Needless to say, betraying the son of God carries grave consequences. And the way the Bible expresses this is utilized by some as evidence for eternal conscious hell.
The Son of Man is to go, just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born (Matthew 26:24). 1 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Although I would not consider this passage as one of the core prooftexts for eternal torment (such as Matthew 25:46 or Revelation 20:10), nevertheless Jesus’s words regarding Judas in Matthew 26:24 seem to be appealed to with increasing frequency. And even if my impression is ultimately incorrect, appealing to this passage is not a new phenomenon.
In a nutshell, the argument is that if evangelical conditionalism (or universalism) were true, one could not say that Judas was better off not being born. 2 For example, see Tim Barnett and Greg Koukl, “Hell Interrupted—Part 1,” Stand To Reason, September 1, 2017, https://www.str.org/w/hell-interrupted-part-1 (accessed April 23, 2023). Regarding evangelical conditionalism specifically, the reasoning is that if one is annihilated, then they end up in the same position as if they had never been born. To be worse off than if you had been born, you must suffer a worse fate than simply going back to not existing.
As is often the case with prooftexts for eternal torment – especially with passages that do not directly give specifics about hell – there are several reasonable ways that this passage can be consistent with evangelical conditionalism. In this case, these would include the following:
- All else being equal, the great shame that will forever stain Judas’s name makes it better for him to have not been born.
- Quantitatively, temporary suffering in hell can make one better off never born, even if they are ultimately annihilated.
- Qualitatively, final suffering can easily overshadow past joys, making Judas subjectively wish he had never been born.
- Jesus could be speaking hyperbolically, the point being that his betrayer’s fate would be extraordinarily awful, without making a definitive claim about what would truly have been better for Judas.
The Everlasting Contempt Upon Judas’s Name
It’s no secret that Judas Iscariot has been vilified across the world. Since the fact that he betrayed Jesus is recorded in the Bible, he always will be. This is all the clearer given what is written in Daniel 12:2 about the unsaved:
Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.
As has been noted in the past, this passage does not prove eternal torment because one does not need to be alive and experiencing consciousness to be viewed with contempt. 3 For more on Daniel 12:2, see “Daniel 12:2 Does Not Teach Eternal Torment“. Common sense tells us this; atheists who believe in true good and evil – which is virtually all of them despite it being inconsistent with their worldview – still view Hitler with contempt despite him being totally and forever dead in their minds. Language tells us this as well, since the word for contempt, deraon, also describes how people view the corpses of the wicked in Isaiah 66:24. 4 7. “1860. דֵּרָאוֹן (deraon),” Bible Hub, n.d. http://biblehub.com/hebrew/strongs_1860.htm (accessed April 22, 2023).
If the wicked will be viewed with contempt in general, how much more Judas Iscariot? No one even names their children Judas anymore, despite it having been so common in Judas’s day that he wasn’t even the only Judas of the 12 disciples.
Objectively speaking, this is something bad that happened to Judas and that fact will remain in history forever. And in an ancient honor/shame culture like that in which Judas lived, the idea of such a fate would have been absolutely horrifying, even without the thought of consciously experiencing it forever. Judas’s status is not the same at the end as it was at the start.
Eternal Suffering Is Not Necessary To Make Judas Suffer Enough To Exceed All Of His Past Joy
The very idea that all that matters in this calculus is where Judas begins and ends is questionable at best. Why would we assume that? Even if his final state of being (i.e. having no conscious state of being) is the same as his state before coming into being as a conscious being, doesn’t even the relatively short space in between make a difference? From a quantitative standpoint, surely what happened to him as a result of being born – which includes any conscious suffering after judgment – would matter. If someone is born, suffers so much that it overshadows their joy in life, and then dies (for real and forever), how would we not say that they would have been better off never having been born? Their net experience is worse than nothing.
Saying that it does not matter how much Judas suffers temporarily while alive if he ends up without conscious existence is like saying there is no difference between an execution that is instant and painless versus one that is slow and painful. How painful a death is may not be highly significant when compared to death itself, but it definitely makes a difference (that’s why the painful and shameful death of crucifixion was reserved for only the worst criminals).
With that in mind, there are many ways that Judas could suffer so much that it exceeds all of his joy and makes his existence a net negative.
Annihilation in hell need not be instant. Many annihilationists believe there will be a finite time before final annihilation where the wicked are tormented. I do believe that this is at least biblically viable. And it needn’t necessarily be for that long. The actually-traditional view of eternal conscious hell is that the damned are consciously burned alive for ever and ever. And until very recently, those who didn’t believe in literal fire believed that eternal conscious hell was so terrible that it is somehow even worse than being burned alive for ever and ever. 5For more on this, and how eternal conscious hell has traditionally been more like an eternal torture chamber out of Dante than a place of fireless sadness and regret, see “The Not-So-Traditional View: Does Your Particular View of Hell Really Have Church History On Its Side? (Part 2)”.
If one were kept alive in fire, the pain would be so unimaginable that it may not take all that long to exceed all the net happiness they experience up until then. At the absolute most, it would only have to go on for the length of Judas’s life (maybe 30-40 years). But given how incredibly painful it would be to burn alive – normally people die very quickly in that state – it wouldn’t take anywhere near that long. Exactly how long it would take would require speculation, and not speculation any of us probably want to do. But whether it is minutes or days or weeks or whatever, it sure doesn’t require that it last for eternity.
Even less fiery, torturous approaches could also satisfy the requirement that Judas’s total suffering will exceed his joy in his earthly life. Given how terrible the day of judgment will be for the wicked, who is to say that even just that experience might not be so terrible as to make it worth not being born? Could you imagine the terror of a sinner standing before an angry God and having to answer for every sin with no means of atonement?
The Subjective Experience of Judas
The above assumes that there is some objective, quantitative measure such that X amount of suffering is equivalent to X amount of joy, and if suffering exceeds joy, then a person is better off unborn. But people are averse to pain and risk. That is why most people would not bet a large amount of money on a coin flip; the pain of losing a certain amount of money is greater than the joy of gaining the same amount. When we factor in Judas’s subjective experience, the amount of suffering needed to make it not worth having been born could drop precipitously. Who is to say that even just knowing you lost and are condemned to death because of your own choices would not overshadow the happiness of life before that? Sometimes in life, if something ends poorly (such as a romantic relationship), then, no matter how good it was for a time, afterwards it can make you feel worse than if it never happened at all. This fact of human experience gives us all the more reason to consider that it wouldn’t take eternal conscious hell to make it better that Judas had never been born.
There is Reason To Think Jesus Might Be Speaking Hyperbolically
So far, we have been looking at this based on the presumption that Jesus was speaking in a literal, didactic manner. The presumption has been that, by whatever measure, it would truly and fundamentally have been better for Judas had he never been born.
However, it could very well be the case that Jesus was speaking hyperbolically to simply make the point that the consequence of his betrayal of Jesus would be terrible for Judas. Even in common English today, this and similar phrases are used hyperbolically to describe bad things happening. Sometimes it is in the context of a threat (e.g. “I’ll make you wish you’d never been born”). Sometimes it is a moody teenager saying “I wish I had never been born” because they are really unhappy about something. Whatever the case, it’s not hard to imagine this as hyperbole.
It could be the case that, from a strictly metaphysical standpoint, Judas objectively was no worse off having been born. In theory, maybe he even was actually better off having been born (as would be the case according to universalism). Hyperbole, by its very nature, is not literal or meant to be taken as literal.
Such language being hyperbolic is at least a reasonable possibility unless we are to say the nature of the Bible and God’s revelation makes hyperbole untenable. But the Bible is not above using hyperbole at all.
For example, compare 2 Kings 18:5 with 2 Kings 23:25:
Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. For he clung to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses.
Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.
Even on its face, it certainly sounds like the same kinds of mutually exclusive superlative statements are made about both. Both had none like them before or after – which is literally impossible.
Now, one might argue that it is in a different sense that each had no one like them, before or after. This would mean that the statements could be taken literally without contradiction. However, when you read about them, it seems pretty clear that they shined and excelled in the same ways. Are we to really going to say that Josiah’s turning to the Lord “with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength” was fundamentally different from Hezekiah’s clinging to, trusting, and obeying the Lord (both kings doing so in accordance with Moses’s commands, no less)? Because we must view their actions as distinct and materially different in order to say that Hezekiah was unlike all kings before and after in certain ways, and Josiah was unlike all kings before and after him in entirely distinct ways (with no crossover at all).
Much more likely is that we are just supposed to figure that the same author described both very similar kings who did similar things hyperbolically to highlight how great they were. Lots of people have “the greatest mother ever,” after all.
It’s also questionable if these kings, who led Israel away from paganism and back to God, were less wise than Solomon (who made many terrible and sinful decisions as he got older). Yet it was said of Solomon that none would ever have wisdom like him (2 Chronicles 1:11-12). If nothing else, certainly Jesus was wiser, and He said as much Himself (Matthew 12:41-42). 6 Dee Dee Warren, It’s not The End of the World (Xulon, 2015), 100.
The idea that the Bible uses hyperbole (including Jesus in the Gospels) is not remotely a liberal idea, nor is it a particularly controversial idea. Rather, it is an aspect of biblical language that is recognized across denominations. 7 Fr. Charles Grondin, “What Did Jesus Mean by ‘Cut Off Your Hand’?” n.d., https://www.catholic.com/qa/what-did-jesus-mean-by-cut-off-your-hand (accessed April 22, 2023). 8 Kyle Butt, “Hyperbole: A Common Biblical Figure of Speech,” Apologetics Press, February 17, 2008, https://apologeticspress.org/hyperbole-a-common-biblical-figure-of-speech-2407/ (accessed April 22, 2023). 9 “Personification, Hyperbole, and Metaphor,” Ligonier Ministries, February 22, 2017, 7https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/personification-hyperbole-and-metaphor (accessed April 22, 2023). 10 JP Holding, “Hyperbole in the Bible,” n.d., https://www.tektonics.org/gk/hyperbole.php (accessed April 22, 2023). 11 “‘What the Bible Says About God’s Hatred’,” Focus on the Family, May 12, 2017, https://www.focusonthefamily.com/family-qa/what-the-bible-says-about-gods-hatred/ (accessed April 22, 2023). 12 “Did Jesus Mean We Should Literally Puck Out Our Eyes in Matthew 5:29-30?” n.d., https://www.gotquestions.org/pluck-out-eye-cut-off-hand.html (accessed April 22, 2023).
Job Wishing He Had Never Been Born
Furthermore, the kind of thinking that would lie behind Jesus being hyperbolic about not being born is evident in the book of Job. The entire third chapter is devoted to Job cursing the fact that he was ever born, and in this context, he says the following:
Why did I not die at birth, Come forth from the womb and expire? Why did the knees receive me, And why the breasts, that I should suck? “For now I would have lain down and been quiet; I would have slept then, I would have been at rest, With kings and with counselors of the earth, Who rebuilt ruins for themselves; Or with princes who had gold, Who were filling their houses with silver. Or like a miscarriage which is discarded, I would not be, As infants that never saw light (Job 3:11-16)
Job certainly wasn’t expecting to go to eternal conscious hell, so it is not as though he was comparing that to never having been born.
There are mainly two possibilities for what Job expected after death, and this would affect the larger context and implications of his words here. In both cases, however, it goes against the idea that Jesus’s words about Judas having never been born are evidence against annihilationism.
At worst, Job was fully unaware of any concept of an afterlife and thought his final fate would be to be as nonexistent as he was when he was born. If this is so, then Job understood that enough temporary suffering while you live is enough to make it better to have never been born even if you then permanently die.
Even if it is the case that Job expected his conscious existence to permanently end at the first death, and also he was wrong that it was better to not be born, there still is a point to consider: if Job had a mindset that not being born was subjectively better than living in misery and permanently ceasing to consciously exist, this still gives precedent for use of such language by Jesus. Because, even if this means never having been born is quantitatively, objectively equal to annihilation, Job would be showing us that it is still better to have never been born by the subjective view of the person involved.
The other possibility is that Job did have at least some hope or understanding that his physical death would not be the permanent end of his life. Given statements like those in Job 19:22-27, as well as non-textual reasons, I find this to be more likely. If this is so, then Job would understand that he is still literally better off having been born, despite his massive sufferings. And yet, to express his current state of despair, he hyperbolically says he is better off unborn for rhetorical emphasis (like the moody teenager who says he wishes he hadn’t been born).
If Job was being hyperbolic, then this defends annihilationism against arguments from Matthew 26:24 by giving biblical precedent of using such language hyperbolically. And if Job used such hyperbole when he had eternal life to look forward to, then that would mean that it would be a less extreme form of hyperbole for Jesus to speak this way of Judas (as Judas would be annihilated and would have no hope in life, unlike Job).
A Word About Ecclesiastes 4:1-3
It is worth noting that Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 expresses similar sentiment as Job (emphasis added):
Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.
Now, Ecclesiastes is known to be a bit of a strange beast. Biblical Christians will have different approaches for exactly how one is to exegete this text. Getting into different ways it could play out would go beyond the scope of this article. For what it is worth, I myself believe that the inspired author is the one introducing the teacher’s quotations and giving the final lesson at the end to obey God’s commandments since there will be judgment. As such, I believe he is giving a long series of quotations of the Teacher (probably a wise but disillusioned Solomon), in order to show that if there is not a God in heaven and judgment awaiting us all, and if all we have is what we see in this earthly realm and this temporary life in it, then all would be meaningless. 13 As with any quotation in the Bible (other than of God himself) – or in any written record of events (like a newspaper) – the reliability/inerrancy depends on how faithfully the Teacher’s thoughts are presented, not whether the teachings/beliefs expressed are themselves 100% correct. On many occasions, scripture quotes the godless and the righteous alike as making statements that are lies or mistakes of fact. Here, interpreters have debated for ages what the purpose of including Solomon’s words here was. This would put its use here more in line with hyperbole than an actual argument that one is actually better off unborn (like in Job if he expected an afterlife).
That said, whatever your specific view of Ecclesiastes, the following is quite telling: the teacher is surely not fearing eternal conscious hell, and yet he still uses the language of envying those who have never been born due to their lack of even temporary suffering.
Some passages that appear to teach eternal conscious hell are challenging for the evangelical conditionalist (though never insurmountable). Others are like this one.
It really doesn’t take too much digging to realize why this passage is totally compatible with evangelical conditionalism. There are many ways it clearly makes sense even if annihilationism is true. If Jesus was being hyperbolic, then even universalism is not disproven .
Simply put, when a doctrine is so deeply ingrained in Christian thought as eternal conscious hell still is, there often isn’t much incentive to give arguments like that from Matthew 26:24 a second glance. Upon second glance, it’s no big deal for the evangelical conditionalist.
|Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
|For example, see Tim Barnett and Greg Koukl, “Hell Interrupted—Part 1,” Stand To Reason, September 1, 2017, https://www.str.org/w/hell-interrupted-part-1 (accessed April 23, 2023).
|For more on Daniel 12:2, see “Daniel 12:2 Does Not Teach Eternal Torment“.
|7. “1860. דֵּרָאוֹן (deraon),” Bible Hub, n.d. http://biblehub.com/hebrew/strongs_1860.htm (accessed April 22, 2023).
|For more on this, and how eternal conscious hell has traditionally been more like an eternal torture chamber out of Dante than a place of fireless sadness and regret, see “The Not-So-Traditional View: Does Your Particular View of Hell Really Have Church History On Its Side? (Part 2)”.
|Dee Dee Warren, It’s not The End of the World (Xulon, 2015), 100.
|Fr. Charles Grondin, “What Did Jesus Mean by ‘Cut Off Your Hand’?” n.d., https://www.catholic.com/qa/what-did-jesus-mean-by-cut-off-your-hand (accessed April 22, 2023).
|Kyle Butt, “Hyperbole: A Common Biblical Figure of Speech,” Apologetics Press, February 17, 2008, https://apologeticspress.org/hyperbole-a-common-biblical-figure-of-speech-2407/ (accessed April 22, 2023).
|“Personification, Hyperbole, and Metaphor,” Ligonier Ministries, February 22, 2017, 7https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/personification-hyperbole-and-metaphor (accessed April 22, 2023).
|JP Holding, “Hyperbole in the Bible,” n.d., https://www.tektonics.org/gk/hyperbole.php (accessed April 22, 2023).
|“‘What the Bible Says About God’s Hatred’,” Focus on the Family, May 12, 2017, https://www.focusonthefamily.com/family-qa/what-the-bible-says-about-gods-hatred/ (accessed April 22, 2023).
|“Did Jesus Mean We Should Literally Puck Out Our Eyes in Matthew 5:29-30?” n.d., https://www.gotquestions.org/pluck-out-eye-cut-off-hand.html (accessed April 22, 2023).
|As with any quotation in the Bible (other than of God himself) – or in any written record of events (like a newspaper) – the reliability/inerrancy depends on how faithfully the Teacher’s thoughts are presented, not whether the teachings/beliefs expressed are themselves 100% correct. On many occasions, scripture quotes the godless and the righteous alike as making statements that are lies or mistakes of fact. Here, interpreters have debated for ages what the purpose of including Solomon’s words here was.