In my book, The Last Confession of the Vampire Judas Iscariot, I take a stab at the answer. I quickly realized it’s an incredibly complex question. My treatment of it is relatively short but it deserves a fuller examination. In fact, I think prayerful consideration of the question can help us grow spiritually.
Theories abound as to why Judas did it. Among the most popular is that just a few days before, on Palm Sunday, he saw the crowds hailing Jesus as a king and wanted to start a revolution. The logic goes that if Jesus was persecuted while Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims for the Passover, they would have the numbers to overthrow the Romans. This thinking seems too simple, for we are told in John 6: 64, that it was at the Bread of Life discourse, one year before, that Judas first parted minds with Jesus and no longer accepted his teaching. Why would Judas want someone he disagreed with to be declared king? Why would he wait a year to betray him?
Perhaps Judas’ hatred of the Romans was enough of a rationalization to betray Jesus, but if that is the case, why does he return the money and commit suicide? Judas must have known his plan was risky and even if successful would have resulted in all out war in the city, where anyone could have been killed, including Jesus. However, Judas seems genuinely remorseful of the outcome.
What then of Judas? How could he do it?
First, we can all agree that we are all sinners. Of course, we like to think of ourselves as only committing “little sins.” We rationalize, “Sure, I stole a pen from work but I would never kill anyone.” On the one hand this is true, sin is relative. Some sins are big and some sins are small. On the other hand it is the person sinned against that informs its seriousness. For example, stealing that pen from your Fortune 500 Company might indeed be a small sin but stealing a dollar from a homeless man is very grave indeed. That said, ALL sins are sins and in one respect an offense against God and therefore all sins have an aspect of infinite offense. Suddenly, stealing that pen takes on a slightly greater importance. We who are finite and temporal tend to focus on the relative aspect of sin but if you think about it even the smallest sin is as great as Judas’ sin.
Secondly, we like to think of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus as an act of pure evil. However, people rarely, if ever, do things that they know are evil simply because they want to do something evil. Most people don’t do evil for evil’s sake, most people rationalize their participation with evil as something good. You don’t steal that pen because you just want to be bad, you rationalize it. “I have to balance my check book on the train home” or “It’s just a pen, if I took the time to ask they would let me have it anyway.” A bigger evil just requires a bigger rationalization. You think, “It’s OK that I embezzled 100k from my company, they can afford it and they earned it by cheating the little guy.” People quickly convince themselves that some good aspect of their sin sufficiently mitigates the evil enough to make the action acceptable. Judas probably rationalized his betrayal in some way. Maybe it was hope to spur a rebellion or maybe it was because he felt hurt because he didn’t understand some of Jesus’ teachings. We can only speculate. However, we can learn from it. Do you look at other women because your wife doesn’t give you enough attention at home? Do you pass by a homeless man on the sidewalk because he should get a job and make something of himself? Have you not spoken to a family member in years because of some slight they made against you? How quick we are to see our actions as justified.
Third, sometimes we don’t even know why we do what we do. Afterwards, we know what we did was wrong but we can’t quite explain why we leapt so quickly towards the bad, almost instinctively, without thinking. Saint Paul himself wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7: 15- 19). Did you click on a link to see the latest “wardrobe malfunction” without even considering that it might be wrong. Did you lose your temper at the moron driving too slow in front of you? Did you eat six cookies without even pausing for a moment to consider that your body and your health are a gift from God? It seems hopeless.
And what of us?
We seem to think that if I was that close to Jesus, if I knew his kindness so intimately, if I had Him as a friend, then I could never have done that! Really? The reality is that you already know Jesus that well. “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:40. Yet, have you ever betrayed your spouse? Your mother? Your brother? I think the answer has to be Yes you could have betrayed the Lord too because all of us have done it already.