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Hope for Judas?

The consensus seems to be that Judas is in hell. But is this a definitive teaching or an opinion?

Jimmy Akin

One of the key events of Holy Week is the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot—something many Christians are convinced caused Judas to go to hell. I used to be one of them.

However, several times recently, Church officials have stated that—even though hell is a real possibility humans can choose—the Church does not teach that any particular person is in hell.

For example, in his 1994 interview book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II discussed who will go to hell and wrote:

The Church has never made any pronouncement in this regard. This is a mystery, truly inscrutable, which embraces the holiness of God and the conscience of man. The silence of the Church is, therefore, the only appropriate position for Christian faith. Even when Jesus says of Judas, the traitor, “It would be better for that man if he had never been born” (Matt. 26:24), his words do not allude for certain to eternal damnation (139).

Similarly, in a 2006 audience, Benedict XVI said,

Even though he went to hang himself (cf. Matt. 27:5), it is not up to us to judge his gesture, substituting ourselves for the infinitely merciful and just God (October 18, 2006).

Despite these statements, it has long been commonly held that Judas is, in fact, damned. So how can we understand the traditional opinion in light of the possibility of Judas’s salvation that John Paul II and Benedict XVI hold out?

One approach is to review the evidence we have for Judas being in hell and seeing how conclusive it is.

A first type of evidence is something that many people may not be aware of: data from exorcism cases.

Christians are familiar with the concept of exorcism being used for possession by demons—that is, fallen angels. However, there are also occasional reports of spirit possession by human souls.

In Judaism, such spirits are referred to as dybbuks. A dybbuk is “a disembodied human spirit that, because of former sins, wanders restlessly until it finds a haven in the body of a living person.”

Although dybbuks are more commonly associated with popular Jewish belief, they are also sometimes reported in Christian contexts, and that includes Judas. Exorcists periodically report that during the course of the rite, one of the possessing spirits will identify itself as a former human, typically a famous sinner such as the emperor Nero or Judas Iscariot.

If a possessing spirit identifies itself as Judas and speaks truthfully, then that would support the idea that Judas is a lost soul.

The difficulty is the “and speaks truthfully” part. Demons—and any human allies they have in the possession racket—are working for “the father of lies” (John 8:44), which means that you can’t trust anything they say.

Consequently, the 1614 rite of exorcism—which is still in use—warns that the exorcist must “be on his guard against the arts and subterfuges which the evil spirits are wont to use in deceiving the exorcist” (n. 5). Further, it specifically warns that “neither ought he to give any credence to the devil if the latter maintains that he is the spirit of . . . a deceased party” (n. 14).

The Church does not have a teaching on whether damned souls can ever possess the living, so this is an open question theologically. However, because of how untruthful possessing spirits are, their identity claims are not a reliable form of evidence, and the Church has warned us not to pay heed to such claims.

I thus don’t think we can rely on evidence from these cases to prove Judas is in hell.

Another source of evidence is the common opinion itself that Judas is damned, including by many Church Fathers.

The Holy Spirit guides Christian opinion—including the views of the Fathers—on matters of faith, and so this also could count as evidence for Judas’s damnation.

However, for it to be conclusive, two conditions would have to be met: (1) Judas’s damnation would have to be a matter of the Faith, and (2) the relevant parties would have to agree that this is definitively the case, meaning that there is absolutely no possibility of disputing it.

Neither of these seems fulfilled. For an infallible definition to occur, the members of the Magisterium (bishops teaching in union with the pope) must—at some point in time—come to a position where they are “in agreement on one position as definitively to be held” (Lumen Gentium 25).

However, John Paul II and Benedict XVI indicate that they have not done this. When John Paul II says (above) that “the Church has never made any pronouncement” on individuals who are in hell, including Judas, then that means it doesn’t have a teaching on this position, much less a definitive one.

Individuals—including many of the Fathers—may hold the opinion that Judas is in hell, but opinions—no matter how common—are not infallible Church teachings. Consequently, we can’t appeal to this kind of evidence as conclusive of Judas’s damnation.

What about the idea that this might be a matter of the Faith? Here we come to the subject of what Scripture teaches. The reason that many in Catholic history have held Judas is damned is because of what Scripture says, so does this give us conclusive evidence?

John Paul II and Benedict XVI have already responded to the two passages in Scripture that one might appeal to.

John Paul II dealt with the passage where Jesus said, “Woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24; see also Mark 14:21), and the pope said that Jesus’ words “do not allude for certain to eternal damnation.”

This is true. Although the warning is reasonably taken as meaning that Judas will go to hell because of what he has done, it—like biblical warnings in general about the consequences of sin—presupposes one thing: that the person does not repent (Jer. 18:7-10).

So if Judas were to heed the call, “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19), then his sins would be blotted out.

Now, here’s the thing: Matthew’s Gospel—the same one where Jesus warns of Judas’s fate—goes on to say this:

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood” (Matt. 27:3-4).

Matthew says that Judas repented! He recognized that he had sinned and that Jesus was innocent, and he sought to return the money. When the priests refused to take it back, he threw it into the Temple (27:5a) so that he would not profit from his sin. That sounds like a sincere repentance!

But what about what Judas did next? He hanged himself (27:5b), and this is the second text one might appeal to for Judas’s damnation. Even if he repented of having betrayed Jesus, wouldn’t he still go to hell because of his suicide?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states,

We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives (2283).

Suicide does not always result in hell because a person may not be fully responsible for his action due to lack of knowledge, or psychological factors, and because “in ways known to him alone,” God may help the person to repent—even in the act of committing suicide itself.

Judas thus may have been so grieved by his offense that he wasn’t fully responsible for his suicide, or he may have repented of taking his own life while he was still hanging from his neck.

As Pope Benedict said, “Even though he went to hang himself, it is not up to us to judge his gesture, substituting ourselves for the infinitely merciful and just God.”

It thus appears that we don’t have conclusive proof that Judas is in hell, and there is still a ray of hope for him.

This Holy Week, let us thank God for his mercy upon all of us. It is a mercy that—in principle—might extend even to Judas.

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