The Empty Halo of Saint Judas Iscariot

Unraveling the Enigma of the Disciple Who Betrayed Jesus and Took His Own Life

Guest Contributor / 7.15.21

This article comes to us from Grayson Quay:

Judas Iscariot slips out the door of the Upper Room, but he leaves his halo behind. His features remain silhouetted in the gold nimbus that floats among the haloes of Christ and the other apostles, but his face looks out into the dark night. Judas has literally stepped out of the eternal glory for which he was being prepared. The first time I saw the Eastern Orthodox mural I’m describing, I was moved to tears as I imagined the St. Judas who might have been.

Some scholars, reacting against the comic-book villain effigy of Judas that many Christians still burn during Holy Week, have argued that Judas did in fact find salvation. “I think, when Judas fled from his hanged and fallen body, he fled to the tender help of Jesus, and found it,” the nineteenth-century pastor George MacDonald wrote. More recently, Pope Francis has suggested that Judas may have found salvation. It is my belief that such statements go too far. Seeing suicide as a manifestation of genuine repentance is difficult to square with scripture and church tradition. Also, Christ’s statement that it “would have been better for that man [who betrayed him] if he had not been born” seems to present unequivocal evidence that Judas was damned. Of course I, like Judas’s Creator, “desire not the death of the sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live,” so I hope to be proven wrong. But even if Judas did repent “between the stirrup and the ground,” it still leaves room for speculation about what would have happened if Judas had lived.

Aslan tells Lucy that “[n]obody is ever told” what “would have happened,” and there is a certain difficulty inherent in exploring counterfactuals to the divine plan of salvation. But if we have trouble imagining Judas as redeemed, we should at least be able to see him as having been capable of redemption. In the introduction to her biblical radio drama The Man Born to Be King, Dorothy L. Sayers rejects simplistic interpretations of Judas that allow for easy condemnation and never force us to wonder whether we might have done the same. Instead, Sayers creates a truly tragic traitor whose hamartia is “over-weening loftiness.” Her Judas is deeply moved by the Beatitudes but contemptuous of the Messiah’s mass appeal and terrified that fame will corrupt Him. Jesus, Judas believes, must be stage managed (by Judas himself of course), even unto death.

Judas may, as Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, have seen himself as “the director” and Christ as “the film,” but Jesus could never have viewed Judas as a mere prop in the Passion drama. Sayers wisely observes that “to choose an obvious crook for the express purpose of letting him damn himself would be the act of a devil,” not of God Incarnate.

Jesus loved Judas. He washed his feet. Even if betrayal was inevitable, suicide and damnation could not have been. If Christ foresaw that Judas had certain qualities that would lead him to betray his Lord, then Christ must also have perceived that those same qualities could have been used for the good of the Kingdom.

What those actual qualities were is difficult to surmise from the text of the Gospels, in which Judas seems fairly one-dimensional. St. John seems unable to so much as mention the traitor without spitting over his shoulder. In one of the funnier passages in the Gospels, he even goes out of his way to specify that he’s speaking of “Judas (not Iscariot).”

Still, there are clues to be found. When Mary anoints Jesus with expensive perfume, Judas objects: “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” John adds that Judas “said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief.” Even if Judas was being sincere, though, his exclamation suggests a conceited confidence that he himself knew best. My theory has always been that Judas saw charity as a weapon, conceiving of Jesus as a figure who, like Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, could use the money from the perfume sale to fund His equivalent of a free breakfast program. And of course, the alms would not be an end in themselves. They’d be a PR stunt to recruit more hungry peasants into the revolutionary vanguard of the Judean People’s Front (or is it the People’s Front of Judea?). One possible translation of the name Iscariot is “dagger man,” suggesting he may have been linked to a Jewish rebel group.

An early extracanonical source suggests another possible reading of Judas’s reaction to the anointing. In one of the few fragments of his writings that have survived, the second-century Church father Papias records a teaching of Christ that he says was passed down orally from the Apostle John but didn’t make it into the Gospel:

“[Jesus said,] ‘The days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand shoots, and on each shoot ten thousand branches, and on each branch again ten thousand twigs, and on each twig ten thousand clusters, and on each cluster ten thousand grapes and each grape when pressed shall yield five-and-twenty measures of wine’… [But] Judas the traitor did not believe, and asked, ‘How shall such growths be accomplished by the Lord?’”

It’s a strange passage, but its overwhelming impression is of an extreme plentitude that economists would call “post-scarcity.” Taken together, this fragment and the anointing story suggest that Judas is uncomfortable with such extravagance. Judas likes things that he can understand, quantify, and control. He likes to see a tangible return on investment. He has no patience for iconoclastic realities. He prefers his idea of God to God Himself. And this prideful spiritual myopia explains not only Judas’s treason, but also his suicide.

In Martin McDonaugh’s film In Bruges, a hitman named Ray is sent to hide out in Belgium after murdering a child with a stray bullet. Ray wants nothing more than to die for his crime, but Ken — the saintly contract killer who accompanied him on the botched job — wrenches the gun from Ray’s hands before he can pull the trigger. Ray insists he has every right and every reason to kill himself. “I will always have killed that little boy,” he sobs. “That ain’t ever going away. Ever. Unless maybe I go away.” Ray’s employer, Harry, wishes he’d hurry up and do it: If had killed a little kid… I’d killed myself on the f*cking spot.” Harry lives by a code, and according to that code some things are simply unforgivable. Grace has its limits.

By the end of the film, Ray has discovered just how wrong Harry was. “I really, really hoped I wouldn’t die,” he says, lying wounded (perhaps mortally) in the back of an ambulance. He decides he wants to live after realizing that hell might be “the entire rest of eternity spent in f*ckin’ Bruges” — that is, in a state of Christ-haunted despair that holds grace forever at bay. Earlier in the film, Ray turns down an opportunity to approach the Savior’s blood, preserved in a reliquary in a Bruges basilica. But perhaps he won’t tarry forever. If he wants to live and to avoid hell, then Ray must have come to believe that redemption is possible, even for him. It’s a lesson Judas never learned.

Just as he failed to comprehend the non-zero-sum hyperabundance on display in the anointing and in the fragment from Papias, Judas also seems to have refused to believe in a hyperabundant grace that could redeem even his could redeem anything, even deicide. This is the difference between the remorse that drove the traitor Judas to suicide and the repentance that made the traitor Peter into one of the greatest saints of the Church. “Remorse” just means feeling guilty. “Repent” means “turn.” It means doing the hard work of living with something you’d rather not live with, remaining open to grace (like Kichijiro in Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence) rather than pridefully walling yourself off from it (like Fr. Rodrigues in the same novel). It means holding out hope that everything sad might someday come untrue.

Although the evidence is against him, the eternal fate of Judas resides in the realm of hopeful conjecture, buoyed by the belief that God justifies the ungodly. But even so, there remains a sadness at what might have been.

Perhaps, if Judas had allowed his remorse to spur him to repentance instead of letting it kill him, he might have survived to meet the risen Christ and been reinstated like Peter, sharing with his Savior the kiss of peace after the kiss of death. Perhaps, instead of falling headlong onto the Field of Blood, he’d have hurled himself into some far away land, delivered the multi-megaton payload of divine grace with which he’d been charged, and irradiated that country with holiness for two millennia and more. Millions of children would bear proudly the name of Judas, a name that would carry the connotation of redemption, not treason.

We’ll never know the glories of which Judas’s suicide deprived the Church, but a few parallel examples can give us an idea. Peter might have killed himself when he heard the rooster crow. Paul might have killed himself after Christ confronted him on the road to Damascus. Thank God they didn’t. I wish Judas hadn’t. And I hope you won’t either.