The Descent into Hell

I have been reflecting upon Holy Week. I am a pastor, so that’s what I do.

This week, I have been specifically reflecting on Judas and his betrayal. To start, I think we are pretty hard on Judas. While the author of John’s Gospel sees him as just plain bad (he used to steal from the common purse, he was evil, etc), the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) say that Judas was influenced by the devil.

As I have described before, I’m not so sure the devil, as described in the Synoptics, is the dark god of our nightmares. Judaism is a monotheistic religion, as is Christianity, so we are cautioned to be careful of dualities that bring us to the conclusion that the devil is the god of the underworld. The devil … the satan …  is best described by the Greek word diabolos. The diabolos is the distractor … the one who uses my distractibility … my attention deficit … to pull me off the path. The devil is the “ooh, shiny” among those who follow Jesus.

And Judas is someone who is off track.

Some authorities suggest that perhaps he was a zealot who wanted nothing more than to throw off Roman oppression. Some have also suggested that perhaps he believed in Jesus, but what he believed about Jesus was wrong. If he was looking for the Military Messiah to restore the reign of King David to Israel and bring it into a power unlike the world had ever seen, he had the wrong person in Jesus of Nazareth. In that scenario, it may well be that his “betrayal” was because he believed that Jesus, if backed into a corner, would finally become the Military Messiah Judas thought he was.

Then there are those who suggest that Judas might have simply given up on Jesus. Jesus was not meeting Judas’s expectations. The ministry of Jesus was destined to fail. Especially with his eyes set on Jerusalem, the most dangerous place to be, Jesus was doomed, and Judas just wanted to let it end. There is a hint of this among the disciples in John 11, when Jesus begins his journey toward the tomb of Lazarus. In that story, it is Thomas that says (despondently, sarcastically, or perhaps even with some derision), “Let us go with Jesus to Jerusalem that we may die with him.” (I know some think that sounds noble, but I hear it differently.)

Regardless of what is behind Judas’s action, he betrays Jesus. We are told he betrayed him with a kiss. What an image. An act of love and devotion that leads to death.

Regardless of what Judas might have expected, Jesus gave in. He did not resist. He was arrested, tortured and killed. And Judas was despondent. One text tells us that he hung himself and the chief priests used the silver to buy Potter’s Field (see Matthew 27:3-10), while another says Judas bought the field himself and then fell headlong into it and “spilled his guts” (sorry for the grossness, folks, but that’s the image we find in Acts 1:18-19). Mark and John do not mention anything about Judas following his betrayal. What we can assume, however, is that Judas found himself in a hell of his own making, and many have assumed that, because of his acts, he is the one disciple who is spending eternity in hell. But are we really sure?

Jan Richardson is the writer of devotions in the Upper Room Disciplines (the devotional guide I use) for this week, and she spoke the greatest truth for me in Tuesday’s devotional reading. She reflects  on John 12, where Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” These are her thoughts:

We sometimes make letting go such a hard thing. We resist giving up. But what if it is not about giving up but giving in? Falling into dirt, as Jesus says here. Going where grain is supposed to go; following the spiral within the seed that takes it deeper into the dark but also – finally, fruitfully – out of it. (Disciplines 2018, pg. 111)

When we find ourselves in darkness and despair … often because of the very things we have done (sometimes with very good intentions), we fear there is no way out. When we can embrace the wilderness of conflict and seek neither to dehumanize nor be dehumanized by those who disagree (sometimes sharply) with us, we find ourselves in the dark. Sometimes owning up to our own demons, our addictions, our overwhelming fears gives us a feeling of what hell is like.

The good news is that Jesus is unafraid to storm hell’s gates. Jesus is unafraid to reach boldly into our darkness.

The Roman Catholic version of the Apostles Creed has an interesting addition that we Protestants don’t use. The creed says that Jesus …

suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
He descended into hell;
on the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from there He will come to judge the living and the dead.

Judas found himself in hell (no matter how we define hell). I wonder what this affirmation might mean for Judas (and all of us who are prone to Judas-like behavior). This Saturday, we celebrate what is called Holy Saturday. At Wellspring, we have probably more than a hundred kids and their parents hunting Easter eggs and enjoying our Easter Eggstravaganza. We celebrate Easter fully … one day early.

But in the ancient church, this Saturday is known as the Harrowing of Hell. Jesus is giving hell … well, hell … to use our modern vernacular. The gates of hell are broken down. Jesus is claiming that there is no place that is beyond the reach of the loving embrace of God, and there is no one … NO ONE … who is beyond the reach of grace. So I wonder if Jesus went there perhaps because Judas was there, and perhaps Judas and the criminal to whom Jesus promised salvation and maybe even the one who scorned Jesus are with him.

Now that I think about it, I think there was a word of forgiveness for those who were the architects of hell … the Romans who abused their victims and subjected them to the horrible effects of unrestrained power (see Luke 23:34). And surely this was the same forgiveness offered to the religious leaders who were complicit in his execution.

Maybe even they are not beyond the reach of Jesus. Maybe Jesus is coming to offer a new life to EVERYONE whose life is pretty hellacious right now.

So are you beyond Jesus’s grasp? What about me? Sometimes I find myself in that place that feels like hell. Nothing is going right. I feel cut off and “blessed assurance” is but a fleeting dream.

Try this. When you find yourself in whatever hell you are experiencing, don’t be frantic about it. Stop and listen! Jesus is breaking down the gates. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, just reach out your hand. Do you feel it? It is the hand of the crucified reaching for you!

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