Was Judas set up to fail?

Q. Here’s a Good Friday and Easter question. Jesus tells the disciples about his betrayal, “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.” If it was already determined how Jesus would die, and who would do it, was Judas set up to fail? Did Jesus mean that Judas would only have to be annihilated (like never born) instead if hell?

A traditional icon of Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss. Was this a set-up?

Your questions are similar to ones that some other readers of this blog have asked earlier, which is not surprising, since they are questions that will occur to thoughtful and compassionate listeners to the story of Jesus’ sufferings, death, and resurrection.

A couple of years ago I did an eight-part series of posts on the question of whether Judas was doomed from the start. Had he  been selected before all time, and identified in biblical prophecies, as the betrayer of Jesus? The series begins with my response to the question, “Did Jesus forgive Judas?” but it necessarily opens out into these other issues. By the end I find it necessary to ask, “Did Jesus betray Judas?” I’ll quote a bit from the opening of that post to show why that question comes up.

So here’s the script.  Jesus needs to die for the sins of the world, but to do that, he needs to be betrayed. So God chooses someone, Judas Iscariot, before all time to be the betrayer. In the mysterious interplay between divine sovereignty and human moral responsibility, Judas is somehow also personally culpable for this, so he pays for the deed (and all his other sins) by going to hell forever.  Not that he ever had a chance of salvation; he was a “son of perdition” and so “doomed to destruction” anyway (as some English versions translate this phrase).  Jesus himself knew, from an early point in his public ministry, that Judas would betray him. “I chose the twelve of you,” he says, long in advance of the betrayal, “but one is a devil.”  John explains that “he was speaking of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, one of the Twelve, who would later betray him.”  And by this John means not that the “devil” Jesus refers to here would eventually be recognized as Judas; already at this time it was known, at least to Jesus, that Judas was the betrayer.

I’m not buying it.  Why not?  Because there’s absolutely no way that Jesus could have recruited Judas to be his disciple on this basis.  “Come and follow me, because I need you in my inner circle to betray me at just the right time, though for performing this necessary service you’ll burn in hell forever.”  Nobody would take that offer.  Instead, Jesus would have had to make Judas think he was inviting him to join in announcing the good news of the kingdom of God, proclaiming liberty to captives, healing the sick, helping the poor, while all along he was actually setting him up.  In other words, the only way for Jesus to get Judas to sign on as a disciple, so that he would then be the betrayer, would have been to deceive him.  And when true reason for his “calling” came to light, we could not blame Judas for feeling that Jesus had betrayed him.

But such a course of action is simply not consistent with the character of Jesus as it is clearly and consistently portrayed in all four gospels.  I think we have to conclude instead that Jesus chose twelve disciples in good faith, all as potential true followers, but that he knew at the same time that one of them would betray him.

(Though Jesus, as I argue throughout the series, didn’t know exactly which one that would be until very close to the time of the actual betrayal. I truly believe that human freedom is so radical that there are some human choices that are undetermined to such an extent that even God doesn’t know what they will be. But, as I argue in another post, also prompted by a question about Judas, “It is no failure in omniscience not to know what cannot be known.”)

In my series I hold out the possibility that Judas could have repented and been saved. But assuming he did not repent and was lost, was he then  annihilated, as if he had “never been born”?

This is another question that I’ve addressed in an earlier series of posts. I have a three-part series on the question “Is Hell a Place of Never-Ending Punishment?” After a long and somewhat technical examination of the relevant Scriptures, I conclude:

The biblical data does not present a simple, straightforward picture of “hell” as a place of never-ending punishment for those who reject God.  The picture is complicated, and readers of the Bible must understand the Hebrew and Greek terms and ideas behind our English translations in order to reach the most informed conclusion possible about this issue.

My personal experience shows me that followers of Jesus who are people of good will and equally committed to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures can come to different conclusions about whether those who ultimately reject God are annihilated or instead suffer never-ending punishment. The statement about Judas offers possible support for the former view.

But as I also say at the end of my series about hell, “The Bible doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we would like about the fate of people after death.  But it does tell us a great deal about the character of God, in which justice and mercy are perfectly balanced.” And I think especially in this Holy Week we can find great encouragement in the recognition that God, “in his great mercy, has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Whatever questions may linger in our minds about some of the most complicated and uncertain matters treated in the Bible, the resurrection assures us of God’s mercy towards us and God’s desire that we live in hope, not doubt or dread. And that’s really something to celebrate!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister who served local churches as a pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

1 thought on “Was Judas set up to fail?”

  1. The Gospels are a little cloudy on Judas. 2 of them say he killed himself. One of them doesn’t say anything and the one places him at the place where Jesus appeared to the 11 disciples. The only one not there was Thomas who came and at first doubted. The scriptures are clear Juda repented. He wasn’t villanized by Christianity until about 300 ad. Much like the book of revelation wasn’t looked at as an end times book until at least 200ad.

    Peter also denied Jesus and later repented. We are human. Capable of stupid things. There is a lot more I could say on the subject. Judas was pretty close to Jesus. A lot of people don’t realize that. I believe he is with the father

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