After all, what is it worth living for?

What is worth living for

Detlef Hecking on Rom 5,1-2.5-8

Towards the text

It belongs to the natural inventory of action films that one of the sympathizers dies for his friends, for his combat unit or even for the whole world. Without sacrifice there is no victory over evil, extraterrestrials or natural disasters according to this reading. Life has to be bought, and whoever notices at the decisive moment that “it” hits him (or her) this time, says goodbye with all due seriousness and does his best until the end. Life goes on, the next film is sure to come, the next hero is already ready, he too, willing to sacrifice, and of course: composed. You don't need frightened heroes in such situations, and neither do you need overly concrete images of dying.
"But God presents his love for us through the fact that the Messiah died for us when we were still sinners" (Rom. 5: 8): How does this idea, one of the core sentences of early Christian attempts at interpreting the death of Jesus, fit into our contemporary Hollywood Landscape? Does it fit seamlessly and uncritically into the ideas of the necessary human sacrifice, or can resistance for theology and politics be found in it?

On the go with the text

5.1f. sums up the thought from Chapter 4: As the example of Abraham shows, faith makes righteous, not works. This also results in “peace with God” and “access to grace” (5.2). The church in Rome needs both: For them the eschatological "oppression" (thlipsis, 5.3, in Rom also in 2.9; 8.35 and 12.12) is not just an empty word. Only a few years earlier, in AD 49, Jews and Jewish Christians had been expelled from Rome by an edict by Emperor Claudius. Priska and Aquila, who founded the church in Corinth with Paul, also had to flee from Rome at that time, but have since returned and are greeted by Paul in Rom. The peace with God won in faith is in Rom. 5 a prerequisite for overcoming the tribulation and through it finally to find one's way back to hope (5:35).
From verse 6 onwards Paul adds another reason for hope that has already been mentioned several times: Jesus' death (e.g. 3.2426; 4.2325). The thought that the brutal death of Jesus happened “for (us) ungodly” is so monstrous, even for Paul, who often formulated it, that he can only speak of it hesitantly here. U. Wilckens characterizes v. 6 as "a statute with shocking tensions". Through a double demarcation from the "normal" human willingness to make sacrifices (5: 7), Paul further makes it clear that the death of Jesus is by no means to be compared with the (self) sacrifices of this world, but follows a different logic. It does not fit into the usual set-off categories because it does not make sense according to accounting criteria. The death of Jesus does not generate "added value" because those on the other side of the equation are neither good nor just, neither beautiful nor successful. In the language of Paul: There are sinners for whom the commitment of such an extraordinary person as Jesus, the Messiah, is not only not worthwhile, it does not even promise respect and honor. So Rom 5 is not about buying people ransom in the popular theological sense, because the most fundamental prerequisites for such trade, the equivalence of goods, are expressly not given.
So if Paul (luckily!) Does not want Jesus' death to be understood as the settlement of a grocer's bill, how then? His hesitant language in 5.6 could provide a key to this. Here, despite all the theological art of argumentation, Paul himself struggles existentially to make sense of the death of Jesus. When he was dictating these sentences to his colleague Tertius (Rom. 16:22), did the memory of the death of Jesus or other crucifixions that he had observed caught up with him unexpectedly and specifically? Have such omnipresent horror images of Roman tyranny upset the theological structure of thought? In any case, it is noticeable that Paul's words here are by no means off the tongue and that the only reason for what ultimately cannot be understood is the "love of God" (5: 8). It is actually a shame that Paul uses his clear, unambiguous language in 5: 9f. can be found again so quickly.

Beyond the text

The traditional theology of the cross and sacrifice is questioned and criticized by feminist theology because it conveys problematic images of people and God and promotes the willingness to sacrifice oneself or other people for a supposedly higher good. This history of effects and abuse of popular versions of the "satisfaction theory" by A. v. Canterbury has penetrated so deeply into the Christian subconscious through sermons, hymns and prayers that it can in fact no longer be separated from what might once have been meant positively by it. A self-critical and theology-critical approach to these questions could begin with Paul's halting search in Rom. 5: 6. In contrast to halting, in constant consideration of what "crucifixion" means in concrete terms, the theological or salvation-historical significance of the death of Jesus should not be discussed. Only in this way can socially critical aspects of this theology come into play and the victim mentalities, for example in business, war or road traffic, can be questioned. Then finally our gaze can also focus on what constitutes a successful life and that the healing effect of Jesus' life by no means begins with his death.
In the first volume of her book series for young people, Joanne K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, demonstrated a differentiated, life-promoting approach to the subject of victims. Harry, the book's hero, is known to have survived the assassination attempt by an evil wizard as an infant, to which his parents, among others, fell victim. At the end of the book, Harry learns why the killing curse was the only thing that failed him: he who is deeply loved, so the explanation, can no longer be harmed by evil. And his parents gave him this love right from the start, but ultimately also because they wanted to protect him at the risk of their lives. With this declaration, the death of his parents (and the death of victims in general) is not artificially inflated, but tied back into the lives of everyone involved. What has already been shown in one's whole life can, if it “has to be” or come to that, also express itself in death. Taken alone, however, a sacrificial death has no sense and also no value for imitation.

Doris Strahm / Regula Strobel (eds.), On the desire for healing. Christologist from a feminist-theological perspective, Freiburg / Luzern 1991.


Watch an action film (e.g. «Independence Day»).

Brighten up
Questioning roles and behavioral patterns: who sacrifices himself, for whom or what? Or: who or what is being sacrificed?


Exchange: Can a critical look at the ubiquitous victim mentality be gained from Romans 5?