The Irrelevant Repentance of Judas

This death was not what Judas intended. He did not intend the condemnation of Jesus on capital charges. He did not intend the handing over of Israel’s Messiah to Pontius Pilate. He did not intend the cross. Whatever his reasons and fantasies may have been, he only intended that first link in the chain of the Passion. Once he glimpsed the entire chain, he regretted even that first link.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. (Matt 27:3-5)

“There is no reason,” comments Karl Barth, “not to take seriously this repentance, this confession, this attempt of Judas to make restitution” (CD, II/2:466). In what ways does Judas’ repentance not fulfill the three conditions specified by scholastic theology—contrition, confession, satisfaction?

Yet the New Testament has little interest in the repentance of Judas. He may not have intended the Lord’s execution, but it was his actions that initiated the sequence of events that brought it about. By the time he realized his error, it was all too late. The high priests could do nothing, even if they had wanted to. It was out of their hands. The inexorable process was underway; its conclusion foregone. Pilate appears to have had some reservations (surely political and prudential, not moral), but he was not prepared to say no to the mob. And so Barabbas would be set free and the Nazarene sent to Golgotha. Judas may have been guilty only of the beginning of the historical movement toward death, but his responsibility for that beginning renders him guilty of the whole and thus guilty of the predestined end. The word of Christ is terse and merciless: “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” (Matt 26:24).

Perhaps Judas genuinely regretted his betrayal. Perhaps he would have done anything to undo his kiss—but no matter. In the judgment of the Evangelists not even his suicide can atone; it is the seal of his perdition.

But the Evangelists are not so much concerned with the person of this apostle as with his deed, with that which objectively and irrevocably transpired between Jesus and himself. … Judas led the officers of the high-priests to the spot where they could arrest Jesus without a disturbance. Now this could obviously have happened at some other spot and in some other way. But in fact it happened at this spot and in this way. And through what Judas was able to do and actually did do here, there began the movement which concluded with the death of Jesus. At this point it was not the high-priests, or Pilate and his soldiers, or Peter the denier and the fleeing disciples, who put their hands to the lever. It was Judas the apostle. And it was in his act that Israel finally showed itself to be the people of God which would not wholly serve its God, and would not therefore serve Him at all. By his act the sheep themselves sold the Good Shepherd to be slaughtered for thirty pieces of silver. By his act the tribe of Judah testified that it rejected the promised Messiah who had now been given. By his act even the apostolic group made itself guilty of this rejection. The transaction between Jesus and Judas as insignificant in itself, but this was the irrevocable event which took place in it; just as the sins of Saul as recorded in 1 Sam. were trivial in themselves and yet gave the irrevocable testimony to the fact that Saul’s kingdom was the rejection of Yahweh’s kingdom. Because it was an act of this nature, no sincerity of repentance such as Judas later experienced could in any way alter the fact that Jesus’ saying about this act was still valid: “Woe to the man, by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” Thus, for all the earnestness of his intention, he could not really repent, or make restitution for this deed by another and better deed. Saul, too, did not fail to repent sincerely, confessing his sins and attempting amendment. And in the same way Judas could indeed repent of what he had done, acknowledging that he had sinned and trying to make restitution. But he was no more able to make real restitution than Saul. (CD II/2:466)

One might complain that Barth hardly does justice to the real Judas; but the gospels are only interested in him as defined by his betrayal. For this reason, argues Barth, his repentance is irrelevant: it occurs on the wrong side of cross:

And so, according to the New Testament account, his repentance is left an open question which is not met or heard or answered by a promise of grace. How can it be, when Judas’ repentance cannot be perfect as his own work, but—if at all—only in virtue of the goal of that movement, the restitution which Jesus perfected by his death for the sin of the whole world, and therefore for Israel’s sin, and therefore for the sin of Judas as well? But this restitution, and with it the opening-up of the possibility of a full and true and acceptable repentance by faith in the atonement which Jesus accomplished for the sin of the whole world, this actualisation of the grace of God through the handing-over of His Son into the hands of sinners for their own blessing, and the revelation of its actualisation in the resurrection of Jesus, had not yet taken place, but could do so only as this movement ran its course. Judas, and his penitence, stood on this side of the event—dependent on his own work, his own freedom of choice and decision, which in contrast to Mary [of Bethany] he had kept for himself in face of Jesus. He had refused to accept Jesus unreservedly as his Lord, wholly to surrender himself to the glorifying of his death. …

Judas, then, is guilty only at the beginning of the movement which reached its conclusion in the death of Jesus. He does not participate in the promise which reaches out from that conclusion to him also. He stands at the cross of Jesus simply as the one who brought Him there, who has “shed innocent blood,” who is accused and condemned. And in him his tribe, the Davidic family of Judah, and all Israel, stands just as he does, at the cross of Jesus—like Saul the Benjamite before David, and like Israel before Yahweh as described in so many interminably long chapters of prophetic accusation. How can there be grace of him when he will not live wholly by grace, when he has completely rejected grace? How can the repentance of one who has made this rejection be other than a rejected repentance? (CD, II/2:466-467)

The Iscariot would not wait for the resurrection. He chose instead his own tree of death. How then could there be forgiveness for crucifying the Savior?

(Go to “Pascha and the Apokatastasis of Judas Iscariot”)

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15 Responses to The Irrelevant Repentance of Judas

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    By the same argument there can never be any forgiveness for any sin, since it was for the sins of all mankind that Jesus died, and we all stand at the foot of the cross in the knowledge that we put him there. I would thought every sin makes the crucifixion inevitable since it was only by the crucifixion that we could be cleansed of them. Making out Judas in particular as unforgivable seems simply a device to make light of our own culpability by contrast.

    Jesus said on the cross “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Why the persistent attempts to limit this to, well who, the ones who actually banged in the nails, the soldiers, Pilate, the chief priests, the crowd? Why does Jesus’ forgiveness suddenly run out of steam before it reaches Judas and then the rest of us?
    And is not the resurrection forgiveness and absolution for the crucifixion, by transforming it from the ultimate act of damnation into the ultimate act of salvation?

    On what basis are we to tell God he cannot forgive?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You will just have to wait for the next (probably concluding) article in the series.🙂

      Barth, I think, is trying to faithfully represent and understand the literal, negative testimony of the New Testament regarding Judas. At no point do we hear even a hint of Judas’ redemption. Hence Barth is reluctant to pronounce on his salvation. For this same reason he is unwilling to preach and teach apokatastasis, despite the logic of his doctrine of grace and election. At least that I how I am reading him at the moment.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Iain, in case you have missed the previous postings on Judas, begin with “Judas, Betrayal, and the Despair of Love.” You’ll find a link to the next post in the series at the bottom of each.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      One more thought. Barth’s understanding of the rejection of Judas is tied up with his undertanding of the atonement in which Christ becomes the Reprobate One for the sake of humanity. The sin of Judas must therefore be understood as included in the sin that the Son became or bore.

      Unfortunately, I do not know Barth’s theology well enough to say much more. Perhaps someone else can unpack Barth for us.

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  2. Tom says:

    I see a ‘to be continued’ heads-up there at the end,so I suspect Fr Aidan isn’t done. I’m guessing this post is the first act in a drama, and we can never know the true meaning of the first act until the final act.

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  3. Tom says:

    Totally off the topic of Judas’ repentance, and related to something Jesus said about Judas that I’ve always found very interesting.

    “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (Jesus, MT 26:24)

    I always wondered about this saying of Jesus’ in light of universalism. I mean, if universalism is true, then it’s false that non-existence can objectively speaking be preferable to existence however horrible one’s suffering, since all suffering is finite and the final beatitude of all reconciled things will render (per Paul, Rom 8) all suffering ‘incomparable’ to our glory. Objectively speaking, it is clearly false that it can ever be true that non-existence is better than existence.

    But what do we do with Jesus’ saying? It sure looks to make a straightforwardly objective claim. So either Jesus wasn’t a universalist (which is possible; there’s no reason to think every belief he held of a theological nature was inerrant; but that might implicate this gospel’s author(s) in being believers in some form of eternal conscious torment – it’s hard to imagine them having Jesus categorical state something they didn’t believe), or he means here something more like, “This one’s suffering will make him truly wish he had never been born,” i.e., he’ll come to experience his own existence in these terms. But there’s a difference between truly believing your horrible existence could not be rendered better than your non-existence, on the one hand, and it actually being true that your existence could not be rendered better than your non-existence. Universalism contradicts the latter, so I start there by assuming it to be Jesus’ meaning. (Unless there’s some fluke of translation that makes this all go away.)

    Tom

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      So funny you should ask this question, Tom. Just this morning Google directed me to George MacDonald’s “The Final Unmasking.” This is what St George says about the text:

      Of all who will one day stand in dismay and sickness of heart, with the consciousness that their very existence is a shame, those will fare the worst who have been consciously false to their fellows; who, pretending friendship, have used their neighbour to their own ends; and especially those who, pretending friendship, have divided friends. To such Dante has given the lowest hell. If there be one thing God hates, it must be treachery. Do not imagine Judas the only man of whom the Lord would say, ‘Better were it for that man if he had never been born!’ Did the Lord speak out of personal indignation, or did he utter a spiritual fact, a live principle? Did he speak in anger at the treachery of his apostle to himself, or in pity for the man that had better not have been born? Did the word spring from his knowledge of some fearful punishment awaiting Judas, or from his sense of the horror it was to be such a man? Beyond all things pitiful is it that a man should carry about with him the consciousness of being such a person–should know himself and not another that false one! ‘O God,’ we think, ‘how terrible if it were I!’ Just so terrible is it that it should be Judas! And have I not done things with the same germ in them, a germ which, brought to its evil perfection, would have shown itself the canker-worm, treachery? Except I love my neighbour as myself, I may one day betray him! Let us therefore be compassionate and humble, and hope for every man.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      Just a thought, but Jesus when speaking was speaking before Judas died, and speaks in the past tense, so is not speaking of the torment of future punishment but the present state of sin. This therefore may only means things for Judas then were worse than they were when he was born, and outweighed any good he had so far done and if he could he would better to start over, not that he should never be born at all.

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      • Tom says:

        “The Son of man ‘goes’ as it is written, but woe to him by whom the Son of man is-being-betrayed. It ‘was’ better to him if that man ‘was-never-born’.”

        Thanks Ian. Those who are experts in Greek can chime in and correct me, but it doesn’t seem to me that the “it ‘was’ better to him” describes the woeful state imagined as already having obtained in Judas’ life. I suppose one could say it was then already true, given Judas’ commitment and intentions, that he’d be better off having never been born, but that’s only relative to what lay ahead. Obviously Judas himself hadn’t come into an experience of that woeful state. We know it came later.

        Sometimes we set in motion a chain of events that presently entail consequences we’ve yet to encounter. The consequence is a foregone conclusion, and in that senses one can speak of it ‘as good as done’, which in fact Hebrew and other Semitic languages (which I am more familiar with) do. Jesus is not likely to have had this conversation in Greek, so my hunch is the Greek is just convey the Aramaic’s typical Semitic use of the perfect/past tense to stress the inevitability of some future outcome. That’s how I read it. For example, in Arabic a father might say to his disobedient child, “If you do that, I ‘spanked’ you” when the spanking hadn’t occurred yet. These are all over the Hebrew OT.

        There’s another very curious translation possibility that I’ve never seen anywhere. That last phrase “it was better to him if that man was never born.” The first “him” is simply the dative (‘auto’, ‘to him’) and typically (not invariably) refers to the closest antecedent candidate, which in this case is “the Son of Man” (not Judas as “that man” who betrays Jesus). It’s grammatically possible to read that final clause as “It’d be better for him, i.e., the Son of Man, had ‘that man’ (i.e., the one betraying him) never been born,” meaning…exactly…meaning what? Perhaps a recognition of the suffering of the Son of Man, not the one betraying him. But perhaps I’ve lost my mind here.

        Tom

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        • Tom says:

          Iain. Sorry!

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          • Ia(i)n Lovejoy says:

            Darn. I rather liked my solution. I think yours is a bit if a stretch, though. I think your original idea of Jesus meaning he will wish he had never been born works best, particularly as, if I understand it right, the dative can mean equally “for him” ( in the objective sense of “in respect of him”) or “to him” (in the subjective sense of “as far as he is concerned”).

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          • Tom says:

            Oh, I agree Jesus is saying the one who betrays him will wish he had never been born. I just don’t think Judas already ‘wished’ that, which is what I thought you were saying.

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        • Morgan Hunter says:

          One possibility that I’ve heard (even from non-universalists) is that the emphasis is supposed to be on “born”–as opposed to “never conceived/begotten”. In other words, Judas would have been better off if he had died in utero, not if he had never existed at all. Although the Greek word used can also mean “come into existence” in a more general sense, classical writers do use it to specifically refer to never being born.

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  4. Tom says:

    I’ve been a bit preoccupied and so haven’t read the previous posts in this series. Didn’t even know there was a series. But I’m all caught up now. Good stuff!

    I like this very much from the first in the series: “But Anderson proposes an alternative vision for Judas. Do not forget, he reminds us, that Judas—like Peter, James, John, and the others—was an answer to prayer and therefore ‘had been grasped by an intentionality that could not be shaken by his act of betrayal’ (p. 49). Divine election precedes and grounds human freedom and destiny.”

    Personally I wouldn’t go so far as to say “if Judas became enemy and reprobate, he became so for the good of that world…” but we may just be a difference in how we parse God’s providential ‘accommodation’ to our choices. I think there’s a sense in which God gets things done “in spite of” our choices, and that means there’s no sense in which sin is “for the good.” But others may prefer to see God as willing the end to be accomplished through such choices.

    I wonder too about Karl Barth’s “Judas is the great sinner of the New Testament.” Did St. Paul believe that? It doesn’t seem he did: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.” He didn’t have to preference the final statement with the assurance that it’s true and that others should accept it. It’s as though he knew we’d take it as rhetorical flair or exaggeration for the sake of effect. But his opening qualification would rule that out. It makes me wonder if perhaps Paul had ‘someone’ in mind, that perhaps the NT Church struggled to extend to Judas (as many of them struggled to extend to Gentiles) a divine love SO unconditional, beyond their categories even to accommodate. It’s not like Paul doesn’t know who Judas is and what he had done, but he in Paul’s mind he a worse sinner than Judas. Just a thought.

    Tom

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