In the midst of the recent apocalypse fiasco, it was not uncommon to hear well-meaning preachers state that “No one knows the time of the end of the world. Not even Jesus knew when the second coming would be, that’s why he said no one knows, not even the Son.” Indeed, even many Catholics have a tendency to think in this way – whether explicitly or (more often) by an implicit concession.
Thus, it may come as a surprise to many to learn that this claim (that, in his humanity, Jesus did not know the day and the hour of the Final Judgment) has been condemned by several popes as a heresy. In fact, it would be impossible to hold this view without implicitly maintaining either the heresy of Nestorius (dividing Christ into two persons, one human and the other divine) or of Arius (denying the divinity of Christ all together).
The specific heresy which claims that Jesus did not know the exact time of his second coming is called Agnoeticism – Fr. John Hardon defined the Agnoetes (those who held this heresy) as follows, “A sect of Monophysites who held that Christ was subject to positive ignorance. The leading exponent of its error was Deacon Themistios of Alexandria. He was condemned by the Church, which declared that Christ’s humanity cannot be ignorant of anything of the past or of the future. To attribute ignorance to Christ’s human nature is to profess Nestorianism (Denzinger 474-76).” (Modern Catholic Dictionary, “Agnoetes”)
But of that day or hour no man knoweth, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father. (Mark 13:32)
This verse was often used by heretics to limit the human knowledge of Christ or, more specifically, to attribute positive ignorance in the soul of Jesus. These heretics – whether Arians, Nestorians, or Agnoetes – argued that the Lord did not know the day or hour of the second coming. Now, it seems that none have been so bold or so impious as to claim that Christ did not know the time of the Apocalypse in his divinity; for, as God, it is most certain that Christ knew and knows all things. However, what the heretics claimed was that the Lord was ignorant in his humanity, in his human intellect.
From Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma: “Christ calls Himself the Word become Man, the Light of the World (John 8,12), which is come into the world, in order to bring the true knowledge to mankind (John 12,46); He calls Himself the Truth (John 14,6), and gives as the purpose of His coming into the world the giving of testimony to the truth (John 18,37); He permits Himself to be called Teacher (John 13,13). He is, as Holy Writ witnesses, full of grace and truth (John 1,14), full of wisdom (Luke 2,40); in Him are all treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden (Col. 2,3). He knows about happenings which occur far away (John 1,48; 4,50; 11,14), and sees through the heart of man (John 1,47; 2,24 et seq.; 4,16 et seq.; 6,71). With this is irreconcilable the notion that Christ’s human knowledge is defective or erroneous.” (Book III, Part I, section 2, chapter I – 23.4)
Magisterial texts on the perfection of Christ’s human knowledge
“If anyone says that the one Jesus Christ who is both true Son of God and true Son of man did not know the future or the day of the Last Judgment and that he could know only as much as the divinity, dwelling in him as in another, revealed to him, anathema sit.” (Pope Vigilius, Constitutum I of 14 May 553)
The following proposition is condemned: “The natural meaning of the Gospel texts cannot be reconciled with what our theologians teach about the consciousness and the infallible knowledge of Jesus Christ.” (Pope Pius X, Lamentabili of 1907)
The following proposition is condemned: “A critic cannot assert that Christ’s knowledge was unlimited, unless by making the hypothesis, which is historically inconceivable and morally repugnant, that Christ as man had God’s knowledge and yet was unwilling to communicate so much knowledge to his disciples and posterity.” (Pope Pius X, Lamentabili of 1907)
The following proposition is rejected: “The opinion cannot be declared certain, which holds that the soul of Christ was ignorant of nothing but from the beginning knew in the Word everything, past, present and future, that is to say everything which God knows with the ‘knowledge of vision’.” (Pope Benedict XV, Decree of the Holy Office of 1918)
The following proposition is rejected: “The recent opinion of some about the limited knowledge of the soul of Christ is not to be less favoured in Catholic schools than the ancient opinion about his universal knowledge.” (Pope Benedict XV, Decree of the Holy Office of 1918)
From these texts we learn that, even in his human intellect and soul, Christ Jesus knew – with an “unlimited,” “universal,” and “infallible” knowledge – “everything, past, present and future.” Specifically, the Lord knew “the day of the Last Judgment.”
What Christ knew in and what he knew from his humanity
[much of what follows is taken from a previous article posted here]
As God, Christ most certainly knew and knows all things without any qualification whatsoever. And, even as man, we affirm that our Savior knew and knows all things – excepting that he does not comprehend the Divine Essence (for such is beyond the powers of the human intellect).
However, when we speak of the human knowledge of Christ, we must affirm that his knowledge is of three types: Beatific knowledge, infused knowledge, and acquired knowledge. Beatific knowledge is that by which a creature knows all things in the Word – in the vision of the Divine Essence. Infused knowledge is the divine gift of knowledge, infused directly and without any assistance from the senses. Finally, acquired knowledge is that which is gained through sense experience. Of these, only acquired knowledge is proper to human nature unaided by grace.
Now Christ our God knew the day and hour of the Second Coming in his divine intellect. Moreover, even in his humanity, our Lord knew the time of the Parousia – according to both beatific knowledge and infused knowledge. However, the Savior did not know the time of the Final Judgment through sense experience and, hence, it was not part of his acquired knowledge.
Thus, when Jesus says that he does not know the day or the hour, we must understand him to mean that he does not know the time from his humanity – i.e. he does not know it from acquired knowledge through sense experience. Nevertheless, he most certainly did and does know the day and the hour in his humanity – i.e. he knows it in his human intellect through both beatific and infused knowledge.
Hence, the Good Lord does not lie, nor even deceive, when he says that he does not know the day or the hour of the Final Judgment – he only means to tell us that he knows it not from his humanity.
What God does not make to be known, he is said not to know
When Christ our Savior states that the Son does not know the day or the hour of the Second Coming, he means that the Son does not make the time to be known. Much as when we say that a day is “happy” or “pleasant,” we do not intend that the day itself is pleasant but that it makes us to be pleasant; so too, Christ is said not to know insofar as he does not make us to know (so, St. Hilary of Potiers, St. Gregory the Great, and others).
St. Augustine offers the following commentary: “According to the form of God everything that the Father has belongs to the Son for All things that are mine are yours, and yours are mine. According to the form of a slave, however, his teaching is not his own but of the One who sent him. Hence of that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. He is ignorant of this in the special sense of making others ignorant. He did not know it in their presence in such a way as to be prepared to reveal it to them at that time.” So too the Catechism: “Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal. What he admitted to not knowing in this area, he elsewhere declared himself not sent to reveal.” (CCC 474)
Pope St. Gregory the Great on the Son’s knowledge of the day and hour
“It is perfectly clear that whoever is not a Nestorian cannot in any way be an Agnoete. For, how can one who professes that the Wisdom of God himself became incarnate ever maintain that there is anything which the Wisdom of God does not know? It is written: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. […] All things were made through him (John 1:1,3). If all things, then undoubtedly the day and the hour also. Who would then be so foolish as to say that the Word of the Father made something he did not know? Scripture again says Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands… (John 13:3). If all things, then certainly the day and the hour also. Who then is so foolish as to say that the Son received in his hands what he was ignorant of?” (Pope Gregory the Great, Letter to Eulogius of 600)