In many a dark hour, I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you, You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side
That’s from the Bob Dylan classic protest anthem, With God On Our Side. It was released 50(!) years ago on the album The Times They Are A-Changin’, but the question it poses is much, much older. And five decades (or two millennia) later, its answer is still elusive.
Three years ago, I penned the post Grave Questions under the assumption that Judas went to Hell – not because I firmly believe that to be true, but because that’s the conventional-wisdom assumption. And based on the way Mr. Iscariot is described in the Gospels, it’s a pretty safe assumption.
This week, I happened upon the post and felt that was a little harsh, so in the spirit of revisionist bloggery, I adjusted it slightly, so the text emphasizes a ‘For the sake of argument, let’s assume…‘ stance on that question.
… Because I really don’t know.
And grappling with this issue is more than an academic exercise for me, and for many of us – especially in the latter days of Holy Week, when Judas’ role in the story rises to such prominence.
In The Last Temptation of Christ, the Judas portrayed by Harvey Keitel was Jesus’ best friend and most trusted adviser – and he only betrayed the Son of Man (Willem Dafoe) because Jesus ordered him too. Only the disciple Jesus loved and trusted most could be counted on for the most important role in the whole Bible, or so the film (and presumably the book on which it’s based) seem to imply.
Similarly, the first song in Jesus Christ Superstar has Judas describing himself as ‘Your right-hand man all along’, and the climactic title track of the opera has the recently-deceased Judas appearing to Jesus in the garb of a Heavenly being to compare notes.
And taking a step back from what pop culture says about the subject, I’ve had several conversations with Christian brothers of various ages who feel strongly that Judas went to Heaven, not Hell. I have one friend who’s convinced Judas is in Heaven based on Jewish law; another who’s convinced he’s in Heaven based on Christian theology.
I want to agree, wholeheartedly. But there’s still some doubt for me when I read the biblical account – which is all we really know for sure about Judas, let’s not forget.
The Gospel of John describes Judas as a thief who stole from the group’s collective money bag. But both Luke and John describe Judas as having been ‘prompted’ and/or ‘entered’ by Satan to do the betraying. Luke 6:16 says Judas ‘became a traitor’ (in some translations), implying that he wasn’t a traitor all along. And let’s not forget that in Matthew 27, once he realizes that Jesus has been condemned, he’s so filled with remorse that he throws the priests’ dirty money back into the temple and hangs himself for having betrayed innocent blood.
When I read those passages, I think of adjectives like ‘selfish’, ‘self-loathing’, ‘impatient’, ‘opportunistic’ and ‘reckless’ – not ‘wholly unholy’, ‘evil’ or ‘irredeemable’.
The outcome of Judas’ betrayal was hideous and shameful beyond measure, but:
- The blame for Jesus’ crucifixion belongs to Pontius Pilate, the Pharisees, priest and teachers, every Jerusalemite who shouted Crucify Him! and every single person who makes Jesus’ crucifixion necessary (including you, including me), not to Judas alone.
- That this particular outcome would result from this particular betrayal probably never occurred to Judas. Some speculate that he wanted to force Jesus’ hand, so He would finally put aside all the touchy-feely turn-the-other-cheek stuff and overthrow the Romans already. You can hold your daughter accountable for being careless and spilling a glass of water, but if it drips into the electrical wiring and causes a short-circuit that burns the house down and kills the cat, she’s guilty of carelessly spilling some water, not arson, and certainly not felicide.
So if Judas is in The Other Place, I don’t think it’s because his sin was too big. It’s not because he failed to fully connect with what Jesus was really up to – none of the disciples of the First Century did either, and we in the 21st Century aren’t so hot at it either, for that matter. And it’s not because he turned his back on Jesus in the hour of His greatest need – Mark 14:50 tells us that when Jesus was about to be arrested, ‘all his disciples had fled.‘
Indeed, at the Last Supper, Jesus specifically predicts the Maundy Thursday-Good Friday failure of two disciples: one who would betray Him, and another who would deny Him. And the way I read it, Jesus is no less devastated by the latter than the former.
And yet, look at the trajectory of these two disciples’ lives after these prophecies were fulfilled. Judas realizes his sin, goes off by himself and commits suicide. Peter realizes his and weeps bitterly. But he doesn’t give into shame and self-loathing, and before long he returns to his companions. On Sunday morning, we see Peter in the Upper Room with the other disciples. In the days following Easter, he receives reinstatement from the resurrected Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And 50 days after Easter, he gives the first sermon in the history of the church and welcomes 3,000 new believers to The Way!
If, instead of hanging himself, Judas had run back to the other disciples and begged their forgiveness, they might have kicked him out on his fanny (or worse) before Jesus ever had a chance to reinstate him – but we’ll never know, because Judas never gave them (or Him) the chance!
Maybe Judas’ greatest sin was to deem his sins too big for God’s mercy and grace. He decided, unilaterally, that he was irreparably damaged goods, and had no business drawing breath on Earth – let alone spending eternity with God in Heaven.
It’s possible I’m projecting here, but I wonder if Judas, deep down, had some inkling that Jesus was ready, willing and able to forgive and reinstate him, but in that moment, he hated himself too much to receive such galactically unmerited grace. Like the Rich Young Man in Mark 10:17-23, he ‘went away sad’, rather than choosing to return, repent and receive forgiveness.
We can hope he found redemption and peace after He died, but this side of Heaven, we’ll never know for sure. One thing we can be certain of: he didn’t have to die young, alone and by his own hand. Forgiveness and redemption were as available to him as they are to us. Let’s learn from his example of what not to do, and let God’s grace find us – early and often.
Peace be with you.
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