Q. Did Jesus forgive Judas, or was he damned to hell?
There’s no question in my mind that Jesus forgave Judas. On the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” This applied to everyone who was responsible for his crucifixion—not just the squad of Roman soldiers who actually put him on the cross, but also the crowds who shouted “Crucify him!”, the religious and political leaders who conspired against him, and yes, even Judas who betrayed him. Indeed, Jesus’ words also apply to all of us, whose sins put him on the cross.
The real question is whether Judas accepted the forgiveness of Jesus and so was saved. I’d like to argue that he might have been. I realize this is not the majority view among Christians. (In the Inferno, for example, Dante put Judas in the very mouth of Satan, in the lowest circle of hell!) But hear me out.
The Bible tells us that once Jesus had been condemned to death, “When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’” This, to me, sounds like genuine repentance. There is open and specific confession of sin, and there is restitution—what John the Baptist once called “fruit worthy of repentance.” If Judas had not been genuinely repentant, I don’t think he would have returned the money he got for betraying Jesus. But apparently Judas had not expected that the Jewish leaders would attempt, successfully in the end, to have Jesus put to death. He had only thought he was delivering him to arrest and detention. When he saw where his actions had led, he repented.
This, at least is the reading of many English translations—that Judas “repented.” (The KJV, ASV, RSV, NRSV, Good News Translation, and several others have this reading.) But other English Bibles suggest instead that while Judas “was seized with remorse” (NIV) or “changed his mind” (ESV), he didn’t actually repent, he just felt regret.
The Greek term is metamelomai, and it does seem to mean something like “regret” or “change one’s mind” when it is used in 2 Corinthians (“if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it”) and Hebrews (“The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind”). However, it clearly means “repent” when it is used a little earlier in the gospel of Matthew. Shortly before the passage about Judas, Matthew quotes Jesus as telling the chief priests and elders, “John [the Baptist] came to you to show you the way of righteousness,” but “you did not repent and believe him.” (This is the NIV’s translation of the term there.) So a good case can be made that Judas did repent of his sin of betraying Jesus, that he confessed it, and that he sought to make what restitution he could.
Unfortunately, the chief priests and elders, whose appointed role was to help shepherd repentant sinners like him back into the fold, turned him away, saying, “So what? That’s your problem.” In order to accept Judas’s confession, they would have had to admit that it was just as wrong for them to have conspired to put Jesus to death, but their pride and vested interests did not allow them to do this. When Judas did not receive the spiritual counsel and restoration that he was seeking and desperately needed, in despair he went out and hanged himself. But we should be very careful not to conclude that his suicide proves he went to hell in the end. People tragically commit suicide when they lose all hope–not when they lose all faith.
And so I believe there is enough in the gospel narratives about Judas to conclude that he may have been a sincerely repentant sinner whom the religious leaders of his day unfortunately failed. But God knows what was ultimately in his heart, and He will judge him on that basis. One vital lesson for us is never to become so compromised by sin and pride ourselves that we cannot show the way to someone who, whether genuinely repentant or merely remorseful to begin with, might be led back to God through wise and compassionate counsel.
Some may read this post and wonder, “But didn’t Jesus and the apostles say it was predicted in Scripture that Judas would betray Jesus and be lost? Doesn’t that settle the question?” I’ll take up that concern in my next post.