Is there Enough Mercy for Judas?

Illustration by Gustave Dore.
The final circle in Dante’s Inferno. Illustration by Gustave Dore.

Few biblical characters loom as large in our imagination as Judas Iscariot. The theological problem posed by Judas and his motivations have spilled oceans of ink, whether in the Gnostic sects that hailed him or among Luther, Calvin, and Erasmus as they debated whether Judas was predestined to doom, or had a choice and could have avoided his betrayal.

This theological question carries over into Judas’s wide-ranging artistic incarnations. There is the Judas who sits in the mouth of the devil in the final circle of Dante’s Inferno. Or, there is the Judas who is told by Jesus to hand him over in The Last Temptation of Christ. We also have the Judas who betrays Jesus for fear of his life and the lives of others in Jesus Christ Superstar.  In Jesus of Nazareth, we find a Judas who caves to the temptation whispered to him by the fictional Zerah, trying to force Jesus’s hand into a bold gesture of Jewish liberation. Or, my person favorite, the Judas singing against the injustice of the rich in a Vaudevillian counterpoint to Jesus’s assurance of blessings in Godspell.

Countless other characters have stood in as ciphers for the Judas problem, from the relationship of the “whiskey priest” and “the Mestizo” in The Power and the Glory, to Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. We are fascinated by the mechanics of betrayal. We are plagued by the implication. If someone who should have known — someone who stood and witnessed the miracles we can only learn about millennia after the fact — if that person can betray Jesus, what hope would we have?

Though the Catholic Church does not list people who have been damned, popular imagination suggests that Judas’s place in hell is a safe bet. I am not so sure. I have long wondered whether we can really draw such boundaries around the forgiveness that God offers, around the mercy that God pours over God’s people.

Judas returns the silver pieces, by Rembrandt (1628).
Judas returns the silver pieces, by Rembrandt (1628).

It is easy to speak of mercy for those we deem deserving. We want mercy for the Jean Valjeans of this world, who are forced into criminal acts out of desperation. Or we seek mercy for those who can somehow prove their repentance for sin — as the recent example of Kelly Gissendaner’s execution in Georgia. It is harder to find that mercy for those we vilify.

A friend recently sent me an article about Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz. The piece tells the story of how Höss took an entire community of Jesuits (save their superior) into Auschwitz and held them there. The superior, Fr. Władysław Lohn, S.J., sought to join his brothers, but was caught in the camp and thrown out by Hoss.

Much later, imprisoned after the end of the War, Höss had a conversion experience in large part from the mercy he received from his polish jailkeepers. He sought out a priest for confession, but being imprisoned in Poland (a place still politically volatile following the war), no priests would come to him — except Lohn. Lohn, whose brothers and friends had been killed at Höss’s command, came and heard his confession, showed him mercy, and granted him absolution. 

And that example is but a small drop, compared to the mercy that God may grant.

By Nikolai Ge - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,
“Das Gewissen, Judas” (English: Conscience, Judas). By Nikolai Ge (1891).

But Judas is different, you might argue. Judas shows no signs of repentance. Judas died before he sought reconciliation.

Over the “ordinary” days of Holy Week, the daily Gospel readings have featured Judas heavily. He objects to the expense of perfume with which Mary washes Jesus’s feet (Jn 12:1-11), and then is sent out by Jesus with the words “What you are going to do, do quickly” (Jn 13:27). Finally, in Matthew’s Gospel today, we see Judas both receive his silver (Mt 26:14-16) and still have the bravado to ask, “Surely, it is not I, Rabbi?” at the Passover dinner where Jesus announces his immanent betrayal (Mt 26:25). Through these readings we set the liturgical stage for the Triduum, for the drama of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The drama of our faith was initiated by this character whose name is synonymous with villain: Judas Iscariot.

Though overall the Gospels offer a negative portrayal of Judas, they vary enough in the details that it is hard to assert anything definitively about Judas as a historical figure. In John, he is described as a thief who steals money from the group’s coffer (Jn 12:6). But, in Matthew, we see he him return the silver he was given for his betrayal (Mt 27:3). In Luke, Judas is driven to make his deal when Satan “enters him” (Lk 22:3). The motivations across all four texts are complex, at times even contradictory.   

Even more contradictory are the two descriptions of how Judas died. In Matthew, Judas eventually hangs himself after the thirty pieces of silver are returned. And yet, in the Lukan Acts of the Apostles, Judas “bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out” (Acts 1:18).

No doubt these are both gruesome, punishing ends for Judas. But their contradictory existence speaks to more than vengeance or punishment. They show that we do not actually know what happened to Judas, to the man who turned Jesus over to the authorities. We have only speculation. We may reasonably believe that his relationship with the Apostles ceased; but we do not know, cannot know what that means for his relationship to Jesus, to God.

I think, in not knowing Judas’s end, in the Catholic refusal to assign people to Hell, that we can find a little hope, and a lot of mercy. That we know no one’s soul at the end of their lives, that God’s mercy may be granted to anyone: a Nazi commandant, Judas Iscariot — even me.

So, I want to offer another Judas for our imagination, though I cannot say this one has grounding in Scripture. Tradition speaks of Peter waiting for us at the gates of Heaven, so perhaps Judas waits at the door to Purgatory.

And when I pass, and I make my way to Purgatory (because I am sure that, no matter how hard I try, I will not be ready for the beatific vision when death comes), I hope to see this Judas — Judas, the beneficiary of God’s endless mercy, endless willingness to forgive. A Judas who tells me, “You and I — we both chose sin instead of love, dark instead of light. This purification will be hard, and it may be painful, but you can come through it. I did it — so can you.”

Such is the wonder of God’s mercy.