Dante’s vision of the final circle of Hell was Satan eternally chewing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius (three greatest traitors in history).
Judas, right after Peter, stands out as the most compelling figure among the disciples, and, indeed, as one of the most mysterious personalities of the whole New Testament.
Part of the mystery stems from lack of information: there is little that we know about Judas other than his betrayal. What we do know makes his betrayal seem even more startling. After all, he was one of the twelve. When Jesus healed, preached, and exorcised demons, Judas was a direct witness. When Jesus sent the twelve out to preach and empowered them to cast out demons and heal the sick, Judas went out, preached the kingdom, cast out demons, and healed the sick. Judas, we must never forget, was a man who knew and experienced the power of Jesus firsthand.
And yet, for all this, Judas’s motivations remain shrouded in mystery. How could a person who knew Jesus so well, who experienced Jesus’ power, betray him in the end? Could such a person really betray Jesus merely for money? If it was really all about money and greed, then why did he take his own life?
Judas is compelling because he figures so prominently in the narrative of Jesus’ life. He is mysterious because we know so little about his life and motivations. But, in addition to these, Judas is also one of the most unsettling figures in the Bible because his betrayal presents us with a theodicy. How can God ordain that Judas should betray Jesus, then condemn him for doing what he had no choice but to do? Jesus states clearly at Matthew 26:24 that “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” Jesus’ death was prophesied, but woe to the man who betrayed him! And this makes us ask: If Judas was clearly destined to betray Jesus, does that also mean he was destined to die as he did? Was the aftermath of his betrayal bound by the same necessity as his betrayal? Is Judas a special case in the history of salvation—the one man God could never, and would never, save? Did God, who destined Judas to betray Jesus, also destine Judas for eternal damnation?
I propose to you that the answer to those questions is “no.” That Judas, while destined to betray Jesus, was not of necessity bound to die because of it. In fact, when we examine the story of Judas in the Gospel of Matthew we discover a series of curious parallels that force us to ask a critical question. The parallels are between Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial, and the critical question is: What is it that separates these two men? The answer, I believe, is in two sins Judas commits, implicitly, between his betrayal and death. They are sins worth examining both to answer for Judas’s untimely death, and because they are sins into which every Christ-follower is equally prone to fall.
So worthless, in light of eternity…
The Gospel of Matthew is the only Gospel that treats significantly with the details of Judas’s last night on earth. Curiously, within that narrative the actions of Judas and Peter are directly paralleled four distinct times. To set the stage, we must remember that Judas has agreed in Matthew 26:14-16 to betray Jesus into the hands of the Pharisees for a sum of 30 pieces of silver. (As an aside, Judas’s decision to betray Jesus falls on the heels of the ‘waste’ of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus at Bethany. Notably, all the disciples take offence at the waste, so Judas isn’t singled out. Nevertheless, we are led, by virtue of editing, to conclude that Judas is the only one to do something about it. This, of course, is merely speculation.)
This brings us to the first parallel between Judas and Peter. During the Last Supper, Jesus makes a prediction. He says (26:21), “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” He is, of course, speaking of Judas. Then, after supper, while on their way to the Mount of Olives, Jesus makes another prediction. This time he says (26:31), “This very night you will all fall away on account of me.” Not only would one disciple betray Jesus, the whole group would fall away that very evening. It was, to be sure, not a very good night to be a disciple.
The second parallel is in the focusing of these predictions, because both Peter and Judas present themselves to be identified as prime culprits. First, right after Jesus predicts his betrayal, the disciples seek to exonerate themselves, each saying, “Surely not I, Lord?” When Judas offers his excuse in verse 25, Jesus responds by saying, “Yes, it is you.” Then, when Jesus has predicted the falling away of all his disciples, Peter responds, on behalf of the group, and says (26:33), “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” To which Jesus replies that Peter would disown him three times that very night. In verse 35, observe, Peter restates his conviction, “And all the other disciples said the same.”
The kiss would help soldiers identify the correct man in the dark. (They were afraid to arrest Jesus during the day.)
These, then, are the first two parallels: a general prediction (betrayal), followed by specific identification (Judas), and a general prediction (falling away), followed by another specific identification (Peter). Both predictions, of course, and both betrayals, come true. And this, indeed, is the third parallel in Matthew’s Gospel, because Jesus’ predictions are fulfilled. After the disciples arrive in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas arrives with the soldiers and betrays Jesus with his kiss. Shortly after this, while Jesus is on trial, Peter disowns Jesus three times outside in the courtyard. It seems clear, from the editing of the text, that we are meant to see Peter and Judas in parallel to one another.
But there is a fourth parallel drawn between these disciples, and in order to understand this parallel we must also understand the passage Jesus quotes to his disciples when he predicts their falling away. There, in Matthew 26:31, Jesus quotes from Zechariah 13:7, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”
Zechariah’s prophecies figure prominently in Matthew’s account of the passion of Jesus, but the quotation of the oracle from chapter 13:7-9 is one of the most prominent instances. An initial clue to help us understand this passage will be to know that in the Old Testament the language of ‘shepherd’ and ‘sheep’ is frequently used in the place of ‘King’ and ‘people.’ Here, then, in the passage Jesus has quoted, God has promised to strike a shepherd (His King), and scatter His sheep (the people of Israel) as judgment. In Jesus’ quotation, Jesus has envisioned himself as the shepherd and his disciples as the sheep; he was about to be struck, and they were about to be scattered. For both Jesus (in Matthew) and Israel (in Zechariah) it is a striking of judgment—Christ, in other words, is about to take the judgment of God, on our behalf, upon himself.
This process of saving judgment is something the prophet Zechariah speaks about as well, and we find, in Zechariah 12:10 (a passage immediately preceding the one Jesus quotes), the following striking oracle:
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.
The shepherd, Jesus, is about to be struck, or pierced, and the people of God will look upon the one who had been pierced and mourn as a response. This reveals our fourth, and most stunning parallel between Peter and Judas, because both of them look on the one they have pierced and mourn. In Matthew 26:75, immediately after Peter has denied Jesus, he “went outside and wept bitterly.” And right after this passage, in Matthew 27:3, Matthew records that “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse.” Both Peter and Judas mourn bitterly for what they have done to their master. They both fulfill Zechariah’s prophecy.
Peter’s grief was real.
But it is here that the parallels end, for while Peter lives on to be restored by his master, Judas takes his own life. And let it be clear, at this point, from within the darkness of betrayal, that neither man has a real advantage. Both men have had their master name the betrayal/denial in them before it came to pass. Both men have actually betrayed their Lord and Master. And both men experience remorse for what they’ve done. By all accounts and purposes, and to the extent that Matthew documents this story, Judas and Peter are, at this point, in the same dismal boat.
What is it, then, that sets Peter and Judas apart? Both men betrayed their master—why does one die, and one live? Indeed, this question becomes more imperative when we remember that we also, like Peter and Judas, sometimes deny and betray Jesus—what, in the end, is the real difference? If we commit this sin of Judas and Peter, are we equally doomed to die an eternal death as a result?
The answer is “no.” We are not doomed, but we must beware two sins that Judas commits at this point, because it is these two sins—those that follow his betrayal—that condemn Judas to an eternity in hell.
For a moment, let’s return to the passage Jesus quoted from Zechariah 13, because that passage will inform our understanding here. There, the same oracle from which Jesus quotes also describes the ultimate effect of God’s divine scattering. There, in Zechariah 13:9, it is revealed that the result of this scattering will be to refine and purify God’s people. The remnant who survive this scattering, who survive the remorse of witnessing the one they have pierced, will be revealed as God’s holy people, the purified foundation of Christ’s new nation. Remember again, it was not merely Peter and Judas who betrayed Jesus that night, but the entire group of disciples that abandoned him. They were all scattered, they were all filled with remorse, but only eleven survived. What set Judas apart was not that he had remorse (which was predicted by Jesus through Zechariah), but the way he dealt with his remorse. And it is precisely here that Judas committed his two sins.
The first sin Judas commits is the sin of despair, and to despair is to fixate on the present hopelessness to such a degree that you remove God from the influence of your life. Emotionally, you close off the world, close out the future, and judge all of eternity in light of a present moment. Judas determined that, for him, there was no hope.
I find this image sadly fitting…
As Judas fixates in this way, he sections off outside influences. Nobody can reach him. Nobody can get through. There are no words that can reach a heart that has given itself to despair because that heart is becoming increasingly self-referential. Even subconsciously, the heart thinks, “I am the only one. There is no one who can help me. There is no one who can save me. I am alone, and alone I have no hope.” Judas had experienced the Lord; Judas had then betrayed the Lord. And if Judas knew (as we must presume he did) that the Lord was his only hope, then Judas believed he had betrayed his own hope. His logic, in a twisted way, was sound. It is the logic of a world without God. It is flawed because it doesn’t account for God.
To put this another way, Judas’s first sin is the taking Good Friday without Easter Sunday. Judas got stuck in a moment of time, and never looked to the larger picture. To this you might immediately respond, “How could Judas take Easter Sunday? He takes his life before the resurrection happens!” But that is precisely my point. Judas stops, he fixates, on Good Friday. His remorse for what he has done is the right response, but he holds on to his remorse, lets it control him, and gives in, in the end, to despair. In this, Judas is so busy looking at himself and how he feels, that he closes himself off from the world around him. And ultimately, that is precisely what his suicide is: a closing off of the world, a denial of everything but the experience of his own self. Judas took Good Friday as the final word and didn’t wait for Easter Sunday.
That this is a lesson for us should be obvious. We cannot allow our momentary despair to overshadow the work of God. We must always maintain perspective, always remember that God is good and has a plan for us. We must always remember that for every Good Friday, when things seem darkest, there is always an Easter Sunday around the corner where God’s light will shine on us again—if we have but the patience to wait! Therefore the sin of Judas is this: to fixate on our circumstances, to close off the voice of God and the voice of history and the voice of the Church in favor of our own thoughts. It is to become self-referential when we ought to be looking for forgiveness. It is to judge our present circumstances as absolute, as if there were no future possible for us. It is, in effect, to take the world as all that is, and deny the possibility of God’s goodness and providence toward us.
The second sin of Judas is the sin of power, in particular with the taking of matters into his own hands. Judas doesn’t wait on God’s power; instead he acts in his own power. Potentially, there are hints of this in Judas’s betrayal. Some have hypothesized that Judas, knowing the power of Jesus, betrayed him as a way to force him to act. All the disciples, remember, were looking for an earthly kingdom—was Judas’s betrayal his own earthly way of forcing Jesus to exert his divine power against the Romans? The hypothesis fits what we know of Judas’s character, but even more than that speculation, we see this taking of matters into his own hands most clearly in Judas’s suicide. There, rather than waiting for God to dispense His divine justice, or wait for God to reveal His ultimate plan, Judas took justice into his own hands, literally. Judas determined to mete out his own punishment, determined what he deserved, and dealt himself the killing blow. He was to himself judge, jury, and executioner.
Framed this way, the sin of power, of taking matters into our own hands, is perhaps one of the oldest of all sins. After all, if only Adam and Eve had waited a short while longer, they could have asked God what He thought about the fruit and the snake. Seen this way, taking matters into our own hands is the essence of all sin—it is the refusal to admit God’s power, to wait on His will, and to allow God’s sovereign reign. We commit it when we grow impatient with God, when we try to work our own deals. God says to us, clearly, “Wait for Sarah,” and we go and find ourselves a Hagar and mess it all up.
Peter denies Jesus but is redeemed. Judas betrays Jesus and is condemned. Alike in their betrayal, they are unalike in their outcomes, and what separates Judas and Peter are the sins of despair and power. In the end, it is these two sins that commit Judas to Hell; not his betrayal. I even suspect that if Judas had stayed his hand for two more days, he might have been restored and forgiven by the risen Lord. He, like Paul, might have been the corrupt apostle made more glorious by the redemption of the master. Instead, Judas is in Hell. But he is not there because God chose him for Hell before time began, but rather because he was self-referential, because he allowed no inbreaking of God’s greater plan, and he, from that dismal vantage, impatiently took his own life into his own hands. In fact, together these two sins—despair and power—are the sins that create hell itself. They represent a sinister and pervasive logic: “This world is all there is. My power is all I have.” By such thoughts is Hell sustained. God forgive us all for thinking them.
The mystery of Judas has long pricked the imagination of the Church, and followers of Jesus have striven to make sense of Judas. The apostles, of course, felt no such compunction—they were content to condemn him in blanket uniformity, and after his replacement in Acts 1 he is never mentioned again. But later followers of Jesus were compelled by the mystery of Judas; he remained an alluring figure. Partly because of this there was even an early, heretical, “Gospel of Judas” which attempted to resolve the theodicy by framing Judas as the hero of the story, doing Jesus’ will by inaugurating the cross. But while the disciples dismiss Judas as a thief and say no more, and early Gnostics invent stories to make sense of Judas, neither of these provides a satisfactory answer to the complexity of Judas.
Of necessity, much of Judas’s life and choices will remain a mystery. We will never, this side of eternity, know the real motivation for his choice to betray his Lord. And yet perhaps there is more to the story of Judas for our benefit—not, as with those early Gnostics, in a secret history where Judas reveals to us some long-hidden truth, but rather in the content of Judas’s story as recorded in the gospels. And from that content we see these truths: that we may betray, deny, or fall away from our Lord, but we must not despair, closing God off from our lives. And no matter what happens, under whatever circumstances, we must always trust in the power of God, rejecting the temptation to take matters into our own hands. We must reject self-reference and patiently embrace God’s power. Like Peter, and unlike Judas, we must in all things wait on God.