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.
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