Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most misunderstood and confusing philosophers of modernity. A rebel against historicism and Hegelianism, he was nevertheless a radical historicist and Hegelian in his own right. A critic of Christianity (specifically the Catholic version), his own metaphysics and philosophy mirror that of traditional forms of Catholicism. A humanist and anti-nihilist, he is often mischaracterized and appropriated by anti-humanist and nihilist groups as having been precisely what he was not. While we shall explore the finer details of Nietzsche’s broader philosophy, we turn to examine what Nietzsche meant when he proclaimed that “God is dead.”
The idea of the Death of God predates Nietzsche and goes back to Hegel. Nietzsche’s death of God, in comparison to Hegel, is far more haunting and severe – in part – because Nietzsche’s understanding of the role of God and theology is far different than Hegel’s transcendent God coming into the world and leaving the residue of the egalitarian community of the Holy Spirit that acts in the world. Rather, Nietzsche understood God as more a divine law, or that “higher ideal” that human action is subject too. Where Hegel’s God abounds in love leading to his sublation on the Cross, Nietzsche’s God is a stern judge whose existence haunts humans for their failures and shortcomings.
The Christian conception of the relationship between humanity and divinity is complex and complicated. The basic reading, however, is that humanity and divinity – despite the gulf between them for either failing to faithful to God (in Judaism) or from the residue of the Fall (in Christianity) – are not in competition with one another. Instead, humanity and divinity are separated from each other, but humanity is called to be in union with divinity. “God became man so that man might become like god” is the famous Christian dictum from St. Athanasius, or from St. Irenaeus and St. Augustine who affirm that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive” or having become divinized. While Nietzsche also understood religion as providing a great source of meaning to many people his understanding of what “modern man” thought about God was that humanity-God were in conflict with each other is very important and influential (but completely misunderstood).
Rather than a theology of harmonization between humanity and God, Nietzsche understood the relationship as top-down in which God was always “looking over humanity” so to speak, and this unsettled “enlightened” man. (Note: Nietzsche himself didn’t hold to any of these views, this is how he understood the people of his day thought about the relationship between humanity and God, which is why, although influential, has been misunderstood by most “New Atheists” as the essence between “science” vs. “faith” or “human freedom” vs. “God.”)
But unlike the “New Atheists,” Nietzsche’s understanding of religion is predicated on his anthropology along with his views on the mistakes of modern thinking about man, life, and his place in the world. Nietzsche was no “progressive optimist” per the Whig idealization of history that was common in 19th century Europe at the time. Far from becoming “more moral” and “history becoming better” or “more progressive,” Nietzsche saw the opposite occurring. European man was becoming Hegel’s “victim of history,” which Nietzsche contextualized as the “last man.” Humans were no longer struggling for life – instead, they were giving themselves over to material pleasure and all life was about was the achievement of material contentment and security. Humanity was devolving into an ant-like and parasitic civilization sucking the planet dry for its resources for hedonistic comforts, consumerist indulgences, and “progress” through the form of capitalism and industrialization.
The other aspect to Nietzsche’s anthropology is that he very much still carried with him the residue of the Christian understanding of the Fall. Nietzsche knew that humans were appetitive creatures. Humans instinctively have an appetite for something more than themselves. They desire, in a way, God. That is to say Nietzsche understood the craving for God as a result of humanity’s “ugly side.” The blood shed by man’s hand, the rape of the planet, war, death, and so on, made humans seek something more than what “life had to offer” in of itself.
What happened in Nietzsche’s reading of the unfolding of history was that humanity deceived itself into accepting the narrative of progress, liberation, and freedom (itself a Christian heresy in Nietzsche’s eyes). The result of this was a fundamental shift in consciousness in our worldviews. Rather than humans being guilt-ridden, ugly, and barbaric, constantly having within themselves the capacity to “turn ugly” and shed pools of blood simply because man is a warring animal, humans were now benign, kind-hearted, compassionate, libertine, and so forth.
However, this idea of ourselves doesn’t jive with the reality of ourselves from Nietzsche’s perspective. The result was, as Nietzsche explains in several of his works, but most notably in Ecce Home, was that man killed God because man could not stomach the possibility of being subject to a higher law or higher power (which is God). God, for Nietzsche, is essentially the moral law that all humans have a basic awareness of but are haunted to commune with because we can never be “worthy in the eyes of such high standards.” In order, then, for humans to be free and prosperous, God had to die. And kill God modern man has in order to live his free hedonistic and meaningless life without any higher calling.
What Nietzsche meant by “death of God” was not that people were becoming less religious per se (i.e. the view that everyone was becoming an “enlightened” atheist). Instead, Nietzsche’s death of God is the death of the God of judgment – it is the death of the moral judge who “speaks to us” when we’ve done something wrong and calls us to repent. As William Barrett explained, “[For Nietzsche] man must cease to feel guilt, he goes on; and yet one senses an enormous hidden guilt and feeling of inferiority behind his own frantic boasts.” To be “free” means to be “guiltless.” In order to be free, which is to never feel guilt for one’s actions, the God of just judgment had to die. So man killed that version of God and replaced God with a more amenable God that was never angry with our actions. That is what the “death of God” really means in Nietzsche’s outlook. We killed the age-old understanding of God as the moral arbiter who holds us accountable for our actions and replaced it with a God that was never going to hold us accountable for our actions. In this “swap,” which is the “death of God,” humans could finally be free!
Except we’re not. Nietzsche does not celebrate the “death of God” as most illiterate readers of Nietzsche think when they buy those consumerist posters that read: “God is Dead” (Nietzsche), “Nietzsche is Dead” (God). And neither is Nietzsche’s “Atheism” the triumph of “science” and “rationality” writ large. Nietzsche’s point is that humans were stupid, by and large, and had fallen prey to false beliefs and ideals. The worst of these false beliefs and ideals were the Enlightenment ideals of the past 200 or so years. Humans still felt guilt despite killing of God to be able to do anything, and everything, they wanted without consequences. But consequences will inevitably happen. And now, with God dead, and no means of atonement, sacrifice, or reconciliation with the Cosmos, humans are lost in the Cosmos – adrift, unmoored, no longer knowing who and what they are. As a result of this humanity was now degenerating into the catatonic insect-like civilization that Western Man had become.
Nietzsche knew that man was essentially a warring animal (that is a struggling animal). The idea of God allowed us to struggle for some higher ideal. While God certainly did not exist for Nietzsche, the idea of God and the essence of the saintly life of overcoming to come into union with God was superior to the materialistic, weasel-like, and libertine lifestyles that had resulted from the Whig idea of progress and killing off of God so that we could degenerate ourselves and “choose the way of death” instead of “choosing the way of life” as the God of Exodus tells the Israelites. But, in another sense (because of Nietzsche’s radical historicist understanding of the unfolding of History), God had to die in order for the true understanding of life – life as pure struggle and the will to power (which is the will to live) could emerge. And to this end Nietzsche understood himself as the Prophet paving the way out of our nihilistic age. His followers, or more accurately those who would understand the secret of life – “Life itself told me this secret: ‘Behold,’ it said, ‘I’m that which must overcome itself again and again’” – would be the Overman.
We may have killed God, as Nietzsche said, but, paradoxically, Nietzsche doesn’t believe this is a good thing. We still need something to strive for. In having killed God, Nietzsche offers his modern substitue: The struggle to overcome life itself.