Is Judas in Hell?

The question came up during our lectionary Bible study in my parish for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year B since Judas and his betrayal and end is mentioned in both the first reading and the gospel on that Sunday. Here are the passages:

Acts 1:16-20 [Peter said,] “Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas who was guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry. (Now this man bought a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)”

John 17:12 [Jesus said,] “While I was with them, I kept them in thy name, which thou hast given me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled.”

I asserted that the scriptures teach that Judas is in hell. Others were not so sure. It has become quite fashionable to postulate, along with Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Dare we hope that all men be saved?” Bishop Robert Barron, who is a von Balthasar fan, has brought that to renewed attention. There is a reluctance by some to fathom that there is anyone in hell. Somehow the teaching of Jesus in Luke 13:23-24 that the road to perdition is broad and many are lost on it gets lost itself.

The main objection to the idea of Judas in hell was the idea that we cannot know the inner life of an individual soul and we cannot therefore judge one’s ultimate fate.

I would agree with this objection, accept that in this case, we are given that information via divine revelation. It is not a question of private discernment (judging the state of one’s soul), but of receiving what the Word of God has to say to us. Similarly, we affirm that (contrary to Calvinism), God predestines no one to hell. But in this case, we are not talking about predestination and election, but about revelation and prophecy.

Another question was whether Judas repented. Matthew 27:3-4 records, “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.’” The word for repent here is μεταμέλομαι (metamelomai), which in Greek thought is a reorientation of mind. So clearly, Judas had remorse and regret for his action. Some alternative translations are: “he felt remorse” (NASB), “deeply regretted what he had done” (NAB), and “he was seized with remorse” (NIV). The Greek word which indicates a change of mind is less conclusive than the Hebrew precursor which is a change of physical direction. We can see from Judas’ suicide that it did not become the Hebrew kind of repentance. His remorse led to despair rather than to reconciliation.

So here is my argument from scripture, reason, and tradition that Judas is in hell.

Son of Perdition

“None of them is lost,” Jesus said, “but the son of perdition” (Jn 17:12). “Perdition” is an old-fashioned word we don’t use much anymore. Some more modern translations render this as “son of destruction.” The NIV elaborates slightly with “the one doomed to destruction” and the NRSV paraphrases with “the one destined to be lost.”

The context is that Jesus is praying for his disciples before his crucifixion. He prays for their unity and their time alone in a hostile world full of temptations. Jesus praises the Father that he has protected them in the past and will do so in the future, assuring them that none of them will be lost except the son of perdition.

Perdition here is the Greek word ἀπώλεια (apōleia), which means “utter destruction” or “waste.” It is also used in Matthew 26:8; Mark 14:4; Matthew 7:13; and Acts 8:20. Theologically, it has often been used as a synonym for damnation. It can also mean “ruin” or “loss.” I would say that Jesus calling Judas an offspring of destruction here is tantamount to giving him the title “Child of Hell,” and that’s a pretty definitive statement (prophecy) about his ultimate fate.

The Calling of Matthias

When the Church chooses a new apostle to replace Judas, it is a dramatic statement about the fate of Judas. Not many people pick up on this connection.

We should observe that the word “apostle” is used in three senses in Christian writing. (A) The first sense is in a reference to one of the Twelve. These are to be the patriarchs of a renewed Israel. That’s why the number is significant. Jesus explained in Matthew 19:28, “Truly I tell you, in the new world, when the Son of Man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (B) The next sense is in the calling of additional apostles for the mission to the Gentiles. In almost every way, these have the same power and authority as the Twelve. They are simply not a part of that quorum. But they are witnesses to the risen Lord sent out to proclaim the gospel to all nations. They have the authority to teach and define doctrine, to plant churches, and to ordain bishops and other clergy to continue their work. Think of them as missionary bishops. Paul and Barnabas are examples. (C) The final sense is a metaphorical use of the term apostle. In this sense, Mary Magdalene is called the “First Apostle” or the “Apostle to the Apostles” since she first brought the news of the resurrection to the disciples. Likewise, Patrick is called the “Apostle to the Irish” and Cyril and Methodius are the “Apostles to the Slavs.”

Matthias is chosen as an apostle in the first sense (A), to be one of the Twelve. Because there is a vacancy in the Twelve, Peter proposes replacing Judas in preparation for the birth of the Church at Pentecost. None of the other apostles were ever replaced. When the Apostle James the Great was killed by Herod in Acts 12:2, Peter did not call for his replacement. James was still an apostle. Even though dead, he was alive in Christ, and he had his reserved chair among the twelve thrones of judgment. The bishops were successors to the apostles, but not replacement apostles.

What’s does this mean for the fate of Judas? The clear implication here is that Judas is not a dead apostle (otherwise he would not need to be replaced). Rather, Judas is in hell, so there is now a vacancy in the quorum of the Twelve Apostles which needs to be filled. Judas’ throne is empty and it will be filled by a new apostle named Matthias. Notice how Peter put it in his prayer: “Show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place” (Acts 1:24-25). Surely the place to which Peter refers is not the Field of Blood, but the fires of hell. Otherwise, there would be no need to replace Judas.

The Universal Witness of Tradition

The Church Fathers do not comment very often on Judas’ fate, focusing more attention on the awfulness of his betrayal. But whenever they do, their opinion is consistent.

Pope St Leo the Great taught, “The godless betrayer, shutting his mind to all these things [i.e., expressions of the Lord’s mercy], turned upon himself, not with a mind to repent, but in the madness of self-destruction: so that this man who had sold the Author of life to the executioners of his death, even in the act of dying sinned unto the increase of his own eternal punishment” (Sermon 62, De passione Domini XI).

St Augustine of Hippo observed, “Judas, when he killed himself, killed a wicked man, and passed from this life chargeable not only with the death of Christ, but also with his own: for though he killed himself on account of his crime, his killing himself was another crime” (The City of God, Bk. I, ch. 17).

St John Chrysostom noted, “For this reason also the wicked one dragged Judas out of this world lest he should make a fair beginning, and so return by means of repentance to the point from which he fell” (An Exhortation to Theodore After His Fall, Letter 1).

And in the Summa, St Thomas Aquinas addressed the issue when he taught, “To save Judas would… be contrary to [God’s] foreknowledge and disposition, by which he prepared for him eternal punishment; hence it is not the order of justice [as such] that renders impossible Judas’s salvation, but the order of eternal foreknowledge and disposition” (In IV Sent., dist. 46, qu. 1, art. 2, qa. 2, ad 3).

We should also note that the liturgy is consistent in any reference to Judas in this regard. The collect for Maundy Thursday in the usus antiquior of the Roman Rite expresses it this way:

O God, from whom Judas received the punishment of his guilt, and the thief the reward of his confession: Grant unto us the full fruit of thy clemency; that even as in his Passion our Lord Jesus Christ gave to each retribution according to his merits, so having cleared away our former guilt, he may bestow on us the grace of his resurrection; who liveth and reigneth . . . 

It is therefore no surprise that at the very bottom of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil place Judas in the Ninth Circle of Hell where all is ice, fanned frozen by the furious flapping of Satan’s wings. There, the devil gnaws on Judas’ head and claws at his back forever.

God desires all men to be saved, St Paul assures us. We know that Jesus must have loved Judas dearly. His betrayal surely broke the Lord’s heart. He called Judas to great things, not to destruction. Knowing the damned state of Judas, the lament of Jesus in the gospel is all the more poignant. 

Jesus said, “For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would be better for that man if he had never been born” (Mark 14:21).

Father Timothy Matkin is the Rector of St Francis Anglican Church in Dallas, Texas.

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