A BBC documentary suggesting Judas Iscariot wasn’t purely a traitor has drawn criticism from evangelicals as, among other things, “an attempt to undermine the Christian gospel.”
“This is nothing new,” said Jerry Vines, a former Southern Baptist Convention president who has written and preached on Judas. He noted attempts since the second century to portray Judas more favorably than he is presented in scripture – as a traitor who delivered Jesus to the authorities for 30 pieces of silver.
The BBC documentary, Vines said, appears to be “an attempt to undermine the Christian gospel, actually. This idea that you’re a sinner is not real popular with culture. So if you can turn the so-called notable sinners in the Bible into just misunderstood men and scapegoats, it kind of minimizes the fact that men are sinners and need a Savior.”
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Judas Iscariot, depicted here leaving the Last Supper to betray Jesus, is the subject of a BBC documentary.
“In the Footsteps of Judas” aired March 25 on BBC One and features Church of England vicar Kate Bottley, who also appears in the British reality show “Gogglebox.” She argues Judas should not be defined by his most notorious act and, according to The Telegraph, suggests “Judas was a dedicated revolutionary who saw Jesus as a reluctant political messiah and hoped that by handing Him over for arrest he could trigger an uprising against Roman rule in Judea.”
Bottley says in the film’s closing scene that Judas was “a real man with shortcomings and failings not that different from my own.”
She continues, “If only Judas could have heard those words that Jesus said from the cross, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ There’s no reason to think that those words don’t extend to Judas too.”
In conjunction with the documentary, other British clergy and theologians have expressed their support for a revised portrait of Judas.
Bishop of Leeds Nick Baines wrote in the magazine Radio Times, “Judas had invested himself in the revolutionary leadership of Jesus of Nazareth … only to find himself let down. Trying to force the hand of the messiah didn’t work, and, instead of provoking the ultimate uprising against Roman rule, the glorious leader simply let Himself get nailed without resistance. No wonder Judas got upset.”
Similarly, Katie Edwards of the University of Sheffield wrote in the Daily Mail, “Despite centuries of [Judas] denunciation, the biblical text itself is more ambiguous than we might expect.”
“You go by what scripture says, not by these outside, extraneous views,” said Vines, retired pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. “Jesus called Judas the ‘son of perdition’ in John 17, and then almost uniformly he’s referred to as ‘the traitor.’
“When I preached on Judas, which I did many times through the years, I certainly felt sorry for him,” Vines continued. “You’re sorry he became such a tragedy, but he made his own decisions and according to Acts, he went ‘to his own place,’” a reference to hell.
Vines added that Judas demonstrates the balance in scripture “between divine sovereignty and human responsibility” because he “made his own choices” while also playing a role in God’s sovereign plan. “When you overemphasize one [of these realities] to the exclusion of the other, that’s when you get out of balance.”
Judas in scripture
David Allen, dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “From a biblical perspective … there’s no question, number one, about [Judas’] character and, number two, about his eternal destiny. The scripture is actually quite clear on both counts.”
Judas was not “an unwitting player” in a political or cosmic drama, Allen said.
“It’s very clear that Judas made a personal choice to betray Jesus,” Allen said. “It’s very clear that Satan exploited that choice. And it’s very clear that Judas realized what he had done … realized the gravity of it. It’s also clear that when he died, he went to hell.”
Allen cited Matthew 26:24 and Acts 1:25 as evidence Judas died without repenting of his sin and trusting Christ for salvation. He noted the Greek word used to describe Peter’s repentance from denying Jesus (metanoeo) is different from the Greek word used to describe Judas’ expression of regret in Matthew 27:3 (metamelomai).
Nineteenth-century New Testament scholar Richard Trench argued that while “no rigid line of discrimination can be drawn” between the meanings of the two Greek words, “a predominant use” of metanoeo is to indicate true repentance while metamelomai tends to indicate “a disliking of the thing with its consequents and effects.”
Allen said attempts to “sanitize Judas” seem to occur “within the purview of liberal theology, where we don’t want to say that anyone is damned.”
Rick Durst, professor of historical theology at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, echoed Vines’ assessment that attempts to portray Judas in a favorable light stretch back two millennia.
In the second-fourth centuries, Durst said, a heretical Gnostic sect known as the Cainites “venerated Judas” and taught he “was the enlightened disciple who acted for the redemption of humanity through the death of Christ.” The Cainites were condemned by patristic apologists Irenaeus, Tertullian and Epiphanius.
The third-century theologian Origen, described by Durst as “ever creatively odd,” wrongly argued “Judas committed suicide by hanging to seek Christ in the nether world and beg His pardon.” On a more orthodox note, John Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan and Augustine all spoke of Judas as evil and condemned during the fourth and fifth centuries.
In the 20th century, Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ attempted to portray Judas as Jesus’ friend and was made into a movie.
For preachers, the biblical story of Judas is more powerful than a manufactured narrative, Allen and Vines said.
Allen said “from an application standpoint, preachers can point out that if Judas could sin against Jesus in His very presence, then how much more are we prone to deny the Lord like Peter did or to even betray Him into the hands of false doctrine or false teachers if we’re not careful.”
Judas demonstrates that supposed followers of Jesus can “have an outward profession but not have an inward possession of genuine salvation,” Allen said.
Vines’ 1981 book Interviews with Jesus drew on Judas to extend an evangelistic invitation.
Had Judas truly repented of his sin, Vines wrote, “I fully believe that the Lord Jesus Christ would have reached out His arms of mercy, forgiveness and love, and brought Judas into the very family of God. But Judas didn’t do it, and it is too late for Judas today. Judas sits upon a throne of fire in hell today, and the epitaph over his throne in hell reads, ‘Judas Iscariot, the traitor.’
“Too late, but it is not too late for you,” Vines wrote. “… There is time for you. You can repent. You can come to Jesus. You can quit hiding behind your religiosity and your church membership. You can come to Jesus Christ and let Him save you.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)