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 for 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?

(2 November 2016)

(Go to “Apokatastasis of Judas”)

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4 Responses to The Irrelevant Repentance of Judas

  1. armsopenwide says:

    Even St. Isaac the Syrian warns that the refining fire of God’s love is an exceedingly painful journey, and for the most part concentrates on guiding us to the land of uprightness through a lifetime of ascetic endeavor. And so we must retain the “but,” at least in the sense in which St. Isaac understood it. Only the Saints can see the divine perspective clearly enough to speak with a substantial degree of certainty.


  2. Lawrence Cross says:

    On the matter of Judas, may I suggest a look at Fr Patrick H. Reardon’s commentary on Psalm 51 (52) ‘Why boast of your lawlessness’ in his book Christ in the Psalms. Fr Patrick contrasts Judas to Doeg the Edomite and finally to men like him, concluding that ‘As a moral character Judas seems preferable’ He respectfully questions the great Dante’s placement of Judas in the deepest hell. Doeg and his tribe swarm in those depths.


  3. Logan Polk says:

    I am still confused over one thing in regards to all of this: Judas died BEFORE the crucifixion (In Matthew explicitly, he hangs himself right around the time Jesus is being brought before St. Pontius Pilate, where Pontius will famously do everything he can to talk down the angry mob)

    Jesus on the Cross broke open the gates of Hades completely and brought out all the souls therein. St. Ephrem says as much, St. John Chrystosom says as much, St. Clement of Alexandria says as much, etc. Why would this not include Judas? Judas died in a state of anguish and repentance over what he had done, he was essentially the last soul into the depths of Hades prior to Christ’s descent therein. Are you telling me he wouldn’t be the first one to leap into his Savior’s arms, the same Savior he thought he had just condemned to the worst death imaginable? Judas killed himself out of guilt, not out of spite or hatred of God, let’s remember that. So many Saints have commented that Jesus freed ALL souls from Hell after His descent into it, and Judas died prior to Christ, so I fail to see how Judas wasn’t rescued too or why it’s even a question.

    Would love to hear your thoughts.


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      My understanding is that non-universalists believe Jesus sort of skirted round the periphery and picked up only the more respectable of the damned while he was there, leaving the particularly bad hats in place.


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