A Thought Experiment

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8)

In his short story, "Three Versions of Judas Iscariot," the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges floats the notion that Judas, not Jesus, is the true redeemer of humanity.  Borges plants this idea in the febrile brain of a scholarly protagonist called Nils Runenberg, who is described as a deeply religious man, notwithstanding his blasphemous turn of mind.  According to Runenberg, God indeed became man in order to redeem the human race.  However, his sacrifice would have been invalidated had he been a man like Jesus who was reputedly without sin.  To be fully human, Runenberg reasoned, God must become man to the point of iniquity.  And why limit his sacrifice to the suffering of a single afternoon on the cross, when eternal damnation was the more fitting price to pay for the sins of the whole world?  The perfect act of atonement therefore required that God choose Judas as his instrument of salvation.

Even setting aside for now such literary conceits, Judas' betrayal does seem to require more elucidation than is supplied by the bare gospel narratives.  Did Judas act with true malice of forethought, or were his actions foreordained?  The gospels suggest that Jesus knew in advance that Judas would betray him, just as he seemed to know what his own fate would be.  Was it fate?  What did Jesus mean when he cried out on the cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do?"  The issue of free will looms large here.   If fate somehow compelled Judas to act, he was not culpable and did not sin.  And if there was no sin, then we are all without sin, and Jesus' act of redemption would be an empty gesture.

There is no shortage of arguments on either side of the philosophical debate over fate versus free will.  If God's will always preempts our own, as it must if there is to be a God, then humanity is reduced to a condition of vassalage and cannot be held accountable.  If, on the other hand, we are fully responsible for our actions, God's sovereignty is no longer absolute.  When the issue is presented this way, there is seemly no middle ground and therefore no possibility of resolution.  Perhaps the problem is in the way the issue is framed.

Arguably the greatest intellectual breakthrough of the 20th century was Einstein's insight that the laws of nature are not absolute but vary according one's frame of reference.  In fact, Galileo had applied this same principle to the laws of motion as early as the 17th century.  Einstein extended relativity to time and space and later to gravity as well.  In a series of thought experiments leading up to his general theory of relativity in 1915, Einstein realized that the effects of acceleration on an observer ascending in an elevator in the weightlessness of space would be equivalent to the force of gravity on an observer in a stationary elevator on earth.  In a similar thought experiment, Einstein saw that a horizontal beam of light shining into an elevator that is accelerating rapidly upward (or downward) would appear curved to a passenger on the elevator but straight to a stationary observer outside.  In effect, the operation of physical laws was in the eye of the beholder.

Just as a single beam of light can appear straight or curved, depending on one's frame of reference, so might a single action appear to be the result of free will or not.  If Judas had not believed he was acting freely, his betrayal of Jesus would have been an empty gesture, and he presumably would not have hanged himself in remorse.  Yet had his betrayal not conformed to God's will, there would have been no act of atonement and no redemption of humanity.  In God there is no time and no separation between the part and the whole, so the distinction between God's will and free will is meaningless.  Everything simply unfolds as it will.  One might as easily assert that free will is an illusion as maintain that God has no will of his own.  One might even conclude, as Nils Runenberg did, however perversely, that Judas was the redeemer of humanity because he set in motion through blind treachery events that fulfilled God's plan to save the world.  

Jorge Luis Borges, "Three Versions of Judas Iscariot" in Collected Fictions   
Richard Panek, The Invisible Century

© Copyright 2004-2019 by Eric Rennie
All Rights Reserved