Philosophy Fridays: Nietzsche as Prophet of Modern Christianity, Part 6

Written by Mark Farnham

On August 27, 2010

Nietzsche’s Antidote to Christianity

Nietzsche’s purpose in attacking Christianity is multi-fold, but it can be argued that one of the main reasons was the need to overthrow the reigning metaphysic of the day in order to proclaim his own supposedly non-religious worldview. Some see a motivation that is more directly tied to the very Christianity that Nietzsche sought to destroy. Giles Fraser sees in Nietzsche, not a Nietzschean Christianity or a Christianized Nietzscheanism, nor even Nietzsche as positive theologian (per Walter Kaufmann), but rather a man who struggled with some of the most significant themes of Christianity, specifically salvation. “Nietzsche is obsessed with the question of human salvation.”[1] Fraser sees Nietzsche’s works as a series of experiments in redemption, specifically designed for a post-theistic age.

Fraser seems to have a point. All religions seek answers to some basic questions that seem innate to the human heart. Questions of origin, purpose, destiny, morality and redemption are common in belief systems. While Nietzsche does not address all of these, his various themes and constructs do resonate with common philosophic and religious themes. Will to power functions as a metaphysic for Nietzsche, and sometimes sounds like a deity—all encompassing, ineffable, generative, and distinguishing. His eternal return, while not teleological, does function as an eschatology, telling the future to some degree. The problem with the world, is not sin, as in the Christian worldview, but rather ressentiment. Many other parallels could be drawn, but there seems to be no doubt that in overturning Christianity’s system of thought, Nietzsche needed to supply terms and concepts for many similar, though admittedly different, ideas.

The death of God that Nietzsche predicted was to be considered a positive event in his eyes. While many who have since read Nietzsche have seized upon this concept and made him to be a radical atheist committed to nihilism, Nietzsche did not regard himself so. Rather, as a cultural and philosophical prophet, he saw his role as the herald of a new age.

Religion was an obstacle to this new philosophy, but the end of religion achieves nothing in itself. It merely clears the decks for what must now come about. The great critic of religion sets himself the task of replacing religion, providing an alternative to it. Against all expectations , the death of God is experienced not as a cause for despair, but as the occasion of hope. The outcome is not Schopenhauerian pessimism, but Dionysian affirmation.[2]

Nietzsche voices this optimism in many places in his writing, but perhaps nowhere as eloquently as in On the Genealogy of Morality:

[W]hoever pauses over the question [of the valuation of values] and learns to ask, will find what I found:—that  a vast new panorama opens up for him, a possibility make him giddy, mistrust, suspicion and fear of every kind spring up, belief in morality, all morality, wavers,—finally, a new demand becomes articulate. So let us give voice to this new demand: we need a critique of moral values, the value of these values should itself, for once, be examined. (On the Genealogy of Morality, Preface, 6, p. 7)


Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity is first and foremost an attack against the remnants of Christianity after the Enlightenment had stripped it of its contents. But it would be disingenuous to claim that he misunderstood Christianity completely. Some aspects of genuine Christianity were clearly understood by Nietzsche, and yet rejected. Westphal’s attempt to put a positive spin on Nietzsche from a Christian perspective is simply not realistic. Fraser challenges Westphal’s interpretation by reminding readers of some of Nietzsche’s more vicious attacks, such as those in The Antichrist:

Christianity is based on the rancour of the sick, the instinct against the healthy, against health. Everything well-constituted, proud, high-spirited, beauty above all, hurt their ears and eyes…God on the cross—have people still not grasped the gruesome ulterior motive behind this symbol?—Everything that suffers, everything nailed to the cross is divine…We are the only ones who are divine…Christianity won, and with this,  a nobler sensibility was destroyed,—Christianity has been the worst thing to happen to humanity so far (The Antichrist, 51, p. 50-51).

With this passage Fraser reminds Westphal that Nietzsche despised the central belief of Christianity—the cross. “What Nietzsche hates, above all, is the cross and the Christian story of redemption.”[3] The cross is one of the Christian beliefs that most clearly demonstrates Nietzsche’s understanding and confusion at the same time. Unlike so many Enlightenment philosophers and theologians, Nietzsche accepted that Christianity truly taught that Jesus claimed to be God, and that his death was, in reality, the death of God on the cross. At the same time, Nietzsche clearly does not understand the purpose of the cross, and even if he did, he rejected the interpretation that historic, orthodox Christianity provided. “This is what brought him to the cross: the proof is written on the cross. He died for his own guilt—no matter how many times people say it, there is simply no evidence that he died for anyone else’s guilt” (The Antichrist, 27, p. 25). Contra Nietzsche, Jesus did claim to die on behalf of sinners (Mark 10:45). Nietzsche rejected this view, again, not from a logical or philosophical objection, but because he found it aesthetically distasteful.

Nietzsche rejects Christianity for its core beliefs and for its exclusivity. “Nietzsche’s critique of religion is first and foremost a critique of a specific kind of religion, namely, of that type that succeeded most of all in establishing one single interpretation of the world and humanity.”[4] The dogmatism of Christianity is especially distasteful to him because he saw such an approach as a tool of oppression. This is one reason why he proclaimed that he did not want disciples and that his views were merely perspectives. The words of Jesus claiming to be the way, the truth and the way would especially anger Nietzsche. Nietzsche saw this dogmatism as intrinsic to every religion, and therefore he rejected them all, though Christianity was especially troubling to him.

Nietzsche’s foresight into Christianity’s end is remarkable considering the current state of the kind of liberal Christianity in Germany in his day. Mainline denominations have continued a trend of decline that began with their adoption of Enlightenment-depleted Christianity shortly after the start of the 20th century. Those churches and sects that have continued to cling to the husk of Christianity stripped clean by Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel and Schleiermacher, and so ably predicted by Nietzsche, are the embodied fulfillment of Nietzsche’s extraordinary vision o the future.

As prophet of modern Christianity, Friedrich Nietzsche was both a man of his time and a man before his time. “A prophet is not a person who makes eccentric guesses about the future, but one whose antennae are so sensitive as to be able to pick up the first tremors, the earliest hints of events which one day will become manifest.”[5] Nietzsche was that prophet who, while eccentric, and eventually went insane, was also all too human in many respects the picture of sanity. He was dynamite in his day and a destiny in ours.

[1] Giles Fraser, Redeeming Nietzsche: On the Piety of Unbelief (NY: Routledge, 2002), 2.

[2] Kee, Nietzsche Against the Crucified, 37-38.

[3] Fraser, Redeeming Nietzsche, 21.

[4] Paul J.M. Van Tongeren, Reinterpreting Modern Culture: An Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Philosophy (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2000), 273.

[5] Kee, Nietzsche Against the Crucified, 33.

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