The traditional reading of Judas Iscariot is that he betrayed Jesus -- no ifs, not buts, no asterisks. He accepted 30 pieces of silver to tell the Pharisees where to arrest Jesus, thus setting into motion the events of Thursday night's trial(s), the Good Friday crucifixion, as well as the possible Harrowing of Hell on Saturday, and the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday.
Many say the motivation of Judas' betrayal was to force Jesus into unleashing God's power on the Romans, to be King of Israel on Earth. This was not unlike Satan's proposal/temptation to Jesus, to be a vassal King of the World under Satan's high kingship. The Gospel of John says that Judas was possessed by Satan at some point during the Last Supper. Anyhow, after Judas' plan fell through, his guilt drove him to return the blood money and commit suicide -- or did the Devil make him do it?
The writers of the Gospels didn't give Judas any real character arc. In fact, when they introduce him, they spoil the betrayal part from the get-go. He was kind of a bully disciple in other parts of his story. It was like Judas was fated to betray Jesus, fated to commit suicide, fated to be almost-universally hated among Christians, and had no chance to choose otherwise.
It was like Judas was part of a plan. "The Plan," as it were.
A non-traditional reading of Judas Iscariot is that he co-conspired the crucifixion with Christ. Jesus knew the plan involved being executed, and apparently Judas was the most trustworthy disciple.
Judas set into motion the events of Easter weekend because the other 11 would not, and could not, do this for Jesus. After everything played out like a heist film, the Harrowing of Hell is a bit of a heist with souls, Judas used the 30 pieces of silver to buy a nice plot of retirement property.
Of course, the Devil, being screwed out of most of the souls in Limbo, as well as the very soul of the Son of God, had to find revenge somewhere. Literally, there was Hell to pay. So, Judas spontaneously exploded in his retirement home, and Satan made damn sure Judas' reputation was sullied as the betrayer. Forever, and ever.
For me, the Judas-good-guy interpretation is somewhat more palatable than the Judas-bad-guy one, but there is a giant problem: In terms of historical reputation, Judas kind of made a slightly bigger sacrifice than Jesus. Let's break it down:
Jesus' body was tortured and hanged on a cross. Physically, Jesus died like any other victim of crucifixion. Mentally, but mostly spiritually, Christ had to bear whatever metaphysical substance sin is, for the entire human race -- that is why Christianity praises the sacrifice of the Savior. Keep in mind that the soul of Jesus is basically God, and therefore can handle the weight of all sin. As a reward for dying a cruel death, Jesus kicked ass in Hell (depending on your denomination's theology), was triumphantly resurrected to realm of the living (Happy Easter!), and has since become the founder of a major world religion. Jesus is usually seen as a hero in the eyes of other religions, too: As Gandhi is quoted to have said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."
Judas, on the other hand, died by either the noose or by explosion, or both. If he betrayed Christ, then he was damned by popular opinion, and deservedly so. If he conspired with Christ, then he was damned by mistake, and really got the short end of the stick as far as popular opinion goes.
Then again, maybe Judas was the type of person who didn't care what others thought of him, and so he continues to drink Mai Tais in an isolated part of Heaven, a fishing spot by a lake, and nobody visits him. Only Jesus. But rarely. Maybe that's Judas' reward for co-conspiring with Christ: Peace, quiet, good booze, and the same exact delicious fish that is caught, cooked, and consumed, every day. For all of eternity. With a Heaven like that, who cares if all of Christianity hates you, right?
I'd like to propose a third interpretation of Judas Iscariot, one where it's still okay that he's the bad guy who betrayed Jesus. I'll have to borrow from Roman Catholic theology and cosmology, and spin it to be a bit heretical. They say that Adam and Eve passed down a hereditary trait called Original Sin to all but two of their descendants: Jesus and his mother Mary. Mary didn't have Original Sin, so that she could give birth to Jesus. Jesus didn't have Original Sin, so that he could do all that God stuff.
We can certainly mythologize what exactly Original Sin, as a substance, is supposed to be. And if it is a substance, matter or energy, it had to go somewhere. Perhaps the accumulation of Mary's and Jesus' discarded Original Sin, combined with the dust of the Holy Land, created a human-like being: Judas Iscariot.
Baby Judas was a foundling of unknown origin, adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Simon Iscariot. Being made of the discarded Original Sin, Judas was supernaturally attracted to the intended owners of that Original Sin, namely, Jesus and Mary. He was probably creepy around Mary, so Jesus hired Judas as to be part of the 12 main disciples, partly because Jesus knew what Judas really was, but mostly to get him away from Mom. Jesus was a good son.
Satan could easily use this quasi-human Judas as a vessel. And so the Devil did, during the Last Supper, to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. After the deed was done, the Devil left Judas. So Judas, who would have been part of both Mary and Jesus if they had Original Sin, felt all kinds of emotions for betraying those who should have been a part of him, and he of them. Needless to say, Judas hanged himself. Because he was made out of Original Sin, with dust and theological magic, Judas exploded. Comically and tragically. The soul of Judas -- he either gained one by spending time with Jesus or the Original Sin of two people became one viable soul -- went directly to Hell.
In most versions of the Harrowing of Hell, Jesus only went to Limbo, to redeem the imprisoned souls of otherwise good pre-Christian people. Now, in this new interpretation, we have Judas, who felt a connection to both Jesus and Mary, because he was created by their rejected Original Sin. Inversely, perhaps Jesus (and Mary) also felt a connection to the Original Sin that was supposed to be theirs. Who knows? I just made up this heretical interpretation, so I probably have lots of plot holes.
In any case, Jesus needed an inside man, err soul, in Hell Proper, and that inside soul was Judas. Being a soul of not-quite-human origin, I can imagine all kinds of trouble this version of Judas would have been stirring, literally raising Hell in Hell, for the past 2000 years. With this third interpretation of Judas Iscariot, he was destined to be evil on Earth for the greater good, and do good in Hell for the Hell of it. What would happen if this Judas stole the throne of Hell from the Devil? It would make sense that a legitimate representative of God would punish the sinners in Hell, rather than have the enemy of God train an army of evil souls for thousands of years, would it not? Original Sin Judas would make a bit of sense as the ruler of Hell.
These are complicated issues, that I might discuss in the future. Or not.
In conclusion, Judas was either an evil traitor, a misunderstood co-conspirator, or a