A friend just posted his take on “a biblical understanding of suicide” which I read with some interest. Life can be hard. I’ve certainly have had moments of late in which I consider, with the Apostle Paul, the beatitude of unfettered communion with Christ as compared to my present life, and find the choice rather less than “cut and dried” in favor of the latter. Anyway — in his post, my friend asks “Does anyone think that Judas, the Satan-possessed career thief is in Heaven?” Well, to be honest — I’d wondered about that myself recently. So, taken thus to task, I re-read Matthew 27:3-10. And having done this, I find myself even less sure that I’m qualified to pronounce eternal judgement on Judas.
So, here’s the question that I’ll ask you to consider — should you choose to spend your valuable time by reading on: How do Judas’ final recorded posture and actions toward Jesus compare to those of “thief on the cross” to whom Jesus offers what we must *surely* interpret as an assurance of blessed eternal destiny?
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.”
Forgive my iconoclasm — it’s a curse — or is it a gift? Who knows. To me, that language sure as Hades *sounds* like genuine repentance. Sure — the chief priests didn’t “accept” his symbolic act and offer him forgiveness — instead spewing back accusation and blame — but that crowd is hardly represented by the gospel writers as representing the divine perspective and having authority to speak with authority to the matter of a person’s eternal destiny.
We can surely sympathize with Judas’s feelings here. A human being, distraught by the real-life dynamics of guilt and repentance in weighty matters like the cause and effect of another’s life or death (let alone the death of someone of such “significance” as Jesus’) is surely prone to being “overwhelmed” by psychological and physiological factors. Is Judas’ murder (of Jesus) forgivable? Of course! (Could exhibit “A” not be the “chief of sinners” himself.) On what grounds? Repentance, of course. Under what accompanying conditions? I’m not aware of any other immediate conditions from God’s perspective. He is faithful and just. Right???
Yes, Judas’ subsequent suicide does indeed bear witness to an imperfect degree of faith — Judas’s expression of belief in Jesus’ righteousness and innocence did not appear to overmaster the psycho-somatic impulse to escape from the emotional (and potential physical) torment of the situation. He did not experience immediate freedom from the death-bringing guilt that weighed on his soul — he could not bear it (I’m not sure that I could either, nor that I will do so all the rest of my days) and, in weakness and dispair, broke down and “escaped.” His “grief” did bring about repentance, but perhaps because he lacked the community to experience affirmation and absolution, he nevertheless slipped back into the “worldly grief” that brings death.
But the way I see our life of following Jesus, so it is with us. We don’t always win. Paul seems to make allowance for just such “real life” wrestling in Romans 7. Lapses occur. Sometimes the flesh “happens” to Christians. We regularly find ourselves having committed acts that our “real self” must disown as contrary to its avowed nature — that standard to which we hold ourselves and “own” in our moments of clear-headed self-possession. Eventually (Romans 8) we’re gonna be free from this wrestling, but until this “eventually” becomes reality (i.e. we die or the Lord returns) — we groan with the rest of creation — even if some of the time our sighs ring with the blessed, “knowing better” overtones of the “somewhat more” enlightened (of whom much more will be required — ouch).
So when I reflect on what we know of Judas’ final hours, I find myself unwilling to assume an ex cathedra stance, stroke my virtual beard (I only *wish* I could grow a respectable one) and declare Judas to be eternally beyond the pale of effectual repentance.
Do we *really* believe that God turned an un-hearing ear to Judas’s final recorded words: “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood?”
Should we judge by virtue of Judas’ subsequent action (his suicide) that he was “beyond the pale” of grace? What of the actions of his contemporaries at that time in history — were they already the paragons of faith and courage that our hindsight sees them in? Or were their fleshly actions in those hours and moments also what we might today look back on as fearful, faithless, and faltering?
We can’t possibly hold Judas to the “developed” post-Pentecost view of sin, forgiveness, grace and “victorious living” that we see considered, expanded on, and codified in the ensuing half-century. We certainly don’t hold Paul to it at that point in history, nor Peter, et cetera. So why Judas?
Were Judas’ last words of repentance — returned with blame and indifference by the only humans we know he had contact with — insufficient to secure the Father’s embrace? I’m not prepared to say that. If Jesus had been physically present with Judas, as he was with the penitent thief on the cross, do we know for sure that Judas would not have had the courage, in that moment, to call on Jesus directly for salvation — as did the thief — and can we imagine that Jesus would have said “No, Judas — there is no hope for you, my grace isn’t sufficient for you — although you’ve declared and defended my righteousness and identity before an accusing party, I will have no part with you.” Based on what we do have in the story, and the remarkable similarities between the stories, I’m loathe to reject Judas where Jesus accepted the thief on the cross.