The Death of God and the Birth of Idols: Nietzsche’s Pronouncement and Christian Theism

A Life Without God, A Life Without Value

“Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the marketplace calling out unceasingly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why! Is he lost? Said one. Has he strayed away like a child? Said another. Or does he keep himself hidden? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea voyage? Has he emigrated? The people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. ‘Where is God gone?’ he called out.

I mean to tell you! We have killed him—you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How are we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on uncertainty? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as though infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the voice of the gravediggers who are bearing God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? For even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murders? The holiest and mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife—who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what scared games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event—and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!” (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 103.)

If God is dead, what becomes of the world? Can a world make sense without God? Will not everything have to be turned upside down? Does any part of this world remain unaffected? Can there be a sacred piece unshaken by the fall of the Almighty? Can there be a world without God? Has mankind by their crime undone all meaning? What is man without God? Is he even a man? What is man? Can creation declare independence from its creator? In rejecting God can he keep himself? If God is dead, what becomes of the world in which he once existed? This is where Nietzsche comes in.

“‘God is dead,’ Nietzsche proclaimed. But he did not say this in triumph (Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, 195). “Rather he said it in the anguished tones of the most powerful and delicate piety deprived of its proper object. Man, who loved and needed God, has lost his Father and Savoir without possibility of resurrection.” (Bloom, 196). “Nietzsche replaces easygoing or self-satisfied atheism with agonized atheism, suffering its human consequences” (Bloom 197). Emancipation came at a cost. One in which the Enlightenment writers didn’t foresee. The reasonableness that incited the Enlightenment proved unreasonable to those subjected to it. The Age of Reason promised redemption from the old and outdated, without ever giving thought to the cruel realities that were lying in wait for all who believed. An entire generation of revolutionaries, reasonable men, passionately seized, converted, then driven to a man made paradise just out of reach. The demise came before the ascent. Nietzsche saw that the Enlightenment’s defeat was mankind’s failure to grasp the situation. They were so busy butchering religious authority to ask what would be left after the deed was done.

Their fatal flaw was the very thing they renounced—the necessity of God. Rejecting God meant also rejecting God’s world. But what was lost in the process? God created the world out of nothing. God established the heavens and the earth. God gave man morality. God separated darkness from light, good from evil, heaven from hell. God created order and gave meaning. Rationality found its grounding in God; Causation its intelligibility; Man his identity, the world its purpose. All was dependent on God. “The men of the Enlightenment did not know that the cosmos would rebel at the deed, and the world became ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’” (Bloom, 196). “Behold what has happened,” the Madman cried.

By Nietzsche’s time, metaphysics had long become an ancient ruin. Epistemology was mortally ill and ethics had been so defiled and maltreated it was hardly recognizable. French genocide was the outcome of Enlightenment rationality. Nietzsche concluded that rationalism was unable to rule the soul (Bloom, 196), “that it cannot defend itself theoretically and that its human consequences are intolerable” (Bloom, 196). “Modern man is longing, or has lost, the capacity to value, and therewith his humanity” (Bloom 197-198).

The Encompassing Void

Now, remember how the unbelievers responded to the madman in the story? They laughed and made jokes about what the man was saying. What happened next is extremely insightful, “Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. ‘I have come too early,’ he then said, ‘I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is traveling— it has not yet reached men’s ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars need time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star—and yet they have done it!’” (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 104). 

The Madman saw the condition and diagnosed the situation as terminal. Enlightenment Rationality had no epistemic foundation and lacked metaphysical footing. Man has untied himself from certainty to drift aimlessly in doubt. Clutching for meaning the Madman cries, “Do we not dash on uncertainty?” Can one be enlightened in the dark? He asks, “Has it not become colder?” Has not the rejection of God, brought the dejection of man? Has not everything taken on a gray meaninglessness? The world has dulled till gray. Exhausted, man settles into a moribund apathy. Nihilism has always welcomed the crippled, broken and vulnerable. “Man can not live under these withering conditions,” the Madman cries. It breaks a man before it devours him.

The crowd around that Madman is the dilemma. They are still blind to their own doing. They take the death of God lightly because they see no need for him. They feel no distress—but the madman knows there is more at stake than just abstract philosophical theories. He knows “Religion, or the sacred, is the most important human phenomenon” (Bloom, 195) Man is by nature religious. Even the men of the Enlightenment who claimed to have no religion were religious about what they believed. The Madman knew to be without religion is to be without value. The dead of God is the dead of value

“Nietzsche says that modern man is losing, or has lost, the capacity to value, and therewith his humanity” (Bloom, 197-198). Man believes himself to be in an irreligious world; yet haunted by a need to be religious. “Longing to believe, along with intransigent refusal to satisfy that longing, is, according to Nietzsche, the profound response to our entire spiritual condition” (Bloom, 196).  

A Purported Hope

Nietzsche’s solution to man’s problem is to reject Enlightenment philosophy and to bring man into a new Religion. The Enlightenment killed the Christian God but deserted man soon after the exodus. The great revolution was better at tearing down the old than building the new. Nihilism has been housing mankind ever since. Though it is deadly, Nietzsche saw it as a necessary stage in human history.

Nihilism breaks a man but man must leave its dwelling before it devours him. Nihilism is only a go-between that prepares man for a new religious awakening. Man must do what mankind has always done when their religion dies, they must build a new one. This religion will bring with it new morality and meaning so that man can be fully human, if he doesn’t, he will waste away under the cruel tyranny of Nihilism.

But where does one get a new religion? “Nietzsche was ineluctably led to meditation on the coming to be of God . . . for God is the highest value, on which others depend. God is not creative, for God is not. But God as made by man reflects what man is, unbeknownst to himself . . . man makes something, God out of nothing” (Bloom, 199). For Nietzsche, the creation of a religion is psychological. This creativity for making religion comes from the subconscious; from some place deep and hidden in the human psyche. Most men are not able to build a new religion. “The rarest of men is the creator, and all other men need and follow him . . . It is not the truth of their thought that distinguished them, but its capacity to generate culture. A value is only a value if it is life-preserving and life-enhancing” (Bloom 201). “Producing values and believing in them are acts of the will. Lack of will, not lack of understanding, becomes the crucial defect . . . Commitment is the equivalent of faith when the living God has been supplanted by self-provided values . . . Commitment values the values and makes them valuable.” It’s the “Will to Value” (Bloom 201).

Nietzsche’s understood that nihilism is all encompassing so the solution to Nihilism must be all encompassing. Man needs religion, this is true, but religion is not an end in itself. The goal of religion is the establishing of a culture. This culture is man’s highest good. Culture is what shapes and defines the world. “Man needs culture and must do what is necessary to create and maintain cultures . . . Culture is, from his point of view, the only framework within which to account for what is specifically human in man. Man is pure becoming, unlike any other being in nature; and it is in culture that he becomes something that transcends nature and has no other mode of existence and no other support than a particular culture” (Bloom, 202-203). The highest Standard in a man’s worldview is his culture. Man’s actuality is shaped by culture alone. All man’s reasoning, habits, rituals, customs and values are shaped by his culture. Even his thinking patterns are shaped by the culture a man is in. Rationally itself is culturally based. In Nietzsche’s eyes, the Enlightenment left man without, yes value, rationality and religion, but most of all it took away what man needs most—culture.

Christ Our Life, Better Than The Idols

Nietzsche understood that man needed a religion, but he didn’t think it had to be true. Religion was nothing more than a cultural value system made by a self-appointed authority to meet the psychological needs of the masses. Truth has nothing to do with it. It’s about one great man creating a new religion that he then imposes on other men who don’t have his same abilities. Nietzsche claims that all religions, yes, all ideologies are nothing more than the will to power—nothing more than a power game. What about Nietzsche’s own philosophy, is this a “will to power”? His answer is a bit surprising. He said it is. Yet, he still claims that the new philosopher is the people’s savoir because he saves them out of Nihilism. He brings to them new myths, religions and values—he establishes a culture that gives order to a meaningless existence.

The Madman’s conclusions were right but Nietzsche’s solutions were wrong.

The Madman shines his lantern on the problem of our day. The loss of value is not a neutral thing. That loss births an existential crisis. The death of God is devastating. The destruction of one’s worldview is overwhelming. Man cannot bear up under it.

When anyone experiences a drastic change in their worldview it is easy for them to fall into Nihilism. What they believed to be so certain and secure has crumbled before their very eyes. It is no wonder that many begin to doubt meaning and value altogether. Nietzsche’s form: Dead of the Old, Then Nihilism, then birth of the New is a powerful way to consider history, but it is not ultimate. One example of this form is the rise of the Third Reich. After World War I, Germany was reduced to a kind of cultural Nihilism. All that had meaning and worth was destroyed by foreign Nations. The old value system had died leaving the German people in ruin. Germany was religiously, politically and culturally bankrupt. Form the ashes of this Nihilism rose a man who proclaimed a new religion—this man was Adolf Hitler. His new ideology was all encompassing. Religion, politics and culture transformed. He was the German people’s savoir because he saved them out of Nihilistic existence. He gave to them new myths and values. He gave them a religion and a savoir. He establishes a culture that gave order to a their existence.

The Nazi party fulfills all that Nietzsche calls for in a new religion. It gave the German people a new culture, logic, value system and religion. What could be wrong? They were saved from their Nihilistic slavery. Hitler produced a life-preserving and life-enhancing culture for his people. Let history show that other nations even recognized this in the early years of the Third Reich. The economy was booming. In 1936, even the Olympic games were hosted by the Germany with the Nazi party. It was a time of thriving—just not for all.

The same man who was named Man of the Year by Time Magazine in 1938 was the same man who led the German people in a global war in 1939. The self-proclaimed Savoir was also committing mass genocide. It turns out that the same horrors committed in the Enlightenment are the same horrors committed under this new religion. This new religion destroyed the German people. Even what they had was taken away. After World War II, there was nothing left. The peoples’ new found culture went the same way as their leader—dead at their own hands. Nietzsche’s argument assumes that any movement that gives its people an ideology is better than Nihilism, but there is a fate worse than Nihilism.

Conclusion: Wisdom For The Asking

The Madman shares the same concern as the Christian. He sees what happens when men abandon their creator. Nihilism is the conclusion of rejecting God. All philosophy done apart from God is reduced to subjectivism. Subjectivism then is reduced to meaninglessness. Meaninglessness is Nihilism. The Madman argument should cause the crowd to stop and think. His argument calls men to return to God. Nietzsche’s solution is nothing more than the building of an idol. The thing about idolatry is that it degrades and destroys all who will follow it. It promises a new light but delivers a deathblow. End the final analysis, the Enlightenment and Nietzsche’s philosophy bring men to the same end because they are cut from the same cloth. Both are idolatry and both bring an idol’s fruit—death.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Thomas Common, Paul V. Cohn, and Maude Dominica Petre. The Gay Science. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008.

Bloom, Allan David. Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Reginald J. Hollingdale. Beyond Good and Evil. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

2 thoughts on “The Death of God and the Birth of Idols: Nietzsche’s Pronouncement and Christian Theism

  1. That said, there’s some more interesting conversation to be had about whether God is objective. The thing about a personal God is that makes all reality ultimately personal, and, possibly, subjective. Of course, God is also in some aspects impersonal, so reality is both the subject of a personal God’s perspective and the objective of the Almighty.

    This is to say, the subjectivists aren’t just out on some limb here, they’re on to something.


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