Rene Girard was a literary critic and theologian who developed a very influential non-violent reading of the atonement. According to the penal substitution model of atonement, God the Father reconciles us to himself through the violent death of his innocent son who absorbs the divine wrath properly owing to us. In direct opposition to this influential model, Girard insisted that the cross, in fact, reveals the illegitimacy of the human tendency to scapegoat innocent parties whilst perpetuating the cycle of retributive violence.
There is much that is appealing about Girard’s view, but it also comes at a very great cost, a cost that is well illustrated by this tweet I came across a few days ago:
“Sin consists in thinking that something good could come from violence”.
— René Girard Quotes (@Renegirard1923) August 21, 2018
This tweet prompted me to reply, “Really? So if I believe a greater goods theodicy is at least possibly true, I’m sinning?”
Let’s think about that for a moment. Perhaps the single most influential theodicy of all is that which appeals to greater goods: God allows various evils to occur because they will result, ultimately, in a surfeit of goods which outweighs the evils endured. Perhaps the simplest way to put the idea is as follows: no pain, no gain.
Girard is so opposed to the idea that violence in any form might serve a redemptive purpose that he issues this sweeping indictment which condemns a modest greatest goods theodicy as surely as it condemns penal substitutionary atonement.
While I do not accept penal substitution as a theory of atonement, it seems to me to go way too far to condemn even the modest claim that evil, suffering, or violence can be allowed for the end of producing a greater good. Needless to say, the suggestion that merely countenancing such eminently plausible ideas is a thought crime strikes me as absurd.