When I first began discussing the question of eschatology with friends ten years ago, a particular passage of Scripture arose numerous times which more or less foiled every side of every argument:
The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.
That it would have been better for Judas had he never been born is a significant metaphysical conundrum for pretty much any Christian tradition. If we acknowledge existence itself to be good, how can it be that Judas would have been better off not existing? And further, if God orchestrates all things together for His own glory and the glory of His Church, how is it that one of the 12 apostles— and a Eucharistic participant of the Lord’s body— would have been better off never living? Can God not turn the miserable life of Judas into something profitable? And given that Judas is no less a part of creation as Saul and Peter or rivers and trees, is Jesus not also necessarily implying that “All things would be better for him and us if he had not been born?”
The longer I meditated on the verse, the more it seemed problematic for traditionally Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox understandings of God’s being, His goodness, and the way all created things borrow from the goodness of His being. I could find very little discussion of the verse anywhere, let alone a discussion that illuminated its darkness.
For the next decade, I came back to the verse from time to time, most often simply to mention to friends that I couldn’t wrap my head around it. In the meantime I became a teacher, taught a hundred books, gave myself over to classical methodology. Got married, had two kids. Changed all my ideas about justice and warfare, marriage and law. And then, about a month ago, a friend and I at Church were talking about baffling passages from Scripture and I brought up Matthew 26:24. He remarked, quite off-handedly, that, “Jesus doesn’t say Judas would have been better off never existing. Just better off having never been born. Of course, you can exist and yet never live to be born.”
As he said this, I immediately recalled another baffling passage from Ecclesiastes that I had also puzzled over for years:
A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
The passage from Ecclesiastes and the passage from Matthew mutually unfolded one another. Judas was certainly the man who could not enjoy his prosperity; his money induced in his spirit a suicidal guilt. The stillborn child in Ecclesiastes is better off than the man corrupted by his money for the same reason it would have been better for Judas to have never been born. “Lead us not into temptation…” prays Christ, and “Is not the life of man upon earth a temptation?” pleads Job. Judas would have been better off as Solomon’s “stillborn child” than the man who died incapable of enjoying God’s gifts. Matthew 26:24 had seemed a Scriptural outlier for years, but suddenly it entered into this little community of complimentary claims and pointed further investigations. Yes. Of course. Never been born doesn’t mean never existed. I don’t know how long I had been assuming it did.
Personally, you might not find Christ’s claim about Judas particularly troubling, or you might find it troubling and not think that much light has been shed on it here. If so, that’s fine. That’s not really the point.
I bring all this up because in an age when Christians are more impatient than ever over religious things, sacred things, and holy ideas, waiting for years and years on a single verse, waiting for resolution or illumination is not much of an option for anyone. The hasty answer, and to be honest the most reasonable answer to such a conundrum, is that there is simply a problem with the text. That the Bible is wrong. This is a tempting conclusion for our students because they are impatient to land somewhere, and it is a temptation for teachers, as well, who believe that being able to offer a quick, pert answer for every theological question they encounter is essential to maintaining the faith of the student. And yet in Peter and Jesus’ argument about whether Peter will deny Him, Jesus lets Peter have the last word and then stew on it. It is an argument that takes a week to solve, though I imagine Christ might have said something on the spot which would have cleared up the matter.
From time to time, students will ask questions not only about the Bible, but about characters in stories and historical persons, which are horribly unfair. They will ask misguided questions based on truncated, limited information and a deficit of spiritual maturity, and the only real way to help is to say, “That’s a fine question. You’re going to have to keep asking it for about… you know… ten or fifteen years before you get an answer which can satisfy.” If the student graduates from high school and has no serious, unanswered questions about justice or piety— if the student does not at least know that it often takes even an amateur intellectual many, many decades to arrive at an answer for a tough philosophical question— that student has not been given the lay of the land.
I don’t mean the teacher ought to tease the student, but when you’re covering Till We Have Faces and someone asks, “Why did Lewis believe that natural affection always turned to hatred?” a snappy, memorable answer will not help. Solomon writes, “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines,” and sometimes that cross-examination can’t begin until years after the witness has finished, and the cross-examination arises in night terrors, arguments with your husband about child vaccinations, getting caught when it would have been really helpful to not get caught, going into debt, a sudden windfall of cash, the terror at noonday. When it comes to intellectual matters, we don’t work out our salvation with a backhoe, but with a doll’s hair brush. So answer students as honestly as you can, but make room in their minds for those rare questions wherein the answers cannot be written on chalkboards but only on the backs of sleepless nights.