Harold Camping made headlines when he predicted that Christ would return on May 21, 2011. That we are reading these words in 2018 shows that Camping was wrong. Yet he was not the first professing Christian to make a prediction about the day of Jesus’ return, and he probably will not be the last. For centuries, many people have tried setting a specific date for Jesus’ return.
Such date setting is particularly strange in light of texts such as Matthew 24:36. Clearly, date setters do not understand—or else they willfully disobey—our Savior’s words because they think they can discern something that even Jesus did not know, at least during His earthly ministry. For them, this is a hard saying.
Yet for those of us who read this text and show that we believe it by not setting a date for Jesus’ return, it is still a difficult saying in the sense of Jesus’ ability to say it. We know what Jesus is teaching, but what we do not know is how it was possible for Christ to be ignorant of the timing of His return. After all, since He is God incarnate, how could He have been ignorant of anything (John 1:1–18)?
The best Christian thinkers have been asking this question for millennia. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, suggested that Jesus really did know the day and hour of His return but that He “accommodated” Himself to His audience and chose not to reveal it because it was too lofty of a matter for mere mortals to know. Of course, the major problem with Thomas’ view is that Jesus did not say He knew the timing of His return but could not reveal it. Thomas’ position would seem to make Jesus into a liar, and if it were true, then He could not save us, for He would be sinful Himself.
This saying does present some difficulties, but remembering the Council of Chalcedon will be of great help here. The Council of Chalcedon summarized the biblical teaching on the person of Christ, teaching that in the one person of Christ are perfectly united without confusion, separation, mixture, or division the divine nature and a human nature. Moreover, these two natures retain their own peculiar attributes. The divine nature remains omniscient, for example, but the human nature is still subject to limitations in knowledge, for being ignorant of a fact is not necessarily sin. Jesus’ statement of ignorance is a manifestation of our Savior’s human nature. His human mind did not know the timing of His return, but His divine mind surely did.
It is not necessarily sinful to be ignorant of a particular fact. Jesus could not know something according to His human nature and still be the sinless and spotless Savior. Still, that Jesus experienced ignorance in His humanity shows us that He knows what it is like to be human and can empathize with us in our weaknesses. We therefore need not be afraid to bring any of our concerns to Him in prayer.