A Traitor’s Punishment?

  • Question from AW, United Kingdom.

    Did Judas go to hell?

    Judas Iscariot has gone down in history as the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish and Roman authorities. In the three synoptic gospels Judas appears to be motivated by money, but the account in the gospel of John is less sympathetic and more troubling for the reader. In chapter 13, the author states twice that the devil/Satan entered Judas (verses 2 & 27) and that Judas’ traitorous actions fulfilled Jesus’ own prophecy of betrayal (verse 19). In fact John intimates that Judas was chosen specifically to betray Jesus and the reference to Satan leaves the reader in no doubt of Judas’ eventual destination.

    The reason this is troubling is because Judas is one of the twelve chosen especially by Jesus as his ‘inner circle’ of companions. That implies that while the other eleven were chosen to spread the good news of the Kingdom, Judas was chosen precisely to commit a heinous sin and bring about Jesus’ death. This seems like a form of ‘double predestination’, with the eleven being chosen for eternal life and Judas being chosen for damnation. Given the difficulty many Christians have with holding a doctrine of predestination (or election), the thought that Judas was chosen to betray Jesus and go to Hell as a result seems unpalatable.

    That was certainly the belief of the early Christians. One second-century writer, Clement of Alexandria (d 214), refers to Judas being replaced because he was an unworthy apostle (cited in J Stevenson, A New Eusebius, p 199). This was evidently a common view held by Gnostic sects, but Clement does not disagree with their comments on Judas. The Biblical passages that relate to his death (Matthew 27 verses 1-10 and Acts 1 verses 16-20) are both gory and highlight the fact that he committed suicide – an unforgivable sin in Jewish society. [There are some inconsistencies in the two accounts of Judas’ death – see ‘What Happened to Judas’ in The Bible – New Testament section for more on this] Christian creeds named Judas as the betrayer and in popular medieval art and mystery plays Judas is tormented by demons as an arch-sinner, a byword for wickedness.

    However, there have been some efforts to rehabilitate Judas in recent years, seeing him as a confused individual who believed that he could ‘force God’s hand’ by pushing Jesus into a confrontation with the Jewish religious leaders. Much of this stems from a possible translation of Iscariot as ‘sicarius’ (‘dagger man’). The Zealots, Jewish freedom fighters who opposed the Roman occupation, carried long thin-bladed daggers (sicarii), which could be thrust between the armour plates of a Roman soldier.

    If he was a Zealot, Judas may have understood Jesus’ Messianic claims in terms of a liberated Israel with Jesus as the new King, heir of David, reigning in Jerusalem. His subsequent suicidal remorse when he realised that Jesus was not going to ‘declare himself’ adds to the tragedy that is Judas’ misunderstanding of what is going on.

    Whatever Judas’ motivation – money, possession or misguided patriotism – we simply cannot say whether his suicide was a genuine act of repentance. The tradition of the church is that Judas went to Hell for his deed and without more information we simply cannot know otherwise in this life.

    Thanks for your question AW, I hope that you found this answer helpful.

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