Q. Recently, the readings at Mass indicated that Judas was replaced by Matthias after taking his own life. Does the Church teach that Judas is in hell?
A. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles describes the election of Matthias, who was chosen to replace Judas as an Apostle. The choosing of Matthias as one who would replace Judas tells us something of the way that Christ designed the Church.
The Apostle Peter, the first pope, leads these proceedings, and determines that the replacement of Judas should be narrowed down to two men: Joseph (called Barsabbas) and Matthias. And Matthias is chosen. Peter takes on the leadership role in this election, which is indicative of the particular authority given to his Office by Christ. Jesus is never quoted in the Gospels about how the replacement of the Apostles would occur. Nevertheless, we have biblical witness of this succession happening in the early Church.
Judas is a tragic figure. He was given great authority by God to share in a ministerial way in the three-fold mission of Christ as priest, prophet and king. However, the fact that he ended his own life reveals to us that even those who are given great authority must rely upon the grace of God to persevere to the end.
Judas’ greatest mistake was not his betrayal—even though that was a grave sin—but his despair, in not accepting God’s Divine Mercy. The Apostle Peter also betrayed Jesus by denying that he even knew Jesus, but he was repentant and sought the Lord’s forgiveness. Judas’ suicide and Peter’s return to grace remind us that we should never despair of God’s mercy.
While the Church canonizes saints, and in doing so declares them to have entered into eternal glory, the Church does not declare someone to be in hell. This is not to say that there is no such thing as hell. Eternal damnation is the result of the free, human choices of individuals here in this world. When people commit mortal sins, they cut themselves off from God—it’s their choice, and not God’s choice. St. Paul in his letter to Timothy states that God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). A mortal sin is committed if it is a serious matter, done with sufficient reflection about the seriousness of the sin, and executed through the free consent of the will. If people die in this state of mortal (or deadly) sin, they have chosen to be apart from God for all eternity.
We can say with certainty that Judas’ suicide is an objectively evil action and a serious sin. Suicide is the taking of innocent life, and it goes against the dignity of human life. It has many evil effects, including the heartbreak inflicted upon the loved ones of the deceased.
However, we never know the subjective parts of the morality of an act. We don’t know what was in the intellect and will of Judas when he took his own life, and so he can’t be “declared” to be in hell. Thus, the Church does not formally “declare” an individual to be in hell.
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