Christopher Demuth Rodkey
© Copyright 1999
Saint Vincent College
As evidenced by his writings, Friedrich Nietzsche clearly was not a ChristianCat least not in the sense of traditionally-known creedal Christianity. Nevertheless, Nietzsche had differing feelings towards the religion today known as Christianity and the figure believed to be in the center of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth. This paper will explore the intriguing respect that Nietzsche had for Jesus and the bitter feelings that the philosopher had for Jesus' legacy in the church, which had become the very establishment that Jesus was attempting to rebel against in Judaism; that is, a corrupt, stagnant, hierarchial religion.
Friedrich Nietzsche had very different opinions concerning the man known known to history as Jesus Christ and his legacy, the religion called Christianity. As a well-known philosopher of contemporary times, Nietzsche's reputation with Christianity is severely ambiguous, as a result of a "long customary" association with the Nazi Party of Germany, which, as one critic points out, is "like linking St. Francis with the Inquisition in which the order he founded played a major role." Still, despite much misunderstanding and prejudice, Nietzsche's influence on the world remains consistently strong, as "few thinkers of any age equal his influence." Nietzsche's philosophy is rooted in his own interpretation of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the history of Christianity, as he considered himself the first philosopher of the "irrevocable anti-Christian era" from which all Christian and secular systems associated with Christianity would henceforth bow. Nietzsche, however, does not see this new era in the history of the world as essentially negative; he believes that he is the first of 'the new way'; and "things will be different," positively. Furthermore, one must understand Nietzsche's position on Jesus and Christianity, the most crucial part of his philosophical system, as separate issues, to completely appreciate and comprehend the rest.
To this end, Nietzsche is very clear that he has different attitudes about Jesus and Christianity. This distinction is "no less than the distinction between life and death, the great 'Yes' and the decadent 'No.'" Furthermore, there is a "severance" between Jesus and the Christian tradition. This is clearly a result, according to Nietzsche, of the greediness and short-sightedness of St. Paul, who institutionalized Christianity so much that the religion has little in common with the ideas and teachings that its founder represented. As a consequence, Western society has gone backwards, Nietzsche writes, "everything is visibly becoming Judiazed, Christianized, mob-ized (what do the words matter!)."
Nietzsche considers himself "the atheist," whose challenges against Christianity all Christians must now face and consider. Although he admits that he is "an opponent of Christianity de riguer," Nietzsche has a distinct respect for the man Jesus. While Nietzsche does not go so far as to embrace all of the ideas and teachings of Jesus, it is very clear that he draws a clear dichotomy between Jesus and Nazareth and "the Christ of the creeds"Cand what Nietzsche is most concerned with is the historical Jesus. The end of Nietzsche's analysis of Jesus and Christianity is a request for the re-assessment of Western culture's values, especially religious values, which call for the eventual expulsion of Christianity as he knew it.
Nietzsche on Christ
In short, Nietzsche respects and admires Jesus of Nazareth, "but denies that he has any meaning for our age"CNietzsche believes the Jewish contention that Jesus is not the Messiah and that the Messiah has not yet appeared in history. Even so, Nietzsche reveres Jesus as no other character in history, particularly because he came to know Jesus as the very opposite of Christianity. Nietzsche writes as a philologist, "The word 'Christianity' is already a misunderstandingCin reality there has only been one Christian, and he died on the Cross." While leaving such an impact on the world is admirable (and a good characteristic of an Übermensch), Nietzsche "could know Jesus as the greatest and truest revolutionary in history," despite the sour legacy he left.
Despite all of this hostility, Nietzsche looked upon the symbol of the crucified Christ as "the most sublime of all symbols." Nonetheless, "Jesus remains the only Christian who ever livedCbut he was crucified by man. The Christians were making their professed faith a weird comedy." The cross, to Nietzsche, is a "ghastly paradox" that revolves around the idea of "God of the cross." This concept is absurd to Nietzsche, who wonders how it is logical that the "mystery of an unimaginable and ultimate cruelty and self-crucifixion of God for the salvation of man?" Furthermore, Nietzsche comments:
God himself sacrifices himself for the guilt of mankind, God himself makes payment to himself, God as the only being who can redeem man from what has become unredeemable for man himselfCthe creditor sacrifices himself for his debtor, out of love (one can credit that?), out of love for his debtor!C
Nietzsche sees this entire concept of a crucified god as utterly ridiculous and ironic for a god to do so "out of love." While "Christianity's self-sacrificing God makes infinite its adherents' guilt and debt," Nietzsche observes, "Jesus had done away with the concept of 'guilt.'" Yet, to Nietzsche, Jesus, like himself, had come "too early" and died "too young...not 'at the right time.'" They were both revolutionaries who were rebelling against the old ways.
It is clear that Nietzsche is interested in a historical hermeneutic of Jesus; however, as Jesus left no writings, Nietzsche had to go to the next best source, the Gospels, which he despised. Nietzsche writes that the Bible is "the greatest audacity and 'sin against the spirit' that literary Europe has on its conscience." As a result, while Jesus preached and taught about freedom, Nietzsche believed that "it was immediately transformed by those who preached it (and especially by Paul) to assert their own power."
Nietzsche is convinced that Jesus himself would deny "everything that today is called Christian." Critic William Hubben argues that Jesus was literally an anarchist, who "attacked the Jewish hierarchy, the 'just' and supreme rulers," and died for these sins, absolutely not for the sins of others. Nietzsche recognized that Jesus had supposedly expelled the world from the concepts of guilt and sin, wondering, "[h]ow could he have died for the sins of others?" Furthermore, while some Christians view Jesus as a completely divine judge of 'the quick and the dead,' Nietzsche viewed Jesus as anything but a judge: "Jesus opposed those who judged others, and wanted to destroy the morality existing in his age" (emphasis added). Nonetheless, one can be assured that Nietzsche "reveres the life and death of Jesus." However, it is not in the same way that a traditional "Christian" reveres Jesus; as critic Walter Kaufmann writes,"instead of interpreting it [Jesus' life] as a promise of another world and another life, and instead of conceding the divinity of Jesus, Nietzsche insists: Ecce Homo! Man can live and die in a grand style, working out his own salvation instead of relying on the sacrifice of another." Nietzsche, then, does not 'believe in Jesus' in the creedal tradition, but respects him as a worthy opponent.
More specifically, Nietzsche views Jesus as his only true opponent. He closes, in the last line of his autobiographical Ecce Homo, "Have I been understood?CDionysus verses the Crucified.C" I interpret this line as Nietzsche recognizing that Jesus is the highest of competitors to Nietzsche's own "Dionysian ideal for man." This statement is also meant as an ironic contrast; that is, a contrast between "the tragic life verses life under the cross": the roller-coaster, "dangerous" life of the Übermensch (as exemplified by Goethe) verses weakness.
In sum, Nietzsche's interpretation of the life of Jesus, while suspicious, contrasts his feelings surrounding Christianity; recognizing a major difference between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the creeds. To this end, the events surrounding Jesus' deathCrather than his resurrectionC become pivotal, as Nietzsche writes, "Jesus himself could not have desired nothing by his death but publicly to offer the sternest test, the proof of his teaching....But his disciples were far from forgiving his death." Thus, after Jesus' death, his followers asked, "Who killed him? who was his natural enemy?Cthis came like a flash of lightning," and their answer was, "Judaism," the ruling class. The offspring of this, Christianity, for Nietzsche became "another in a line of failed attempts to understand the teachings of the great creators and transformers of life"; in other words, the creedal, pre-modern Jesus has no relevance to a contemporary, post-modern society.
Nietzsche on Christianity
Nietzsche has an obvious dislike of Christianity because of its unfaithfulness to the teachings of its supposed founder, Jesus of Nazareth, the flawed morality of Christians, and the warped concept of the Christian God. Nietzsche calls Christianity "the religion of pity," as it represents weakness in every form that he can think of. Furthermore, churches have little influence legitimate justification for influence in the lives of humans today, as Nietzsche asks, "does the church today still have any necessary role to play? Does it still have the right to exist? Or could one do without it? Quaeritur." To this interrogative, Nietzsche answers that the "future of humanity is...placed in jeopardy" by institutional Christianity, which "destroys the instincts out of which affirmative institutions develop." In other words, Christianity hinders the progress of humanity. What's more, Christian morality is hell-bent on defining the world as "ugly and bad," and has therefore made the world "ugly and bad." To make things worse, "Christianity has created a fictitious world," where nothing is dared to be questioned, and as a result, the world will break downCthis way "must vanish" (emphasis added). To Nietzsche, Christianity is little more than an opiate, that is, as mentioned earlier, a weak religion of the herd.
It was stated above that Nietzsche believes that the only Christian died on the cross, this is 'Christianity' in its purest sense. However, as far as Christians today know, understand, and define Christianity, Nietzsche says that there have never been any Christians: "The 'Christian' that which has been called a Christian for two millennia, is merely a psychological self-misunderstanding." Nietzsche blames the 'corruption' of Christianity on the "first Christians," who created the very same institution that Jesus was rebelling against, Judaism, when they founded ChristianityCand the worst of these "first Christians," was Paul, as Nietzsche writes: "The life, the example, the teaching, the death, the meaning and the right of the entire GospelCnothing was left once this hate-obsessed false-coiner had grasped what alone he could make use of. Not the reality, not the historical truth!" In fact, Nietzsche argues, it was Paul who condemned Christianity to its present stagnant state by making "this indecency of an interpretation," that is,"'If Christ is not resurrected from the dead our faith is vain.'CAll at once the Evangel became the most contemptible of all unfulfillable promises, the impudent doctrine of personal immortality."
As a result of Paul's bad interpretation and institutionalization of Christianity, it became clear to Nietzsche that Christianity is "not a counter-movement against the Jewish" religion, but its logical end, "one further conclusion to its fear-inspiring logic." Again, Christianity has become, in turn, exactly what Jesus had rebelled against. In The Gay Science Nietzsche asks "And the Christians? Did they become Jews in this respect? Did they perhaps succeed?" The answer is 'yes,' as Nietzsche observes that "Christianity did aim to 'Judaize' the world."
All of this happened, according to James Mark's reading of Nietzsche, as a result of Paul and the other "first Christians'" "need for...power" over others, forming a priestly caste, like the Jewish priestly caste before them, that has the "authority to pronounce that forgiveness, and thereby control the herd which feels the need of it." Nietzsche even goes so far to hint that Christianity was invented by the "first Christians" in revenge, by "their ignorance of superiority over ressentiment.@ For Nietzsche, this is the beginning of the downfall of Christianity: "All the sick and sickly instinctively strive after a herd organization as a means of shaking off their dull displeasure and feeling of weakness." Continuing, Nietzsche blames the corruption of all churches, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant alike, on their institutionalization, as he observes that Christians are an "unphilosophical race" that "need its [Christianity's] discipline to become 'moralized and somewhat humanized." Further, Nietzsche asks, that if this is true, "How could God have permitted that?" Answering, "[f]or this question the deranged reason of the little community [of early Christianity] found a downright terrifyingly absurd answer: God gave his Son for the forgiveness of sins, as a sacrifice. All at once it was over with the Gospel." Nietzsche responds, "[w]hat atrocious paganism!"
Next, Nietzsche's most structured problem with Christianity is the ethical system that it promotes. Nietzsche's words show no mercy to Christianity, writing "[i]n Christianity neither morality nor religion come into contact with reality at any point"; and even worse, he ranks liquor with Christianity as "the European narcotics." Nietzsche observes that Christians are "the domestic animal, the herd animal, the sick animal." Following this, Nietzsche's psychology was broken into existential categories, like Aquinas and Kierkegaard before him, which ranked the beast of burden as the lowest form of human being, one who 'follows the crowd' and lives life according to the status quo, that is, a wasteCthis is the Christian to Nietzsche. For example, the Christian has become, as a result of this institutionalized Christianity, "a soldier, a judge, and a patriot who knows nothing against non-resistance to evil"; in other words, the life Christians live, "under the cross," is fake, counterfeit, and gilded; that is, the way of life that Jesus rebelled against. Christian morality, then, is a twisting of "Jesus' teachings into a doctrine of morality."
What Nietzsche finds most unsettling about Christian ethics is its concern for denying the pleasures of life. "A Christian's thinking is perverted," Nietzsche critic William Hubben writes, "even when he humbles himself, he does so only to be exalted," citing Luke 18:14 ("...for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted."); concluding that Christians' "only great delight is the mean and petty pleasure of condemning others." Further, critic John Evans states that Nietzsche was "disturbed" that "out of ressentiment and revenge, the early Christians sought power to perverse concepts of life denial and 'sin.'" Nietzsche's writings support these claims, writing on sexuality, the highest of pleasures: "Christianity gave Eros poison to drink: he did not die of it but degeneratedCinto a vice." Again, "[i]t was only Christianity, with its ressentiment against life in its foundations, which made sexuality something impure: it threw the filth on the beginning, on the prerequisite of life." According to Karl Jaspers, Nietzsche interpreted all Christian morality into the statement, "suffering is supposed to lead to a holy existence," and he could not accept this way of living. Furthermore, Nietzsche observed that only "martyrdom and the ascetic's slow destruction of his body were permitted" by Christianity as acceptable forms of suicide. In the end, Nietzsche gives up all hope of finding any good (qualities of the Übermensch) in Christianity, which has "waged war to the death against this higher type of man" and teaches "men to feel the supreme values of intellectuality as sinful." To Nietzsche, then, the institution of Christianity was "a radical betrayal of the life view that Jesus had espoused." Jesus, as a man, had "attempted to go 'beyond good and evil," however, his ideas were corrupted following his death.
Nietzsche will perhaps be remembered most of all for his philosophy of God, and more specifically, the Christian God. To Nietzsche, the Christian GodClike ChristianityCis the God of the sick and the weak. Still, Nietzsche distinguishes the God of Christianity as the opposite of the God of Jesus, so far as to say that there can not be any true God found in Christianity. To the Christian God, man is "God's monkey," whom God in his long eternities created for a pastime. As a result, Nietzsche concludes that "the Christian concept of God...is one of the most corrupt conceptions of God arrived at on this earth." Nietzsche was obsessed, above all, with this area of philosophy, like "no other in history, and his obsession was centered on the death of God."
The "death of God" motif that was popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre in the twentieth century "harks back to Nietzsche, who first coined the expression." The following is Nietzsche's famous story of 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!" CAs many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter....The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed himCyou and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea?....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.
This, according to Nietzsche, is a message for the future, concluding "I have come too early...my time is not yet." Nietzsche puts this message into the voice of a madman, "whose message falls on deaf ears," as what he has to say is too shocking and comical for the crowd ('herd') to take seriouslyCbut the madman has the last laugh, according to Nietzsche, as the madman is correct in what he has to say.
Does this mean that God has literally died? Philosophers and theologians answer this question in many different ways, often dodging the answer. Critic John Mark answers, "[i]t is really something that has happened to man; God has died because we no longer accept him." Existentialist Karl Jaspers wrote that "Nietzsche does not say 'There is no God,' or 'I do not believe in God,' but 'God is dead.'" Many scholars, however, believe Nietzsche an atheist, who says that the idea of the Christian God, like Zeus and other Gods before, has died; that humanity must find something more stable to rest and reassess its values upon. Episcopalian Bishop John Spong interprets Nietzsche's declaration that "God is dead" as a sign that the Christian religion needs to declare their traditional theistic God dead or "unemployed." Theologian Thomas Altizer answers that in the false Pauline "Christianity" that Nietzsche has exposed, its center, Jesus "is a dead and empty Christ who is the embodiment of an ultimate nothingness"; refusing to allow the living Jesus to arise as the nihilist that he was two millennia ago. Another theologian, Don Cupitt, writes that the death of God means that the characteristics of the God that has relevance to a post-modern society shares characteristics of a human corpse and the dead's impact on human life. What's more, Zen monk and Buddhist theologian Nhat Hanh answers that the death of God is the essential "death of every concept we may have of God in order to experience God as a living reality directly." While these possible interpretations may have been what the "death of God" meant to Nietzsche, theologian Paul Tillich has gone so far as to call Nietzsche "the most candid" of the "Christian humanists." There does not seem to be an unambiguous or completely comprehensive answer to be offered from neither theology nor philosophy.
I do not wish to baptize Nietzsche; however I conclude that while Nietzsche's personal theological convictions are moot and many have debated what Nietzsche's statement "God is dead" means for Christians in the twentieth century, his opinions on Jesus of Nazareth and the Christian religion remain clear. The salient notion is that Nietzsche's treatment of the theistic Christian God is as an absurdity, the enemy of what the philosopher believes to be 'the good life.'
In conclusion, Nietzsche clearly has pronounced separate judgements upon the man Jesus of Nazareth and the religion that is believed to be loosely based on Jesus' life, Christianity. To Nietzsche, Jesus was a great man worthy of respect, perhaps even an Übermensch; Christianity, however, is corrupt insofar as the fathers of the church institutionalized the teachings of Jesus in an act of hostility towards the Jews. Furthermore, Nietzsche believes that Christianity has become the very establishment against which Jesus rebelled in Judaism: an already corrupt, stagnant, static, hierarchial religion. Finally, it can not be deciphered whether Nietzsche accepted a god or not. If there is a God to Nietzsche, it would be above morality, would not impose ethics upon humans, would not judge on the basis of its own sacrifice, and would not deny human nature into self-denialCthat is, the opposite of the Christian God. Nietzsche simply foresees himself as the one who is replacing Jesus in a manner of successive revelation; predicting correctly that he, like Jesus, is a madman who has "come too early"; who has and will continue to be misinterpreted and institutionalized incorrectly.
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This paper was presented at the 1999 SUNY-Oneonta Undergraduate Philosophy Conference.