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Oct 02

The Problem of Judas

I was told today that I could not possibly have been a Christian if I later became an atheist. I must have merely been a “professing” Christian, so this person claimed.

Ironically, I would agree with that claim if posed in a certain way. After all, I don’t think anyone is a true Christian under a certain definition of the term, since I don’t think there is any everlasting Christ out there with whom you can form a relationship. But that isn’t how the person meant it. Rather, he meant that you would never actually leave a true relationship with Christ. Once you experience it, I suppose you would undergo a life-changing effect that you couldn’t realistically improve upon or set aside. It would be like Lyle Lovett leaving Julia Roberts (wait a minute…).

The biggest problem with me trying to consider this suggestion is that he and I are approaching the issue from completely different perspectives. He is operating under two very big assumptions—first, that God exists, and second, that his own particular theological commitments are the correct interpretation of this God’s desires. So, this would obviously not be something I would accept without compelling arguments to cover that vast territory. Furthermore, I favor examining the evidence and letting that shape my commitments, to the extent possible, rather than having a pre-existing commitment and then only viewing all potentially contrary evidence through that lens. To do otherwise seems to ignore the convincing evidence that confirmation bias is a factor when potentially contrary evidence is presented.

But those are all typical topics that have been discussed at length here and elsewhere. What I’m interested in right now is whether there is a case against this particular theological commitment that can be made without rejecting an assumption that God exists or that scripture is generally reliable. I had what I think is an interesting idea, so I’ll toss it out there. I’m calling it The Problem of Judas.

1. The relationship that Jesus formed with his disciples was incredibly personal and compelling.
2. Judas was among the disciples of Jesus.
3. Judas rejected his relationship with Jesus in an extreme and harmful way.
4. Thus, a very personal and compelling relationship with Jesus does not guarantee that one will not later choose to end that relationship.

I can’t actually imagine a Christian rejecting any of the three premises. In fact, I think they can be made even stronger. You could include in a discussion of (1) that not only did Jesus have such a relationship with his disciples, but that this relationship was even more personal and more compelling than anything possible today just given our inherent limitations. Consider for a moment what kind of impact actually living with and walking and talking with your savior would have. Now I know people will say they can do that today in some sense, but I think we all really know that this sort of in-person experience would have a much more profound impact on our lives. Second, I think premise (3) brings up a point that can be brought out more. Not only did Judas reject a relationship with Jesus, but he went so far as to place Jesus in harm’s way and deliver him into the hands of the enemy. Do people realize just what an extreme reaction this would be for someone to do this to God in the flesh?

So, we have a relationship in place that was in all likelihood stronger than anything possible today. For someone to suggest otherwise would mean that actually walking next to God and learning at his feet would not be more powerful than what we can achieve today. And we also have a reaction that not only rejects that relationship, but inflicts serious harm on the other person in the relationship. It’s much more than simply walking away for good.

If these are correct, then why should we think people today cannot truly have a relationship with God and later abandon that relationship? This does not require any particular theological commitments; it only requires a pretty straightforward reading of the text and some pretty mundane assumptions about relationships. It also focuses on one interpretation of the claim that we cannot step away from a true relaionship with Jesus. Some might quibble with how I’ve presented that, but I think similar problems might also be raised for altered versions.

Is this convincing? I’m really not sure, but I do think it’s interesting and probably deserves some further consideration.

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14 comments

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  1. franz

    My prediction of a believer’s response would be that the bible (or at least Luke and John) mention that Satan entered Judas….. therefor Satan was the real motive force behind turning Jesus over to the mob.

  2. Mike

    Really? That’s interesting. I’ve actually never heard that before and don’t remember having read that in the accounts. I’m going to have to look into that.

    We might still say, though, that it is still possible for the relationship to be severed since the initial claim was that this could not happen. It’s not like Evangelicals will deny that Satan is still at work today.

  3. Mike

    Ok, I checked into it and that’s correct that in John 13:27, it says “And after the morsel, then Satan entered into that one [Judas]. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What you do, do quickly.'” I double checked that against the Greek and it seems to hold up that the verse says roughly that.

    I think under the most charitable way of arguing this point, I could still say what I said in the previous comment. That doesn’t actually affect whether the relationship can be severed where one previously existed. If Satan can cause it to happen, and Satan still has that ability, then it can still happen. I don’t think there is enough Biblical material for any Christian to confidently state what Satan is or is not doing today, so they won’t have a good way to rule out where Satan is affecting outcomes.

    Of course, if I’m really responding to this, I would point out this is in John. That’s probably why I didn’t remember because I give almost no value at all to John. I consider it highly unreliable – even moreso than the synoptic gospels. When you look at the stories in parallel, I think it’s pretty clear this was a later addition by John and critical scholars would agree with that assessment.

  4. Darric

    Slightly off topic but I was wondering.

    Didn’t Jesus need to die in a horrible way to forgive peoples sins? If so then wasn’t Judas kind of doing exactly what was needed? And if so then how is Judas not celebrated as the guy whos actions led to Christians sins being forgiven?

    Im confuzzed.

  5. Mike

    Yeah, it is definitely strange. I could see an argument basically saying something like – Anything that God desires is necessarily good. God desired salvation to be carried out through these specific means. Judas, as the chosen (maybe?) enabler of these means was aligned with God’s desires. And so on. I think the knock on it would be it’s an ends justifying the means sort of argument. Even if this brought about some great result, that doesn’t make the individual components of the process that brought it about also great by default.

    But of course I question why Jesus would have to die in a horrible way to forgive sins. I’ve never heard a convincing argument to explain this. But that’s just one of many reasons I’m not a Christian.

  6. Larry

    John 6:66 says that followers left him also. Ironic verse and chapter number though

  7. Mike

    Good catch, Larry. And no satanic influence!

  8. josephpalazzo

    Not related this this blog, but in regard to Judas, it always puzzled me that when Jesus chose Judas as one of his apostles, didn’t he, as the son of God, know he was choosing a traitor? Yet, when you read the gospels, you have no sense that the authors themselves knew that Jesus already knew, and shouldn’t he have given hints here and there about this knowledge, yet, there is no such evidence when you read any of the gospels. Could it be that this part of a traitor was added to the story much later one, unbeknown to the first authors?

  9. Mike

    It is interesting. I don’t know the history of textual changes well enough to say offhand if anything was added along those lines. One relevant thing to consider might also be the developing picture of Christ as the years went on from a chosen servant of God, on the early end, and actually God himself at the later end. Stories that developed during the low Christology phase may have given less power to Jesus as all knowing, etc. That’s just a guess, though.

  10. Paul

    To be honest, I *never* understood this idea that one can never end one’s relationship with Jesus once one has that relationship. I use to come from a religious background (Adventist) that suggested (or implied) that it is possible to end one’s relationship with God, this is often called “backsliding”. I often meet people who confess that their relationship with God ended so they had to renew it in re-baptism. I simply find this idea of unconditional relationship very unusual to me, perhaps I can give several criticisms.

    First, if one could never end a relationship with God once one has become a part of that relationship, then this could means that “never” could be understood as being unable to do otherwise. This would mean that one lacks the free-will to choose to end one’s relationship with God. Perhaps God’s grace is more analogous with hypnosis in which one is *compelled* to be permanently part of that relationship once one sees God’s grace. If that’s the case, I’m not sure how that is “love”.

    Second, besides Judas, what about examples such as Adam and Eve? Presumably, Adam and Eve had a relationship with God, but they ended their relationship with God by disobeying God’s command not to eat the fruit of good and evil.

    Third, what about Lucifer or Satan himself? Presumably, assuming that Christianity is true, such a being is far more privileged than mortals since he had direct contact with God in his relationship with God. How is it possible that someone like Lucifer ends his relationship with God whereas people can never do that?

    I don’t think these criticisms necessarily undermine an idea of unconditional relationship, but I think people assume that people are incapable of ending a relationship with God because they can never turn away from someone infinitely benevolent and glorious. I think Calvinists called this irresistible grace.

  11. Mike

    Excellent points, Paul.

  12. Mike

    Just to add some more context, I thought I would offer two direct quotes from the person who told me this.

    “No one in history has ever been a ‘former Christian’. Former professing Christian, yes. Whatever Christ truly starts/begins salvifically he ends/finishes.”

    “I was attemtping to reflect Scripture’s position on the permanence of a personal walk with Christ.”

    Now, I think everything that has been said here refutes the second quote pretty convincingly. The first one is a little more slippery, probably due to the vague and confused concepts associated with theology. Theology is one of those fields that just loves a word like salvifically. Sometimes philosophy falls into the same sort of trap that makes it hard for people to come together and clearly discuss an idea, but I try to avoid that personally. If we want to state that poitn more clearly, we could say, “If God intends to save someone, then he does.” Salvifically basically means the intention to save.

    This raises all sorts of questions for me! I’m not even sure where to begin. If we continue on the path we were on, I find it confusing to say that God didn’t ever intend to “save” or have some kind of personal relationship with Adam and Eve. I couldn’t make sense of that if I were a Bible-believing Christian. If we went down another path, I think an idea like this actually seriously strengthens things like the Problem of Hell.

  13. Bruce Gerencser

    A reader of my blog sent me a link to this post. Great post. You raise an interesting point about Judas. I have been told countless times that I was never a Christian. (a Christian for 50 years, Evangelical pastor for 25 years) No matter how I challenge this assertion, they continue to say I never was a Christian. Of course, I know why. They can not square a Christian turned atheist with their theology. They don’t want to argue from the eternal security viewpoint since that means we are STILL Christians. :) So, the only other answer is that we never were Christians. (a point that NO ONE raised why we were still Christians) Arminians. who believe you can fall from grace, have no problem understanding our loss of faith. It is Baptists, Evangelicals that do.

    I think a case can be made from the Bible for Satan entering and leaving people who are followers of Jesus. Peter is a good example. Jesus said to Peter, Get Behind Me Satan, when confronting Peter with his commitment to following him.

    My testimony is simple. I once was a Christian and now I am not.

  14. Mike

    Thanks, Bruce. I think your presentation of the issue is correct. Deconversions create a real problem.

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