who are condemned to suffer eternally the unspeakable torments of hell of whom it can be said with any truth: it were better for them if they had never existed. On the contrary, a mortal sinner who repents brings joy to the angels (Lk 15:10) and inherits the kingdom of heaven; he is not an object of “woe,” and it is eminently good that such a man be born, for he can then assume an office like that of the first Pope or of the Apostle to the Gentiles, and after death he will enjoy the beatific vision forever. So the only way Jesus’ words can be true is if Judas is lost due to unrepented mortal sin.

All this squares, of course, which what is narrated of Judas’s death: “And casting down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed: and went and hanged himself with a halter” (Mat 27:5)—that is, he made a gesture of despair, and then committed suicide, which is a mortal sin. Such an end was fitting to the only close follower of Jesus characterized in the Gospels as given over to the devil: “And Satan entered into Judas, who was surnamed Iscariot, one of the twelve” (Lk 22:3); “And after the morsel, Satan entered into him” (Jn 13:27).

Saint Peter bears witness to this understanding of Judas’s death and damnation in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles:

Men, brethren, the scripture must needs be fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who was the leader of them that apprehended Jesus: who was numbered with us, and had obtained part of this ministry. And he indeed hath possessed a field of the reward of iniquity, and being hanged, burst asunder in the midst: and all his bowels gushed out. … For it is written in the book of Psalms: Let their habitation become desolate, and let there be none to dwell therein. And his bishopric let another take. (Act 1:16-20)

After two candidates are put forth, Joseph and Matthias, the account continues:

And praying, they said: Thou, Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, to take the place of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas hath by transgression fallen, that he might go to his own place. (Act 1:24-25)

The first Pope argues that Judas, by his transgression, fell away from the apostleship forever. Note that Judas was the only apostle whose place had to be filled after his death. When James was killed by Herod (Acts 12:2), Peter and the others did not appoint another man as a James substitute. There were successors to the apostles (and many more than twelve of them!), but no other replacements. Ultimately, all of the original eleven together with Matthias left this world in death to become the everlasting foundations of the heavenly Jerusalem: “And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them, the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev 21:14). Put simply, an apostle who died in a state of grace is an apostle forever, irreplaceable, going to his reward as a perrmanent foundation stone of the Church. This can only mean that Judas, who had to be replaced, died in sin and lost his ministry and apostleship forever. He went “to his own place,” that is, the place that befitted him: hell.

The Witness of Fathers and Doctors

This conclusion, which squares so well with the Scriptural evidence, is found throughout the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Of countless testimonies, a few examples will suffice. Pope St. Leo the Great teaches that Judas never repented of his grave sin—that he committed suicide out of despair, adding guilt to guilt:

The traitor Judas did not attain to this mercy, for the son of perdition (Jn. 17:12), at whose right hand the devil had stood (Ps. 108:6), had before this died in despair; even while Christ was fulfilling the mystery of the general redemption. Even he perhaps might have obtained this forgiveness, had he not hastened to the gallowstree; for the Lord died for all evildoers. But nothing ever of the warnings of the Saviour’s mercy found place in that wicked heart: at one time given over to petty cheating, and then committed to this dread parricidal traffic. … The godless betrayer, shutting his mind to all these things [expressions of the Lord’s mercy], turned upon himself, not with a mind to repent, but in the madness of self-destruction: so that this man who had sold the Author of life to the executioners of His death, even in the act of dying sinned unto the increase of his own eternal punishment. (Sermon 62, De passione Domini XI [PL 54], in The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, vol. 2, p. 183)

St. Augustine holds exactly the same view:

For if it is not lawful to take the law into our own hands, and slay even a guilty person whose death no public sentence has warranted, then certainly he who kills himself is a homicide. … Do we justly execrate the deed of Judas, and does truth itself pronounce that by hanging himself he rather aggravated than expiated the guilt of that most iniquitous betrayal, since, by despairing of God’s mercy in his sorrow that wrought death, he left to himself no place for a healing penitence? … For Judas, when he killed himself, killed a wicked man, and passed from this life chargeable not only with the death of Christ, but also with his own: for though he killed himself on account of his crime, his killing himself was another crime. (The City of God, Bk. I, ch. 17)

From the Eastern tradition, we have St. Ephrem the Syrian:

Judas was the treasurer of his [Satan’s] poison,
And although Satan’s form is hidden,
In Judas he is totally visible;
Though Satan’s history is a long one,
It is summed up in the Iscariot.  (Hymns of Paradise XV, p. 187)

And St. Ephrem once again:

O! of how many good things, of what joy are we deprived, when we are without charity? Judas scorned it, and he left the company of the Apostles. Abandoning the True Light, His own Master, hating his brethren, he walked out into the darkness. Because of this Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, says: “Judas hath by transgression fallen, that he might go to his own place” (Acts 1:25). And again John the Divine: “He that hateth his brother, he says, is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not where he goeth; because the darkness hath blinded his eyes” (1 Jn 2:11).  (ed. Vossio, S. Eph., Tome 1, Sermo 5, on Matt. 11:29)

St. Thomas Aquinas writes: “To save Judas would … be contrary to [God’s] foreknowledge and disposition, by which He prepared for him eternal punishment; hence it is not the order of justice [as such] that renders impossible Judas’s salvation, but the order of eternal foreknowledge and disposition” (In IV Sent., dist. 46, qu. 1, art. 2, qa. 2, ad 3), and says matter-of-factly:

As the use of grace is related to the final effect of predestination, so the abuse of it is related to the effect of reprobation. Now, in the case of Judas, the abuse of grace was the reason for his reprobation, since he was made reprobate because he died without grace. Moreover, the fact that he did not have grace when he died was not due to God’s unwillingness to give it but to his unwillingness to accept it—as both Anselm and Dionysius point out. (De veritate, q. 6, art. 2, obj. 11: this part of the objection Thomas holds as true.)

And the Seraphic Virgin St. Catherine of Siena, in her usual no-nonsense way, does not beat around the bush:

This is the sin which is never forgiven, now or ever: the refusal, the scorning, of my mercy. For this offends me more than all the other sins they have committed. So the despair of Judas displeased me more and was a greater insult to my Son than his betrayal had been. Therefore, such as these are reproved for this false judgment of considering their sin to be greater than my mercy, and for this they are punished with the demons and tortured eternally with them. (The Dialogue, n. 37, Paulist ed., p. 79)

It should seem obvious that Judas is lost, for two reasons: first, the words of Jesus make no sense otherwise; second, he is depicted as killing himself in despair, which is a mortal sin (despair, one of the worst) leading to another mortal sin (suicide). The Church in the past did not even allow suicides to be buried in church grounds because it was taken for granted that anyone who could hate the gift of life enough to snub it out obviously could not have the love of God in his heart. Nowadays we are more attentive to the psychological confusion and anarchy that many people, especially in the modern world, can be trapped in, but this does not make suicide neutral or inoffensive. It remains objectively the gravest sin against human life, because it is a sin directed against the person’s very own life, for which he has been given the deepest natural love (“love your neighbor as yourself”). The one who commits suicide in a state of despair is rejecting the very basis for the love of any other person, human or divine.

Contemporary Theology

Let us return to contemporary theology. If it is possible that Judas is not in hell, would there not be an equally good reason to ask, quite sincerely, if anyone is in hell? This brings us, of course, to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s infamous question: “Dare we hope that all men be saved?”

In answering his question affirmatively, Balthasar makes a mockery of the whole sweep of unanimous Christian commentary on the Gospels from the apostolic age onwards and calls into question something that, for anyone who reads the very words of the Gospels and Epistles, would be a certainty: that there is a hell and that souls do go down to it—Judas’s and vastly many more, as Our Lady of Fatima showed the children. 

Given his own legerdemain, had Balthasar any right to complain when his contemporaries went about deconstructing the Gospels and the life of Christ? He himself had taken a doctrine that is utterly clear in its meaning—no empty threats of eternal punishment, but the really existing thing being spoken of as quite real and utterly certain for all who do not repent—and made it liquid, open-ended, full of question-marks. Once this sort of sophistical maneuvering is admitted, what happens to the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection or even the Divinity of Christ?

We are dealing here with just one more instance of how the Church today has gotten utterly confused by relativistic modern thinking instead of following in the hallowed footsteps of the great Fathers and Doctors. Those who are blessed to assist at the traditional Latin Mass are formed by the sound and stable doctrine with which the liturgy is suffused and to which it gives accurate and perennial witness. The preaching associated with the ancient Mass more often than not contains salutary reminders that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, that we should fear not the one who can destroy the body but the One who can condemn the soul, that our eternal destiny is eternal happiness or endless misery. 

In the ambit of the Mass of the ages, the lunacy of denying that there are many souls in hell, and more joining them each day, is nowhere to be found. We do not change the liturgy to suit our changing theology, cutting and pasting, scribbling and scratching out. Rather, we gratefully receive and humbly accept all that is handed down to us in the sacred liturgy—all of it, including the Collect for Holy Thursday. Tradition is our stable ground, our faithful interpreter of the Gospel of Christ the Lord.