Did Judas Have a Choice?

Judas, Responsibility, and the Sovereignty of God

A friend asked me recently, “Was Judas a bad guy and true betrayer for betraying Jesus, or was he really the one who allowed his name to be cursed in order to be the instrument in something that God needed to have done? The Bible pretty much admits that this needed to happen for God to allow Jesus to die for our sins, but seems also to condemn the person who made it happen. Were he and Pontius Pilate just pawns in God’s plan and not actually the villains history makes them out to be? Perhaps Judas had even been asked by God, and that was not made part of the Bible because none of the others were aware?”

When it was evening, he reclined at table with the twelve. And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” Judas, who would betray him, answered, “Is it I, Rabbi?” He said to him, “You have said so.” (Matthew 26:20-25)

When we begin to take seriously the Scriptural idea that God is active in history, we run into a problem.  A God who actually does things, and isn’t just sitting up there, hoping it all works out (or, worse, knows how it all works out and is unable to do anything about it), is uncomfortable.  At least the other two ideas give me some comfort that I am in control, that we can say with William Ernest Hensley, “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” 

But, when our best efforts fall short, the idea that we are in control is not of any comfort.  Sure, it helps for learning, growing, and future decisions.  But, when injustice occurs, when others do wrong, when we are betrayed over and over again, then the idea of a passive or helpless God who must stand by while we suffer only brings me self-criticism.  Things are bad because I wasn’t good enough, strong enough, smart enough.  I did my best, and the best wasn’t good enough.  I must be a loser.

Of course, the idea that we have no choice can rapidly draw us into fatalism in similar circumstances.  If fate drives the train, I must be fated to be a loser, a victim, and a failure.  My efforts don’t matter.  I did my best, and my best wasn’t good enough.  I am fated to be a loser.

But the Scriptures don’t depict reality this way.  They show a God who runs the show, and a humanity that is entirely responsible for what they do.  How can this paradox be true?

We can see glimmers of the answer in three biblical narratives – the interactions of Moses, God, and Pharaoh in Exodus chapters 7-12, in the verdict against the king of Assyria in Isaiah 10, and in Judas’s betrayal.

The Hebrews are in oppressive bondage as Exodus begins.  God, in accordance with his promise to Abraham in Genesis 15, calls Moses and tells him how he will rescue his people and humble Pharaoh.  “And the Lord said to Moses…“You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.” (Ex 7:1-5)

The rest of the chapters describe the details of how it plays out.  Moses tells Pharaoh that God demands the Hebrews be released to worship him.  Pharaoh says no.  In some cases, we read that “Pharaoh hardened his heart.”  In some cases, we see that “Pharaoh’s hard was hardened”.  In other cases, we see that “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”

In one case, in chapter 9 verse 34, we see why Pharaoh and the people are condemned:   But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants.”

The sin or Pharaoh is not merely that he doesn’t let the people go – it’s that he doesn’t WANT to let the people go.  He doesn’t want to submit to the God who created all things.  He imagines himself a God, and his pride does not allow him to submit.  In those cases where the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart, no one imagines that Pharaoh was suddenly changed by God from a willing servant of the Most High God to a snarling enemy.  In all likelihood, “Prince of Egypt” style, the hardening of his heart was just a whisper – “don’t be the weak link”, or, “you are the most powerful god”.  Even when Pharaoh finally allows the children of Israel to leave, he does so in an effort to remove the destruction from himself, not from any real desire to obey God -as shown when he pursues them to the Red Sea.

Thus, Pharaoh’s decision to refuse to obey wasn’t the sin he was punished for.  It was his sinful, prideful desire that manifested itself in the refusal, a refusal that was exactly what God wanted him to do.

In Isaiah 10, Assyria is called “the rod of My anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.”

Assyria punishing the Northern Tribes at God’s behest, to punish them for decades of sinfulness.  Yet, Assyria is also told “Woe!”, for Assyria will be punished…for punishing Israel?  Why is God punishing them for something he wants them to do?  Isaiah tells us that it is not because Assyria is punishing Israel for its sins, but because Assyria seeks to do no such thing:

But he does not so intend, and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few…

When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes…

Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? As if a rod should wield him who lifts it, or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood! Therefore the Lord God of hosts will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors, and under his glory a burning will be kindled, like the burning of fire.

Again, Assyria isn’t punished merely for its actions, but for its intent.  Yes, their deeds are evil and intended to be evil, so they are punished for them.  But, their deeds are exactly what God is using to punish the Northern Tribes.

In Judas, we don’t have as clear of a description of that paradox.  We know Judas will do it before he does – much like Pharaoh and Assyria.  We see Judas do it, and we never really get a clear perspective on why.  However, while it may be more Andrew Lloyd Weber than St. Matthew, we can consider the possibility that he wasn’t seeking the torture and death of Jesus, but, in line with what most of the apostles sought, for Jesus to inaugurate the kingdom immediately (Acts 1:6), “Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself.”

If Judas’ intent was to have Jesus condemned and tortured to death, he wouldn’t have been remorseful.  His intent, we can surmise, was to force Jesus to begin the revolution that would bring his kingdom to earth. (Of course, in a sense, it does that, but not in the way anyone imagined nor because Judas’ decision forces it). When he realizes that he has not forced his master to act, but condemned him to die a horrible death, he realizes the depth of his betrayal.  His betrayal was exactly what God wanted, but it didn’t play out like Judas wanted. That God intends our actions to produce those consequences is cold comfort. God is in control, but we are responsible for our actions.

So, on the one hand, we might want to defend Judas’ intent – he wasn’t intending to have Jesus killed.  But what do we know he intended for sure?  We know he knew Jesus was innocent.  We know he knew Jesus was his master.  So, we know he intended to betray the only truly innocent man, who was his own master, into the hands of those with the power to kill him.  Even an intent we want to absolve – the intend to force Jesus to act – is an intent to reject the authority of the Son of God in favor of his own will.  As Judas’s line in the play “The Living Last Supper” states, “My heart is not as black as you may think…nor yours as white.” Judas’s sin of pride and rebellion is our own.

Like Judas, we seek to supplant the will of God with our own, every day.  We do not care how narrow the gate, nor the punishment on the scroll. We aim to smash down the gates of heaven with our will, our desires, our lusts, our greed, our jealousy, our sloth, our gluttony.  Like Judas, we justify ourselves that our intentions are good. And, like Judas, we so often regret the decisions we make and the consequences we reap.

But, unlike Judas today, we have a hope – the hope of earth, the person and work of Jesus Christ, who died so that his people would not be condemned for their sin, but so they could be redeemed from their sin debt and made a part of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  May we embrace that amazing grace today and forever.