Did Jesus Believe in God?

Heinrich Hofmann, Christ in Gethsemane (1886)
Heinrich Hofmann, Christ in Gethsemane (1886)

Today is Part I of what I hope will be a four-part series on Scriptural models of faith, covering the following topics:

  1. Why Jesus Christ isn’t our model of faith.
  2. Abraham, the Old Testament father of faith.
  3. Mary, the New Testament mother of faith.
  4. The Marian nature of Church’s faith in Jesus Christ.

The first of these is the most shocking. If you say something like “Jesus didn’t have faith” or “Jesus didn’t believe in God,” it sounds blasphemous. But in a strict sense, what you’re saying is true. To see why, we need to take a closer look at what faith is, and Who Jesus Is.

What is Faith?

Hebrews 11:1 famously defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith (and here, I’m speaking broadly of all human faith, not just religious faith) can relate to something that’s already happened, or something that hasn’t happened yet. I can believe you if you tell me that the Broncos won the Superbowl last year, or I can believe that they’ll win next year. But if I watched last year’s game, and saw for myself that they won, it’s not a matter of faith, but of knowledge. For this reason, St. Thomas Aquinas explains that “it is impossible to have faith and scientific knowledge about the same thing.”

In the modern age, that sort of statement sets off all sorts of alarm bells, since it sounds like we’re saying faith is blind or irrational. That’s wrong. Instead, we’re saying that faith necessarily involves an act of trust.

If I ask who rang the doorbell, I can then choose to believe or disbelieve what you tell me. My decision of whether or not to believe is related to the reliability of the witness: the credibility of the messenger and the message. If you’re a known liar, or unreliable for some other reason (you’re blind, nowhere near the door in question, etc.), I might disbelieve for that reason. Alternatively, if you tell me “a pair of unicorns,” I will likely disbelieve because the message itself seems unreliable.

But none of this is the case if it’s something I personally witnessed. If I get up and go to the door, I can no longer say that “I believe you” that Mrs. Smith is at the door: belief no longer enters into it. Exactly for this reason, if you had already told me that it was Mrs. Smith, my decision to personally verify might be insulting to you: it suggests that I’m not comfortable simply trusting you. Direct knowledge means that there’s no question of trust, and thus no judgment of the reliability of your witness. St. Augustine puts it this way: “We believe those things which are not present to our senses, if the witness which is offered for them seems suitable. However, we see those things which are present either to the senses of the mind or of the body.”

But that doesn’t mean that faith is irrational. Sometimes, it’s reasonable to trust someone else; sometimes, it’s not. Progress in the sciences would literally be impossible if each generation of scientists insisted on personally performing all of the experiments of prior generations. It would be irrational to insist on reduplicating those efforts instead of trusting earlier scientists. And of course, this is true in other areas of human life, as well. Each and every one of us lives our daily lives by faith, and we couldn’t hope to do otherwise. The question is not whether or not we will believe, but who and what we’ll believe. That’s why Augustine talks about faith being a response to a sufficiently “suitable” witness.

All of this does mean that faith doesn’t exist in Heaven. You don’t need faith to believe in what’s before your eyes. This is why St. Paul speaks of faith, hope, and the various charismatic gifts as fleeting, while love alone endures into Heaven (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, 8-13):

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. [….]

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Turns out, that’s not just a pretty wedding reading, but a significant theological statement. Faith involves what’s unseen. Once we finally see God, faith has reached its destination.

Did Jesus Have Faith?

So how does all of this relate to whether or not Jesus Christ had faith? Simple: He was never in a position in which He didn’t know the truth. Recall that Hebrews speaks of faith as “the conviction of things not seen.” There’s nothing in that category for Jesus, because there’s nothing left unseen… including faith in God. So how do we know that Jesus saw God during His earthly ministry? In three ways.

First, because He said so, repeatedly. In John 3:11-13, He says “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man.” And again in John 8:38, “I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.” And lest you think that Jesus’ Beatific Vision of the Father was a past event, we hear in John 5:19, “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise.’”

Second, because He is the full and final revelation of God. Hebrews 1:1-2 says that “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” And the hymn of praise in Colossians 1:15-17 puts it this way:

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

It’s impossible to say both that Jesus is the fullness of God’s revelation and that He’s in doubt about God’s plan of salvation or details of the very thing that He came into the world to reveal. He’s the revelator (Rev. 1:1), and He knows what He’s revealing.

Third, because He is God. As St. Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!” Scripture clearly presents Jesus as Divine. The idea that God could cease to be omniscient, or could somehow turn off His omniscience (as Matt Slick argues in a piece that both fails to distinguish between modes of knowledge in Christ, and badly misunderstands the Hypostatic Union) is entirely incompatible with what it means to be God. So Jesus can’t not know the truth.

So Jesus isn’t in the position of the faithful who have to trust in a messenger of the truth. He is the Messenger, and He is the Truth. The very reason we trust Him is that He’s not just another schlub living by faith, but is the object of our faith.

Often, at this point, people ask about the Garden of Gethsemane. Doesn’t Jesus show faith and trust there? Perhaps the best answer is that even in the Garden, Jesus isn’t going into the great unknown. He knows full well what the Passion will entail – indeed, He knew its depth and breadth on Holy Thursday better than any of us will ever know it. It’s precisely because He knows what’s being asked of Him that He prays so fervently.

Faith, Jesus, and the Saints

So just like the Saints in Heaven, Jesus (both during His earthly ministry and after His Resurrection) doesn’t have faith. That’s not because He lacks something, but because He possesses something: specifically, directly knowledge. This is the basis for His credibility as a witness to the things of God. He’s testifying — as God, as One who comes from God, and as One who enjoys the Beatific Vision constantly — of God’s revelation.

In the next few posts, we’ll look much more closely at two particular Saints (Abraham and Mary) and the faith of the Church more broadly. For now, let’s close on a fascinating passage in Hebrews 12:1-2, that shows the connection between Jesus, the Saints, and our own faith:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

What’s remarkable about this is that Jesus is described as pioneering our faith and perfecting is, but not of Himself possessing faith. In fact, this passage comes immediately after Hebrews 11, an entire chapter dedicated to praising those Saints in Heaven who lived by faith. It’s the Biblical “unpacking” of the definition of faith given in Hebrews 11:1, and it’s significant that Jesus isn’t presented as the model (or even model) of faith. Rather, the Saints are the models of faith that we imitate (1 Corinthians 4:16, 11:1), and Jesus then perfects our faith. Next time, we’ll look at the most significant of the Old Testament models of faith, our father in faith, Abraham.

7 Comments

  1. Thank you for such a thought-provoking article Joe. I love it when I read something that causes me to evaluate assumptions that I never really knew that I held. Even after I wrestled with several points in the article and came to agreement, I thought of one last objection…”But how could Jesus have been fully human and not experienced faith?” A little thought reminded me that A) faith isn’t of human origin, and B) lots of people never experience faith.

  2. Would the Holy Father have to kiss is own ring? Would the President have to salute himself whenever he walked in front of mirror? At the Last Supper did Our Lord need an extraordinary minister to give his body/blood to his disciples?? Just asking…

  3. As I saw your description on Facebook, this is exactly where I thought you were going to take it. This is a fun topic to preach on as well.

  4. Joe, could you tell us a little bit more about the modes of knowledge in Christ and how that relates to the Hypostatic Union? (Here or in another post?) While I agree with all your reasoning, it seems confusing to me that whereas it is perfectly sensible that Jesus didn’t have faith because he had first-hand divine knowledge because of his divine status as God, isn’t part of what defines a human being also the fact that we all have limited knowledge? I guess the issue of Christ’s modes of knowledge and the Hypostatic Union can help us answer this question, but I don’t know how. It’s either this or falling into a kind of kenoticism like that of Matt Slick’s (kenoticists believe that Christ didn’t have some [or all!] of his divine attributes on Earth, while Matt Slick believes that he “did not access” His powers).

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