Is There Really Hope for Judas?

My fear is that just as the Devil used Judas to thwart the Savior, Judas is now being similarly used to revise the traditional doctrine of salvation, particularly in its teaching about divine mercy.

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

These last few Maundy Thursdays, my feed has been populated by various musings presenting Judas as a pitiable figure who may not be in hell after all. I thought it rather diabolical that a day of sympathy for our Lord is now turning into a day of sympathy for His betrayer. But as I considered this transformation or, rather, deformation, I saw that sympathy for Judas is about far more. It is about the redefinition of divine mercy.

This year’s reconsideration of Judas was sparked at least in part by an article at Catholic Answers, this time by apologist Jimmy Akin. Titled “Hope for Judas?” it opens with Akin confessing that he “used to be” among those who thought Judas to be in Hell. 

While he admits this was the overwhelming opinion throughout history, he thinks recent remarks by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI suggest this traditional consensus does not rise to the level of infallible teaching. Of course, this is both because Judas’ fate is not a matter of faith and morals and because the Church refuses to identify the damned.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

As Akin’s article made its way around, collecting more commendations than critical commentary, I foolishly abandoned my usual policy of not engaging in social media debates. I remarked that, in my view, the attempt to turn Judas from an example of perdition into an example of the liberality of divine mercy has more to do with the modern preoccupation with deconstruction of tradition through exploitation of extremes and exceptions than a genuine interest in the truth about his fate. 

My fear, in other words, is that just as the Devil used Judas to thwart the Savior, Judas is now being similarly used to revise the traditional doctrine of salvation, particularly in its teaching about divine mercy. 

Historically, or, as I prefer, traditionally, divine mercy was the reason why humans can face up to their sin and accept full responsibility. Precisely because God is merciful, we can entrust ourselves wholly to Him, faults and all. We can accept whatever discipline He deems just and we can own our mistakes with the hope of redemption. 

Today, however, divine mercy seems to be increasingly associated with a different implication. Today,  divine mercy often occasions a kind of quest to discover all the excuses humans have for not living the moral standard and to elaborate human inculpability. Divine mercy now seems to be about how humans can’t be blamed. 

Let’s survey briefly what has been the traditional interpretation of Judas up until the twentieth century. The ancient and medieval Church decidedly did not see Judas as a sympathetic figure, nor did it seize upon his suicide as an opportunity to expose the wideness of divine mercy. 

Rather Judas was regularly cast as a negative example of hypocrisy, avarice, and despair. He was above all a pawn of Satan who had, in the words of Pope St. Leo the Great an “evil heart…given up to thievish frauds, and busied with treacherous designs.” Such a heart made him deaf to the teaching of the Lord on divine mercy. Indeed, St. Augustine made it clear that Satan’s possession of Judas upon his reception of the first Eucharist recounted in John 13 was but the culmination of the “enormous wickedness already conceived in his heart.” It was reason to beware of receiving grace with ingratitude and a sinful spirit. 

The Catechism of the Council of Trent uses Judas as an example of false penance. Penance, it is taught, is the virtue which moderates sorrow over sin. Judas is an example of one who had false penance, because he despaired over his sin and lost all hope of salvation. True penance returns us to God and trusts in His mercy.

In Book IV of his treatise on Divine Love, St. Francis de Sales treated Judas under the heading of the “decay and ruin of charity.” According to the “Doctor of Love,” the problem with Judas is that he never sought the perfection of love for God and remained in imperfect love. This is why his return of the money and suicide were fatally misguided.

Many more examples of this tradition could be produced, but let us bring our overview up to modern times with Venerable Fulton Sheen. On one occasion, he used the example of Judas to reflect upon those priests who abandon their vocation. While noting that avarice was a contributing factor in Judas’ fall, Sheen ultimately concluded that Judas’ rejection of Jesus in the Eucharist led to his betrayal. 

Mind you, these traditional ecclesiastics and theologians were not just cranks and rigid moralists, pharisaically delighting in the sin of others. Their views of Judas were shaped by the most natural reading of key biblical texts. Chief among them are the words of Jesus who declared that it would have been better for Judas if he had never been born (Matthew 26:24) and that Judas was “the son of perdition” who was the only Apostle whom He had lost (John 17:12). 

Nowhere do the Scriptures present Judas as pitiable. Instead, Judas is described as a scoundrel who got what he deserved.  Nowhere do the Scriptures present Judas as pitiable. Instead, Judas is described as a scoundrel who got what he deserved. Tweet This

This is perhaps best seen in the narrative of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha in John 12. This is the famous story of Mary pouring a pound of pricey perfume on Jesus’ feet. Judas objected to this and complained that the perfume should have been sold instead so that the proceeds could have been given to the poor. The Evangelist uses the opportunity to inform his readers that this Judas is “he who was to betray Him” (John 12:4), and he observes that Judas objected not because he cared for the poor “but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to take what was put into it” (John 12:6). 

Given the great weight of this tradition, why is it becoming increasingly popular to sympathize with Judas and come up with excuses for his behavior that ultimately make him ripe for divine mercy? I submit there is something of a new gospel afoot today, what we’ll call the new gospel of Judas (with apologies to the ancient, heretical Gospel of Judas). 

The core tenet of this new gospel, it seems, is that divine mercy means we never have to be held fully accountable for our sins. Rather, divine mercy allows us to see that our culpability is always diminished. It is a gospel of divine pity and pardon rather than a gospel of reconciliation and regeneration.

In his article, Akin doesn’t take the time to respond to the traditional interpretation of Judas’ suicide as false repentance and despair. Instead, he sees it as evidence of a different interpretation, namely, that Judas was so overwhelmed with grief that “he wasn’t fully responsible for his suicide…” This allowed him to conclude that we can hope that God’s mercy might even extend to Judas. 

In the ensuing conversation, this kind of reasoning became a popular refrain. People seemed to think that if we really hold Judas to account we are being too hard on him, that we are not having appropriate compassion for what he might have been going through or how he might not have fully understood things. 

What is most interesting to me, however, is how all of this seemed to be associated with belief in a merciful God. When pressed, people argued that believing Judas was in hell, or even just talking about how he shouldn’t be viewed as a sympathetic case, was tantamount to rejecting God’s mercy. 

I took this view to the traditional Triduum liturgies, open to the suggestion that perhaps I was skeptical because I was unmerciful. Maybe I ought to have more understanding for Judas and hope for his salvation. 

What struck me, however, was the impression those liturgies give of the human standing before God. In those liturgies, the faithful are called upon to be fully frank about their faults. There is an uncompromising admission of human unworthiness and shame. This means, first and foremost, being utterly sorry and sorrowful for one’s sins.

The liturgies put the faithful in this posture, not to beat them down or make them feel worthless. They do this to make them come to terms with their actions and their eternal significance. The liturgies press us to be contrite and penitent. They strip us of excuses and rationalizations. They demand that we face our failures and own up to them, accepting full responsibility.  Nowhere do they allow the faithful to look at themselves as pitiable or hapless. Nowhere do they give them reason to bank on their inculpability. 

At the same time, it is clear that this kind of honesty and utter contrition is made possible by God’s mercy itself. God’s mercy is understood to be the very thing that allows us to be liberated from the desire to hide behind our excuses and attempts to minimize our blame. We can be honest about what we have done because God is merciful. God’s mercy, in other words, is the very reason why we can accept blame and surrender ourselves trustingly to divine judgment. 

The impression provoked by this new gospel of Judas, however, is quite different. Far from emboldening us to take on greater responsibility, this view leaves us wallowing in our excuses and evacuations of responsibility. It has us come before God feeling not unworthy and remorseful so much as incapable and inculpable; not so much sorrowful as sniveling. God’s mercy here means that we are allowed to rationalize and offer our excuses rather than accept responsibility and discipline.

Like the ancient Gospel of Judas, the new gospel of Judas wants to transform our understanding of Judas and make him a sympathetic figure. But the new gospel of Judas wants us to do this not by revising the facts about who Judas is and what he did but by revising the meaning of divine mercy. 

Meant to relieve us of the frightful full admission of our faults and liability to divine punishment, it leaves us clinging to our excuses and self-pity. It is not about hope for Judas or for ourselves so much as relief that God will never hold us accountable for our sins because we really can’t be blamed. Sympathy for Judas ends up being sympathy for our own sinfulness, allowing us to hang ourselves with the same kind of disbelief in reconciliation and change.

[Image: The Kiss of Judas by Giotto]


  • James R.A. Merrick

    James R.A. Merrick holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and is a former Anglican minister who was received into the Catholic Church in 2017. He has taught theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, St. Francis University, and Grand Canyon University. He is the co-editor of Engaging Catholic Doctrine with Scott Hahn and Bishop Barron.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...