While Judas’ betrayal of the Messiah was prophesied in Scripture (Psalm 41:9; Zechariah 11:12-13; Acts 1:16-17; Matthew 27:7) and Christ knew that Judas would betray Him (John 6:64, 70-71; 13:21-27; 17:12), none of this means that God’s foreknowledge of Judas’ actions forced him to do them. I might observe you and see what you are inevitably going to do, but my knowledge of your certain course of action does not force you to do it, nor does that deny you of your freedom in any way. An analogy: just because the British in World War II had early on cracked the German's Enigma system (cipher tech) and could thus reliably know ahead of time what operations were in the offing didn’t make the British responsible for the decisions of the Germans, or force the Germans in any way to act on their operational plans. So it is with God. God, who sees all history at once, knew what Judas would freely do and planned accordingly. Thus Judas remained a free moral agent throughout. In fact, he speaks of his own responsibility: “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4).
Though Judas later realized he had done wrong and threw the money back that he was paid to betray Jesus (cf. Matthew 27:3-5), contrition is more than just “feeling bad” about having sinned. True contrition also involves a firm purpose of amendment. For Judas, amendment would have meant returning to the Lord and seeking His mercy. Judas did not turn to the Lord; instead, he turned inward and, deciding he couldn’t live with his anger and sorrow, killed himself. This is quite different from Peter, who lived with the regret of his denial of even knowing Christ, and, facing the Lord, received His mercy (cf. John 21:15-19).
While the Church does not declare that any particular person is in Hell, we must recall that Jesus said of Judas: The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born (Matthew 26:24). It is hard to imagine Jesus saying this of any person who ultimately makes it to Heaven. The likely fate of Judas is that he died in sin, despairing of God’s mercy. One is free to hope for a different outcome for him, but while the story of Judas and his possible repentance does generate sympathy and hope for him, the judgment belongs to God.
Sadly, Judas went his way, freely. God is not a puppet master who forced him to play a role. God knew what Judas would do beforehand and based His plans on Judas’ free choice. May we, unlike Judas, exercise our free will in accord with God’s will, and when we fall into sin, imitate Peter in facing the Lord, own up to our failure, and receive God’s mercy.
David J. Conrad