God is Dead: Nietzsche on Killing Diety

Nietzsche Portrait by Alessandro Lonati
Nietzsche Portrait by Alessandro Lonati. Leemage/Universal Images Group/Getty

One of the most famous lines attributed to Nietzsche is the phrase "God is dead." It's also probably one of the most misinterpreted and misunderstood lines from Nietzsche's entire corpus of writings, which is impressive given how complex some of his ideas are. What's particularly unfortunate is that this isn't one of those more complex ideas; on the contrary, it's one of Nietzsche's more straightforward ideas and shouldn't be so susceptible to misinterpretation.

Is God Dead?

Have you 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!" As many of those who do not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter...

Whither is God," he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. All of us are murderers.... God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him...

Friedrich Nietzsche. The Gay Science (1882), section 126.

The first thing to be clear about here is what should be an obvious fact: Nietzsche did not say "God is dead" - just like Shakespeare did not say "To be, or not to be," but instead merely put them in the mouth of Hamlet, a character he created. Yes, Nietzsche certainly wrote the words "God is dead," but he also just as certainly put them in the mouth of a character - a madman, no less. Readers must always be careful about distinguishing between what an author thinks and what characters are made to say.

Unfortunately, many people aren't so careful, and that's the primary reason why it's become part of popular culture to think that Nietzsche said: "God is dead." It has even become the butt of jokes, with some people imagining themselves clever by putting into the mouth of their god the words "Nietzsche is dead."

But what does Nietzsche's madman really mean? He can't merely mean to say that there are atheists in the world - that's nothing new. He can't mean to say that God has literally died because that wouldn't make any sense. If God were really dead, then God must have been alive at one point - but if the God of orthodox European Christianity were alive, then it would be eternal and could never die.

So apparently, this madman can't be talking about the literal God believed in by so many theists. Instead, he's talking about what this god represented for European culture, the shared cultural belief in God which had once been its defining and uniting characteristic.

Europe Without God

1887, in the second edition of The Gay Science, Nietzsche added Book Five to the original, which begins with Section 343 and the statement:

"The greatest recent event—that God is dead, that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable..."

As translator and eminent Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann points out: "This clause is clearly offered as an explanation of 'God is dead.'" In The Antichrist (1888), Nietzsche is more specific:

The Christian conception of God... is one of the most corrupt conceptions of God arrived at on earth... And, when he was already close to insanity, he called himself "the Anti-Christ."

We may now pause here and think. Nietzsche obviously means that the Christian notion of God is dead, that this notion has become unbelievable. At the time of Nietzsche's writing in the latter half of the nineteenth century, this shared belief was waning. Science, art, and politics were all moving beyond the religiosity of the past.

Why had most intellectuals and writers in Europe abandoned traditional Christianity by the end of the nineteenth century? Was it a result of industrial and scientific progress? Was it Charles Darwin and his insightful writing on evolution? As A.N. Wilson writes in his book God's Funeral, the sources of this skepticism and disbelief were many and varied.

Where God had once stood alone - at the center of knowledge, meaning, and life - a cacophony of voices was now being heard, and God was being pushed aside. For many, particularly those who might be counted among the cultural and intellectual elite, God was gone entirely.

And far from replacing God, that cacophony of voices merely created a void. They did not unite, and they did not offer the same certainty and solace that God once managed to provide. This created not simply a crisis of faith, but also a crisis of culture. As science and philosophy and politics treated God as irrelevant, humanity once again became the measure of all things - but no one seemed prepared to accept the value of that sort of standard.

Of course, it is perhaps better that God dies rather than hanging around unwanted like some Deus Emeritus - a doddering figure who has outlived its usefulness but refuses to accept a changed reality. Some residual authority might cling to it for a time, but its status as a supernatural has-been would be unalterable. No, it is better to put it out of its - and our - misery and get rid of it before it becomes too pathetic.

Life Without God

Although what I describe in the first section was an affliction of Victorian-era Europe, the same problems remain with us today. In the West, we have continued to turn towards science, nature, and humanity for what we need rather than God and the supernatural. We have "killed" the God of our ancestors - destroyed the central figure of meaning of Western culture for over nineteen centuries without having managed to find an adequate replacement.

For some, that is not entirely a problem. For others, it is a crisis of the greatest magnitude. The unbelievers in Nietzsche's tale think that seeking God is funny - something to laugh at if not pity. The madman alone realizes just how terrible and frightening is the prospect of killing God - he alone is aware of the true gravity of the situation.

But at the same time, he does not condemn anyone for it - instead, he calls it a "great deed." The meaning here from the original German is not "great" in the sense of wonderful, but in the sense of large and important. Unfortunately, the madman is no sure that we, the murderers, are capable of bearing either the fact or the consequences of a deed this great.

Thus his question: "Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it?"

This, then, is the basic question of Nietzsche's parable which, as we saw early on, is a fiction rather than a philosophical argument. Nietzsche didn't really like metaphysical speculations about the universe, humanity, and abstract concepts such as "God." As far as he was concerned, "God" wasn't important - but religion and the belief in a god was supremely important, and he certainly had a lot to say about them.

From his perspective, religions like Christianity which focus upon an eternal afterlife were a kind of living death themselves. They turn us away from life and truth - they devalue the life we have here and now. For Friedrich Nietzsche, life and truth are in our lives and our world right here, not in a supernatural illusion of heaven.

Beyond God, Beyond Religion

And, as many people besides Nietzsche have found, religions like Christianity also perpetuate things such as intolerance and conformity despite some of the teachings of Jesus. Nietzsche found these things to be especially repugnant because, as far as he was concerned, anything old, habitual, normative and dogmatic is ultimately contrary to life, truth, and dignity.

In place of life, truth and dignity is created a "slave mentality" - which is one of the many reasons Nietzsche called Christian morality a "slave morality." Nietzsche does not attack Christianity because it "tyrannizes" its adherents or because it imposes a general direction upon people's lives. Instead, what he refuses to accept is the particular direction Christianity travels towards and the dogmatic manner in which it operates. It attempts to conceal the fact that its direction is simply one of many.

Nietzsche took the position that to shed the chains of slavery, it is necessary to kill the slave master - to "kill" God. In "killing" God, we can perhaps overcome dogma, superstition, conformity and fear (providing, of course, that we don't turn around and find some new slave master and enter into some new type of slavery).

But Nietzsche also hoped to escape nihilism (the belief that there are no objective values or morality). He thought that nihilism was both the result of asserting the existence of God and thus robbing this world of significance, and the result of denying God and thus robbing everything of meaning.

Thus he thought that killing God was the necessary first step in becoming not a god as suggested by the madman, but in becoming an "overman," described elsewhere by Nietzsche.