I’d been trying to write fiction about Judas Iscariot for years. The process had been stalled partly for various real life concerns, but also because of a fundamental problem in fiction writing that I’d come to painfully appreciate: the goal of fiction is to bring a situation to life, while letting the central point soak through with reasonable clarity the actions and conversations taking place, and that takes a whole different skillset from describing or explaining a phenomenon.
The central idea that I’m trying to describe is the following. The betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas is, as many have noted by many, perhaps since the earliest days of Christianity, for its paradox: without the betrayal, there is no crucifixion; without crucifixion, there is no Salvation. Thus, Judas becomes a central, indeed, an essential figure in the Salvation. So why should he be condemned? This problem shows in The Problem of Evil by Bertrand Russell, “Three Versions of Judas” by Borges, and The Last Templtation of Christ, by Nikos Kazantzakis (better known for the movie adaptation by Martin Scorsese) among others, but, far before modern philosophers, this is also why Gnostics, in the early days of Christianity, held Judas in high regard. Indeed, there is no canonical basis, according to Vatican at least, that Judas is really damned: as Wikipedia says, “there is no Canon of the Damned.”
One question that I wondered about was, if Judas is damned, was he in fact being condemned for the betrayal itself, or was it because of something else? Gospel accounts hold that Judas certainly felt remorse for his deeds: Matthew 27 holds that he was filled with guilt and returned the 30 pieces of silver to the priests and hanged himself. It was not the 30 pieces of silver, in other words, that he betrayed Jesus. Indeed, Gospel accounts strongly imply that Judas’ act of betrayal was preordained and it was not something that he could evade. After the alleged Gnostic “Gospel of Judas” was discovered, much was made of its insinuation that Judas was in fact asked by Jesus to betray him. While the authenticity of the document may be questioned, the argument is hardly new.
What I had wondered about was how Judas should have approached this task. With hope and faith that, however it might seem at the present, that it is for the greater cause that fulfills Divine will beyond human comprehension, or with arrogant despair and poor attitude that it is, in a sense, a special punishment and persecution directed at him alone? There is a curious parallel between this and Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane.
“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
“My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done.”
In a sense, Christ’s cross is also a special punishment persecution, directed at Him alone. In the end, however, Christ accepted it happily, for His mission could not pass without Him. Judas Iscariot, too, eventually did his duty, but did so in a defiant, despairing manner, without faith that his action was the product of the Divine design. He cast aside the silver and hanged himself, convinced that he was damned without possibility and redemption, and in so doing, completed the circle. He did so because, I think, he was lacking in perspective, thinking only of his own role and what was his due, and not in terms of the larger design devoid of faith in what place God has for him. The one conversation that I am certain should be in the fiction that I am writing, even if I am not sure how to set it up, is something like the following, taking place after Judas is told to betray Jesus and realizes its seeming implications.
Judas: “Master, why are you doing this to me? Why are you condemning me to be the accursed one who betrays you?”
Jesus: “Judas, I am about to be crucified, and you are asking me why I am doing this to you?”
So Judas’ problem approximates the problem Camus assigns to Sisyphus: Judas has to betray Jesus, for the sake of the larger Cause. He can do so in despair and hopelessness or he can do so with faith and hope, even against all reason. (One might suppose that he could conceivably choose to not betray Jesus, but only at cost of failing to fulfill the Divine design). The story of the aftermath in Gospel according to Matthew implies that Judas took the former path, by fixating on himself and only himself and despairing of his own place.
This is the dimension of religion that I always have trouble coming to grips with–I suppose that’s why I keep wanting to write this story. It is, fundamentally, the question raised by Kierkegaard: if we know things with certainty, we don’t need faith; we need faith because we do not know. This is, in an odd way, the core of science, as well: theory is what we think we know, but we know that our theories are incomplete, and we are happy to see evidence that they are wrong under different conditions so that we can make improvements. Science presupposes a limitation to human understanding with the eternal room for betterment. We will not know all the answers–from every answer that we will find, spring more questions demanding answers. Do we stop asking, either because we falsely believe that there is no more to learn, or do we despair that we will not know all the answers? In a sense, I suppose this is what I think is the central sin of Judas Iscariot: he “knew” that he was doomed and at that moment, he stopped believing. He remained personally loyal to Jesus and fulfilled the works that were required of him, but without the faith, with his faithless born out of arrogance that he knew his role and the consequent despair. His ultimate sin, then, was not the act of betrayal but the abandonment of faith in face of a seemingly impossible choice.
And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
Faith and hope go hand in hand. In a sense, faith IS hope, that, to borrow the hackneyed line from, of all things, Sound of Music (to be fair, the mother superior says this), that when God closes the door, He always leaves a window open, and that we need to keep looking for it. This is not an easy thing to maintain, but something that we should all aspire to, especially when things look bleak.