Human beings are dichotomizing creatures. We crave duality. For us, no discussion of light is complete without a discussion of darkness. No discussion of life is complete without a discussion of death. In our present context, no discussion of heroes is complete without a discussion of their villainous counterparts.
Our scriptures reflect our tendency to dualize and dichotomize. The Bible is stuffed with all sorts of villains who serve as foils to the beloved scriptural heroes we have come to venerate. What fascinates me is that, in the scriptural narratives, God’s glory is often revealed not in spite of but through the presence of malevolent characters. Moses could not liberate without a hardened, enslaving Pharaoh. Elijah could not speak truth to power without the wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. David could not show how God strengthens human weakness without the towering Philistine, Goliath.
As detestable and devilish as these and other Biblical villains are, it is impossible to imagine our scriptures without them. These figures challenge, draw out, and define the righteousness and heroism of the Bible’s holiest characters. They are not merely portraits of humanity at its worst: they are necessary components of the story of God’s power, righteousness, and redemptive love revealed among us.
There is no clearer example of this than my favorite Biblical villain, Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus to the authorities who arrested, tortured, and crucified him. For all the tragedy that surrounded and sprung from his act of treachery, Judas’ actions precipitated and facilitated the salvific sacrifice of Jesus at Golgotha. It would not be an overstatement to say that, without Judas, there would be no atonement on the cross.
Sadly, the culmination of Judas’ personal story seems to be far less uplifting than the culmination of the divine story in which he plays an integral part. Two passages in the New Testament offer accounts of what happened to Judas after he betrayed Jesus. In Matthew’s account, Judas is filled with remorse and, in despair, commits suicide.1 In Luke’s account, at the beginning of the Book of Acts, Judas is said to have suffered a spontaneous, gruesome death after his betrayal of Christ—this is perhaps intended to be interpreted as an act of divine retribution.2
In either case, at least on the surface level of the text, Judas’ life has a tragic and destructive end according to the Bible, despite the momentous effect he has had on the advent of God’s salvation. The tension here is perhaps best articulated by none other than Jesus himself, at the Last Supper:
When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve, and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” He answered, “the one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”3
Judas’ wicked actions were necessary for the Jesus to go “as it is written of him.” Meanwhile, as a consequence of these same actions, Judas himself encounters woe and destruction. On the one hand, the promise of salvific sacrifice reaches fulfillment. On the other hand, the wickedness of human treachery suffers swift, destructive retribution. Is this another dichotomy, plain and simple: victorious divine light and its corresponding vanquished darkness, in stark relief?
In my experience, we have little use for Biblical villains once they have fulfilled their wicked roles. Most of us are not actively concerned about Pharaoh and his army, hurled into the deadly depths of the Sea of Reeds. Most of us do not spend much time reflecting sadly on the brutal fate that Queen Jezebel suffered, being cast down from her window, trampled by horses, and devoured by ravenous dogs.4 Most of us do not actively pity the defeated warrior Goliath, smote down by a stone and unceremoniously beheaded after his death.5 Most of us seem content with a noose or spilled guts as the end of Judas Iscariot’s story, and if we are asked to speculate about his fate after death, we shrug and maybe mumble something about Dante’s Inferno.
And why should we do otherwise for any of these characters? Are they not denizens of the darkness which will not overcome God’s shining light? Is wickedness not absolutely blotted out in the victory of God? Is unrepentant evil not vanquished by the holy fire of goodness? Has God not set before us life and death,6 and have not these villains chosen the latter? These are questions that we Christians might feel inclined to ask about these devious characters. As I said before, we are dichotomizing creatures, and when it comes to the dichotomy between Good and Evil, it is obvious to us which side these enemies of God chose.
I, for one, am not convinced that the whole affair is quite this straightforward. And I am certainly not convinced that the God we meet in Christ Jesus is as interested in dichotomizing as we are. Indeed, it is our God who makes the sun to rise “on the evil and on the good” alike, and who sends rain both “on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”7 It is our God who “wills all human beings to be saved.”8 And it is our God who is bringing about a renewal in which “Christ is all and in all.”9
Why, then, should we not be concerned for Pharaoh and his army? Why should we not pity mauled Jezebel or beheaded Goliath? Why should we not pray for Judas Iscariot, whose very wickedness God used to bring about reconciliation between God and Humanity? Are not these and all the villains of scripture children of God? Are they not objects of God’s love? Are they not included in God’s plan of universal healing and reconciliation?
I trust that when Jesus said he came to call not the righteous, but sinners, he meant it.10 And, as John attests, when Christ was lifted on the cross, he drew all people to himself.11 We must do better than see the villains of scripture as merely wicked cogs in a machine with a righteous end. God does not use anyone as only a means to an end. Neither should we. We must wrestle with how God’s plan of salvation might encompass even these evildoers.
In this article, I intend to wrestle in this way, taking as my example none other than the tragic Biblical villain par excellence, Judas Iscariot. My thesis is simple: we must imagine Judas as redeemed, or on the path to redemption. I will draw on scripture and on ancient Christian teaching to make this theological claim. The stakes, if not already evident, are high, for discovering the potential for redemption in even Judas will teach us much about the potential for redemption within ourselves. In charting Judas’s pathway to healing, we will understand more deeply how God really can work “in all things” for the good, and how “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”12
The paradigm of a redeemed Judas will show us that even destruction and death themselves can be a part of the process by which God beckons us home and heals us, and even despair can contain the sprout of hope that will save us, though we may not yet realize it.
I understand that the claim I am making may strike some readers as overstated. I also understand that the theology I am offering in this piece may incite suspicion. I gently beseech our audience to bear with me patiently as I explore Judas’s redemption. Furthermore, I respectfully ask those readers who feel suspicious to consider whether they might be suspicious because they are wrong. The Immortal Spirit of the Living God dwells within all things13—you, me, and Judas included—and the same God, whose steadfast love endures forever,14 will gaze on us with abundant care even when we are far off,15 and will use even depravity and destruction to bring us home.
I: On Repentance (and Despair)
Most Christians would probably affirm that repentance is an important stopping-place on the path to redemption, so, in ascertaining the redemption of Judas, perhaps we should begin by seeking signs of Judas’s repentance. Happily, Matthew’s Judas is explicitly described as repenting his treacherous deeds. Here is Matthew’s account of Judas’ death, in context:
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is this to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.16
We tend to emphasize the tragic ending of this pericope, but I would rather emphasize the verb that initiates this whole episode: Judas, having betrayed Jesus, repents. The Son of Destruction17 himself regrets and disavows his destructive actions.
I anticipate that some readers with knowledge of Koine Greek will take issue with the translation from the New Revised Standard Version that I have provided above. They will doubtless say that the primary verb-of-repentance in the New Testament is μετανοέω, whose nominal form has entered English as the important theological term metanoia. But in this passage, they will say, the verb-of-repentance is not μετανοέω but a form of μεταμέλομαι, which is more accurately a verb of regret or remorse, and not of proper repentance. Readers of this persuasion probably prefer translations of Matthew 27:3 as found in, say, the New International Version:
When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.18
I have two responses to this critique. The first is that both μετανοέω and μεταμέλομαι are, literally translated, verbs that express a change of mind, judgement, or purpose. Μεταμέλομαι can be understood to signify regret, but, as The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the New Testament points out, “repent” is also a perfectly valid translation.19 Even the New International Version affirms this semantic capaciousness in its translation of a past-tense form of μεταμέλομαι in Matthew 21:32:
For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent [μετεμελήθητε] and believe him.20
It seems to me, therefore, that translations of Matthew 27 which obscure Judas’ repentant state are not simply literal renditions of an unambiguous Greek text, but rather interpretive moves that are far from theologically neutral. It is possible that we are reluctant to read repentance into this passage not because of the textual evidence itself, but because of longstanding traditions condemning Judas to eternal punishment, traditions that permeate our theological imagination and inform deeply-held biases.
A fair point, readers might respond, but then isn’t your translation of μεταμέλομαι also inflected with theological bias? Certainly. But my translational hermeneutic is bolstered by my second critique of the argument that Matthew’s Judas should not be understood as repentant: regardless of the semantic nuances of μεταμέλομαι itself, the events of this pericope as a whole demonstrate a genuine act of repentance by Judas. This would be true even if μεταμέλομαι only meant “regret.”
How might we characterize the repentance that leads to redemption in the New Testament? I posit a threefold definition: First, repentance must be characterized by regret over the sinful actions of the past. Second, it must involve an affirmation of those sins. Third, it must be fulfilled by a disavowal and turning-away-from those sins. I believe this understanding of repentance will satisfy most readers, and if it does satisfy them, I hope they will see that all facets of this definition are displayed by Judas in the pericope from Matthew 27.
Regret over past, sinful actions is obviously demonstrated by the first sentence and the regretful verb μεταμέλομαι that I have already discussed: the betrayer of Jesus sees that Jesus is condemned and is overcome with remorse. Judas goes on the explicitly affirm the sins he has committed: “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” Finally, and most compellingly, Judas exhibits a profound change in behavior in light of his regret and newfound self-knowledge. Having brought back the silver he was paid to betray Jesus, Judas casts it on the ground and leaves it behind. Judas condemns his own treachery, and in so doing, he disavows an avarice that has previously been his chief vice: readers will be right to remember the greedy Judas encountered earlier in the ministry of Jesus, who kept the common purse of Jesus’ band, but only in order to steal from it.21
Therefore, it can truly be said that the Matthaean pericope in question is an account of repentant action. It displays a Judas who, having experienced humbling and sorrowful self-knowledge, undergoes a transformation and disavows his previously held vice.
What, then, of Judas’ suicide? This is indeed a good question. The fact that Judas hangs himself suggests that he has given into despair, self-loathing, or both, even after displaying repentance, and his death gives the story a sour end. But I am not convinced that we can condemn Judas simply because he suffers from shame that becomes deadly. As I stated in the introduction, I believe that death and destruction are not insurmountable obstacles for God, and they will not prevent God from carrying out the divine plan of redemption and reconciliation for all God’s children. If anything, God can respond to rampant death and destruction bred by human wickedness in a way that employs and transforms death and destruction for the purpose of purification and liberation. But I will confront this (and the more harrowing account of Judas’ death presented in Acts) in my next section.
For now, in confronting Judas’ repentance and subsequent suicide in Matthew 27, we would do well to remember that arriving at repentance is not the same thing as achieving perfection. Furthermore, just because we think God has abandoned us does not mean that God actually has—and if we think we have fallen too far to be loved by God, we are wrong. Even “if we are faithless, Christ remains faithful: for he cannot deny himself.”22
II: On Destruction (and Our Divine Doctor)
For all my talk of Judas’ repentance and the beginnings of his transformation as presented in Matthew 27, I have barely contended with the far more harrowing account of Judas’ death presented in the Book of Acts:
Now [Judas] acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language, Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.23
Accepting this pericope as paradigmatic, rather than the narrative of Matthew 27, is obviously difficult if I am to maintain the thesis that Judas is himself rehabilitated or being rehabilitated. Here there are no notes of repentance or disavowal of sin. Judas doesn’t give up his blood money. He uses it to buy land. Having bought his prize for treachery, he dies a sudden and gruesome death that is unexplained, but that many readers have interpreted as divine retribution. Hope for Judas was debatable in Matthew 27. But here, with perverse purchases and gushed guts (and, if Dante is correct, a subsequent and certain infernal descent), hope seems utterly absent.
Thankfully, things are not always what they seem. There is actually a far more fruitful hermeneutic for this pericope, one that springs from the riches of Christian exegesis and is faithful to God’s relentless desire for universal rehabilitation as outlined in my introduction. To flesh out this hermeneutic, I will briefly turn away from Judas and return to another Biblical villain, whom we met above: the hard-hearted Pharaoh of the Book of Exodus. By drawing on an ancient Christian interpretation of the Exodus narrative, I will show how even in Pharaoh’s violent demise, we can find hope for his eventual redemption. I will apply this same hope to Judas Iscariot.
Readers will likely remember the epic conflict between Moses and Pharaoh that concludes with the famous crossing of the Sea of Reeds in Exodus 14. The Israelites have been freed from Egyptian slavery, but shortly after they strike out into the wilderness, Pharaoh changes his mind and assembles his army to retrieve his former laborers. The Israelites, terrified, are pinned between an uncrossable sea and an impending host of Egyptian chariots.
But God provides a way out, parting the Sea of Reeds and permitting the Israelites to pass through it on foot. The Egyptians, still in hot pursuit, follow the Israelites along their wondrous seafloor highway. God interferes once more, clogging the wheels of their chariots and sending the Egyptian soldiers into panic. Finally, the miraculous walls of water are collapsed, and the sea is thrown back to its proper place, spelling doom for Pharaoh and his army:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained…. Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.24
When we retell and re-encounter this story, we usually do it from the vantage point of the Israelites: newly and victoriously liberated by God’s miraculous and merciful activity and restored to faith in their Divine Deliverer. Yet the end of Exodus 14 has never sat well with me: perhaps God was indeed merciful to the Israelites. But, from the perspective of the Egyptians, God seems to have been far less than merciful. Pharaoh and the whole Egyptian army are cast ruthlessly into the sea, and the last we see of them is a host of sorry corpses, soaked and sprawled on the seashore. Yet, as with the end of Judas Iscariot (either hanging or disemboweled), we can dare to ask: does such an end befit our God of Compassion? Are the Egyptians merely means to Israel’s ends, discarded like trash by the Lord when Israel’s story has no more need of their villainous presence?
As is probably obvious, I am not satisfied with such a reading, and I believe that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding and defiant “NO!” Thankfully, I am not alone in my dissatisfaction. I am actually in the company of the preeminent Christian theologian of the third century: Origen of Alexandria, whose approach to the Bible defined medieval hermeneutics and whose thought exercised a profound influence on such architects of Christian orthodoxy as Athanasius of Alexandria, Anthony of the Desert, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and Maximus the Confessor.
In his seminal theological work On First Principles, Origen outlines a profoundly hopefully theology that trusts in God’s persistent providential action even in the darkest of circumstances. God responds to the diversity of human souls and the plethora of human evils with a cosmic economy that bends toward the healing of all: even the most wicked, even people like Pharaoh, whose heart is hardened to the very end of his life.
Origen insists that, when encountering the deaths of Biblical characters who seem to be irredeemably wicked, we should remember that “God deals with souls not with reference, let me say, to the fifty years of the present life, but with reference to the limitless age, for [God] made the intellectual being incorruptible and akin to himself, and the rational soul is not excluded from healing, as [it might seem] in this present life.”25 In other words, God is patient, and in the fulness of time, God will redeem even the souls that by their actions seem farthest from redemption. In fact, death and destruction can themselves be important waypoints on the journey to the purification and rehabilitation of sinners. Thus, Origen writes:
For souls are, as one may say, innumerable, and their dispositions are innumerable, so many as are also the movements and purposes and inclinations and impulses, of which there is only one most excellent administrator, who understands both the seasons and the appropriate aids and the paths and the ways, the God and Father of all, who knows how he guides even Pharaoh by means of great events and by drowning in the sea, at which his dispensation for Pharaoh does not end, for he was not destroyed when drowned.26
According to Origen, God is “long-suffering with certain sinners,” (such as Pharaoh) even subjecting them temporarily to the consequences of their own wickedness, but only so their eventual salvation will be more complete and will not relapse back into the corruption of sin.27 Thus, Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness is not immediately ameliorated. Origen imagines God as a dedicated and careful physician who does not rush the healing process, but rather draws out “hidden evil” slowly, through purgative forbearance, so that “the seeds of sin” may be “vomited out” in a way that purifies; having been purified, villains such as Pharaoh can attain once again to blessedness, and a more secure blessedness at that.28
Origen is steadfastly committed to human freedom, self-determination, and moral culpability, and be insists that evil comes from us, and not from God. Pharaoh’s hubris, for Origen, is the fault of Pharaoh alone. However, Origen’s commitment to God-as-Provident-Physician ensures that even the worst evil can be redeemed by God’s grace, so that destruction is transformed into medicine, and so that the grave becomes a mere waypoint on the journey, rather than a hopeless end in itself. Thus, Pharaoh’s death—the culmination and consequence of his own hubristic wickedness—becomes a purgative moment by which that same wickedness runs its course and is expunged like a plague.
I imagine that the interpretation I have just presented may seem counterintuitive, or even un-Biblical, to some readers. But the truth is that in this reading of Pharaoh’s death, we see a powerful manifestation of some of the most important theology of the New Testament. We see in Origen’s account of hard-hearted Pharaoh’s demise a resonance with Paul’s assertion in Romans 11 that God sometimes “imprisons” some people “in disobedience,” but only so that, eventually, God “may be merciful to all.”29 Perhaps Pharaoh is one such prisoner.
Furthermore, what if, we when we gaze into the deep water of the Sea of Reeds, we see the purifying flame that is at the heart of the Gospel? For, as Paul proclaims in 1 Corinthians, there will be a trial by fire in which the work of each person is tested, and the unworthy works of some will be burnt up in the blaze—but by that same purgative fire those who have done unworthy works will be saved.30 Indeed, as Mark proclaims, “everyone will be salted with fire,”31 and as Matthew and Luke proclaim, Baptism is itself a momentous act of fire and Spirit that purifies by destroying the dross of human existence.32 How else could God be expected to put “all things in subjection under [Christ’s] feet,” so that in the fulness of time “God may be all in all,”33 unless the holy blaze of God’s loving, sanctifying, and purifying fire were at work even in the watery mire of the Sea of Reeds? We can trust that, if our God is truly loving and truly providential, death itself will not hinder God’s plan of healing and salvation, and Pharaoh’s death is far from the end.
And if we say all of this of Pharaoh, we can say it of Judas Iscariot. Our reading of Acts 1 will change significantly if, when confronted with the corpse of Judas splayed out in the field he bought with the profit of his treachery, we consider that the Divine Physician has not stopped working, and that in his death God’s dispensation for Judas does not end, for he was not destroyed when he died.34 And this remains true whether we accept as paradigmatic the repentant but suicidal Judas presented by Matthew, or the unrepentant Judas presented in Acts.
Allow me to review the points I have made so far: while on the surface Judas’ end(s) as recorded in Holy Scripture may seem to be bereft of hope for redemption, we actually discover in them a profound expectation of Judas’ rehabilitation. In Matthew 27, it turns out that we meet a Judas who is repentant to the point of actually being transformed and converted from his money-grabbing ways; how wonderful that God could use even the betrayal of God’s Son to help Judas to own up to his own brokenness! Of course, the account in Matthew 27 ends with Judas’ despairing suicide, and the account in Acts 1, without even a whiff of repentance, also sees Judas die a grisly death. Yet if we take seriously God’s plan for salvation and adopt a theological paradigm maintained by Origen, we can trust that even in death, Judas is not finished; if anything, he is being purified and healed.
I can sense a nervous question dancing on the tongues of readers who follow my arguments to their logical conclusion. Hold on, they might say, if even unrepentant Judas will be healed and saved, then why not everybody else?
Why not indeed! I cannot deny my theological commitment to a universal atonement. A well-meaning Roman Catholic friend once called me an “incorrigible universalist,” and I must confess that the title is accurate. Yet I hope that perhaps readers will see me as, more than anything else, an incorrigible Christian, for I have showed in this article the scriptural basis for the hope for eventual universal salvation—even if it is to be attained, as I have mused, by the loving fire of God’s purification. Furthermore, the link between Judas’ salvation and the salvation of everybody else is precisely the connection that I hope readers will make. As the last section of my article will show, we must learn from the paradigm of Judas because we are actually in solidarity with him.
III: On Treacherous Kisses (and Other Acts of Lip Service)
I remember once reading a blogpost somewhere online that rendered the entire story of Judas as one gigantic cautionary tale: we see in Judas a treacherous, devil-possessed human being that we should pray never to become. I think this cautionary tale has permeated collective Christian consciousness ever since Dante sentenced Judas to be chewed on by Satan ad infinitum. It continues to grip us today.
I certainly do not wish to deny the value of the Judas Cautionary Tale. It is true that in Judas we see a dreadful icon of what, if we are not careful, we may yet become. Yet my ultimate contention is actually far more frightening than even this. Regardless of future things which have not yet come to pass, if we are to take seriously Judas’ story and reckon honestly with our own history, we must recognize that we are already the treacherous Judas Iscariot. We are not only able to relate to and sympathize with Judas. If we are to be honest, we must identify with him, and even the Church is not exempt from this harrowing identification.
Let us rehearse the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, by way of Matthew’s account:
While [Jesus] was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.35
Christians have long appreciated the heartbreaking dramatic beauty of this passage. By a sign which normally indicates devotion and adoration, Judas enacts self-interested spurn. By words of greeting, he bears tidings of woe. And though Jesus calls him by the title of friend, all who are present (including Jesus) know the evil that Judas has wrought.
Though it breaks my heart to say it, we could easily make the argument that Christian history, in many instances, has simply been a recapitulation of this somber moment. How many times in the history of Christendom have Christians, like Judas, paid lip-service to Christ with their words while raining evil and violence down on God’s children by their actions?
Every Native American slaughtered by Christian conquistadors: Jesus betrayed by Judas.
Every so-called “witch” ruthlessly executed by New England Puritans: Jesus betrayed by Judas.
Every Muslim, Christian, and Jewish person ruthlessly slain by medieval crusaders who sacked Jerusalem: Jesus betrayed by Judas.
Every child molested by Christians in positions of clerical authority: Jesus betrayed by Judas.
Every member of the LGBT+ community cast to the wayside by the Church, time and again: Jesus betrayed by Judas.
Every victim of every mass shooting perpetrated by American, white-supremacist, Christian terrorists: Jesus betrayed by Judas.
Every child at the American border separated from their parents by a government filled with devout Christians: Jesus betrayed by Judas.
Every homeless person we ignore every day as we traverse Harvard Square: Jesus betrayed by Judas.
The very earth itself, held in Christ’s body and filled with Christ’s presence,36 but desecrated by over-use of fossil fuels and destruction of all kinds of ecosystems: Jesus betrayed by Judas.
Need I continue this tragic litany? I imagine I would fail to exhaust the list of our many treacheries, even if I tried. And lest anyone mistake my list for affected poetizing, allow me to point out just how literally true these examples are by way of Christ’s own words: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my family, you did it to me.”37
We must abandon the alluring lie that the legacy of Judas is an evil by which we are not yet tainted. We have already betrayed, and continue to betray, Jesus. Often, we betray him multiple times every day! By our words; by our actions; by our wrath and judgement; by our apathy and abandonment, we turn Christ over to violence and injustice over and over. Judas is far more than the wayward protagonist of a frightening cautionary tale. He is an icon of ourselves. We must realize—and the Church must realize—that we already stand before the High Priest with blood-silver in our hands. Some of us already stand in the field we have bought with it, unrepentant, but bound someday to fall headlong.
This formidable darkness is hard to accept, but it is undeniably, agonizingly real. Yet I write none of this intending to send us spiraling into despair. In fact, my intention is quite the opposite: I want to exhort us to profound hope, for if we can come to see that Judas does not foil God’s plans for redemption, then will we come to see that we have not foiled God either. No darkness is too dark for God to illumine with light. No hatred is too hateful for God to transform with love. No death is too deadly for God to enliven with resurrection. No sin is too sinful for God to redeem by grace.
We learn two things, then, from the paradigm of the redeemed Judas: first, that it is not too late for us to cast down the silver coins and disavow the treacheries of the past, for God is still beckoning us home and God still loves us with an infinite, indefatigable love; and secondly, even if we do not cast away the silver—even if we use the profit of our treachery for our own selfish gain—even then, God will not be confounded. We will simply have much left to learn, and much sickness left to be healed. Yet God is healing, and as we learned from Origen, death will not dampen God’s providence for us. For true power lies not in death, but in our loving Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, and this Triune God has sent out “in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.’”38
Blessed people, we have not beaten God. Nor will we. There may be dreadful trouble in the world. There always will be. But Christ has already overcome it.39 His is the glory and victory, the triumph in which death itself is swallowed up; and God’s good pleasure is to give this same victory to us.40 Even now, Christ speaks to us, and to Judas, just as Joseph spoke to his brothers who betrayed him: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”41
God really can handle all of our darkness and wickedness, transforming it and using it for Good. Judas intended treachery and division, but God intended union and reconciliation. In the face of all our treacheries, this union and reconciliation is still God’s intention: one new Creation, “one New Humanity,” a renewal of the universe in which Christ “is all and in all”42 and no one—not even those we think are despicable villains—is left out. Judas is not abandoned by God’s healing love. Neither is Pharaoh. Neither are Ahab and Jezebel. Neither are you and me.
That we may come to see and trust in God’s healing work of salvation, which extends throughout all creation to every single one of God’s children, you and me and Judas included, and which will not cease until God’s loving will is done, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and honor for ever and ever. Amen.
Aidan Luke Stoddart ‘21 is a Comparative Study of Religion concentrator in Eliot House.
|↑1||See Matthew 27:3-5.|
|↑2||See Acts 1:15-20.|
|↑4||2 Kings 9:30-37.|
|↑5||1 Samuel 17:48-51.|
|↑6||See Deuteronomy 30:19.|
|↑8||1 Timothy 2:4.|
|↑10||See Mark 2:17.|
|↑11||See John 12:32. The Greek verb used in this verse, ἑλκύσω, could easily be translated “I will drag” instead of “I will draw,” which to my mind speaks rather appropriately to those of us who are redeemed very reluctantly!|
|↑12||Romans 8:28, 37-39.|
|↑13||See Wisdom 12:1.|
|↑14||See Psalm 136.|
|↑15||See Luke 15:20.|
|↑16||Matthew 27:3-5, nrsv.|
|↑17||See John 17:12.|
|↑18||Matthew 27:3, niv.|
|↑19||See the Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised, edited by Harold K. Moulton (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1977), 266.|
|↑20||Matthew 21:32, niv.|
|↑21||See John 12:6.|
|↑22||2 Timothy 2:13.|
|↑24||Exodus 14:26-38; 30-31, nrsv.|
|↑25||Origen, On First Principles, translated by John Behr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 327. Sadly, I do not have the space here to dive into the curious and capacious treasury of Origenian metaphysics and theological anthropology that lies behind this quotation; but Behr’s excellent translation and commentary is a rich resource for those who are curious to learn more about this ancient Alexandrian exegete. Suffice it to say that the “intellectual beings” made akin to God’s self are people like us, molded in the image of God (see Genesis 1:26) and called into communion with their Creator.|
|↑29||Romans 11:32, nrsv.|
|↑30||See 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.|
|↑31||Mark 9:49, nrsv.|
|↑32||See Luke 3:15-18, Matthew 3:11-12.|
|↑33||1 Corinthians 3:10-15.|
|↑34||I borrow this slightly edited phrase from the Origen passage quoted above.|
|↑36||See Colossians 1:15-20, Ephesians 1:22-23.|
|↑37||Matthew 25:40, nrsv.|
|↑39||See John 16:33.|
|↑40||See 1 Corinthians 15:54-57.|
|↑41||Genesis 50:20, nrsv.|
|↑42||See Ephesians 2:16, Colossians 3:11.|