The Evangelical Universalist Forum

The Judas Tree by Ruth Etchells

Thursday, June 26, 2008

This is a lovely poem I came across some years ago. I am not entirely sure how to respond to it. On the one hand I want to say, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” On the other I want to ask, “Does it take seriously the very dire warnings that Jesus made that it would be better for Judas had he never been born?” Now I do not think that such language rules out Judas’ eventual salvation but I worry that the poem somewhat undercuts it. Or does it? The image of Judas forever hanging on a tree of his own despair is indeed very dark. What do you think?

Any reflections on Judas and salvation just post 'em up! But for now - the poem. How do you respond to it?

In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever haning on the tree
Grown from his own despair
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
“It was for this I came” he said
“And not to do you harm
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept
In three days’ time I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had
My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell”
So when we all condemned him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first

D. Ruth Etchells
Posted by Gregory MacDonald at 12:58 PM
D.W. Congdon said…
Amen! A beautiful poem. Madeleine L’Engle quotes a similar kind of poem by James Stephens, which you can find at my blog here.

June 26, 2008 2:00 PM
Jason Pratt said…
I’m somewhat doubtful that the Greek actually reads that it would have been better for that man had he not been born. (More like, it would have been ideal for that man to have not been born.)

Meanwhile, I muchly agree with the poem.

Your namesake, the real George MacDonald (who incidentally accepted the traditional translation concerning it being better for Judas etc.), had some similar things to say himself regarding Judas:

“The one deepest, highest, truest, fittest, most wholesome suffering must be generated in the wicked by a vision, a true sight, more or less adequate, of the hideousness of their lives, of the horror of the wrongs they have done. Physical suffering may be a factor in rousing this mental pain; but ‘I would I had never been born!’ must be the cry of Judas, not because of the hell-fire around him, but because he loathes the man that betrayed his friend, the world’s friend. When a man loathes himself, he has begun to be saved. Punishment tends to this result.” (Unspoken Sermons, Vol 3, sermon 6, “Justice”)

"Of all who will one day stand in dismay and sickness of heart, with the consciousness that their very existence is a shame, those will fare the worst who have been consciously false to their fellows; who, pretending friendship, have used their neighbour to their own ends; and especially those who, pretending friendship, have divided friends. To such Dante has given the lowest hell. If there be one thing God hates, it must be treachery. Do not imagine Judas the only man of whom the Lord would say, ‘Better were it for that man if he had never been born!’ Did the Lord speak out of personal indignation, or did he utter a spiritual fact, a live principle? Did he speak in anger at the treachery of his apostle to himself, or in pity for the man that had better not have been born? Did the word spring from his knowledge of some fearful punishment awaiting Judas, or from his sense of the horror it was to be such a man? Beyond all things pitiful is it that a man should carry about with him the consciousness of being such a person-should know himself and not another that false one! ‘O God,’ we think, ‘how terrible if it were I!’ Just so terrible is it that it should be Judas! And have I not done things with the same germ in them, a germ which, brought to its evil perfection, would have shown itself the canker-worm, treachery? Except I love my neighbour as myself, I may one day betray him! Let us therefore be compassionate and humble, and hope for every man.

A man may sink by such slow degrees that, long after he is a devil, he may go on being a good churchman or a good dissenter, and thinking himself a good Christian. Continuously repeated sin against the poorest consciousness of evil must have a dread rousing. There are men who never wake to know how wicked they are, till, lo, the gaze of the multitude is upon them!-the multitude staring with self-righteous eyes, doing like things themselves, but not yet found out; sinning after another pattern, therefore the hardest judges, thinking by condemnation to escape judgment. But there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed. What if the only thing to wake the treacherous, money-loving thief, Judas, to a knowledge of himself, was to let the thing go on to the end, and his kiss betray the Master? Judas did not hate the Master when he kissed him, but not being a true man, his very love betrayed him." (US, Vol 3, ser 11, “The Final Unmasking”)

““Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” said the Divine, making excuse for his murderers, not after it was all over, but at the very moment when he was dying by their hands. Then Jesus had forgiven them already. His prayer the Father must have heard, for he and the Son are one. When the Father succeeded in answering his prayer, then his forgiveness in the hearts of the murderers broke out in sorrow, repentance, and faith. Here was a sin dreadful enough surely-but easy for our Lord to forgive.All that excuse for the misled populace! Lord Christ be thanked for that! That was like thee! But must we believe that Judas, who repented even to agony, who repented so that his high-prized life, self, soul, became worthless in his eyes and met with no mercy at his own hand,-must we believe that he could find no mercy in such a God? I think, when Judas fled from his hanged and fallen body, he fled to the tender help of Jesus, and found it-I say not how. He was in a more hopeful condition now than during any moment of his past life, for he had never repented before. But I believe that Jesus loved Judas even when he was kissing him with the traitor’s kiss; and I believe that he was his Saviour still. And if any man remind me of his words, “It had been good for that man if he had not been born,” I had not forgotten them, though I know that I now offer nothing beyond a conjectural explanation of them when I say: Judas had got none of the good of the world into which he had been born. He had not inherited the earth. He had lived an evil life, out of harmony with the world and its God. Its love had been lost upon him. He had been brought to the very Son of God, and had lived with him as his own familiar friend; and he had not loved him more, but less than himself. Therefore it had been all useless. “It had been good for that man if he had not been born;” for it was all to try over again, in some other way-inferior perhaps, in some other world, in a lower school. He had to be sent down the scale of creation which is ever ascending towards its Maker. But I will not, cannot believe, O my Lord, that thou wouldst not forgive thy enemy, even when he repented, and did thee right. Nor will I believe that thy holy death was powerless to save thy foe-that it could not reach to Judas. Have we not heard of those, thine own, taught of thee, who could easily forgive their betrayers in thy name? And if thou forgivest, will not thy forgiveness find its way at last in redemption and purification?” (US, Vol 1, ser 4, “It Shall Not Be Forgiven”)

"St Paul would be wretched before the throne of God, if he thought there was one man beyond the pale of his mercy, and that as much for God’s glory as for the man’s sake. And what shall we say of the man Christ Jesus? Who, that loves his brother, would not, upheld by the love of Christ, and with a dim hope that in the far-off time there might be some help for him, arise from the company of the blessed, and walk down into the dismal regions of despair, to sit with the last, the only unredeemed, the Judas of his race, and be himself more blessed in the pains of hell, than in the glories of heaven? Who, in the midst of the golden harps and the white wings, knowing that one of his kind, one miserable brother in the old-world-time when men were taught to love their neighbour as themselves, was howling unheeded far below in the vaults of the creation, who, I say, would not feel that he must arise, that he had no choice, that, awful as it was, he must gird his loins, and go down into the smoke and the darkness and the fire, travelling the weary and fearful road into the far country to find his brother?-who, I mean, that had the mind of Christ, that had the love of the Father?

But it is a wild question. God is, and shall be, All in all. Father of our brothers and sisters! thou wilt not be less glorious than we, taught of Christ, are able to think thee. When thou goest into the wilderness to seek, thou wilt not come home until thou hast found. It is because we hope not for them in thee, not knowing thee, not knowing thy love, that we are so hard and so heartless to the brothers and sisters whom thou hast given us." (US, Vol 1, ser 10, “Love Thine Neighbor”)

The hyperlinks lead to publicly distributable htm copies of MacD’s work, posted by his American distributor, Johannesen, who incidentally offers some gorgeous green hardback printings at good prices. {g}


June 30, 2008 8:26 AM

It’s interesting that most Evangelical Christians (and I count myself among them) are against abortion on the grounds that human life begins at conception, and that these same Christians often take the statement that it would have been better for Judas if he hadn’t been born to mean that non-existence would be preferable to his fate.

Has it ever ocured to you that it’s impossible to maintain that that’s a necessary inference from Christ’s words if you believe that human life begins at conception?

Are you saying it could be translated…
It would have been better for him to have been aborted…?

That would more of a paraphrase, wouldn’t it?

What I’m saying is that unless “unborn” equals “non-existent” (which isn’t true if life begins at conception, and my own stillborn sister has a place in the resurrection), Christ’s words cannot be taken to mean that non-existence would be preferable to the fate awaiting Judas (that would be an even loser, and less justified paraphrase.)

They could be taken to mean no more than that it would have been better for Judas (in retrospect) if he had not been born alive only to make negative moral progress (and I believe there are passages in Job and Ecclesiastes that speak of stillborns being better off than some who see the light of day, are there not?)

Anyway, I think that was MacDonald’s point when he wrote

Quite so; very well perceived. :slight_smile:

(Edited to add: although I gather that there is some debate over whether the pronoun trail in Greek is such to imply that it would have been better for Christ had Judas not been born. i.e., “better for Him [the Son of Man, about to be betrayed] if this one [Judas, the betrayer] had not been born.”)

Thank you Jason.

I’m aware of that Possibility too (and I believe Luther’s German translation supports it), but it couldn’t really have been better for Christ (in His deity), to have lived out His life on earth without going to Calvary.

As He Himself said on the night of His betrayal “what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.” (John 12:27.)

So it seems to me that if Luther was correct here (which I doubt), the intended meaning would have to be something along the lines that it would have been ideal for Jesus (in His humanity, as a man) if Judas hadn’t been born?

Maybe that is the meaning, but I think it’s useful to point out that an Evangelical Universalist needn’t go there, because the standard English translation doesn’t imply that Judas will eternally envy lifeless rock (which is the thought too often read into this passage.)

Although if the sense were ‘better for that MAN’ (Jesus) not better for the God Jesus then it could work.

It would still seem a bit out of context.

“The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.” (Matt. 26:24.)

The woe is clearly directed at Judas (“that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed”)–and if the “better for Jesus” idea isn’t entirely out of context, it’s only because of who Jesus is

On the other hand, in a combination of the popular sense of pity combined with the self-sacrificial result, it might be said that Jesus (God and Man) would have been “better off” had Judas, or any other traitor, not been born. In the long run perhaps it is better for God (as Jesus and otherwise) for traitors to exist; but any sinner, and any sin, has infinite results for the self-sacrificing God.

As I sometimes observe, when doing metaphysics: whether or not we will ever be able to put our sins behind us, God will never be able to really put our sins behind Himself. In His eternal, omniscient present, He willingly suffers forever with sinners and victims alike.

(Or, more poetically put perhaps…)
always always.doc (39.5 KB)

That being said, I do in fact hew more to the interpretation that Jesus was talking about Judas. But the saying is always elsewhere one of pity for the one who-had-been-better-off-not-being-born (i.e. who had died in the womb or at birth). Job’s complaint being typical of the use.

Yes, and I would take Christ’s words in exactly the same sense.

Woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed (he’s to be pitied because…) It would have been good for that man if he had not been born (i.e. had died in his mother’s womb, rather than to have lived thirty some odd years only to store up wrath for himself in the day of judgment–as per Paul’s warning in Romans 2:5.)

As George MacDonald put it

I’m sure those words were written with pity, and I take Christ’s words in the same sense.

Don’t you?

Certainly I do. (I should have written “and” instead of “but”, perhaps. :slight_smile: I was thinking “but” in contrast to the usual interpretation of hopelessness attached to this statement. Not in contrast to what you were saying.)

Thank you Jasson.