Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve Apostles, and the one who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, has become a byword in English for a betrayer.
None of us is a stranger to betrayal. It is a particularly painful experience because it comes at the hand of someone we trusted; someone we thought would look out for us; someone we loved, and believed loved us. We must consider that one of the sufferings that constitute Jesus’ passion must have been that he was betrayed by one of his close friends, a member of his inner circle.
For my Holy Week devotions this year I have been reading At The Cross: Meditations on People Who Were There by Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart (IVP, 1999), two fine scholars from the University of St Andrews. I highly recommend it.
Their meditation on Judas is particularly insightful. Although they admit that Judas’ deed was a dark one (“there is no getting Judas off the hook”), they assert the paradox that his betrayal was a necessary act: “The structure of the Gospel plot demands it.”
And it is quite true that Jesus speaks repeatedly, not only that he will experience death, but that he will “be given up” to death. So Judas is the instrument of that happening, and therefore an important player in the narrative of the passion, what I like to call “the drama of redemption.”
But though Judas plays his part in the drama, the Christian tradition has pretty consistently painted him to be an utterly despicable character. I have been ruminating on this, since it raises many questions, some of which I will leave to others to address.
But with the help of Bauckham and Hart, I have two thoughts to share about his role.
The first is Judas’ solidarity with all of humanity. We are all, to some degree or another, betrayers. There are the big betrayals, of course, like marital infidelity or financial shenanigans like the recent ones by Bernie Madoff. But there are also the little daily betrayals where we break trust with those we love and care for, and in this case Judas is not so different from all of us. His sin is different in degree and not in kind.
My second thought follows from the first, and that is whether Judas can be saved? The Christian tradition has generally said no. Perhaps I have fallen under the spell of Karl Barth’s alleged universalism, but I believe in a God whose mercy is so vast that there might be a place for Judas in it.
I don’t make the move to dogmatic universalism, because the separating of the “sheep from the goats” is God’s job and not mine. I think I have also been influenced by a fine dissertation I read this summer by Jason Goroncy, in which he asserts convincingly that the trajectory of P. T. Forsyth’s theology should (but doesn’t) lead him toward dogmatic universalism, a belief that all will ultimately be saved. I still don’t know whether I am there yet, but I have been ruminating about the “love that will not let me go.” As a theologian of the cross and the atonement I would be the last to limit its power and scope. Who can say where the saving work of Jesus Christ ends?
Is this another scandal of the cross? It just might be. Have you noticed that in many of our theological discussions about who is in and who is out with God, we naturally gravitate toward the extreme cases: Hitler, Stalin, and, of course, Judas. This lets us off the hook. But it shouldn’t. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
One of the most powerful and poignant moments for me every Holy Week is when I come to the line in the passion hymn Herzliebster Jesu where the congregation sings, “I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.” That pretty much settles for me the ever vexing question of who killed Jesus. Yes, the Romans, but they were stand-ins for all of humanity. Still, from the cross Jesus forgives his murderers, and by extension, us.
So if I can be saved, can Judas be saved? I am not the one to say, but I am intrigued by what Bauckham and Hart do in their meditation. They end with a poem that speaks to this very point, an “imaginative construal between Judas and Jesus in death, which ironically brought Judas much closer to his master than any of the other disciples, as they hung on their respective trees.” I am reassured that I am not the only one who sometimes has to turn to a poet when the language of theology reaches its outer limit:
The Ballad of the Judas Tree
In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever hanging on the tree
Grown from his own despair
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
“It was for this I came” he said
“And not to do you harm
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept
In three days’ time
I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had
My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell”
So when we all condemn him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first
by D. RUTH ETCHELLS
These mediations are particularly significant to me since they were developed for a Good Friday service at St. Andrew’s, St. Andrews, Scotland, very near to where we lived, and where we sometimes worshipped, during our sojourn there in the Spring and Summer of 1995. Alas, we left a year too early to hear them there, as they were done in 1996 and 1997.
(At The Cross: Meditations on People Who Were Thereby Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart, InterVarsity Press, 1999)
>Rick, I'm so pleased to read that you've dug out Richard and Trevor's book for reading during this most significant of weeks. I too have been dipping in and out of it this week. As for not being "there yet", time is now our friend, it too having been redeemed by holy love, so the "yet" takes on hopeful significance.BTW: your post reminded me of Edwin Muir's wonderful poem ‘The Transfiguration’ (http://cruciality.wordpress.com/2007/12/08/edwin-muir-the-transfiguration/). Are you familiar with it?Thanks for your kind words about my dissertation.
>It is a good little book isn't it? The four of us Floyds lived on Queen's Gardens, just up the road from St Andrew's, St Andrews (in fact, our back garden faced St Marys) where these meditations were first used, so they have an extra dimension for me.Yes, time itself is redeemed in our soteriology, isn't it. Now, we see through a glass darkly, but we see enough.As to your dissertation, I don't lightly toss praise. It was a hard slog at times, but really left an impression on me I do hope you get it into a book sometime. Reading it also reminded me of the days when I was reading and thinking Forsyth every day for months, and what a privilege it is to have that kind of time for scholarship. Ironically, busy scholars seldom get it ever again, as you know.And now we have conversation partners all around the world. I longed for people to talk with about all I was reading when I was at Mansfield, but it was pretty much just my tutor, and the stray word with Colin Gunton (who was in London).I look forward to reading the Muir poem. I know of him, but am not acquainted with his work. I have been reading George McDonald again, another Scot with imagination.What a new world we live in.
>Hi Rick,This is a lovely meditation. I was introduced to P.T. Forsyth by H. Dermot MacDonald of London Bible College when I had him for God, Man (sic) and Christ. His advocacy of God's holy love has been a mainstay for me throughout my ministry (as opposed to Berkhof's loving holiness. I think Forsyth got it right with holiness as the adjective and love as the verb). I've read your pieces on the cross with appreciation although I think you have more of an edge than I do. Likely it's your location as recovering a tradition among liberals. I, on the other hand, came from the excesses of evangel-icalism (e.g., Christ was the lightning rod who took the bolt of God's wrath; Jesus' blood sacrifice propitiated God's wrath). So I still have an aversion to a blood-soaked soteriology and find Gabe's approach of the whole of Christ's career having atoning dimensions to be helpful. I even find Mark Heim's work to add a new dimension to atonement theology heretofore unseen, although it isn't a replacement to the four historical loci of atonement. All that being said, I rejoice this day that, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself."Blessed Holy Week,Norm
>Norm, I'm interested in your interpretation of Forsyth's use of Holy Love, that 'holiness [is] the adjective and love [is] the verb'. What makes you read that that's how Forsyth uses the term?
>Norm,You are right about my social location. I have had other former Evangelicals tell me they just heard too much bad blood theology to find any such talk helpful. Whereas I grew up in a pallid liberalism, and find cross and atonement talk almost absent in our own UCC, although sometimes it is the focus of hostility.Ironically, my blog seems more popular with moderate thinking Evangelicals than it does with the mainline for whom it is mostly intended,So yes, I do have an edge, because I feel called to a ministry of retrieval for a lost part of our theological heritage that is at the crux of things.A blessed Easter to you and yours,Rick