Nearly all Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was and is God. And they generally believe God is omniscient, thus knowing everything, including all about the future. However, Jesus told his apostles he would be killed, rise from the dead, ascend to heaven, and someday return to earth, and he added that he did not know the day of his return. If Jesus was God, how could he not have known when he would return, since the Father knew it?
As a former Trinitarian for 22 years, I used to believe that Jesus was and is God. I never had any doubt about it. But I began to question it one day when I read in the Bible that Jesus said he didn’t know the time of his return. It caused me to undertake a serious quest for the identity of Jesus that led to my present belief: Jesus was no more than a virgin-born, sinless man who died for my sins on the cross, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, sits at God’s right hand, and will return to earth in the future with his glorious kingdom God gave him. But what is this saying that led to my very important change in theological belief?
Shortly before Jesus’ death and resurrection, he taught his apostles about the future, including the end of the world/age. He said of his return at that time, “But of that day and/or hour no one knows, not even the angels of/in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24.36; Mark 13.32). This saying has stirred much scholarly debate in modern times.
But even church fathers were divided about these words of Jesus. Iranaeus, the most respected theologian of the 2nd century, opposed Greek religio-philosophy more than most church fathers did. It stressed the perfection of deity by asserting that absolute knowledge, which includes complete knowledge of the future, was the supreme perfection. But Iranaeus, like all apologist church fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, believed that Jesus was God with certain qualifications. He said of God the Father, “God holds the supremacy over all things,” including over Jesus, and that he does “excel” him in knowledge. Iranaeus therefore believed that Jesus was God, but to a lesser extent than the Father was. In fact, that’s what all of those apologists believed, and they were the leading Christian theologians of that time.
In the 4th century, Athanasius disagreed, as did nearly all succeeding church fathers. He was the great defender of the Nicene Creed, which identifies Jesus as “very God of very God.” This means that Jesus is just as much God as the Father is. Athanasius argued for the maximalist view of Jesus’ foreknowledge, that by being “very God” in every sense he must have known the day of his return. Athanasius treated Jesus’ above saying by applying the two-nature method of exegesis to it, in which it is believed that Jesus has two natures, one human and the other divine. Thus, Athanasius asserted that Jesus did not know in his human nature the time of his return, but he did know it in his “Godhead,” that is, his divine nature.
There have been other Catholic opinions about it. Thomas Aquinas and many other church theologians proposed that Jesus said these words while pretending ignorance. And Augustine posited that it was not the Father’s will for Jesus to know at that time. But this view does not solve the problem of impugning Jesus’ supposedly full deity.
In the past two centuries, scholars proposed “kenosis theories” to solve this and other theological problems. The two main ones are that at the moment of Jesus’ incarnation he laid aside, or decided not to use, some of his divine attributes, such as his foreknowledge. But in the latter 20th century, these kenosis views fell out of favor with nearly all leading New Testament scholars due to the criticism that if Jesus laid aside, or did not use, part of his deity he must have been less than fully God.
Both the two-nature exegesis and these kenosis theories are neither biblically based nor theologically and anthropologically sound. Moreover, they are ethically unsound, since they make it seem that Jesus was dishonest, or perhaps schizophrenic—saying he didn’t know something when he really did—and therefore discredit his character.
Roman Catholic theologians held strongly to the maximalist view of Jesus’ foreknowledge until the mid-20th century. Then, its prestigious document, Bible et christologie, acknowledges and approves that Catholic scholars “have recently examined anew, e.g., the ‘knowledge’ of Christ and the development of his personality.”
One such scholar was Raymond E. Brown. Time magazine named him the world’s greatest Catholic Bible scholar of the latter 20th century. He believed Jesus was God, and Brown wrote extensively on the subject of Jesus’ knowledge. Yet Brown insists that the earthly Jesus had limited knowledge of the future and other things as well. Brown acknowledges that those who conclude as he does, that Jesus was not omniscient, open themselves up to the charge of “denying the divinity of Jesus,” which Brown rejects. He observes of his church, “We know of no Church statement that forbids the interpretation of the literal sense of Mk 13.32,” that is, that Jesus entire Person did not know the time of His second coming. Brown later adds, “It is important to emphasize that there is no dogma of the church on the extent of Jesus’ knowledge…. the church … has not entered authoritatively in historical questions such as the one we are asking: How much did Jesus know in his lifetime?” In 1994, Brown observed, “the theological climate has changed, and very prominent Roman Catholic theologians now allow for limitations in Jesus’ knowledge.”
New Testament scholar Ben Witherington says about it, “this relationship between Father and son does not entail that the son knows all the things the Father knows…. Jesus’ special and unique ‘communion’ with God did not include a knowledge of every truth or secret God might have unveiled to him.”
A.N.S. Lane alleges that Jesus “taught with a supreme authority and manifested supernatural knowledge. But neither of these can be equated with omniscience. The affirmation of the omniscience of the historical Jesus has no biblical basis and indeed runs counter to the teaching of the Gospels…. it undermines his true humanity as taught in Scripture. It is hard to see how an omniscient man could be genuinely tempted to do something that he knew that he would not do…. But the New Testament nowhere bases the authority and reliability of Jesus’ teaching on his omniscience. Indeed the contrary is affirmed in that Jesus’ teaching is not his own but his Father’s.”
So, it should be concluded that Jesus had supernatural knowledge whenever the Father revealed it to him, and when Jesus did not have supernatural knowledge, the Father had not revealed it to him.
In sum, Jesus’ knowledge was limited, the Father has a greater knowledge than the Son does, and the Father is essentially superior to the Son, so that Jesus is not God.