When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. And while they were eating , He said, “Truly, I tell you, one of you will betray Me.”
They were very sad and began to say to Him one after the other, “Surely You don’t mean me, Lord?”
Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with Me will betray Me. 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.” Matthew 26:20-25 (NRSV)
Over the centuries there has been an ongoing question among Christian believers as to the fate of Judas Iscariot, the “traitor apostle.”
Early church fathers such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine agreed that Judas was condemned to hell for eternity. Judas was the only apostle who was replaced upon his death. Judas had also died by suicide, a sin traditionally considered a “mortal sin”- which in Catholic theology is a sin that consigns one to hell if it is unconfessed and unabsolved.
The more compelling question to most Protestants about Judas is, “Did Judas have free will?” Did Judas really stand there and listen to Jesus tell him, “You will betray Me,” and then go ahead and do it, if he had the free will to choose otherwise?
To wonder about Judas’ ultimate fate (only God can see a person’s heart completely and fully) or to beg the question of Judas’ ability to choose right from wrong misses the point. As in all other narratives in the Bible, the question is where is God in this? Did God create Judas only to use him to betray Jesus and then consign Judas to hell for doing what he was created to do?
The place to begin to learn from the story of Judas is to begin with the nature of God. There are three things we know about our I AM God, that He is:
Omnipotent-God is all powerful. God Who created the universe can do anything He chooses to do.
Omnipresent-God is everywhere at all times all at once. He is just as much present right here and now as He is in the middle of a cornfield in 1863, and at every other possible someplace and some time. God is equally here right now, and five seconds from now, and five thousand years from now. Time is not linear for God, and He is beyond the limits of space as well. (The metaphysics that goes along with that is quite mindblowing if you think about it too long.)
Omniscient-God is all knowing. God already knows what is going to happen and what we are going to choose to do ahead of time.
Knowing these three things about God, then what are the lessons we can learn from Judas?
We can know that while God knows our heart and what we are going to do, we still have to choose. Our actions still have consequences. Much as we can warn our children about the potential bad choices they will make, we often know when they are going to do exactly what we warned them not to do. Jesus knew Judas’ heart. Because Jesus is God, He knew the choice that Judas had already made- but it was still Judas’ choice.
God knows we are going to screw up. He knows where, when and how bad we are going to screw up, and even whether or not we will come back to Him in repentance. But even in that repentance we have to choose. A wise pastor once said, “It is to God’s credit that you are saved, but if you are damned, you chose damnation yourself.”
So we wonder if God is in control of everything, then why should we bother to pray, or to live as He has called us, or to pursue spiritual disciplines? If God just picks and chooses who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, what’s the point?
The point is that these good things, like prayer and service and forgiveness are for us, gifts that God freely gives to those who would receive them. The fact that God knows who will accept these gifts and who will reject them isn’t the point. The point is that all of God’s good gifts of provision, forgiveness, grace, salvation and mercy are there for all who choose to accept them. The consequences for us of rejecting God’s gifts are also very real. He is not going to force us to live the way that is best for us. He is not going to force us to accept His gifts. God isn’t going to make us love Him by coercion.
We are sinners, as was Judas. Judas’ sin was no worse than our sins, because in all sorts of ways, we betray Jesus all the time. Jesus suffered and died on the Cross to save ALL sinners, to pay the price for ALL of us. Judas’ response to the knowledge of being a sinner is where the lesson lies. Do we consign ourselves to be reconciled to God or separated from Him? Do we choose to repent of our sins, accept the forgiveness and grace of God, and surrender our lives to Jesus, or do we wallow in despair and kill off anything in us that would be open to God and His will for us?
This is the lesson of Judas- how do we respond to God’s grace and freely given gifts? The question isn’t so much, “What about Judas?” as it is, “What about us?”