A Coffee In Hell

A Coffee In Hell

Glynn Cardy, Good Friday 2022
Frankly I sympathize with all those who would like to skip Friday this week and move on to Sunday. It’s not for the chocolate thing, or the flowers things, or the joy thing per se. It’s just that darkness and death, the ingredients of so-called Good Friday, aren’t appealing. Especially when life, the life of our world, seems to have more than enough darkness and death.

There is an old tale, as almost everything is about Easter, that after his death, Jesus, in some kind of form (we’re in a poetic multiverse here rather than a physiological one), descended to hell, Hades, Sheol, the pit, where Judas was, and comforted him. Over a coffee maybe.

That’s what Jesus was doing on his holy Saturday. He wasn’t hanging with God the Father in glory giving the angels high-fives, but hanging where the omnipotent deity was by definition not: with Judas in his hell.

What appeals in this telling tale is the idea that failure, betrayal, destructive remorse, deep hurt, the fracturing and collapse of friendship, might not have the final word. No matter how bad, no bad is the final word, the end.

What its saying is that when you have betrayed another badly; when the consequences of that betrayal are overwhelming, all-consuming; when go down, down deep into a pit where the light is hazy, into the place where God is not; this might not be your end. The long reach of love might follow you even there.

What do we know about the Judas portrayed in the Bible? Well, chronologically speaking, he doesn’t show up in the early writings – like Paul’s letters – but makes his first appearance after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (70 CE) in Mark’s gospel.

Note the destruction of the Temple turned the lives and faith of Jews, inside and outside Palestine, upside-down. The Temple was the great centre and symbol of Jewish identity, religion, and resilience. Surely it fell not because of a failure of faith, but because of traitors?

Judas, if there was an actual factual Judas, is painted as a loyal disciple, one of the guys that made it into a favoured twelve. The twelve. He was said to be the keeper of the purse, the accountant, who found Jesus’ endorsement of extravagance by the woman with the hair and the perfume offensive.

I would suggest though Judas wasn’t a miser, as the antisemitic revisionists would later portray him, or a trader who would sell his friend and his loyalty for 30 pieces of silver. Rather I would like to think of Judas as committed to the Isaiah and Jesus vision of “good news for the poor”, but was puzzled and then dismayed about the strategy Jesus was pursuing to achieve it. Indeed, he came to think Jesus was being destructive of the very movement he had initiated. Jesus seemed to be self-absorbed, intent on martyrdom.

Of course, Judas wasn’t alone. Psychologists have long suggested that Judas was articulating the discomfort, fears, and contrary thinking of a whole group of disciples. In the last week of his life, when Jesus was sore vexed in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter, James and John showed solidarity by falling asleep. With Jesus was arrested Peter, despite the schooling that the movement was nonviolent, drew a sword. Then he thrice denied knowing Jesus. Come crucifixion time they all took off, save maybe some of the women. All the men felt they had betrayed him. Not just Judas. But Judas was, and is still is the one vilified.

As for the moment of betrayal, when Judas is alleged to have led a large crowd with swords and clubs from the chief priests and the elders of the people, and identified Jesus with a kiss, any Sunday School graduate could point out the flaw. Hadn’t Jesus just ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey? Wouldn’t any Tom, Dick, or Moshe know how to identify him?

But let’s stay in the poetic multiverse and not get too picky.

Later in Matthew’s Gospel we are told that Judas, returned the silver to the chief priests, lamenting ‘I have sinned in betraying innocent blood’, then went and hung himself. In case you are still tempted to think of this as history, Jesus was not innocent. Pilate did not make a mistake. The Chief Priest (singular) did not determine Jesus’ fate. Jesus determined his own fate when he publicly preached a message subversive of the ideology and violence of the Roman Empire. He wouldn’t shut up.

As for Judas, if there was a literal Judas, we know nothing factual about his fate.

Yet the tradition of Judas is appealing in that it says that all who followed Jesus did not make a success of it. All who followed were not in that Upper Room when the spirit of empowerment and hope came calling. All who followed were not ‘resurrected’ and experience in their hearts and company Jesus as alive. Indeed, one was so overwhelmed by his sense of failure, his sense of betrayal, his taking of money to do a terrible thing, that he killed himself and was wiped from the story. One was a failure.

Failure is not the end.

Yet so much in our society says it is. So much and so many say there are so many things that you can do, sins you can commit, mess ups that matter, that you can’t come back from. The consequences have to be lived with. You reap what you sow. So, you have to rot in hell. The end.

And the Western church, Catholic and Protestant, has dined out on this judgemental religion for so long, fashioning faith as a courtroom, condemning so many. If you were good, or repented (and proved it) you went to heaven. If you weren’t or didn’t, you went to hell. These were permanent placements. The consequence of punishment undergirded church and society. Only in the last century or two has some of this, particularly in liberal Protestantismi begun to be debunked.

The Eastern church has offered from the beginning a different vision. Jesus’ resurrection was a universal resurrection, the resurrection of all humanity. And what happened in 33 CE was stage one. Jesus, after he died, descended (remember this is the poetic multiverse) to hell where he flattened or smashed the gates. The harrowing of hell. And then he led all the captives of hell, everybody in the place, out of their imprisonment. Hell was done away with. A tier of the universe was now redundant.

The Western and Eastern religious visions, versions, of hell are important in that the West said lock up the bad, throw away the key, keep them apart from us, and the East said live with the bad, help them be free, they are a part of us.

Somewhere in the midst of all that descending, smashing, and liberating, Jesus found time to have a coffee with Judas. The long reach of love connected them in hell. And together they sat.

Was Judas remorseful or depressed? Was Jesus similarly remorseful or depressed? Did they feel like they’d failed each other? Did they feel like powers beyond their friendship had conspired to drive them apart? Were they mad with each other? Did they comfort each other?

The old tale about this time together of Judas and Jesus having a coffee doesn’t give answers to these or any other questions. We have to fill them in ourselves, or leave them pending.

Sitting together again after friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and suffering is a rare gift to offer another. Maybe they didn’t say anything, just sat in silence, and savoured each other’s’ presence.

i Note that there are also a number of evangelicals also who believe in the doctrine of ‘universal salvation’.