This week Debbie from Georgia asks, "If Christ's death was planned, how could Judas be blamed for accomplishing God's plan?"
There are a number of good explanations of why Judas has been blamed historically for Christ's death. For one, it is human nature to assign blame for everything that happens, even though Jesus clearly taught sometimes blame cannot be assigned (cf., Luke 13.1-5). And further, it seems inappropriate to blame God for Jesus' death, even though this is traditionally where the blame is placed. However, Debbie's question really strikes at the heart of the predestined versus foreknowledge argument. In other words, did God simply know Judas was going to betray Jesus, or did God plan for Judas to betray Jesus?
Here again, the answer depends on individual theology and interpretation of the scriptures. Utilizing only Christ's own words and the words of the gospel writers will help us surmise Jesus' understanding of his impending death. In the gospels only John implies Jesus' death was planned by God in advance. "For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of God, that I should lose nothing of all that has been given me, but raise it up on the last day" (John 6:38-39). In the other gospels it is clear Jesus knows, or at least suspects, what is to come in the way of his death, but neither he nor the writers imply his betrayal and death were part of a plan.
Why the differences? Largely because John was written well after the other gospels were completed some 60 years after the cross-resurrection event itself. John's gospel reflects the theology of a church as opposed to the other gospels that reflect an apology (a rhetorical style of proof) to Christians, Jews, and Gentiles. It is clear, as time passed the meaning of the cross-resurrection event took on additional significance to the church (e.g., the atonement motif) and John's writings reflect this theology. On the other hand, Matthew, Mark, and Luke who wrote much earlier did not have the interpretations and theologies of the church to direct their writings, thus they likely reflect a more accurate account of how Jesus himself understood his upcoming death.
But if God (and Jesus) knew of Judas' act of betrayal, isn't that tantamount to predestination?
No; foreknowledge isn't the same as foreordained. Just because someone knows what is going to happen in the future (however near or far) doesn't mean the event was divinely planned or foreordained. For instance, I generally write this column on Fridays. Not because that's the day God dictated I would do so, but because that's the day I generally "take off" so I can spend quiet time at my computer and do cerebral tasks like writing this column. On the other hand, as I write this particular column it is Monday. I had plans on Friday so my column didn't get written that day. But I decided I would write on Monday instead. I knew I would write the column on Monday, but that didn't make my choice foreordained.
Similarly, Jesus knew or strongly suspected what would happen in Jerusalem that fateful Passover. Perhaps he knew because of his inherent divinity. Perhaps he knew because he surmised the political storm. But in three of the four gospels it seems his knowledge didn't come to him because that's the way God had planned it.
So can Judas be held responsible for his acts of betrayal? If God dictated his actions, if they were foreordained, then no, he couldn't be held responsible for his deed. On the other hand, if Judas betrayed Jesus on his own volition, even if Jesus (and God) had prior knowledge of his impending deed, then yes, Judas bears the weight of his own actions.