In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche published the first edition of The Gay Science, which contained his story of a madman who comes to town asking after God, and crying out that “God is dead”. The madman’s message is one of the more memorable parts of Nietzsche’s writings:
“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?...”
The madman rants at the crowd about the murder of God, but the crowd merely stares at him in astonishment. Finally, the madman realises that his message is not understood:
“I have come too early… my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”
The idea that “God is dead” is expanded in Nietzsche’s next book, Thus Spake Zarathustra, which does little to clarify his meaning, and much to obfuscate it. Perhaps because of this, after finishing Zarathustra, Nietzsche went back to add a new fifth and final section to The Gay Science that laid out his position in more explicit terms. In this he explains precisely what he means by “God is dead” – namely that “the Christian God has become unbelievable” (for reasons we shall shortly explore). But although Nietzsche was undoubtedly an atheist, the meaning of his famous phrase is not that atheism must replace religion, but that Christian morality cannot survive without God – and that therefore the death of God means the erasing of the established moral horizon (at least throughout the Christian world).
Nietzsche believed that what was coming in the wake of this
‘realization’ was a total collapse of morality, but saw optimistically a
brighter world beyond this in which “at long last the horizon appears free to
us again”. In his view, Christianity was going to unravel entirely in the wake
of this new abandonment of the Christian God – and he was convinced that this
was imminent. In a later work he notes that he might yet live to see the last
Christian – an absurd overconfidence, as it happens, since more than a century
later and Christianity remains the most popular belief system on the planet. In
one respect he was right – the twentieth century did see the establishment of
atheism as a respectable belief system, and indeed as a new religion, if one
will accept Humanism as a religion despite its adherent’s niggly protestations.
But Nietzsche vastly misread the situation in believing that Christianity would
wither and die in the new landscape of thought that had come to a head in his
Unlike our modern “New Atheists”, Nietzsche did not believe
that evolution was the murderer of God. In fact, he took a rather cool view on
So why was “God dead” if not at the hands of evolution? The
answer can be found in one of Nietzsche’s last books, The Antichrist
(which is perhaps better translated as The Antichristian, since it is
Nietzsche’s rant against all things Christian). In this, he notes how the
actions and beliefs of the Church had completely obliterated the original
message of “the evangel” (that is, Jesus). I need not, I hope, explicate the
horrors that have been conducted throughout history in the name of God, since
these are well acknowledged. Nietzsche’s charge against God is in respect of
this: he asks why God did not intervene. Why, given the extent to which the
Church was mauling and misrepresenting the message of Jesus – why did God
not stop them? This is the crux of Nietzsche’s complaint, although he
develops it in more detail than this alone. (As a critic of Christianity,
Nietzsche actually has many sensible observations, although his impassioned
hatred for Christianity blinds him, and his comments are often quite uneven).
This remains a theological question that must be addressed,
and therefore much of the theology of the twentieth century and beyond has
moved into strange new worlds. Indeed, one branch of theology that grew in the
twentieth century was “theothanatology” – the ‘science of the death of God’ –
which produced many curious and interesting ideas, including Thomas Altizer’s
view that the crucifixion of Jesus, being the incarnation of God, marked quite
literally ‘the death of God’, but imparted the world with his immanent spirit
(the holy spirit), famously providing a cover story to Time in 1966 –
“Is God Dead?” Other approaches descended from Kierkegaard’s Christian
existentialism, such as Paul Tillich’s which saw God as “the ground of being”
(following Heidegger’s ontology).
But we are not done with Nietzsche’s philosophy quite yet.
Nietzsche may have rejected the Darwinists metaphysical beliefs, but he did not
reject science (and indeed would not have been opposed to evolution, simply to
political beliefs projected from
It is important to understand the nature of the god that
Nietzsche was objecting to, for even within Christian terms this god was an
idol. This is a god that not only sits in judgement over all mankind, but is
directly involved in acts of punishment and retribution, that is in absolute
and personal control of everything – it is thus a god that denies free
will, and as a result cannot genuinely be God at all, since without free will
all religion is pointless. Hence Nietzsche’s objection: why did this God not
interfere to ensure that Jesus’ message was properly followed? The idolatrous god
in question came from centuries of embellishment and interpretation by a
priesthood that had muddled its own theology. To this idol of god had been
ascribed absolute Truth, and the source of this truth was the Bible.
It is here that the events of the nineteenth century, and Nietzsche’s “God is dead”, come into clearer focus – for before this point, in the Christian world at least, “the Truth” was the exclusive domain of the Church. But with the rise of science in the wake of the enlightenment, many of the “truths” espoused by the Church (based on interpreting the Bible as inerrant, that is, literal) fell into disrepute. Evidence accumulated that the world was older than had been imagined, that life had emerged gradually over a great length of time – all contradicting the conventional interpretation of the Bible that had been enshrined as the Truth.
There came, therefore, a mighty metaphysical rendering.
Truth, which in the era of Christian domination had been the exclusive domain
of the Church, ceased to belong to religion and seemed to fall instead into the
hands of the scientists. While the metaphysical and ethical domains of religion
still fell to God (in theistic belief), Truth could no longer do so. But in
this great separation Truth – previously foreknown and thus certain – could no
longer be what it once was. Science could not establish big-T Truth – it was
beyond its limited remit. It could measure, it could postulate, it could even
gradually refine its theories to greater precision, but as Kuhn noted, none of
these actions however remarkable were equivalent to a constant journey towards
Truth. This was merely the mythology of science.
Neither was Nietzsche unaware of this issue; he was simply too preoccupied with his hatred for Christianity to consider this a battle worth fighting. While he was adding to The Gay Science his explication of his phrase “God is dead” he followed it immediately with a warning to scientists, noting that in genuine science “convictions have no rights of citizenship” – that is, one may only produce provisional beliefs, hypotheses, which only then may earn their status as knowledge through experiment, and even then this status is provisional. Nietzsche shrewdly observed that convictions must cease to be so before they can be science, and thus even before such a process can begin their must be a prior conviction “one that is so commanding and unconditional that it sacrifices all other convictions to itself.”
We see that science also rests on a faith, there simply is no science “without presuppositions.” The question whether truth is needed must not only have been affirmed in advance, but affirmed to such a degree that the principle, the faith, the conviction finds expression: “Nothing is needed more than truth, and in relation to it everything else has only second-rate value.”
This critique of science, often overlooked but crucial in an understanding of Nietzsche’s position, occurs under the heading “How we, to, are still pious” – for Nietzsche was well aware of how science could become akin to religion if misunderstood and mishandled. He observes:
…it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests – that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless ones and anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine…
Thus in the light of the shifting of perspective that occurred after Nietzsche, we are forced to re-conclude it is not so much that “God is dead” – this was Nietzsche attacking those who in his time most forcefully asserted an absolute version of the Truth, namely the nineteenth century priesthood and its predecessors. Rather, Nietzsche’s most famous observation can be understood in its wider meaning as “Truth is dead”. For the tearing apart of Truth from religion did not leave much certainty in the hands of science. Science can determine certain matters of fact by measurement, it can establish true and false subject to certain presuppositions and even create great and effective instruments of prediction, but it cannot manufacture big-T Truth, “The Truth” – the certainty of knowledge. This can only come from faith – whether faith in an idol of religion such as the confused idea of a megalomaniacal god, or an idol of science itself.
Thus Nietzsche saw reality becoming entirely infinite –
unbounded by preconceived ideas of what must be factual. He comments in one of
his notes that “it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations”
and in this way reached his formulation of existentialism; the atheist or
agnostic existentialism to accompany Kierkegaard’s religious existentialism –
two sides of the same coin. It is here that Nietzsche hoped his philosophy
would lead. He notes that “we cannot look around our own corner” but says:
But I should think that today we are at least far from the ridiculous immodesty that would be involved in decreeing from our corner that perspectives are permitted only from this corner. Rather has the world become “infinite” for us all over again: inasmuch as we cannot reject the possibility that it may include infinite interpretations.
And of course, once we allow for infinite interpretations, we may not exclude God, especially in a world where so many people have had and continue to have numinous experiences of the wholly other. We are free to interpret these experiences however we will. Some, presupposing the absence of God, will see them as ‘delusions’. Others, presupposing God, see them as an experience of God. And who now will be so arrogant as to assume that the view from their corner is the only permissible view?
Ironically, this had been a central tenet of the Dharmic
religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, for thousands of years. It is the
essential meaning of the Sanskrit word maya – reality as illusion. It is
simply the case than in the West, where the Abrahamic faiths dominated, we
never quite managed to get the message.
Rumours of God’s death have been greatly exaggerated. In the late nineteenth century, a failed assassination attempt against God left Truth mortally wounded, a mere shadow of the certainty it once represented. We may measure some things to establish their veracity, we may develop grand theories with great predictive power, but the certainty of knowledge is gone from us. The Truth is dead. Long live freedom of belief!
All translations of Nietzsche quoted in this piece are by Walter Kaufmann.