René Girard has incredible insight into human nature, conflict, and the cross of Jesus. Although his understanding of Jesus’s atonement is incomplete, he has a great deal to teach us about the atonement. I must confess I haven’t read Girard yet, but I’ve gotten a bit of him indirectly through others. For an excellent introduction, you should watch this five-part interview with Girard now.
Given my small exposure to Girard, I have always assumed that a Girardian understanding of Jesus’s transcending human conflict and sacrifice operated primarily at a human level. This is the assessment of Caiaphas in John 11:50, who at this stage almost appears to recognize Jesus’s innocence along with Girard. But now I think the human plane is just a small piece of the Girardian puzzle. I am sure this is an elementary insight, but it was new to me this weekend.
God designated Israel to serve as priests to the nations. They failed to represent God to the nations: both in reaching out to the nations and more generally in upholding God’s law and righteousness before the nations. But however great their failure to represent God, they could not help but represent the nations to God, for good or bad. So just as Adam was the true and best representative we had to stand before God under the covenant of life, Israel was the true and best representative we had to stand before God under the curse.
As our representative, Israel and her leaders were not merely envious of Jesus at a human level, putting him to death to vindicate themselves in some human conflict. Rather, Israel very clearly put God himself on trial, on behalf of the whole world. Jealous of God’s greatness, holiness, truth, righteousness, wisdom and beauty, and seeking to establish their own, they put God on trial, declared him to be guilty, and executed him. Therefore, even in purely Girardian terms, Jesus’s death is not simply a transcendence of human conflict and sacrifice by the death of an innocent man, but it is actually an attempt by all of humanity to render judgment for mankind and against God.
It is a failed attempt: Jesus’s resurrection vindicates God decisively in the conflict between God and man. All mankind is shown to be condemned because of the actions of Israel their representative.
The truly amazing thing is that we who are thus condemned can be vindicated — through Jesus’s death and resurrection! In a sense, simply by agreeing with and rejoicing in Jesus’s vindication, God extends to us the great gift of Jesus’s own vindication and resurrection. This is where our understanding of the atonement as sacrificial and substitutionary comes into play, as John goes on to explain Caiaphas’s unwitting prophecy in verses 51-52. Jesus died for the sins of the world at the very moment the world’s sin and rejection of God had become total and complete. Our mediator is no longer Israel, but Jesus himself, the true Israel. Both Israel and all nations are invited to feast in God through him.