A friend of mine recently asked me why, in Scripture, Peter is forgiven by Jesus but Judas isn’t. Peter’s denial of Jesus during the trial scene is a betrayal, just like Judas’ conspiracy with the priestly aristocracy. Does Peter just “get a pass” because he is part of Jesus’ inner circle, chosen to be a leader in the future church? Is God playing favourites? Was Judas set up not only to fail but to be damned?
The Gospels don’t answer this question about Peter and Judas directly. So of course we have to read between the lines and infer what must be true based on the bigger picture drawn by the gospel writers. In Matthew’s Gospel it seems pretty straightforward: Judas isn’t forgiven because he doesn’t give God a chance to forgive him. Peter is with the other disciples in Jerusalem when the risen Jesus appears and (we assume) forgives him. Judas goes out and hangs himself before Jesus is raised again (Matt 27:5). Judas obviously regrets betraying Jesus since he confesses it as a sin and returns the money he was paid (Matt 27:3-4). He seems to think, though that he is beyond help. Or he’s too ashamed to face anyone (even God) after what he has done. So he kills himself before he has a chance to be forgiven. In Matthew, then, it seems like Judas is kept from forgiveness by his own false image of God and of himself. He imagines himself to be so important that he can’t survive being shamed, and he imagines God to be the kind of Person whose forgiveness has limits.
The situation in John’s Gospel seems more problematic. John makes it seem like Judas doesn’t make a free decision to betray Jesus. Instead it is “the devil” who “put it into” Judas’ heart (John 13:2). Just before Judas leaves to betray Jesus we’re told that “Satan entered into him” (John 13:27). I think John probably assumes that his audience already knows about Judas’ suicide, just like John assumes a knowledge of stories like the Last Supper. So on the surface he probably thought the same way that Matthew did: Judas died before he could repent and be forgiven. Peter, on the other hand, can be forgiven because he has stayed around and is humble enough to receive it in chapter 21. Behind that scene, though, is the lingering question of whether Judas had a choice in the first place. If Satan made him betray Jesus, and Jesus knew beforehand that he would do it, doesn’t it seem like Judas was set up? This relates to the problem of free will and predestination generally in John’s Gospel. There are many passages in John that assume human beings have to make a free choice about Jesus, and that God wants all of them to choose faith. Then there are other passages that make it sound like God predetermines who will have faith in Jesus (e.g., John 10:25-28). I think it’s a mistake to collapse this tension in John either way, to say it’s really all a matter of free will or really all determined by God. Rather, John holds the same kind of view we find in some early Pharisees. They believed both that God determined all things AND that human beings had genuine free choice (see the Mishna, Avot 3:16). How these things could both be true was simply beyond our understanding. If that’s the kind of position that John holds, then the influence of Satan on Judas isn’t intended to imply that the betrayer had no free choice. John assumes that Satan’s influence and free choice are just two ways of looking at the same event. They’re both true. When he emphasizes that Satan “entered” Judas, John isn’t saying Judas had no free choice. He’s not saying that God set him up to fail. Rather, he’s pointing out that Judas’ actions weren’t just one human being’s failure. They were also part of a cosmic conflict in which evil was trying to end God’s rescue plan for humanity. The irony, of course, is that Satan’s actions through Judas end up being part of God’s larger plan anyway.
So I would say that neither Matthew nor John think that God plays favourites in an ultimate sense. For Matthew the issue is whether a person’s pride and concept of God allow them to receive forgiveness. John, too, likely assumes that kind of model (hence the dramatic restoration of Peter) but just wants to emphasize the bigger cosmic conflict behind Judas’ betrayal.