Share this story

 | By Elizabeth Solsburg

What Did Jesus Know? Did Jesus Know He Would Die?

Who is Christ? a year-long conversation with theologians.

This year, FAITH is exploring Christology – the study of Jesus Christ. We asked several eminent seminary professors some questions about Jesus. Their answers are enlightening and thought-provoking.

Father Thomas Acklin is on the faculty of St. Vincent Abbey in Latrobe, PA. He is a graduate of Duqesne University, St. Vincent Seminary, The Catholic University of Louvain and Pittsburgh Psychoanalytic Institute.

Father Earl Muller is on the faculty at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. He formerly taught at Marquette University in Wisconsin.

Father Gladstone Stevens is on the faculty of St. Mary Seminary in Baltimore.

Q. FAITH: Did Jesus know he was going to die? Did he know he was the son of God?

Father Muller: Yes. Human consciousness is brain-based. The minute we understand that, then we know Jesus’ consciousness had to develop as his brain developed. Then it’s easier to say he developed the way human children develop. He would learn language and Bible stories like all children. As soon as Jesus was humanly conscious, he was conscious of who he is. We all have that kind of awareness that we cannot always put into words. For example, boys and girls experience themselves as boys and girls from infancy, but they cannot put that into words until they have learned language and had experience of others.

Father Stevens: This is a difficult question. There are various ways we know things in this world. The way I know mathematical formulae is different from the way I know Beethoven’s music is beautiful or that we love. Knowing is more than factual knowledge and always has an element of faith about it. Jesus’ way of knowing was perfectly human – it was a vocational kind of knowledge. But Jesus adhered perfectly to the will and voice of God. According to Ray Brown, there is nothing in Scripture to indicate that Jesus’ self-knowledge was supernatural. Rather, God’s perfect knowledge limited himself out of love for us.

Father Acklin: Yes, Jesus had to know both of those things. But how did he know them?  If he was fully aware of his divinity and knew he was going to die, then was he really able to experience death? Cardinal Kaspar, in his book Jesus the Christ, says that Jesus had divine knowledge that was pre-conceptual, but grew in his human experience over time. It became more explicit in categories of human experience over time. I think that’s a good solution. I don’t think it’s necessary, as most theologians do, to speculate about his being somehow separated from his divine consciousness or, from the Father, in his crucifixion. Instead, imagine him hanging on the cross fully aware of the infinite love of the Father and at the same time being able to take in and suffer all the sin, death, suffering and agony of all people of all time. This is that agony of love.

Q. FAITH: Did Jesus really need to die in order to save us?

Father Stevens: The whole purpose of everything is to unite humanity with God. Sin had broken up that harmony – we were supposed to be united with the world, each other, God. The sign of this is death – which enters into the world through sin. It’s the sign of our relationship breakage. Jesus dying removes that separation – he died because we died. That which is not assumed cannot be saved – even death can be redeemed.

Father Acklin: If Adam and Eve had not sinned, the incarnation probably still would have happened. It is an act of incredible intimacy and consummation of his love. It is even more important in view of the fact we did sin, because it repaired the breach that happened between God and us. As St. Anselm says, it’s not simply God’s condescension to us, it is God’s covenant with us. We participate in the incarnation through Mary’s ”yes” to God.

Father Muller: Christ’s death is certainly an effective way of showing the depths of God’s love for us. The fundamental reason for his death is human sinfulness. When Christ presented himself to the Jewish leaders, they could not get past their own sinfulness to recognize him – they saw him as blasphemous and respond in the way they handled blasphemers. Although Jesus could predict this would be their reaction, it was nonetheless important for him to press the crisis and make them take a stand. The point was to press the truth.

Theologian of the month – Karl Rahner (1904-1984)

Karl Rahner, S.J., was an enormously influential theologian who helped shape much of the thought of the Second Vatican Council.

The heart of Rahner’s theology is that we are all open “from the roots” to the grace of God. Our fulfillment as human beings is found in the experience of God, as God truly is.

Rahner conceived of Jesus’ humanity as God’s self-expression in history. Generations after the “Jesus event”, we experience him through the mediation of the church and the sacraments.

Rahner’s most famous work is Foundations of Christian Faith, published as a series of theological essays near the end of his life.

Who is Ray Brown? Father Raymond Brown (1928-1998) was an eminent American biblical scholar who served on the pontifical Biblical Commission, advising the pope on scriptural matters.


Gnosticism: Jesus entered a human body

“I’ve got a secret!” That’s a crude, but succinct, synopsis of the Gnostic heresy. Gnosticism existed before the time of Christ, but was adapted by some early believers. The fictional Priory of Sion in The DaVinci Code is an example of a Gnostic group.

The Christian variation of Gnosticism taught that Jesus was sent to us to share secret, special knowledge. As with the Docetists, Gnostics believed that matter was evil and that God could not associate with it. Therefore, he had children who created our world – one of these was Jesus. Gnostics believed that Jesus’ divinity entered his human body at baptism and left him before the crucifixion – so that man and not God died on the cross.

A principal proponent of Gnosticism was Marcion, who was the son of a bishop and may have been a bishop himself. He was expelled from the church for heresy, but his followers, the Marcionites, continued as a movement until the fifth century.

What does this symbol mean?


The crucifix is a cross with the corpus, or body of Christ, depicted on it. It emphasizes Christ’s sacrifice and is a reminder that “we preach Christ crucified.” It became common in the sixth century and a crucifix is a required sanctuary furnishing in a Catholic church.