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Forensics, Not Just for CSI Anymore: Atonement & The Cross

jesuscross01_religiousYou can question in faith. You can doubt in faith. You can also question and doubt in unbelief, in a heart deep challenge to the truths of God and His word, but questioning and doubting alone should not be sufficient to draw the accusation.

One of the great nagging questions of my life concerns the effectiveness of the cross of Christ. This nagging doubt wasn’t about whether or not Jesus’ death was atoning, but about my own understanding of the exact nature of its effectiveness in covering sin.

I was scolded for even asking the question in Sunday School and youth group growing up, as if asking “Why does Jesus’ death on the cross forgive MY sin?” was a sacrilege. It seemed a reasonable question to me. The fact that I wasn’t challenging the reality, but rather digging at the details, the dynamic of the process either didn’t matter or couldn’t be distinguished by my piteously ill prepared instructors.

Theologians call the details of this event, the precise conception of the effective dynamic of it, and others like it, forensics.

According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary (the easiest to find and cut and paste quickly) forensic means “relating to, used in, or suitable to a court of law,” and “relating to or dealing with the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems.”[1]

So the exact means that Jesus’ death on the cross gives the person of faith in Jesus a pass on his own sin in the court of God is a forensic question.

Back in my early days of Bible college, I was spending a summer in New York city honing my street evangelism skills and this question came home to me in a powerful way. I’d already taken a personal evangelism class and memorized the Roman road and practiced with my friends who tried to be difficult. They were not, however, as difficult as some of the people that I actually met on the street. Prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, you see, aren’t restrained by the niceties of even the most rascally of Bible college students. These questioned the very sense of what I was saying. The phrase, “Jesus died for your sins” was not accepted carte blanch.

One young woman put it to me plainly. “What does that even mean?” she said. “I don’t get it. How can one man’s death somehow make up for anyone else’s sins? That doesn’t make sense. In what court would that fly?”

She wanted the same explanation that I’d always wanted, but, unlike me, reserved judgment on the message until she got a satisfactory answer. I didn’t know what to say to her. In my heart, I said, “Exactly! I know exactly what you’re saying. I only wish I had answer for you… and me.”

I’d heard all the common parables, but found them wanting. One that stuck with me goes something like… There was this king, you see and he made a law punishable by 50 lashes. One day a woman was brought before him guilty of breaking that law… oh shock, it was his mother. To keep the law he commands the beating, but then goes down from his throne and drapes himself over his mother’s back to take the lashes for her.

I imagined another. A serial killer is being tried for 100 murders. Just as the judge sentences him to death I walk in and say, “Stop! I’ll take that man’s penalty. Kill me instead and let him go free.” The judge leaps to his feet and says, “Okay, boys you heard him, take that man to the electric chair and let the psycho go free.” NOT…..

Oh, YES, I DID. I traveled back in time to the early 90’s and brought NOT back for a special appearance in this article.

There is no court in the country, perhaps even in the civilized world, that would embrace this reality. Yet we say it, and, at times, imagine the details by one analogy or another none of which provide the slightest reasonable rationale for it every time we say, “Jesus died for your sins,” or “Jesus took your sins upon Himself on the cross.”

After this woman—who was not mean or angry or insulting to me in the least—got through with me and my stammering um um um um um mouth, I went up to my room at the place we were all staying (NYSUM) and cried out to the Lord for understanding.

Almost 30 years later, I have something, which while not definitive to the millennia long theological dialogue on the issue, is a might better than what I perceived at the time with all the analogies concocted to preach the event to the western, dialogical, individualistic mind.

Stay tuned. This may take a while.

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/forensic

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