Did Judas Iscariot Have a Choice to Betray Jesus?
Who Was Judas Iscariot?
Judas Iscariot was one of the 12 followers that Jesus anointed to be in his inner circle, later known as the apostles. Judas traveled with Jesus for something like three years, and as will be discussed in the next section, apparently didn’t create many waves in the group.
According to John 12:1-17 (repeated in Matthew 26:6-16 with slightly different details), the day before Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey (now celebrated as Palm Sunday), Jesus and his disciples were staying with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany. Mary took a jar of expensive perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping the perfume with her hair. Judas rebuked her for wasting the perfume when she could have sold it and given the money to the poor, although he didn’t actually care about the poor. He cared about the money because he was in charge of the group’s finances and would help himself to the bag (John 12:6). Jesus responded by telling Judas to leave Mary alone.
After this, Judas went to meet the religious leaders who were plotting to kill Jesus, and Lazarus as well since Jesus had raised him from the dead. He asked how much they would pay him to betray Jesus and got 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14-16, Mark 14:10-11, Luke 22:1-6). Whether Judas did this meeting immediately after Jesus rebuked him or several days later is hard to say. Traditional church calendars commemorate the event happening on Spy Wednesday, the fourth day of Holy Week.
After the Last Supper, Judas brought some men to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, identifying Jesus by greeting him with a kiss (Matthew 26:47-56, Mark 14:43-50, John 18:3-12). After this Jesus was arrested and condemned to die, which apparently surprised Judas. Matthew 27:3-10 states that Judas felt convicted, threw the bribe money back at the religious leaders, and hanged himself. Acts 1:15-18 claims that he used the money to buy a field and died in it, falling headfirst on the ground while his intestines burst.
What Do We Know about Judas Iscariot?
Because ancient biographies didn’t believe it was important to cover every detail about a person’s life, the Gospels only give us a few bits of information about the disciples. We know that Judas Iscariot is mentioned in Mark 3:9’s list of all 12 disciples, and it’s generally believed that “Iscariot” specified where Judas came from: it meant “man of Kerioth.”
Matthew 10 describes all of the disciples being given authority to perform miracles and cast out demons, which presumably included Judas. Mark 3:4 says that Jesus also sent out all 12 disciples to preach, and Luke 9:34 indicates that at least two disciples were able to call down fire from heaven. There are no indications that Judas appeared less spiritual than the other disciples. In fact, since none of the disciples suspected him when Jesus told them at the last supper that one would betray him, we can guess that he seemed normal.
However, the Gospel of John shows that something was wrong with Judas early on. In John 6:64-70, after various people have walked off because they don’t understand Jesus’ teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, one of his disciples commented on how hard Jesus’ teaching was. Jesus responded, “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe” (John 6:64-65). Later the disciples continue following him, and Jesus warns them that although he chose all 12 of them, “one of you is a devil!” (John 6:70).
So, Jesus knew even before reaching Jerusalem (possibly right from the start) who would betray him. He also hinted that Judas didn’t believe in his mission from the start and described Judas’ unbelief as showing how “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65). This may be a general statement about predestination—if the traditional Calvinist interpretation of Scripture is correct and only those called by God respond to Jesus’ invitation for eternal life, we would say that Judas was never one of the elect.
Why Did Judas Betray Jesus?
Why precisely Judas Iscariot chose to betray Jesus is not entirely clear.
Based on Jesus’ comment that Judas didn’t believe in him, it seems that he joined Jesus’ group for selfish reasons. We know from historians that various people claiming to be the Messiah were active in Judea at the time, many trying to overthrow the Romans or change the religious order. Therefore, it’s possible that Judas figured Jesus was going to seize authority for himself soon, and being part of Jesus’ “in-group” would benefit him. Once he realized that Jesus’ goals didn’t fit his own agenda, he may have been angered by that and wanted Jesus out of the way.
We do know that Judas decided to betray Jesus after his greed was called out, so he may have worried that Jesus knew about him embezzling funds and wanted to avoid being caught. We also know that Mark 27 says Judas was convicted after learning that Jesus was condemned to die. Given that the Gospels mention earlier events where people tried to kill Jesus or were plotting to kill him and Lazarus, it’s hard to imagine that Judas thought Jesus would be arrested but not killed. However, he may not have expected Jesus to die by crucifixion (a brutal execution method normally reserved for the worst criminals). Therefore, it’s at least a little bit possible that Judas hadn’t considered the full consequences of his actions.
Did Judas Have a Choice?
The question of how much Judas Iscariot chose of his free will to betray Jesus, and how much he was influenced by outside forces, is hard to say. Luke is the one Gospel that gives an explicit reason for Judas’ behavior, stating that once Jesus and his group had arrived in Jerusalem, “Satan entered into Judas Iscariot… and he went to the leading priests and captains of the Temple guard to discuss the best way to betray Jesus to them” (Luke 22:3-5).
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. Other verses about possession use a variety of Greek phrases. A verse may say that a person “has” an unclean spirit (Acts 8:7) or that the person is “daimonizomai” (Matthew 8:28), which Strong’s Concordance defines as being used by or having a demon. The New Testament’s description of possession appears to be different than 1 Samuel 16:14, where God sends an evil spirit to “terrorize” King Saul.
Since the Bible doesn’t have any book that explicitly outlines how Satan and his demons affect people, we don’t have a clear understanding of what possession is, and whether demons can affect us in more minor ways (suggesting temptations, etc.). Christians in charismatic traditions (such as Dean Sherman, author of Spiritual Warfare for Every Christian) emphasize spiritual beings affecting us and praying against demons using phrases like “rebuking Satan’s hold on our lives.” Frank Peretti uses this idea of spiritual warfare extensively in his novel This Present Darkness, with people praying against demons who attack a small town. C.S. Lewis's novel The Screwtape Letters depicts demons suggesting thoughts into people’s minds, although Lewis may have meant this as a device for satire.
Given the Bible’s ambiguity on this subject, it’s hard to say whether Judas was tempted by demons and took the bait or was possessed by demons. It is interesting that at the Last Supper, Jesus talks about Judas in a way that suggests some free will, a possibility to turn back. After telling his disciples that one will betray him, Jesus adds, “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” (Mark 14:21). Jesus telling the whole room how bad things will be for his betrayer could have been a public warning, giving Judas a chance to reconsider.
Another odd thing about Jesus’ speech is he says that he would go “as it is written of him,” but doesn’t say that about Judas. This may imply that while prophecy had made it clear what Jesus’ fate was, but Judas’ fate wasn’t set in stone. Notably, when Peter talks about Old Testament prophecies concerning Judas (Acts 1:15-26), the two prophecies mention describing what would happen after Judas betrayed Jesus, nothing that declares he was fated to betray him. The first prophecy describes how Judas would have a “desolate camp” (Psalm 69:25), which happened when the field he bought was used as a graveyard. The second prophecy describes how another would take Judas’ office (Psalms 109:8), which happened when Matthias took his spot among the apostles.
Given all this information, it’s possible that Judas did have a choice about whether he betrayed Jesus, a possibility to reject Satan’s suggestions. We won’t fully know this side of eternity the extent to which free will and God’s will played in his situation.
Photo credit: iStock/Getty Images Plus/gabrielabertolini
G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,000 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.
This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.