Judas Iscariot

A Biblical and Theological Reappraisal of the Forgotten Apostle

Iscariot by Mark Worthing | Detailed Discussion Questions


by Mark Worthing
Pastor, Immanuel Lutheran Church, North Adelaide


In the small English village of Moreton, in Dorset, the local Anglican congregation remained deeply divided for thirty years. The renowned artist, Sir Laurence Whistler, had created for them a series of engraved glass windows. But the last window in the series, they could not bring themselves to install. It featured Judas Iscariot hanging from a tree, the silver coins falling from his purse to the ground, and a beam of light shining down on him from heaven. It was titled, ‘The Forgiveness Window.’ The parishioners and their priest could not come to terms with the idea that Judas could be the object of any hope of grace. So the window sat in storage for thirty years, until a new generation of parishioners, led by a progressive new priest, finally agreed to have the window installed – in an obscure alcove of the church facing the cemetery.[1] The story of Whistler’s ‘Forgiveness Window’ typifies much of the Christian reaction to Judas Iscariot.  The grace of God might be open to all – but that ‘all’ certainly could never include Judas.  Our traditional reaction to Judas not only misses many important biblical clues to the complexity of this much maligned character, but it also overlooks many important theological questions. But before these can be addressed, we must first survey what is known of Judas from the biblical accounts, and where there are discrepancies or points of unclarity within these accounts.

Part One: Who was the biblical Judas Iscariot?

 Judas Iscariot is one of the most ambiguous and perplexing figures in the Bible. This much can be agreed upon by nearly everyone.  Almost nothing we learn about Judas from the gospel accounts quite adds up.[2] Judas, for obvious reasons, has been expunged from the gospels apart from the role he played in the betrayal of Jesus. No account of his calling, or record of any of his words or deeds, outside of that final week, are recorded.[3]  Yet a surprising number of clues remain about the man who for centuries has been the most reviled figure in religious history.

While there is no account of how Judas became one of the twelve, it is reasonable to assume that, like the others, he was chosen by Jesus. Also, Judas was the only member of the inner circle who appears not to have been from Galilee. This would have made him something of an outsider from the beginning. Yet he served as treasurer, which indicates he had some financial ability and a significant degree of respect and trust among the others.

Judas’ family connections

Judas’ father, Simon, is also called Iscariot, and possibly originated from the southern Judean village of Kerioth, hence the name ‘man of Kerioth.’[4] The fact that Judas’ father is named, including his ‘surname’ Iscariot, suggests that he was a well-known member of the early Christian community. This also means there is a possibility he is mentioned elsewhere in the gospels. The only realistic candidate is Simon the Pharisee and leper of Bethany. We know Simon was likely a close relative of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, for the two sisters served Jesus and his disciples at Simon’s house when Jesus was in Bethany, and only close members of the family would have taken on this role. And in John’s account, the house is not said to be Simon’s, but the home of Lazarus. So they were likely part of the same extended family. The surprising, and most plausible conclusion, is that Judas may well have been Simon’s son. This means he would have been a close relative of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. They were most likely his cousins.

This simple deduction also explains another mystery of the gospel accounts. Jesus appears to have stayed with this one family whenever he and his disciples were in the vicinity of Jerusalem. In Galilee Jesus often stayed in the homes of his own relatives or those of his disciples’ families, and also made use of their boats. His pattern was to seek lodgings where he and his disciples already had strong connections. If Simon, Lazarus, Martha and Mary were part of the household of one of his disciples, this would explain the situation. But there is only one disciple from that region, only one disciple not from Galilee, and that is Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon Iscariot. He is the only possible candidate. It is not a link that any of Jesus’ followers, either in the first century, or in the centuries that followed, would have been keen to acknowledge.[5] But there are enough hints remaining to suggest that that a familial relationship between Judas and the Bethany siblings is at least plausible.

Judas’ strong reaction to Mary’s pouring out of expensive oil to anoint Jesus during the meal at the home of Simon the Pharisee suggests that Judas exercised the right to speak out about a matter of family resources that would have been both unexpected and inappropriate by anyone outside the family.  The impact upon Judas of being so strongly rebuked in his own home, before his own father, just days from his famous act of betrayal, would have been profound. In fact, in the synoptic accounts, Judas goes out immediately after this event to make arrangements to betray Jesus, suggesting that the authors of the synoptic gospels believed that this event somehow explained Judas’ actions. But as Judas didn’t confide in any of the other disciples, and as he took his own life shortly after his betrayal, it is difficult to imagine how the writers of the synoptic gospels would have known when Judas made the arrangement to ‘hand over’ Jesus.  But if he was the son of Simon from Bethany, then their supposition that this event was the trigger for his actions would make sense.

But why, if such a familial relationship existed, is Judas not clearly named as the cousin of Martha, Mary and Lazarus?  The answer is simple. Not only are there no non-essential references to Judas in the Gospel accounts, so as not to highlight the role of the betrayer, but out of deference to his family and their strong links to the early Christian movement, his relationship to them would have been downplayed. The early community of Christians would not want to dishonour such key early followers of Jesus as Martha, Mary and Lazarus by pointing out that Judas was their relative.

If we accept the possibility that Judas was a cousin to Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, and the son of their uncle Simon, the events in the last week of Judas’ life take on a very different look.  According to John’s Gospel, Jesus declines to go immediately to Lazarus when Mary sends word, then raises him from the dead, making him a target of those who wished to kill Jesus (John 12:9-11). We know little of Lazarus apart from his sisters, and Jesus’ love for him. It is quite likely that he was a very young man. This would explain why he has no ‘speaking roles’ in the gospels and why he appears to be living with his sisters and uncle. It would also mean that a protective older cousin like Judas would be very concerned first with Jesus not going to him immediately, and second, about the danger he is put in when Jesus raises him from the dead. Almost immediately after raising Lazarus from the dead, Mary pours expensive oil over Jesus’ feet. When Judas objects, he is put in his place in front of his whole family.  This sequence of events would have had a significant impact on Judas’ mental and emotional state.

Judas and John

The Gospel that is harshest in its judgment of Judas, John’s Gospel, also reveals the most about him. The naming of Judas as ‘a devil’ (John 6:70) and as a ‘son of perdition’ (John 17:2) convey very strong and emotive language unique to John, who ironically gives us more information about Judas than any of the other Gospels. John is not only able to reveal the most detail about Judas, but he also harbours the most anger towards him. The best explanation of both of these facts is that John had been close to Judas. It makes sense that Judas would have had at least one close friendship within the inner circle of the twelve, and that that person would have not only had more information about Judas, but would have been more hurt and angry at his betrayal.

Judas as a Zealot

It is widely assumed that Judas was sympathetic to a group known as Zealots. There is no direct biblical evidence for this, but the assumption, commonly held, follows from one of the most common explanations for Judas’ motivation for betraying Jesus, namely, that his actions would force Jesus to show his hand and call down the forces of heaven (or at the very least the masses) to rise up against Roman rule. This theory first comes in vogue with the publication of Thomas de Quincy’s Judas Iscariot in 1852. De Quincy sought to find an explanation for Judas’ act of betrayal, and suggested that he most likely wanted to provoke a confrontation with the authorities, and ultimately the Romans. If this were his motivation, which is more credible than many other suggestions, then it also seems likely that Judas would have been sympathetic to the Zealot cause. The fact that one other disciple, Simon, was also known as ‘the Zealot’ indicates that such a stance would not have disqualified him from being part of the Twelve.  Even though the idea that this was Judas’s true motivation was not widely taken up, the assumption that he was a Zealot has become commonplace.

The theory goes a long way toward explaining Judas’ expectations of Jesus as Messiah and his famous act of betrayal. The Zealots were a political group who wanted desperately to see the Roman occupiers overthrown and Jewish independence restored. They were quite willing to spill blood to see this happen.  They did not seek religious reform so much as political revolution. If Judas were sympathetic to the Zealots – then he would have heard Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom in a physical rather than a spiritual manner. He would have been deeply disappointed at Jesus’s continued failure to challenge Roman occupation and its Jewish collaborators – especially after the promising start of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Was Judas a thief?

For most Christians, the answer to the question, ‘Was Judas a thief?’ is a simple one. The Gospel writers call him a thief, therefore he was a thief. But there are difficulties with this view, and problems arise from information provided by the very writers who label Judas a thief. As Judas received thirty pieces of silver from the authorities, the suggestion that he was motivated by money would have been very appealing to the other disciples in providing some sort of an answer to their questions about his motive.  This suspicion, passed on by John in his account of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, is not, however, without its problems. If Judas was a thief taking money from the common purse, why would he bring such a good thing to an end for such a relatively small reward. Thirty pieces of silver, biblically a very symbolic amount (Zechariah 11:4-14), is a relatively paltry sum for what Judas was being asked to do. One who was motivated by greed would likely have asked for, and received, much more. Even A.B. Bruce, who took a very traditional view of Judas and his betrayal, finds this assumption problematic. He asks, ‘Would it not have been a better speculation [for Judas] to have continued purse-bearer, with facilities for appropriating its contents, than to sell his Master for a paltry sum not exceeding five pounds?’[6]

Also, in an age with no banks and in which money was usually in coin or some other valuable commodity, a thief would have needed a home or hideout for his stash. But Judas was away from home travelling with the bare necessities for months or even years with Jesus and the other eleven. So where was he hiding all of this money during this time?  Finally, if it was well-known that Judas as treasurer was stealing from the common fund, why did none of the disciples raise this point with Jesus earlier so that Judas might be rebuked, and another given this responsibility?

Judas may well have acted inappropriately with common funds, and therefore have been technically a thief. But theft as his driving motivation for betrayal, or as his major preoccupation while following Jesus, simply does not add up.

The Last Supper and Betrayal

The account of Judas and Jesus at the last Supper also raises many questions. If Judas is a thief and now a traitor, why does he proceed with his plan when it is clear that he has been caught out by Jesus?  If Judas’ motivation is monetary gain, or simple betrayal, his actions make little sense.  Perhaps Judas felt something needed to happen to force a showdown in which Jesus would have to act. When Jesus says to him to go and do quickly what he must do, Judas may have taken this as an affirmation that this was indeed the role Jesus wanted him to play. The paltry sum offered by the high priests would have been of little consequence.

Judas’ error, in all probability, was not his love of money, but his failure to understand the kind of Messiah Jesus was. De Quincey argued that Judas’ crime, though great, has been much misunderstood. He writes: ‘It was the crime of signal and earthly presumption, seeking not to thwart the purposes of Christ, or to betray them, but to promote them by means utterly at war with their central spirit. As far as can be judged, it was an attempt to forward the counsels of God by weapons borrowed from the armoury of darkness.’[7]

If this was the case, then it was the mother of all miscalculations. His subsequent actions support this interpretation. A thief motivated by greed would not have so quickly tried to return the money, and then taken his own life. A man, however, who thought he was setting up his friend and teacher to call down power from heaven to overthrow the current rulers would have been devastated when Jesus was arrested, then prevented his disciples from defending him, and finally was sentenced to death. Such a man would have desperately tried to take back his actions by returning the thirty coins. Such a man would have been in utter despair at this turn of events. Judas hangs himself when he learns of Jesus’ death sentence.  We see the deep despair of a man who realised just what he has done.

The view that Judas did exactly what Jesus wanted, and was misunderstood for it, comes from the early Gnostic tradition. While hints of this view have been around (through comments and citations from early church fathers) for many centuries, it was only the discovery of the second-century ‘Gospel of Judas’ in 2006 that gave a clearer picture of this view, in which, as with all Gnostic accounts, there is a secret message given to only a few, or in this case, one disciple. But the view never gained any traction within the orthodox Christian tradition.[8]

There is also an issue over just what Judas’ betrayal consisted of. Although we are told (John 11:57) that the Jewish authorities sought information on where they could find Jesus, it has been suggested that this is hardly credible. It seems almost everyone knew where he was. And if they wanted to find him at night, alone, they could have had spies follow him discretely.  Bart Ehrman, in The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, suggests that what the authorities really needed was credible evidence against Jesus that would carry weight with the Romans. If one of the inner circle were to confirm that he had said that we was the coming king of the Jews, the charge which actually hung above his head at his execution, then they would have all they needed. So perhaps there was more to Judas’ betrayal that an identifying kiss.[9] But the fundamental problems of motive still remain.

 Satan enters into Judas

The comment that Satan entered into Judas (Luke 22:3) is often used to dismiss any attempt to find a motive for his actions. This not only causes difficulty for how God works with human beings and the free will we possess, but it mistakes this saying for an explanation of Judas’ actions. Some have seen the statement simply as one of the earliest signs of the demonising of Judas within the Christian tradition. Peter Standford has argued that the statement is the fulfilment of Luke’s statement in the account of Jesus’ temptation that Satan left him and would return at an ‘opportune time’ (Luke 4:13). This return attack, however, was directed not at Jesus, this time, but aimed to get to him through one of his disciples.[10] But there is probably a simpler explanation. The expression is akin to our modern ‘the Devil made me do it.’ Remember, Satan was also said to have been the cause of David’s numbering of the people (1 Chronicles 21:1). In this context, the statement would be seen as an expression used to explain what is an otherwise inexplicable act of evil by a seemingly good person. That fact that this is said of Judas is an indication that the other disciples did not see his betrayal coming, were perplexed as to his motives, and were struggling for an explanation after the event, when the only person who could tell them, Judas himself, was no longer living.

Judas and Peter

There is an interesting parallel between Judas and Peter which merits more attention that it is often given. Both men speak their mind, often without thinking, and act impulsively. Together with John (John 18:15f) who seems to have gotten Peter access and may have stayed with him, that are the only two of Jesus’s disciples who we know for certain went to the house of the high priest after Jesus’ arrest (Cf. Matthew 26:69-27:3). Both men denied/betrayed Christ in different ways. One took his own life, the other went on to receive forgiveness and lead the early Christian community. Judas, we often forget, was not the only disciple to fall short in those final hours. Judas betrays Jesus and receives thirty pieces of silver, which he tries to return. Peter denies Jesus three times in order to escape being arrested as one of his disciples.

The death of Judas

The New Testament contains two very different accounts of the death of Judas.  The one is an account of death by hanging that is clearly a suicide. It is the most straight-forward of the two accounts. The other is an account of death by bursting open that may or may not be a suicide. In fact, it has even been argued that this account is perhaps one of accidental death, or even murder.

While some have tried to harmonise these accounts, with almost bizarre results (e.g. Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible and some of the more pious Life of Jesus movies), others have opted to view them as two separate traditions about the sad end of Judas Iscariot. There is a third possibility, however, first put forward clearly in the nineteenth century. That is that the Gospel account is meant to be an actual account of Judas’s death, while the account in Acts, is a symbolic account.

Thomas de Quincey, one of the first scholars to undertake a serious examination of the mysteries surrounding the biblical accounts of Judas, states the case as follows:

To burst in the middle, is simply to be shattered and ruined in the central organ of our sensibilities, which is the heart, and in saying that the viscera of Iscariot, or his middle, had burst and gushed out, the original reporter meant simply that his heart broke. That was precisely his case. … He fell into fierce despair, his heart broke, and under that storm of affliction he hanged himself. Here, again, all clears itself up by the simple substitution of a figurative interpretation for one grossly physical. All contradiction disappears; not three deaths assault him, viz., suicide, and also a rupture of the intestines, and also an unintelligible effusion of the viscera, but simply suicide, and suicide as the result of that despondency which was figured under the natural idea of a broken heart.[11]

Part Two: A theological reflection on Judas

 The role of Judas in salvation history

In his 1948 novel Christ Recrucified, Nikos Kanzantzakis penned the thought-provoking words: ‘For the world to be saved, Judas is indispensable.’ Of course, much of the Christian tradition in the two thousand years since Judas’ act of betrayal has wished very much to dispense with Judas. He was the failed disciple, the traitor, the thief. How much better, we often thought, if Judas had not been among the twelve. But he was one of the twelve, and we have every reason to believe that, like the others, he was there because Jesus specifically chose him. Surely Jesus knew what Judas would do – how it would all end. So why did he chose Judas, presumably knowing what would happen?

For the world to be saved, Jesus needed to suffer the abandonment and God-forsakenness of the cross. But for the suffering of Jesus to embrace and redeem all human suffering, his cross had to be more than physical pain. Jesus needed also to experience the rejection of the people whom he came to save. He needed to experience the abandonment of loyal friends, such as Peter. And he needed to experience the pain of betrayal. But therein lies the dilemma. Betrayal can only occur at the hands of a trusted friend.  Being handed over by strangers, disappointed crowds, angry Pharisees, or even a mole in the ranks who had long been working for his own enrichment, is not true betrayal. For Jesus to experience the full pain and suffering of the cross, it had to be a friend. A loyal disciple who until that moment had loved him and trusted him.  And that man, for good or ill, whatever his own motivation may have been, was Judas Iscariot.[12]

But could Judas, it is sometimes asked, have done anything else? The answer has to be both ‘no’ and ‘yes.’ It is the age old question of human free will and divine providence. But in this case, God is immediately and dangerously implicated through the direct action of Jesus choosing Judas to follow him, and finally calling upon him to ‘do quickly’ what he has in mind to do.  If Judas was always meant to be the one who would betray Jesus, then did he truly have a choice? And is Jesus in any way culpable for choosing Judas when he knew what the end result would be?  Again, the answer must be both ‘no’ and ‘yes.’ As a man under the Law, Judas had free will, and was accountable for his decisions. There are no excuses. At the same time, there is an inevitable necessity of the role that he played in Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. And Jesus, as God in human flesh, surely knew what this role would be. Certainly he knew it at the last supper.[13]  So Judas freely chooses to do what it was inevitable that he would do. And Jesus loves him and lives with him for three years, giving him every opportunity to follow the right path, while knowing the whole time that he would not. It must have been heart-breaking for Jesus from the moment he called Judas to follow him, until that final kiss in Gethsemane.

Judas was never not going to betray Jesus. The arrest and crucifixion were never not going to happen. Yet, in the midst of all these seemingly necessary human actions, there was human free choice in, with and under each moment. So we are left with the mystery and tension between human freewill and God’s providence. We are left with the awful inevitability and necessity of a willing betrayal by a trusted and loyal friend.

 Judas Iscariot at the boundary of Law and Grace

There is a telling observation in Friedrich Ohly’s The Dammed and the Elect. He says: ‘Judas dies without ever being aware of his place in the divine plan of salvation, just before the saving death of the Redeemer. He is perhaps the last man to die under the Old Law, before the dawning of the Age of Grace.’[14] Ray Anderson has put it even more sharply.

An astounding irony in the biblical story of Judas is the tragic coincidence of his death and the death of Jesus. At the very moment that Judas is enacting the human drama of sin and death, Jesus is enacting the divine drama of redemption and atonement. As Judas carries the terrible logic of sin to its ultimate conclusion, as though there were no grace and no forgiveness, Jesus contradicts it by taking sin upon himself and dying the death that will perfect the logic of grace and forgiveness. The first man dies without receiving what the second man is dying to give him.[15]

More radically still, this thought was picked up in an old Irish sermon, at which time the belief was held that when Jesus died, he emptied hell. The preacher says: ‘And unhappy Judas, after the betrayal of Christ, fell into despair, and put a noose round his neck, and in desperation hanged himself in his misdeeds, so that his soul was the first on which hell was shut after the Captives had been rescued from it by Christ.’[16]

It is more than an intriguing thought, that Judas and Christ die within moments of one another, and that Judas becomes the symbol of those who die, before the death of Christ changes everything. It is an idea pregnant with theological symbolism. The time-frame given in the gospels suggests that Judas’ death must have occurred very near in time to that of the death of Jesus.  Until Jesus died on the cross we were all under the Law, a path to God that had proven over and over again to be a dead end because it relied on what we could do.  From the moment of the sacrificial death of Jesus a line was drawn through human history. Someone, God himself in human flesh, stood in our place, and suffered with us and for us. The age of grace had begun. But Judas did not live to see it. He was, quite possibly, the last person to die before Jesus drew that line through human history.

Pope Leo the Great (395-461), speaking as if to Judas who is about to take his life, wrote: ‘If only you had waited for the completion of your crime until the blood of Christ had been poured out for all sinners, you would have put off the gruesome death by hanging.’[17]

That Friday afternoon in the vicinity of Jerusalem two men who had been friends hung on trees, dying ‘accursed’ deaths. One man put himself on the tree. The other was put there by the rest of humanity. One man’s death took place in a vacuum of hope, the other man’s death became the foundation of hope. One man’s death brought an end to life, the death of the other brought life to all people. Two men, on two different trees, died that Friday on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  Their deaths were linked, indeed intricately interconnected.  Jesus died when his friend betrayed him. Judas died when he learned that Jesus would go the cross and he could not bear to live with the consequences of his own action. And the sky darkened over both of them as the Father in heaven wept.

If Jesus can be portrayed in the New Testament by Paul as the ‘last’ or ‘second Adam’ then Judas is certainly the last in the line of the first Adam. He represents all who live under the Law. He closes out a chapter of human salvation history that was built upon the false hope of human works and self-righteousness. Judas’ death brings to a sad end a long history of relying on our own merits and our own actions to find favour with God. Judas acted in a way that he thought was right. He took matters into his own hands when his friend and teacher did not confront the Roman and Jewish authorities, did not openly claim his kingdom when the opportunity was there.  He was the last person in history to seek his own salvation, and that of his people, via his own efforts. And it ended as the whole process had begun, with Adam’s eating of the forbidden fruit and Cain’s murder of his brother. It ended in disaster and death. The death of Judas is the punctuation mark at the end of a very long history of failed attempts at achieving our own salvation.  But all that changed in the very moments after Judas took his last breath, it all changed with a new sentence and new history that begins: ‘Jesus Christ died that we might have life.’

Is there hope for Judas?

The question as to whether or not there is hope of redemption for Judas is seldom asked. We believe we already know the answer. If there is anyone who is condemned, who is without hope of reconciliation, surely it is Judas Iscariot. In fact, many theologians have felt compelled to make precisely this argument. Cardinal Avery Dulles, for instance, arguing that there must indeed be a hell populated by human souls, insists that Judas is the one person we can say with certainty, from a biblical standpoint, is condemned to this eternal separation from God.  He argues that John’s calling Judas a devil and the son of perdition (John 6:70; 17:12), and Matthew and Mark suggesting that ‘it would have been better for that man if he had never been born,’ (Matthew 26:24; Mark 14:12) could not be true if Judas were among the saved. From this starting point, Dulles builds his case for hell.[18]

But we cannot forget that the very person who Dulles and others want to exclude from hope, took the bread and wine from Jesus as the Last Supper. Jesus could have told him to go out before washing his feet, before sharing with him his body and blood, but he did so only afterward. If it is in the bread and wine that we receive the visible sign of forgiveness, what is the symbolism of Jesus giving the bread and wine to Judas, before encouraging him to go and do what he planned to do?

If Judas is necessarily and irrevocably condemned to hell, then there is much at stake. Precisely for this reason the question is important. If there is hope for Judas, then there is hope for everyone. The significance of this issue for the Christian community, that is, the community of those who proclaim the power of the forgiveness offered to all people in Christ, was put forward by Thomas de Quincey in his powerful yet little known booklet, Judas Iscariot. De Quincey wrote: ‘It must always be important to recall to the fold of Christian forgiveness anyone who has long been separated from human charity, and has tenanted a pariah grave. In the greatest and most memorable of human tragedies, Judas is a prominent figure. So long as the earth revolves, he cannot be forgotten.’[19]

The question, ‘Is there hope for Judas?’ is important for a faith based upon forgiveness and reconciliation. If there is no forgiveness possible for Judas, then who else is excluded?  We all betray Christ in a thousand little ways. Are we all in danger, therefore, of exclusion?

Pastoral implication of the Judas story for survivors of suicide

The question has been particularly poignant for those who have lost loved ones to suicide. So certain have some been of Judas’ necessary eternal condemnation, that his mode of death had been used to justify and reinforce this conclusion.  Suddenly, in order to reinforce and ensure the condemnation of Judas, we readily condemn hundreds of thousands who have fallen to the darkness of despair and taken their own lives. But there is no biblical justification for this. Judas is never condemned in the biblical accounts on the basis of the mode of his death, as tragic and symbolic as it is. Suicide is never listed in the Bible as an unforgivable sin. In fact, it is not even clearly and specifically proscribed as a sin, in part because it is not a topic the Bible specifically treats. Apart from Judas, there is only one other clear act of suicide reported in the Bible, that of Ahithopel (2 Samuel 17:23), the grandfather of Bathsheba and, therefore, also a forebear of Jesus.[20] And this death is not judged, simply reported. But, we are often told, suicide is not forgivable because it is a grievous sin and the guilty party, by the very nature of the act, has no opportunity of repentance.

The Bible, of course, does not make such theological distinctions about sin. While some acts might have more severe earthly consequences than others, all sin separates us from God and is therefore of the same quality and nature. So the suggestion that some sins lead to eternal damnation while others do not is a biblical and theological nonsense. The idea that the special problem concerning suicide is that the victim of suicide is not able to seek and receive forgiveness, undermines the entire theology of grace. We do not receive forgiveness on the basis of repenting for each individual sin (something we do) but on the basis of Christ’s sacrificial death (something God has done for us). If repentance is a prerequisite of final forgiveness, then we must all live in fear that we will die of a heart attack or traffic accident with some unconfessed sin still hanging over us.

One wonders to what extent all this bad and hurtful theology has been the product of a misguided effort to ensure the exclusion of Judas from any hope of salvation? What would be the impact, we wonder, if the Christian community made every effort to find room for hope such that even Judas might find forgiveness and peace with God? It matters, therefore, very much that there is hope for Judas. For if there is no hope for Judas, then is there hope for any? As Aiden Kimel wrote: ‘The gospel becomes the gospel when we dare to hope for the salvation of Judas.’[21]

The Scottish poet Robert Buchanan wrestled with this issue of grace for Judas in his ‘Ballad of Judas Iscariot’. His final stanzas paint a beautiful image of grace and hope.

For months and years, in grief and tears,
He walked the silent night;
Then the soul of Judas Iscariot
Perceived a far-off light.

For days and nights he wandered on,
Pushed on by hands behind;
And the days went by like black, black rain,
And the nights like rushing wind.

‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot,
Strange, and sad, and tall,
Stood all alone at dead of night
Before a lighted hall.

‘Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
And beckoned, smiling sweet;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stole in, and fell at his feet.

“The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!”

The supper wine is poured at last,
The lights burn bright and fair,
Iscariot washes the Bridegroom’s feet,
And dries them with his hair.[22]


[1] Peter Stanford, ‘Was Judas – Christianity’s great traitor – wrongly condemned?’ in The Independent (Sunday 5 April 2015).

[2] In fact, Thomas de Quincey, in his ground-breaking 1852 treatise ‘Judas Iscariot’, opened with these words: ‘Everything connected with our ordinary conceptions of this man, of his real purposes and of his ultimate fate, apparently is erroneous.’  Thomas de /Quincey, ‘Judas Iscariot,’ available at fullread.com/essay’jusda-iscariot, accessed 12.07.2018.

[3] One possible exception is the famous ‘Judas (not Iscariot)’ text in John 14:22. John never uses the name Judas for Thaddeus, so this occurrence is odd. Some have speculated that it is reference to a comment by Judas Iscariot, but that early copyists added the qualifier, convinced that this could not be the case. The fact that there are variations if the form of the qualification in early texts may point to ‘not Iscariot’ being an addition. Given that John has more to say about Judas than any of the other gospels, if a reference to something Judas said or did that was not related to his betrayal were to be preserved, it is in John’s gospel that we might expect to find it.

[4] There are a number of theories about what ‘Iscariot’ means, and many of them have to do with the role of Judas himself. For example, the idea that it means an assassin. But the fact that it is also the name of his father suggests that it must be a name that makes sense for the entire family, and not simply for Judas. Hence the ‘man of Kerioth’ interpretation remains the most likely.

[5] Samuel Laeuchli, ‘Origen’s Interpretation of Judas Iscariot’ in Church History. The American Society of Church History (vol. 22, no. 4, Dec 1953) p. 253 has written: ‘The post-apostolic generation was not interested in the person who, according to all four gospels, betrayed Jesus the day before his death. This whole episode remained a rather dark spot for the young church … It is not astonishing, therefore, that the apostolic literature of the second century carefully avoided the subject.’ Cf. also Susan Gunbar, Judas. A Biography (Norton and Co. London, 2009) which documents the demonization of Judas through Christian history.

[6] A.B. Bruce. The Training of the Twelve [1877]. Fourth ed. (New Canaan Connecticut: Keats Publishing, 1979), 373.

[7] Thomas de Quincey, Judas Iscariot, [1852] at http://fullreads.com/essay/judas-iscariot, p. 5. (accessed 12.07.2018)

[8]Cf. The Gospel of Judas, 2nd ed. Ed. R. Kasser, et al. (National Geographic, 2008).

[9] Bart Ehrman. The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed. (Oxford University Press, 2006) 153ff.

[10] Peter Stanford, Judas, pp. 47f.

[11] Thomas de Quincey, Judas Iscariot, [1852] at http://fullreads.com/essay/judas-iscariot, p. 7. (accessed 12.07.2018)

[12] The most radical suggestion concerning Judas’ role in salvation history has been put forward by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges in his fictional account of the writings of a Scandinavian theologian Nils Runeberg in his 1944 short story ‘Three Versions of Judas’. Borges argues, through the voice of Runeberg, that to limit the agony of God incarnate to ’one afternoon on the cross is blasphemous.’  It is more powerful and fitting that God should suffer the centuries-long rejection endured by Judas. ‘God became a man completely, a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of being reprehensible – all the way to the abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which together weave the uncertain web of history; He could have been Alexander, or Pythagoras, or Rurik, or Jesus; He chose an infamous destiny; He was Judas.’

[13] Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching (London: Allen & Unwin, 1925) has argued that, ‘not till the very last did Jesus recognize in him that bas character which made him a traitor.’ Cited in Susan Gubar, Judas. A Biography, n. 8, p 398.

[14] Friederich Ohly, The Dammed and the Elect. Guilt in Western Culture, trans Linda Archibald. (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 29.

[15] Ray Anderson, The Gospel According to Judas, p. 92.

[16] Leabhar Breac XVIII, cited by Aidan Kimel, ‘Pascha and the Apokatatasis of Judas Iscariot,’ Eclectic Orthodoxy. Afkimel.wordpress.com/2016/11/07pascha-and-the-apokatatsis-of-judas-iscariot… (Accessed 1.9.2018).

[17] Cited in Susan Gubar, Judas. A Biography, pp. 315ff.

[18] Avery Dulles, ‘The Population of Hell,’ in First Things (May 2003)

[19] Thomas de Quincey, Judas Iscariot, [1852] at http://fullreads.com/essay/judas-iscariot, p. 2. (accessed 12.07.2018)

[20] Intriguingly, Jesus appears to allude to Ahithopel at the last Supper when warns of his coming betrayal.

[21] Aidan Kimel, ‘Pascha and the Apokatastasis of Judas Iscariot’ in Eclectic Orthodoxy (posted 7 Nov 2016). Attps://afkimel.wordpress.come/2016/11/07pascha-and-the-apokatastasis-of-Judas-iscariot

[22] Robert Buchanan ‘The Ballad of Judas Iscariot’ by Robert Buchanan (1874)