These words describe what happened to Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Several years ago when some of my colleagues and I were dissing this passage, one of my colleagues said, “What a gentle way to put that. There’s a sort of sadness expressed in those words. That’s not a harsh judgment on Judas or a lot of anger expressed against him..” That’s true. In our culture, someone might have said, “I’m glad the dirt bag is dead” or something even more colorful. Perhaps it is possible for the disciples to let go of their rage at Judas because the disciples have already seen the resurrected Jesus. Although the other disciples still probably feel angry at Judas, the reality of the risen Lord who has sent them to tell the good news of the kingdom of God has mitigated that anger to a large degree. Judas betrayed the other disciples as well as Jesus. Obviously, the other disciples did not want to see Jesus crucified. (There is even some debate about whether Judas wanted to see Jesus crucified or if Judas was trying to provoke Jesus into leading a violent revolution against the Romans.) Remember that Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of one of the high priest’s servants in an ill-advised attempt to defend Jesus from those who came to arrest him. But even after their struggle and fear, these last words about Judas are words of sadness rather than anger.
There is not much in the Bible about the fate of Judas. The Gospel of Matthew says that Judas committed suicide and the book of Acts says that he “burst open” and fell to the ground and died. But there is not any comment about his ultimate fate except those mysterious words: he “turned aside and went to his own place” (Acts 1:25). This has led to a great deal of speculation. There are a variety of legends about the fate of Judas, some of which involve eternal torture and others that propose an alternate view. One legend from the Eastern Orthodox Church describes the “harrowing of hell.” (Remember in the Apostles’ Creed we confess that Jesus “descended into hell.” Many interpret this to mean that between his death and resurrection, Jesus went into hell to set the righteous people who were trapped there free, people like Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, and other Old Testament heroes.) In the legend, Jesus is setting a bunch of people free from hell and Satan is very angry about it. As Jesus goes deeper and deeper into hell, Satan gets more agitated. Finally, in the deepest pit of hell, Jesus reaches out to unlock a cage and Satan screams, “No! That one is mine. You cannot set him free!” But Jesus simply reaches down and unlocks the door to set Judas Iscariot free.
This is a legend. No one knows the ultimate destiny of Judas. But the legend does tell us something true about the nature of God. God is always reaching out to us, and there is no one who is beyond redemption. God’s forgiveness is deep enough to cover any sin. God’s love is broad enough to include everyone, even the worst.
C. S. Lewis, the great Christian writer from England who authored, among many other books, The Chronicles of Narnia, once said that the gates of hell were “locked from the inside.” In other words, hell is populated not because of God’s desire to punish but because of people’s refusal to accept God’s love and forgiveness. I think there is a lot of truth to that. Remember those verses from Paul’s first letter to Timothy: “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:3-4). God wants to save everyone, but perhaps not everyone wants to be saved.
So maybe the legend is true. Jesus descended into the depths of hell to free the one who had betrayed him with a kiss. He unlocked the door to set Judas free. But the legend doesn’t say if Judas walked out or not. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he – and everyone else trapped by sin and despair – did claim their freedom to live loved by God?