This I Believe

Aaron - Yellow Springs, Ohio
Entered on March 29, 2007

I Believe in Judas Iscariot

I believe that when my schizophrenic brother took his own life, it was a divine victory. As I am a theologian, it may seem logical that I attributed Stephen’s death to a benevolent God. There are problems in such a conclusion. When the call came from the police chief that Steve’s body had been pulled from the Ohio River, I did not believe in God. I was an agnostic who had shrugged off the arrogance of atheism in years previous. Thinking about God entering my brother’s life in his final moments was philosophically counter-intuitive. God, however, is more than an object of epistemological enquiry, and as I stood on the abyss of agony, an overwhelming calm swept over me. I knew—in the Greek sense of gnosis—that Steve was with God, and that his pain had stopped.

Knowledge is a stern mistress for someone like myself. I cannot acquiesce to something without certainty that my life and beliefs are logical. It is easy to say that suicide is a victory, but harder to prove it. As a good Thomistic, I know that God cannot be put in a laboratory and subjected to empirical tests. But I require a reasoned explanation for my personal morality. To do this I had to choose a faith, not because one is more correct than another, but rather to equip myself with a system of thought and mythology that can be used to communicate and contextualize spirituality. No religion has been more pervasive in the United States than Christianity, so this rich religion provides me my myth.

Faith in hand, I set out to assemble an acceptable argument for justifiable self-homicide using the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Nowhere in the Tanakh (the proper name for what Christians arrogantly call the Old Testament) is there an explicit prohibition against suicide. There are passages mandating the death penalty for a person taking the Lord’s name in vain, but nothing about the eternal damnation of a suicide. Invariably, when I present this kernel of knowledge to other Christians, they invoke Judas Iscariot, the detested betrayer of Jesus, as a definitive example of why suicide is wrong.

It is shocking for many to learn that Judas did not “betray” Jesus. The Greek verb translated into English as “betray” actually means “to hand over,” like one hands over an idea or the spoils of war. So Judas handed Jesus over to the Romans, who had the power to kill him. Theologically, if Jesus had to die for the salvation of humanity, a belief that is the cornerstone of Christianity, didn’t someone have to turn him over? It is true that the Gospel of Matthew contends Judas killed himself, but the author of Acts says that Judas was split asunder, presumably by God. Regardless of the details, who are we to say that God was not in the action, or present at the death of Judas or my brother?

I am a Christian because of the suicide of my brother—supposedly the unforgivable sin—and the story of Judas Iscariot, the most despicable person in the New Testament. God does work in mysterious ways, and his victories come in the most unexpected places.