Kenyan lawyer Dola Indidis is on a mission: to get the International Court of Justice at the Hague to overturn the conviction and death sentence of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago.
The logistics, however, are proving a challenge. The target of his lawsuit are the government and religious leaders of Jesus’ day, including the Roman Emperor Tiberius, the Roman King Herod, the Judean Governor Pontius Pilate, as well as the Jewish chief priest, elders and teachers of the law. According to some reports, he also plans to go after the current governments of Italy and Israel, arguing that they inherited laws from the Roman Empire.
“I filed the case because it’s my duty to uphold the dignity of Jesus and I have gone to the ICJ to seek justice for the man from Nazareth,” Indidis told the Nairobian. “His selective and malicious prosecution violated his human rights through judicial misconduct, abuse of office bias and prejudice.”
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As a matter of law, Indidis’ efforts will fail. Indidis tried to bring the case to the High Court of Kenya in 2007, but the court refused to hear it, citing a lack of jurisdiction. For the International Court of Justice, it would be impossible to even consider the case, much less rule on it. Anthea Roberts, professor of law at Columbia Law School, explains:
When it comes to contentious cases, the International Court of Justice only has jurisdiction to hear claims that are brought by one state against another state. As this claim is not brought by a state, the ICJ would lack jurisdiction over it. Even if the claim were to be brought by a state, it also needs to be brought against a state, which does not seem to be the case here. And, even then, the two states will need to have consented to the ICJ having jurisdiction to hear the type of case in question … In this case, it is not clear what international law might have been violated and, even if there was such a violation, it is not clear that the relevant states have consented to the ICJ having jurisdiction over the dispute.
But that has not stopped Indidis, who appears to remain confident. He has a Facebook page asking for donations in support of his cause. He posted a picture of his Law Society of Kenya identification card, as well as a letter dated December 2011 when he first tried to take the case to the Hague. “Together we can win,” he wrote. “Yes we can.”
Ironically, the legal case of Christ began with questions of legal jurisdiction. According to the New Testament narrative, Jesus had been disturbing the social norms by performing miracles and challenging local authorities. Jewish leaders arrested him during Passover on charges of blasphemy because he claimed to be the Son of God. They brought Jesus before Pilate, who claimed he did not have jurisdiction in the case and sent him to King Herod, who sent him back to Pilate. Pilate told the people, “I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him … I will therefore have him flogged and release him.” Crowds of people called for Jesus to be crucified, and Pilate gave in. Jesus was then crucified alongside two criminals.
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As oddball as the case may be, Indidis’ effort does raise a larger theological question that Christians have long debated: Why did Jesus have to die? Theologians have argued that his death was required for salvation to actually happen and that it was important for Jesus, who claimed to be the Messiah, the God-man, to experience human suffering and death.
TIME devoted a cover story to that question in 2004, when Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ premiered. Theories of atonement, the theological term for the meaning of Jesus’ death, have varied throughout Christian history, and the story is a deep dive into how the doctrine of atonement changed over time:
What was the cosmic reason for his agony? What is its purpose, its divine calculus? How precisely does his death, usually referred to in this context as the atonement, lead to the salvation of humanity?
The atonement “is the centerpiece of Christianity, and it’s what distinguishes it from all other religions,” says Giles Gasper, a religious historian who has written a book about one of the topic’s great medieval interpreters. Without at least an intuitive comprehension of atonement, a believer stands little chance of making sense of the faith’s promises of redemption and eternal life.
It is a question believers will continue to ponder. But as the Apostle Paul explained, in the New Testament’s Book of Romans, the atonement comes with rewards: “If we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”