I’m not going to get all Rob Bell on you, so let’s assume for now the existence of a literal, fiery, Dante-style hell, the presumed destination for Judas Iscariot since, well, people started conceiving of hell as a place of eternal damnation. Because if anyone is in hell, it’s gotta be the guy who betrayed Jesus to the authorities who crucified him.
But Erin James-Brown, a seminary student here in town who spoke to us at Chapel yesterday, provides a different take this Holy Week of the disciple everyone loves to hate:
I am a Judas sympathizer. Perhaps it is my love/fascination with Gaga or my reading of the play “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” but I have come witnessed (sic) the cultural message of a negative, demonized Judas. …
Judas’ rejection of the Messiah and submission to corrupt religious leaders played the necessary role in Jesus’ sacrificial forgiveness on the cross. In a sense, we owe Judas a bit of gratitude for making forgiveness possible. What was once deemed purely evil (a Judas kiss), seems almost hopeful in another light.
Indeed, the Apostle Paul never mentions Judas, but he does talk quite a bit about Israel, whose leaders were much more directly involved in crucifying Jesus than Judas was, and whose people mostly rejected the notion that Jesus was the Messiah for whom they’d been yearning.
I would argue (in fact, I am arguing in a paper I’m writing) Paul’s entire letter to the Gentile Christ-followers of Rome is set up to address the problem of Jewish rejection of the Messiah – mostly because Paul wants to unify the Roman church, which is difficult to do so long as the Roman Gentiles look down on Jews and Jewish Christians.
In Romans 9-11, Paul tackles this issue most directly, and in chapter 11 – the climax of the letter, in my opinion – Paul makes the argument that God has not rejected the Jews, and that in fact their rejection of him was part of his plan. And if Jewish rejection was part of God’s plan, how could God turn his back on them? Verses 10-15:
So I’m asking you: they haven’t stumbled so that they’ve fallen permanently, have they? Absolutely not! But salvation has come to the Gentiles by their failure, in order to make Israel jealous. But if their failure brings riches to the world, and their defeat brings riches to the Gentiles, how much more will come from the completion of their number! I’m speaking to you Gentiles. Considering that I’m an apostle to the Gentiles, I publicize my own ministry in the hope that somehow I might make my own people jealous and save some of them. If their rejection has brought about a close relationship between God and the world, how can their acceptance mean anything less than life from the dead?
Skipping to verses 25-32:
I don’t want you to be unaware of this secret, brothers and sisters. That way you won’t think too highly of yourselves. A part of Israel has become resistant until the full number of the Gentiles comes in. In this way, all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
The deliverer will come from Zion.
He will remove ungodly behavior from Jacob.
This is my covenant with them,
when I take away their sins.
According to the gospel, they are enemies for your sake, but according to God’s choice, they are loved for the sake of their ancestors. God’s gifts and calling can’t be taken back. Once you were disobedient to God, but now you have mercy because they were disobedient. In the same way, they have also been disobedient because of the mercy that you received, so now they can receive mercy too. God has locked up all people in disobedience, in order to have mercy on all of them.
So Israel’s rejection served a purpose in God’s plan, and as a result, God will ultimately have mercy on all of the Jews, if not all of humanity. Similarly, Judas’ betrayal was necessary for God’s plan to be carried out. Is it that much of a stretch to believe God’s mercy is so wide that, whatever and wherever heaven is, Judas will be there, reunited with his 11 best friends and the Savior who so mystified and captivated them?