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Using natural reason it seems necessary to conclude that hell is a less evil fate than annihilation. If we recognize that evil is a lack of good, and existence is a good, then we can conclude that existing, while lacking all other goods (i.e., existing in hell), must be less evil than not existing at all (and thus having no goods). Hence, one concludes that hell is a kind of mercy. Because God loves the damned, too, He keeps them in existence for their own good, rather than annihilating them. Even though they have to undergo almost all evil, they are still spared from not existing at all.

But this doesn't seem to accord with Jesus' words in Mt. 26:24, where He says "woe to that man by whom the Son of man shall be betrayed: it were better for him, if that man had not been born." Jesus seems to be saying here that Judas would be better off if he had never existed at all, rather than to suffer in hell. That is, not existing (and therefore having no other goods) is better than lacking all goods but existence.

This question has bugged me for a long time, because I don't think there is an error in the reasoning or in the premises to arrive at the initial conclusion, and in fact Boethius seems to imply something similar when he writes about wicked men being owed punishment as a matter of justice, and that not to punish them would be to harm them even more. I want to know if any reputable Catholic theologians have discussed this specific idea in light of Mt. 26:24. This is about this one specific idea and how it relates to this one specific verse, not the problem of evil generally. The best I have been able to determine for myself, unsatisfactory as it is, is that Our Lord was speaking hyperbolically here.

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    C.S. Lewis said that it makes no sense to talk about the benefit or detriment of non-existence. Nov 30, 2021 at 21:28
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    I think the answer to this is that hell is not a kind of mercy, and it is not better than nonexistence. Dec 1, 2021 at 4:51
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    So, you think it more preferable to spend eternity in a lake of fire, inhaling sulphur (brimstone) to never being born : I beg to differ. Job cursed the day he was born, for a whole lot less than that.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 1, 2021 at 8:31
  • @Panzercrisis I'm willing to accept that if a legitimate authority declares it.
    – jaredad7
    Dec 1, 2021 at 14:30
  • While not quite a duplicate, my answer to this question might be useful Dec 1, 2021 at 20:17

4 Answers 4

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If existence is greater than nonexistence, how could it have been better for Judas not to have been born (Mt. 26:24)?

It is better to be in Hell for the rest of eternity than to never have existed!

Both Matthew 11:11and Mark 26:24 state, "The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man bywhom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that manif he had not been born." It would seem that this would imply that non-existence would be subjectively better or superior than to be in Hell for the rest of eternity.

Do the souls in hell wish they were dead? No.

It is impossible to detest what is fundamentally good, and to exist is fundamentally good. Those who say that they “wish they were dead” do not really wish nonexistence upon themselves. Rather, they wish an end to their suffering. So it is with the souls in Hell. St. Thomas teaches,

Not to be may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, and thus it can nowise be desirable, since it has no aspect of good, but is pure privation of good. Secondly, it may be considered as a relief from a painful life or from some unhappiness: and thus “not to be” takes on the aspect of good, since “to lack an evil is a kind of good” as the Philosopher says (Ethic. v, 1). In this way it is better for the damned not to be than to be unhappy. Hence it is said (Matthew 26:24): “It were better for him, if that man had not been born,” and (Jeremiah 20:14): “Cursed be the day wherein I was born,” where a gloss of Jerome observes: “It is better not to be than to be evilly.” In this sense the damned can prefer “not to be” according to their deliberate reason (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 3).

Catholic philosophers and theologians like saints Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, both hold that “existence is better than non-existence”. For those who are in Hell, even though deprived of all goods except for existence, still exist, and their existence is still good (in the same sense that Satan is evil, but is good only insofar as he exists). Existence shows a dependence upon God, for God holds us in existence in God. And it is true, that if we are in Hell, it is only just that we are there, and it would seem that God would hold us in existence out of Love, for nothing can separate us from the Love of God (Romans 8). I'm not sure if this is a Thomistic viewpoint or not, but this is the side I tend to lean towards in the qualm.

St. Anselm in his Proslogium mentions that existence is greater than non-existence. Although not as clear as St. Thomas Aquinas is, as Geremia’s answer points out.

Chapter III

God cannot be conceived not to exist. God is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived. That which can be conceived not to exist is not God.

And it assuredly exists so truly, that it cannot be conceived not to exist. For, it is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist. Hence, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, can be conceived not to exist, it is not that, than which nothing greater can be conceived. But this is an irreconcilable contradiction. There is, then, so truly a being than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist, that it cannot even be conceived not to exist;. and this being you are, O Lord, our God.

So truly, therefore, do you exist, O Lord, my God, that you can not be conceived not to exist; and rightly. For, if a mind could conceive of a being better than you, the creature would rise above the Creator; and this is most absurd. And, indeed, whatever else there is, except you alone, can be conceived not to exist. To you alone, therefore, it belongs to exist more truly than all other beings, and hence in a higher degree than all others. For, whatever else exists does not exist so truly, and hence in a less degree it belongs to it to exist. Why, then, has the fool said in his heart, there is no God (Psalms xiv. 1), since it is so evident, to a rational mind, that you do exist in the highest degree of all? Why, except that he is dull and a fool? - Anselm’s Prosologium

Whether or not the betrayal of Jesus is forgivable, St. Matthew (Matthew 26:24) makes it seem that it is not.

The Son of man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of man shall be betrayed: it were better for him, if that man had not been born. - Matthew 26:24

Catholics recognize that this verse refers only to Judas Iscariot and his particular situation. It is not a general statement about sin or temporary apostasy. After all, Peter’s denial of Jesus can be considered a kind of betrayal of Jesus, and yet clearly Jesus forgave him.

In warning against Judas’s betrayal, Jesus could have been including the resulting shame and despair that Judas would later feel over his actions. Church tradition seems quite clear that had Judas repented and sought forgiveness from the resurrected Jesus, he would have received it. Perhaps we can surmise that to truly have spent all that time with Jesus and still have betrayed him means that Judas had, in his heart, chosen to irrevocably reject Jesus.

Catholics who are damned suffer more than those of other beliefs because, in general, they received more lights and graces without taking advantage of them. The ones who knew more suffer more than those who had less knowledge. Those who sinned out of malice suffer more than those who fell from weakness. No one, however, suffers more than he deserves. Would that this were not true, so that I might have more reason to hate! This begs the reason for Judas Iscariot’s warning from Our Lord: Being an Apostle and personally seeing Jesus’ great work, and then to be condemned after death means a greater suffering for him than the average condemned soul in Hell!

Thus if existence is greater than nonexistence, it would have been better for Judas not to have been born (Mt. 26:24), not because his torments will be extremely great; but because even in Hell God is merciful.

Souls in Hell do not suffer equally. The more frivolous, malicious, and resolute one was in sin, the more the loss of God weighs upon the soul and the more tortured he feels for the abused creature. Catholics who are damned suffer more than those of other beliefs because, in general, they received more lights and graces without taking advantage of them. The ones who knew more suffer more than those who had less knowledge. Those who sinned out of malice suffer more than those who fell from weakness. No one, however, suffers more than he deserves. Would that this were not true, so that souls might have more reason to hate!

There is one more point I would like to underline here. The sinner in Hell merits his just rewards. If Judas betrayed the Son of God, It stands to reason he should suffer eternally. Otherwise, sin in this world would be much more abundant. “After all if we do an extremely high number of sinful acts, it would not be a big deal to the sinner since he would simply cease to exist at death.” Hitler would get off scot free!

Remember what St. Paul says:

Their end will be what their actions deserve. - 2 Corinthians 11:13–15

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To exist is indeed greater than not to exist.

St. Thomas Aquinas, arguing that "a wife is bound to pay the [marital] debt even to a leprous husband", says (Super Sent. lib. 4 d. 32 q. 1 a. 1 ad 4 = Summa suppl. q. 64 a. 1 ad 4):

…though the child begotten of them be diseased, it is better to be (to exist) thus than not (to exist) at all.
quamvis proles generetur infirma, tamen melius est ei sic esse quam penitus non esse.

Commentating on St. Matthew 26:24, St. Thomas Aquinas writes:

It were better for him, if that man had not been born. From these words an occasion of error follows. For certain men say that to one who does not exist, no punishment is inflicted; thus they say that it is simply better not to have existed, which is contrary to the Apostle’s words (Rom. 9).17 Hence, according to Jerome, it ought to be said that He is speaking according to the common manner of speech, meaning there is less harm, that is to say, he feels greater torment than if he had not been born. And what is said in Ecclesiasticus 4:2 seems to allude to this: “I praised the dead rather than the living” (Eccle. 4:2). And this is opposed to Augustine in his book De Libero Abitrio. What is nothing cannot be chosen. Likewise, what we choose is closer to happiness. But what is not, is not nearer to happiness. Therefore, what is to be said? Can it be that someone choose not to be, rather than to be punished? Therefore, it ought to be said that "to be" can be taken in two ways: either in itself, or by comparison with something else. In itself, I say that it is not something choose-able, as Augustine says; but in comparison with something else it is choose-able, as Jerome says. Because this is not something in nature, but according to the apprehension in the soul it is taken as something, for example, not to sit. But a choice is taken of that which is apprehended: wherefore, to lack an evil is taken to be something good. When, therefore, one chooses something not in itself but as exclusive of evil, one chooses in this way, as the Philosopher says. By this, the answer to the second objection is evident. He says, therefore, that, that which withdraws more from evil, is taken as something nearer to happiness; hence, to a feverish man to be without the fever seems to be something good, because he seems to be without miseries; hence, it is better not to be than to be subject to miseries.


17. “Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it: Why hast thou made me thus? Or hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor? What if God, willing to shew his wrath and to make his power known endured with much patience vessels of wrath, fitted for destruction, that he might shew the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy which he hath prepared unto glory?” (Rom. 9:20-22).

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  • I'm setting this as the accepted answer because, I suspect, if I understood more on the difference between the opinions of Augustine and Jerome that Aquinas is commenting on, I would understand what he is saying. I'm confused about the distinctions between kinds of choices, because it's hard to understand not-being as anything other than an absolute, rather than a state of things that could be chosen to avoid some suffering.
    – jaredad7
    Dec 1, 2021 at 21:28
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The Son of Mankind is indeed going away, according as it is written concerning Him, yet woe to that man through whom the Son of Mankind is being betrayed! Ideal were it for Him If that man were not born! Mathew 26:24

The case of Judas has an important bearing on the ultimate destiny of the human race at all creation. If it were well for Judas if he had not been born, then there can be no justification of all mankind. ( Ro. 5:18) Or reconciliation of all creation (Col. 1:20).

If he is ultimately justified and reconciled it is well that he has been born. The solution of this difficulty will help us to see the bias which pervades our translations. They deliberately recast the sentence and give it a meaning quite foreign to the text. The Lord speaks of himself as "Him", And of Judas as "that man". It were ideal for the Lord if Judas we're not born. The Lord's impending suffering is in view, not the punishment of Judas. whose ultimate destiny is not under consideration. From the concord commentary.

God is the potter of each of his vessels and Judas was for ordained for this purpose to betray Christ. He had no choice in the matter and to make sure it went through Satan entered his heart to make sure the deed got done.

This too is a case where God works all things together for good. A Savior for mankind is revealed from God to us.

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If existence is greater than nonexistence, how could it have been better for Judas not to have been born (Mt. 26:24)?

I will answer this in two ways. First, your cited verse is not pointing to Judas, because Judas only betrayed Jesus as "Rabbi" and do not look up to Jesus as the "Son of Man".

Just to give clarity, Adam lineage was called "Sons of God", while the "male & female" in Genesis1:27 produces "daughters of men" pointing to Genesis chapter 6, and perhaps the wife of Cain came from the "daughters of men" not from Adam's daughter, so there will no case of incest, and no curse happen as Leviticus and Deutoronomy teaches. And so, Jesus came and embraced the role of "Son of Man" to identify Him with the fallen mankind, to redeem all the "sons of man" not just the "sons of God" or the chosen Jews from Adam lineage, the people whom God made a covenant.

Second, using your assumption that Matthew26:24 refers to Judas.

Your question seems to see hell as better option than not be born, and seems to imply that "Hell is also a kind of mercy or a place of mercy." This line of thought is pointing to the two of the great thinker in the early and modern christianity. I am referring to Origen "Apokatastasis".

Apokatastasis (alternately apocatastasis from Greek: ἀποκατάστασις; literally, "restoration" or "return") is the teaching that everyone will, in the end, be saved. It looks toward the ultimate reconciliation of good and evil; all creatures endowed with reason, angels and humans, will eventually come to a harmony in God's kingdom. It is based on, among other things, St. Peter's speech in Acts 3.21 ("Christ Jesus who must remain in heaven until the time of the final restoration of all things χρόνων ἀποκαταστάσεως πάντων") and St. Paul's letter to Timothy in which he says that it is God's will that all men should be saved (1 Timothy 2.4).

https://orthodoxwiki.org/Apocatastasis

And the other also another acknowledged great theologian name Hans Urs Von Balthasar, who "Dare to hope, hell is empty".

The brilliant Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar is best known for his vast theological trilogy, Herrlichkeit, Theodramatik and Theologik.

But reading Chris Tilling’s blog recently, I noticed that his wishlist includes Balthasar’s little volume Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? With a Short Discourse on Hell (1988). And seeing this book on his list reminded me of the immense value of even Balthasar’s smallest books.

Dare We Hope is a sharp and insightful work, and it deserves close attention regardless of one’s own view of the scope of salvation. The book evoked some controversy, with critics accusing Balthasar of universalism, i.e., of believing in the apokatastasis panton. But such an accusation misses the whole point of Balthasar’s argument—for he does not believe in universal salvation, but he hopes for it. And, as the whole of Dare We Hope demonstrates, there may be all the difference in the world between “believing” and “hoping.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar: dare we hope?

This also a good reference on "Universalism" coming from Bishop Barron. https://www.wordonfire.org/hope/

In closing, the Catholic is now certain, Judas is not the "Son of Perdition" and did not betrayed Jesus as the "Son of Man". Because, as Ab. Paglia stated,

"For Catholic Church, if anyone says, Judas is in hell, he is a heretic."

https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/vatican-official-claims-its-heresy-to-say-judas-in-hell

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    It seems very clear that Judas is the one referred to by Matthew 26:24; while he may not have addressed Jesus as Son of Man, he is still talking to the same person. Verse 24 is referring to "That man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed", and is immediately followed by (verse 25, emphasis mine) "Judas, who would betray him, answered...". OP also makes it pretty clear that he is not referring to universalism Dec 1, 2021 at 21:59
  • @IsaacMiddlemiss Yes, all the Apostles except Judas betrayed Jesus as the "Son of Man" by virtue of their oath or profession of faith at the Last Supper, while Judas left the scene immediately and was not ordained into bishopric dignity. Peter openly betrayed Jesus three times, while the rest of the Apostles betrayed Jesus by hiding in fear. Jesus immediately reminded us in the gospel, that despite of Judas betrayal, Jesus look upon Judas as a "friend". Why? To assure us that all Jesus friends can be save because He offered His life for them including Judas. And Jesus went to hell for Judas Dec 1, 2021 at 22:11
  • Where does Jesus call Judas a friend after his betrayal? And there's no mention of anyone being ordained as bishops anywhere. Dec 1, 2021 at 22:38
  • @IsaacMiddlemiss Apostles are Bishops in Catholicism. "The Betrayal of Jesus …49Going directly to Jesus, he said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed Him. 50“Friend,” Jesus replied, “do what you came for.” Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus, and arrested Him. "-Matthew26:49-50. See? Judas only look upon Jesus as "Rabbi", and Jesus despite his betrayal, still consider Judas as His friend, and Jesus lay down His life for all His friends. -John15:13 Dec 1, 2021 at 22:44
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    @jongricafort How could you add Ab. Pagilia's quote as support when the subtitle of the article says: "Abp. Vincenzo Paglia contradicts the tradition of the Church" ? The body of the article then explains why Paglia was wrong by quoting St. Augustine, Aquinas, Pope St. Leo the Great, and how another assertion about euthanasia was wrong by quoting Abp. Terrence Prendergast and CCC. Dec 1, 2021 at 23:01

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