In Asia Minor or Alexandria, in the second century of Our Faith, when Basilides was publishing that the cosmos was the reckless or wicked improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg might have directed, with a singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Perhaps Dante would have confined him to a sepulcher of fire; perhaps his name would have augmented the catalogues of minor heresiarchs, somewhere between Satornil and Carpocrates; perhaps some fragment of his sermons, exonerated of all slander, would have remained in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses, or have perished when the fire of a monastic library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God dispatched him to the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. Here, in 1904, the first edition of Kristus och Judas (Christ and Judas) was published; here, in 1909, his seminal work Den hemlige Frälsaren (The Secret Savior) (the latter has a German version, composed in 1912 by Emili Schering and called Der heimliche Heiland).
Before attempting an examination of the aforecited works, I should reiterate that Nils Runeberg, member of the National Evangelical Union, was profoundly religious. In a cenacle in Paris or even in Buenos Aires, a literary man could very well rediscover the theses of Runeberg; were these theses to be promulgated during this same cenacle, however, they would be nothing more than flimsy exercises in negligence and blasphemy. Yet for Runeberg they composed the key to deciphering theology's central mystery: material for meditation and analysis, for historical and philological controversy, for arrogance, for jubilation, for terror. They justified and ruined his life. Whoever peruses this article should also consider that neither Runeberg's conclusions, nor his dialectics, nor his proofs may register. Indeed, an observer may believe that his conclusion undoubtedly preceded his "proofs." Who now would resign himself to seeking out proofs for something he does not believe, or whose message leaves him indifferent?
The first edition of Kristus och Judas bore this categorical epigraph, whose sense, years later, Nils Runeberg himself would monstrously expand: Not one thing, but everything which tradition attributes to Judas Iscariot is false (De Quincey, 1857). Preceded by a certain German, De Quincey speculated that Judas betrayed Jesus Christ to force him to declare his divinity and ignite a vast rebellion against the Roman yoke; Runeberg, however, suggests a vindication of a metaphysical kind. Skilfully he begins to highlight the superfluity of Judas's act. He observes (as had Robertson) that in order to identify a master who preached daily in the synagogue and who performed miracles before thousands of people, no treason on the part of an apostle is required. It, nevertheless, occurred. Supposing there to be an error in the Scriptures is intolerable; no less tolerable is admitting an accidental fact into the most beautiful event in world history. Therefore, Judas's betrayal was not accidental: it was a prefigured act which has its mysterious place in the economy of Salvation.
Runeberg goes on: the Word, when it was made flesh, passed from ubiquity to space, from eternity to history, from unbounded happiness to change and flesh; for such a sacrifice it was necessary that a man, who would represent all men, make a sacrifice of condign worth. Judas Iscariot was this man. Judas alone among the Apostles intuited the secret divinity and terrible purpose of Jesus. The Word had been reduced to something mortal; Judas, disciple of the Word, could reduce himself to an informer (the worst crime in infamy) and become host to the unquenchable fire. The lower order is a mirror of the upper order; the forms of the earth correspond to the forms of heaven; our skin's blemishes are a map of the incorruptible constellations; and in some way Judas reflects Jesus. Hence come the thirty coins and the kiss; hence comes voluntary death all the more to merit Damnation. In this way Nils Runeberg elucidated the enigma of Judas.
Theologians of all confessions refuted Runeberg's explanation. Lars Peter Engström accused him of not knowing, or of omitting, the hypostatic union; Axel Borelius, of renewing the heresy of Docetism, which negated the humanity of Jesus; the mordant Bishop of Lund, of contradicting the third verse of Chapter 22 in the Gospel of Luke.
These assorted anathemas influenced Runeberg, who partially rewrote the condemned book and modified his doctrine. He abandoned to his adversaries all theological terrain and put forth oblique reasonings of moral order. He admitted that Jesus, "who had at his disposal the considerable resources that Omnipotence might offer," did not need a man to redeem all men. Later, he countered those who claimed we knew nothing about the inexplicable traitor; we do know, he said, that he was one of the Apostles, one of those selected to announce the Kingdom of Heaven, to heal the sick, to cleanse the lepers, to raise the dead, and to cast out devils (Matthew 10:7-8; Luke 9:1).
A man so distinguished from others by the Redeemer deserves from us the best interpretation of his acts. To impute his crime to avarice (as have so many others, with reference to John 12:6) is to resign ourselves to the most torpid of motives. Nils Runeberg proposes the opposite motive: hyperbolic and unlimited asceticism. The ascetic, for the greater glory of God, vilifies and mortifies the flesh; Judas did the same thing to the spirit. He renounced honor, good, peace, the Kingdom of Heaven, just like others, less heroically, renounced pleasure.* He premeditated his sins with terrible lucidity. In adultery, abnegation and tenderness should take part; in homicide, courage; in profanities and blasphemy, a certain Luciferian refulgence. Judas chose certain sins not visited with any virtue: the abuse of trust (John 12:6), and betrayal. He labored in gigantic humility, believing himself unworthy of being good. Paul wrote: That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord (1 Corinthians, 1:31); Judas sought Hell, because the happiness of the Lord was enough for him. He thought that happiness, like good, was a divine attribute, and ought not to be usurped by man.**
Many have discovered, post factum, that in Runeberg's justifiable beginnings lies his extravagant end. They have also discovered that The Secret Savior is a mere perversion or exasperation of Christ and Judas. Towards the end of 1907, Runeberg ended and revised the handwritten text; almost two years passed before he would give it in for printing. In October of 1909 the book appeared with a prologue – one tepid to the point of enigmatic – by the Danish Hebraist Erik Erfjord, and with this perfidious epigraph: He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not (John 1:10). The general argument is not complete, even if the conclusion is monstrous. God, argues Nils Runeberg, reduced himself to being a man for the salvation of the human race; one may feasibly suppose that the sacrifice he undertook was perfect, not invalidated or attenuated by omissions. To limit his sufferings to the agony endured for one afternoon on a cross is blasphemous.*** To claim that he was man and was incapable of sin contains a contradiction: the attributes of impeccabilitas and humanitas are not compatible. Kemnitz admits that the Redeemer could feel fatigue, cold, embarrassment, hunger, and thirst; he also admits he could sin and lose himself. The famous text
For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness .... He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:2-3)
is for many a previsioning of the Crucified in the hour of His death; for some (for instance, Hans Lassen Martensen), a refutation of the beauty public consensus attributes to Christ; for Runeberg, this detail prophesied not one moment but all of the atrocious future, in time and in eternity, of the Word which was made flesh. God became man utterly, to infamy, to reprobation, to the very abyss. To save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies woven through the perplexed web of history: He could have been Alexander, or Pythagoras, or Rurik, or Jesus. But He chose a negligible destiny: He chose Judas.
In vain the bookstores of Stockholm and Lund put forth this revelation. Skeptics considered it, a priori, to be an insipid and laborious theological game; theologians disdained it. Runeberg intuited in this ecumenical indifference an almost miraculous confirmation. God ordered this indifference; God did not wish His terrible secret to be divulged on earth. Runeberg understood that the hour had not come; he sensed that ancient divine curses were converging upon him; he recalled Elijah and Moses, who upon the mountain had covered their faces so as not to see God; he recalled Isaiah, who was terrified when his eyes saw Him whose glory fills the earth; he recalled Saul, whose eyes remained blind on the road to Damascus; he recalled the rabbi Simoen ben Azzai, who saw Paradise and died; he recalled the famous sorcerer John of Viterbo, who, once he could see the Trinity, went completely mad; he recalled the Midrashim, who loathed the impious who pronounced the Shem Hamephorash, the Secret Name of God. Wasn't he possibly guilty of this same dark crime? Might this have been the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, that which may not be forgiven (Matthew 12:31)? Valerius Soranus died for having divulged the secret name of Rome. What infinite punishment awaited him for having discovered and divulged the secret name of God?
Drunk on insomnia and vertiginous dialectics, Nils Runeberg roamed the streets of Malmö, shouting and pleading that his merciful destiny be the sharing of Hell with the Redeemer.
He died from an aneurysm on March 1, 1912. Heresiologists perhaps will remember him; to our notion of the Son, which seemed exhausted, he added the complications of evil and misfortune.
* Borelius asks mockingly: Why didn't he renounce renouncing? Why is renouncing not to be renounced?
** Euclydes da Cunha, in a book unknown to Runeberg, notes that, for the heresiarch of Canudos, Antonio Conselheiro, virtue "was almost an impiety." Argentine readers will recall analogous passages in the works of Almafuerte. Runeberg published, in the symbolic leaflet Sju insegel (Seven seals), a serialized descriptive poem, The Secret Water. The first stanzas narrate the facts of a tumultuous day; the last, the finding of a glacial pond. The poet suggests that the endurance of this silent water corrects our useless violence and in some way permits and absolves it. The poem concludes thus: The water of the forest is happy; we may be evil and sad.
*** Maurice Abramowicz observes: "According to this Scandinavian, Jesus always has the easy role: his streak of bad luck, thanks to the science of typographers, enjoys polyglot renown; his thirty-three-year residence among human beings was, on the whole, nothing more than a vacation." In the third appendix to Christelige Dogmatik (Christian Dogmatics), Erfjord refutes this passage. He notes that the crucifixion of God has not ceased because what happened once in time is repeated without respite in eternity. Judas, now, continues to charge silver coins in the temple; he continues to make a slipknot in the rope upon the field of blood. (To justify this claim, Erfjord invokes the final chapter of the first volume of Jaromir Hladík's Vindication of Eternity.)