Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Judas Tree by Ruth Etchells

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


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.

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}


Visitor333 said...

What I find interesting is that there is no scripture at all posted to prove that Judas is not eternally condemned...just a poem. I can write a poem about how the devil is a saint and twist scripture to prove a false doctrine, and it matters not when it boils down to the Truth. Personal opinion and interpretations that stem from our "own" emotions is what deceives people into coming up with an "anything goes" doctrine. What matters is what the Word of God CLEARLY states. Jesus CLEARLY stated that Judas is the son of "perdition" and I would rather believe Jesus than any man or woman whose own desire is that Judas would not perish. And BTW, the Greek clearly translates as all the major bible versions have it and there is no way around it. If Judas would one day be saved, then it would make no sense (nonsense) that it would have been better if he had not been born. Think about it...

Robin Parry said...

Visitor 333

You make a good point (Scripture, and not made-up poems, must determine our theology) but you also miss the point. The poem was NOT an attempt to prove that Judas will be saved. Rather it was a refelection on Judas in light of a already accepted belief that he would be saved - a belief based on grounds not discussed in the poem. So I think you misunderstood the use that the poem was being put to.

However, you raise a very important issue. If the Bible teaches that Judas will never be saved then that is that! Quite so.

So the questions then become (a) are there biblical grounds for thinking that Judas will be saved? Here we are into the general case for universalism and that is too big to get into in this brief comment, and (b) are there biblical grounds for thinking that Judas will not be saved? Here we are looking at the text that you mention. Of course, the issue here is one of interpretation. There is a good discussion of this text from a universalist perspective in Elhanan Winchester's book Dialogue on the Universal Restoration (1788). It is available online so I think I would point you to that in the first instance. You will find that it is the last objection discussion in dialogue 2.

Hope that is of some help.

Jason Pratt said...


A little more particularly, in regard to the verse about being better for someone if that man had not been born: it depends on which man (Jesus or Judas) is meant by the first 'him' pronoun.

If it would have been better for Jesus for Judas not to have been born, that would kind-of make sense, in that then Jesus would not have suffered betrayal from that friend; but Jesus was going to sacrifice Himself in any case, so in the end there wouldn't be much point to Jesus having meant that.

On the other hand, the cultural contexts are such that when this kind of statement is made, both pronouns are usually about the same man; so that adds a lot of weight toward the meaning being, "it would have been better for [Judas], had that man [Judas] not been born."

That weight, however, comes with an important cultural corollary: such exclamations are typically expressions of pity, not of hateful condemnation. When Job (to give one of several examples in the OT) complains that he wishes he had died in childbirth or in his mother's womb, he is not doing so from the standpoint of hopelessness, but is asking God to have pity on him for his miserable condition.

The lament, in other words, is a friendly lament, in Near Middle Eastern culture. Jesus is being sympathetic with Judas, not hateful against him.

As to Judas being a son of destruction: according to the scriptures we are all sons of wrath, which itself doesn't exactly mean what most people take it to mean--it means we are servants of wrath. Similarly to be a son of Satan is to be a servant of Satan; it doesn't mean that we derive our existence from Satan rather than from God (though it may mean we are being idolatrous). Judas was thus a servant of destruction; and Jesus already knew Judas was going to die, which is why when He prayed thankfully that He had brought all the disciples through without losing any of them, He mentioned the obvious exception.

Judas dies, though, repenting of his betrayal. He doesn't die impenitent, any more than St. Peter dies impenitent of his own cursing betrayal of Jesus. (Though obviously Peter and all the other betraying disciples go on to live penitent lives much longer than Judas does in his suicidal grief.)

In any case, being a son of destruction or of wrath or even of Satan, doesn't mean in itself that one is certainly doomed to hopeless punishment by God--even Calvinists don't believe that. (Insofar as they remember that all of us are sinners and so fall in that category.) The question still comes back to whether we can expect God to keep acting toward saving sinners from sin even after the death of the sinner.

If so, there's still hope for Judas; and the scriptural testimony reported of Jesus, though lamenting what happens to Judas, doesn't in fact close that hope down--once the scriptural contexts are reckoned in.