Reflections on Judas: Part 1, Repentance as Suicide

On Sundays my bible class is working through the Passion narrative in the gospel of Matthew. This Sunday I have the texts regarding Judas' betrayal of Jesus. As I prepare for that class I'm reading Susan Gubar's book Judas: A Biography. I thought I'd devote a few posts to thinking about Judas.

Of the four gospels, only Matthew tells us about Judas' suicide. After betraying Jesus in the garden Judas "saw that Jesus was condemned" before Pilate. One wonders, at this point, what Judas thought was going to happen to Jesus. Perhaps Judas didn't think the Sanhedrin was going to get the Romans involved. By involving the Romans the Sanhedrin brought capital punishment into the picture. Perhaps Judas didn't anticipate this eventuality. Regardless, seeing Jesus condemned to die by crucifixion Judas is "seized with remorse." Judas confesses his sin and begins to repent. The events unfold like this in Matthew 27:

Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death. They bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate, the governor.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. "I have sinned," he said, "for I have betrayed innocent blood."

"What is that to us?" they replied. "That's your responsibility."

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

The chief priests picked up the coins and said, "It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money." So they decided to use the money to buy the potter's field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.
Historically, many within Christianity have considered suicide to be a mortal sin. Thus, it's a bit of a trap, morally speaking, to commit suicide. Your last act was a mortal sin and, because you are dead, you can't repent. So you die in sin. Thus, suicides were not allowed to be buried on consecrated ground.

Against that backdrop, here is my gut reaction to Judas' story. It seems, given my sensibilities, that Judas' suicide was an act of repentance. I'm not saying that the act of taking his own life wasn't sinful. Just that the suicide, if you read Matthew, appeared to be an act of repentance. The suicide follows confession and seems to be, along with returning the money, an effort at repentance.

What does this mean? I'm not sure. But as a psychologist, and having sat through many long nights with suicidal people, I've never been comfortable with seeing suicides in moral terms. I see suicides as sad and tragic. Not sinful or evil.

More specifically, I can't imagine that God's heart didn't go out to Judas as he wrapped the rope around his neck, tears streaming down his face. I don't know why Judas did what he did. And perhaps it would have been better if he had never been born. I bet, before he killed himself, Judas would have agreed.

May God bless his soul.

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19 thoughts on “Reflections on Judas: Part 1, Repentance as Suicide”

  1. I've just read a poem called "Saint Judas" by James Wright, which might be of interest. Here Judas is very much human and out of options:

    http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/saint-judas/

  2. Aren't there times when it is a moral issue? I say that only because I saw a man do seemingly everything in his power to abandon his wife and special needs daughter and leave nothing of value behind for anyone who knew him. Tragic, yes, in many ways. Maybe at the end it was just an impulse acted on too quickly, but there was a lot of spite and selfishness before things got to that point.

  3. Nathan,
    Yes, I do think at times, perhaps every time, it is a moral issue. I'm just speaking about my own feelings, that I don't tend to think about it in moral terms. Likely it's my mental health perspective. Sympathy over judgment and all that...

  4. Wait a minute. Maybe there was no suicide:
    Acts 1:18 With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.
    Who bought the field?
    How did he die?

  5. FOUR gospels? Odd, I'm familiar with quite a few more...

    The Gospel of Judas points out that Judas is a central figure to Christian soteriology. Without Judas, there was no one to betray Jesus, no one to arrest him, no central, tragic myth at the heart of it of the betrayer's kiss. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus specifically DEMANDS Judas betray him against his (Judas') wishes, in order to allow God to work his forgiveness through the crucifixion.

    Which is why I can't accept Christian soteriology in any way - it requires an act of violence as its central feature, without which forgiveness cannot be worked.

  6. I believe the Church has always considered suicide as an act of despair, a self-centered action that denies or refuses the possibility of a) forgiveness or b) hope. From this theological standpoint it is the ultimate act of human rejection of God. Hence the mortal sin. Of course, suicide is murder as well, since your life does not belong to you but to Him who gave it to you. You no more have the right to take your own life than you do another. Try telling the court that your friend wanted you to kill him, even if it was recorded you're still guilty of premeditated murder. It's not different just because you are the criminal and the victim. Just saying.

  7. Mark,
    I see that. However, I'd push back against making suicide the equivalent of murder. Behaviorally, the act of "killing" might be equivalent, but I think the mental states involved in each are worlds apart. In legal theory those mental states are important considerations in determining if a killing warrants the label "murder."

    When someone is living with crushing clinical depression they are not thinking clearly. Physiologically speaking, they are impaired in decision-making. These mental states (along with the associated brain chemistry) lead me to conclude that suicide cannot be compared to murder in any straightforward way.

  8. This is a very fascinating study concerning Judas. It's a long read but worth while as
    it proposes Judas's life to have been profoundly (albiet peculiarly) obedient to the WILL OF GOD. A refreshing and intelligent
    take vs. Judas being the poster boy of ultimate evil as presented by Christendom (and secular society) today.

    http://www.tentmaker.org/Dew/Dew3/D3-JudasIscariot.html

  9. First of all, I LOVE your blog. I found it a few days ago and I can't stop coming back and reading. As a counselor who is about to start pursuing a terminal degree and who has come from being a pastor I greatly appreciate your viewpoint on many things, even if I don't agree with all of them.
    Now to Judas. Perhaps, what he had was worldly sorrow and not Godly repentance as Paul lays out for us in Corinthians. Sometimes when people do something that is profoundly hurtful to others, they look to escape the pain at all costs. Sometimes, they choose suicide.
    Personally, I do not think that suicide is a mortal sin that would cause one who commits it to go to Hell, so I'm with you there, but I'm not sure I can go to the point where I would affirm that Judas was repenting by suicide.

  10. I think Bart Ehrman's take on Judas is closer to the truth. He rightly wonders why the Jewish authorities needed Judas to lead them to Jesus, since Jesus was preaching openly. Ehrman thinks Judas may have given the authorities private information to the effect that Jesus was preaching an imminent kingdom, which would have been reason to report him to the Romans to keep the peace.

    Even if that is a stretch, it is far more logical than the contradictory biblical stories. If there was actually a Judas who betrayed Jesus in some way, I think the variety of the stories makes it impossible to take any of them at face value. Especially the suicide part.

    pf

  11. I remember some author (unfortunately, I don't remember who) pointing out that ancient Romans regarded suicide as a way to salvage your honor -- if you lost a battle, or got raped, or some such thing. That puts the Christian suicide prohibition in a different perspective, for me, because it suggests that depression actually wasn't the main issue.

    The description of Judas' suicide sure sounds like guilt more than honor, though.

  12. Richard,

    You bring up a good point about mental state, but the Church has always addressed this as a matter of subjectivity and culpability, not objective determination of whether an act is good or evil. In short, mortal sin requires full consent.

    I suspect you would agree that not all suicides are people who have 'lost their mind', just like not all murders are truly insane. People kill others-and themselves-for many reasons.

    The theologians I know would say 'suicide is murder and thus mortally sinful' but would not say 'that person is guilty of self murder' because they lack the certain knowledge of the killer's/victim's mental state which is a requirement to judge capacity and culpability. At the same time if I am intoxicated and then kill someone with my car I am still guilty of negligent homicide. Perhaps the punishment is short of first degree murder, and perhaps in our story Judas is not in the lowest level of hell for having betrayed his Messiah (although Dante would beg to differ).

    If we accept the gospel author's word on Judas' existence and his actions (including his suicide), why do we doubt their conclusions? Or if we prefer other non canonical sources, how to we judge their authenticity (or credibility) against that of the canon?

  13. Yeah that actually brings up suicide in a military case, Camassia.

    Rommel intentionally took poison to protect his family after participating in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Right or wrong?

    Japanese generals who fail spectacularly and get many of their men killed have a tradition of suicide, often in gruesome ways like hari kiri. Still, this DOES seem strangely appropriate to me. What SHOULD be the punishment for getting thousands of your own men killed through negligence or stupidity?

  14. Great question Dammerung:
    That reminds me of King David stubbornly insisting on having a head count of his troops, only for that to result in God sending a plague to slay 70,000 of "His" people.

    To Joe:
    I've heard the "worldly sorrow" vs. "Godly repentance" rationale many times concerning Judas. With eternal torment in hell being the alleged destiny for many, how would you deliniate the difference between "wordly sorrow" and "Godly repentance" in context of
    "making a decision to accept Christ"? Frankly, I see too many Christians (beginning with myself), but particularly pastors and music ministry leaders especially failing to be open to correction, let alone demonstrate an example of "true repentance".

    To Mark,
    "Perhaps the punishment is short of first degree murder, and perhaps in our story Judas is not in the lowest level of hell for having betrayed his Messiah ..."

    What's your take on Samson?
    What's your take on King Saul?


    Gary Y.

  15. @gary:

    In the case of Samson it is the principle of double effect, i.e., his primary intent was the elimination of the enemy and his own death, while perhaps foreseen was not the ultimate objective. Setting aside the 'justness' of his act (killing the enemy), this doesn't qualify as suicide.

    I see in King Saul's suicide nothing remarkable, except that he apparently failed and needed someone else to complete the job. David appropriately recognized the 'assisted suicide' as murder and had the soldier executed. Was the soldier compromised by his allegiance/presumed obedience to the King's request? His culpability might be questioned but christian theology would tell us that in his natural state man knows that murder is wrong, so he, like Lt. Calley at My Lai, can't dodge responsibility.

  16. When I was in high school I wrote a monologue from the point of view of Judas. In that, I speculated that his intent was to provoke a revolution when Jesus was threatened with arrest. He was crushed when he saw Jesus go quietly away in chains and the last straw was when condemned to die - Judas didn't think it would get that far.

    This also has extra meaning for me because of a fallout between my mother and my brother. Because my brother can't accept our mom in light of his conservative beliefs, he's writing her off, saying they don't have a relationship anymore. My mom called me to talk about it, and I ended up reflecting that it wasn't just an issue of challenging my brother's beliefs - she was challenging his identity as a conservative person, his friendships, even his job because his boss and mentor has been instrumental in converting him to deepening conservatism (which is alienating him from the rest of us).

    Even if he was struck by insight all at once and changed his mind, it must feel to him like he would perish because so much would change about his life if he just changed his mind on this one particular issue.

    This came to mind when you talked about suicide as repentence/repentence as suicide.

    I've reflected on this in the past when I've observed how unreasonable arguments about particular issues are. There's more than just the one issue at stake - it is the survival of the identity of both involved. On both sides, to turn around, to repent, might feel like the threat of death.

  17. Dr. Beck,

    My six-year-old daughter (who is quite sensitive and empathetic) said the exact same thing regarding Judas two months ago when we were studying the "Passion" narrative. "Judas felt sorry for what he did to Jesus, Mommy. That's why he killed himself." Moreover, she made the connection that because he had repented, he got to go to Heaven. When she made these remarks, my jaw dropped, because I honestly had never considered Judas' suicide to be an act of repentence...until now. I am so happy to report that the "faith of a child" (my child) lines up with the faith of a learned scholar on this issue. The lesson for me: It's always best to give people the benefit of the doubt.

    Claire

  18. How can we not examine the Will of God, that Jesus must be crucified, and that someone was "doomed" to hand over to those who would complete the prophecy? Did not Jesus teach us to "forgive those who trepass against us"? Judas accepted his part, and it was too much for him to bear, in earthly life, so he in turn, gave up the ghost.

  19. Interesting article, have a look on this ones: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/

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