By Hope Bolinger, Crosswalk.com
Did Judas have free will? If we’re completely honest, we’ve likely asked this question more than once. After all, how does a man who spent three-plus years with Jesus in his ministry suddenly turn on him?
Scripture also seems to say that something spiritual went on in Judas when he set out to betray Jesus.
We know how the story goes. Judas is looking to betray Jesus. Jesus isn’t the savior he expected. He likely hopes that turning Jesus over to the religious authorities will give Jesus the final push to destroy Rome. When Jesus, instead, is led silently to the slaughter, Judas returns the blood money to the religious authorities and kills himself. Seems like a person who didn’t know what he was getting into, right?
So did the disciple who betrayed Jesus really have a choice in the matter? Can we truly place the blame on him? Or, as we indicated in our initial question, did Judas truly have no free will when it came to betraying Jesus? Let’s dive into these questions.
What Does the Bible Say about Judas?
First, we know Judas is in charge of the money during Jesus’ ministry. He is often described as a thief when it comes to finances (John 10:6). He goes as far as to get mad at the woman who anoints Jesus with perfume, claiming that she wasted her money on such a trivial act (Matthew 26). Scripture makes it clear that he does not care for the poor; he was probably the worst person to hold the treasurer position. Honestly, even the tax collector Matthew (part of a profession known for skimming off the top) would’ve serviced better. We see a parallel in Judas’ story when he betrays Jesus for money.
Secondly, Jesus describes Judas as a “devil” in John 6:66-71, which indicates he was evil before the events of the Last Supper. Jesus uses the literal term diablos, which means “prone to slander or accuse.” This term was often employed on a man who opposed God.
Thirdly, Luke 6:16—when it introduces him—uses really interesting wording when it comes to Judas. It says he will “become” a “traitor.” A traitor, in this context, means a person who will hand over a good person to an enemy. Hence, what we see goes down after the events of the Last Supper.
So somewhere between Judas’ introduction to Jesus’ ministry and at the Garden of Gethsemane, he went from disciple to devil.
But why? What drove him to this?
Why Did Judas Betray Jesus?
Scripture doesn’t explicitly say, “Well, Judas betrayed Jesus because of x, y, and z reasons.” We get several hints in the text. I’ll point out the progression below.
1. Judas wanted a conqueror. Judas’ surname indicates he was a zealot. If you think of the Star Wars rebels, you have a good idea of what a zealot was all about in Jesus’ time. They wanted to defeat Rome and wanted to do so in a violent, insurrection kind of way. Although Jesus did have other disciples who were zealots, Judas was getting impatient after three years of ministry.
2. Judas was getting impatient. Jesus did ministry for three years. The disciples often asked when Jesus would conquer their enemies Matthew 24:3 (i.e., Rome). The Israelites longed for it. So much so that they sang “Hosanna!” (which translates as “save us now”). Jesus was moving a little too slowly for Judas. S, Judas decided to make the first move.
3. Judas tried to force Jesus’ hand. We must keep in mind that Judas witnessed several miracles. For instance, he saw Jesus bring a dead man back to life (John 11). He probably didn’t think that turning Jesus over to the religious authorities would result in Jesus’ death. Scripture shows his surprise that Jesus will go through with the crucifixion (Matthew 27:3). Judas likely thought that forcing Jesus to make a move would result in a move that Judas wanted. He probably imagined Jesus would once again perform great signs and miracles and would, at last, overturn Israel’s enemies. Little did he know that Jesus intended to overturn a greater enemy: sin itself.
With all of this in mind, it appears that Judas had some free will regarding the plot to betray Jesus. But did he have complete control over his actions?
Did Judas Have Free Will?
Did Judas have free will? It’s a question we may not be able to answer fully, given the evidence in Scripture.
I think the biggest verse that suggests Satan had sway over Judas is Luke 22:3: “Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve.”
Satan entered him. That seems clear as day. Can we really say that Judas had free will if Satan possessed him? For context, this event happens right before Judas agrees with the religious leaders to trade Jesus for thirty silver coins.
Also, if we look at earlier Scripture, like Psalm 22, it heavily indicates that someone was destined to betray Jesus. And Judas seems to fit the bill. So did he have an option?
Before we jump to conclusions, let’s understand the verse’s wording. BibleStudyTools contributor Connor Salter observes the following:
“The Greek word for ‘enter’ in this verse is ‘eiserchomai,’ elsewhere used for entering buildings (Luke 19:45), entering into heaven (Mat 18:9), and when Jesus casts out a deaf and mute demon from a boy, telling the demon to ‘never enter him again’ (Mark 9:25). So, there is precedence for the word being used to describe demons possessing people, but it’s not exclusively for that purpose.”
Salter later states that just how much of a grip Satan (or the demon) had over Judas is ambiguous. But Salter also points out that several other times in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus mentions how someone will betray him. Judas was duly warned. He may have opened his heart to spiritual attacks to get his way rather than God’s way.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, Judas likely built up a heart of stone—much like we see in Pharaoh during the plagues of Egypt. Judas joined for the wrong reasons, was selfish throughout Jesus’ ministry, and decided that Jesus wasn’t the savior he wanted.
It’s also important to point out that even if Judas had no free will—and I’d like to argue that he at least had some control over his actions—that he did have free will after Jesus was condemned to death. Had he lived longer, he may have received Jesus’ forgiveness. After all, Peter betrayed Jesus by denying him and still received Jesus’ forgiveness. Had Judas stuck around after the crucifixion, Jesus could have forgiven him too. Instead, Judas ends his life, and we never get to find out what could’ve happened had he stayed in the picture.
What Would Happen if Judas Chose Not to Betray Jesus?
Did Judas have to be Jesus’ betrayer? Or could someone else have taken his place had Judas not gone forward with his plans? Maybe Judas could’ve resisted Satan and chosen not to hand Jesus over to the religious leaders.
I’m sure we’ve all asked ourselves this question. Was Judas forever condemned to be this man, in the same way that Mary was chosen to be the Mother of Jesus, or Moses chosen to lead Israel out of Egypt?
In hypothetical terms, we have to consider the political climate of Jesus’ time. The same people who shouted “Hosanna” screamed “Crucify him” several days later.
Had Judas not betrayed Jesus, someone likely would’ve filled his place. Waters get muddy when it comes to predestination because God has sovereignty and knowledge of the future, but humans also have free will.
Did Judas have free will? Yes, but perhaps not full free will when Satan entered him. Regardless, his life didn’t need to end the way it did. Jesus could have forgiven even Judas, had Judas given him the chance.
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/gabrielabertolini
Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, and the author 21+ books. More than 1400 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at hopebolinger.com for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids.
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