The importance of the cross in the Christian faith is no less than that it is the way in which God chose to redeem the world and restore the relationship between Godself and fallen humanity. And yet the events that led up to the crucifixion of Christ, that we recall in Holy Week cover a whole range of human behaviour, including , of course, betrayal.
The portrayal of Judas in Western Art has increasingly represented him as sinister, the one disciple recognisable by his evil face. Indeed it is the case that Judas has been villified by the Christian tradition. And yet, the question lingers, was Judas not also part of God’s plan for redemption?
Consider the character of Gollum in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; although he is working against the mission of the fellowship to destroy the ring, Frodo would not ultimately be able to complete his mission without him. As he stands at the Crack of Doom, able to destroy the ring forever, it’s power has taken a hold of Frodo and he no longer wants to destroy it, but claims it for himself. Gollum attacks him and bites off his finger with the ring on it. As Gollum indulges in a celebratory dance at being reunited with his ‘precious’, he falls in to the Crack of Doom and both he and the ring are destroyed forever. [Apologies if you are yet to read or watch the story!]
The role of Gollum ends up being to complete the mission that is beyond the efforts of the fellowship alone. Jesus could have been arrested without the betrayal of Judas, but in the events which unfolded Judas’ actions became a central part of the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. But this raises a whole heap of questions. Did God create Judas for this purpose? Was he brought into being, like Gollum, to play a negative, but necessary part of the mission? This of course implies that Judas did not act out of free will, but according to predestination.
It seems to me much more likely, that Judas, along with the rest of the disciples acts out of fear. Judas is not the only betrayer. Peter denies Jesus three times – a fairly emphatic betrayal of Jesus, and Peter’s own commitment to the Gospel. All of the disciples in their own way betray Jesus out of fear of what will happen to them, and doubt at their previous conviction, but it is only Judas who receives the iconic pieces of silver and then takes his life, meaning that this betrayal cannot be put right. In John’s Gospel, the Resurrected Christ asks Peter three times, Do you love me? Do you love me more than these? echoing precisely Peter’s triple denial of Jesus. This restored relationship between Jesus and Peter also restores Peter to his position in the Church, and so we remember him not as the denier, but as the rock on which Christ built his church.
Would Peter have been a better disciple without the denial and reconciliation? Perhaps this is the key to understanding God’s plan, not that we are destined for destruction, but that God chooses to work with us in our freedom, fear and fallenness and is prepared to take all of the risks that entails. Rather than Judas’ own act of betrayal being a particular part of God’s plan, I would suggest that God’s plan was to respond directly to human fear and fallenness. To restore relationships and bring reconciliation through the risen Christ. the tragedy of Judas is not his betrayal, but that he could not live with himself to encounter the risen Christ and experience the reconciliation that was established with Peter and the other disciples.