Louise Mabille

What Every Christian Needs to Know about Friedrich Nietzsche

Louise Mabille | 2 June 2020 | 10 min read

At the heart of the great Christian story – the Great Historical Truth that runs like a river of gold through the sixty-six books of the Bible – is the notion that even the most unlikely person imaginable can become part of the Great Unfolding of this Truth. Not every role given to players in this earthly drama is positive. Some adversaries are easily identified: we all know what to make of King Herod or Judas Iscariot. But others are more complex: Pontius Pilate for one comes to mind. Eighteen centuries later, another ambiguous figure – who happened to have admired the classical virtue of Pilate – appeared on the scene, a thinker at once so terrible, strange and wonderful that no Christian can afford to ignore him: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

Even those uninitiated into philosophy and reluctant to engage theology are likely to recognize the infamous phrase, ‘God is dead.’ Some will be able to make the connection with Nietzsche, but few will be able to place the phrase in its original context. The phrase is part of Nietzsche’s very own parable about the state of the Christian faith in Europe during his lifetime. Whatever your opinion of Nietzsche at the end of this essay, you will be bound to admit that Nietzsche had a wonderful literary imagination. Nevertheless, there is something undeniably disconcerting about the following passage from The Gay Science[1], first published in 1882.

The madman: Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place and cried incessantly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. ‘Has he got lost?’ Asked one. ‘Did he lose his way like a child?’ Asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? Thus they yelled and laughed. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him, you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward. forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us, for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.'”[2]

What strikes one at once is that Nietzsche’s tone and imagery differs considerably from the more lightweight anti-Christian thinkers of our own time like Richard Dawkins. As a matter of fact, it appears as if the New Atheists are loath to refer to Nietzsche. The reason for this is that Nietzsche is above all a meta-thinker. He does not simply defend position X over position Y, but he questions the terminology in which we talk about value, truth, objectivity and freedom. While he is certainly vicious towards Christians[3], he is even more so towards humanists, secular humanists and liberal theologians. Consider for example his attitude towards David Friedrich Strauss, the author of The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835), which pioneered historical Jesus investigations.[4] One would expect Nietzsche to applaud an author who denies the divinity of Jesus and regards the events of the New Testament as mere myths. Instead, he describes Strauss as an “unintelligent fanatic,” a “philistine trying to be a philosopher.” Likewise, he describes George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and her class of secular, Darwin-based humanists in Twilight of the Idols as follows:

“They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. That is an English consistency; we do not wish to hold it against little moralistic females à la Eliot. In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there. We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth—it stands and falls with faith in God.”[5]

Nietzsche’s central thesis is that many of the truths and concepts we take for granted are in fact tied to a very particular form of cultural life, namely the framework developed by the Abrahamic religions. This includes concepts like intrinsic value, objective truth, progress as the accumulation of knowledge, pleasure as unquestionable good and pain as unquestionable evil. For many of us these ideas are so obviously true that their opposite can only imply relativism. However, Nietzsche shows that this way of thinking is ultimately anchored in Abrahamic theism, which includes Christianity. Nietzsche does not rejoice in the “death of God.” He shows that a simplistic belief in truth in terms of a simple correspondence notion of truth and the increasing secularization of European society had effectively ‘killed’ the Abrahamic God, who had served as the basis for meaning and value in the West for almost a thousand years. Rather than to simply rejoice in the supposed humanist freedom that would follow from this momentous event, the death of God may lead to outright nihilism, the belief that nothing has any inherent importance and that life lacks all purpose.

Nietzsche does not deny truth. He simply prefers what he sees as the more vibrant conception of truth of the Greeks and Romans as something which manifests itself, something which appears on a spectrum rather than the Christian-modernist-secular oppositions of truth and falsehood. Whereas most people think that relativism and nihilism follows from a lack of facts, Nietzsche believes that our real problem is that we have far too much truth. What we need to make sense of the mountain of facts with which we are confronted every day, is a life-giving horizon, an ultimate truth which is privileged above others without apology. For Nietzsche, the Greeks were masters at this, framing their arts and sciences within an unapologetic Greek world, without attempting to justify their beliefs by appealing to the universal.

What is more, for Nietzsche, the Greeks could accept that the negative aspects of existence were just as necessary, and shaped us to a similar extent as the positive. The terms master and slave are perhaps as infamous as the phrase “God is dead,” particularly as these terms were appropriated by the Third Reich. However, what Nietzsche calls the slave revolt in morality refers to the shift from an aristocratic pagan ethic which valued qualities like courage, pride, creativity and passion over more passive virtues like wisdom, humility, kindness and tolerance. For Nietzsche, a morality is inseparable from the culture which values it, meaning that each culture’s vocabulary, codes, practices, narratives, and institutions are informed by the struggle between these two moral structures. No culture consists of just one or the other, there is kindness in a masterly culture like the world of the Greeks, and courage within Christianity. Nietzsche is fully prepared to acknowledge the aristocratic virtues of the Renaissance princes, or the genius of Christians like Raphael or Shakespeare. What matters to him, is that these virtuous figures operated from a sense of health and positivity, not out of guilt or fear. Nietzsche did not rejoice in injustice or cruelty for its own sake. Rather, he thought genuine injustice and cruelty sprang from weakness, spinelessness and slavishness (what he calls “decadence”). Instead, he proposes that to accept natural differences in talent and strength makes the world more just, creative and ultimately, even safer.

Contrary to popular perception, Nietzsche does not equate this shift in ethical standards (the move towards what he calls “Western Buddhism” with its blandness and unhealthy obsession with the theoretical) just with Judeo-Christianity, but with Plato. With his doctrine of the Forms, according to which the real or the good is not to be found in this world. Plato shifted the gravitational locus (the anchoring point of values), from this world to the hereafter. For Nietzsche, such doctrines stem from the inability to deal with the trials and tribulations of worldly existence. Platonism, Judaism and Christianity ultimately depart from a position that takes pain – its mere existence as well as unfair distribution – as the ultimate philosophical problem. This moralistic position (moralism is fake morality, akin to the Pharisee of Luke 18: 9-14), which is especially fierce in its secular form, recognizes in all forms of pain a variation of injustice and derives from it a program for its redress. For Nietzsche, late modern Christianity and its secular variants, which for Nietzsche includes notions like socialism, cling to a morality which favour the weak and the vulnerable over the healthy and the strong under the delusion that there is a truer order of things just waiting to be discovered. While Nietzsche does not reject the notion of the supra-natural or divine as such, he thinks that it is too easily invoked as an excuse for what ultimately amounts to cowardice.

What makes Nietzsche different from most other thinkers (one could trace a line of similar thinkers from Aristotle to Machiavelli and Hannah Arendt) is that he does not just inquire after truth, but measures the value of something (including conceptions of the divine) according to whether it expresses health, beauty and strength, or weakness, resentment and cowardice. There is no reason to think that this stands in opposition to the Gospel. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s rather strange autobiography, he admits that the best Christians have always been positively predisposed towards him. There is reason to suspect that Nietzsche’s attitude towards the Christian faith sprang from a sense of disappointment with the weak European Christianity of his day. However, while no one can call Nietzsche a Christian, he is an unexpected, but undeniable ally of the contemporary believer. Read well, he reminds us of the vileness and shallowness of the social Gospel: that being a Christian involves embracing a grand robust faith which rests upon events of cosmic significance and the ultimate act of sacrifice.

Suggested Readings

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Rolf-Peter Horstman and Judith Norman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Schacht, Richard. Nietzsche: The Arguments of the Philosophers. London: Routledge, 1983.

Van Tongern, Paul. Reinterpreting Modern Culture: An Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Philosophy. West Lafayette, Indiana: Pudue University Press, 2001.

Young, Julian. Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Bibliography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.


[1] Note that the title does not refer to the contemporary meaning of ‘gay.’ Die fröhliche Wissenschaft translates as ‘the Cheerful Science,’ or even more correctly, ‘Cheerful Knowledge.’

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science. Edited and translated by Walter Kauffman (New York: Vintage Press, 1974), 181.

[3] Do not read The Antichrist of 1888, which translates as AntiChristian, before you know a lot more about philosophy.

[4] Bart Ehrman for example regards Strauss as one of the most important figures in the history of theology.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Twilight of the Idols and Ecce Homo. Edited and translated by Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005), 193-194.

JOIN OUR MAILING LIST

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MAILING LIST

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!