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“God is dead, “ Nietzsche’s madman declared, “God is dead and we have killed Him!” Through his parable of the madman, Nietzsche was delivering a powerful social commentary. Speaking to a society that no longer believed in the existence of God yet still lived according to the memory of Christian morality, Nietzsche warned that things would certainly change.

You have done away with the concept of God, Nietzsche was saying, now do the necessary work to develop a system of morality that is not based on deity. Those who still held to the Christian form of morality were clinging to a morality of weakness, of servitude. We don’t want any of this love your enemy, turn the other cheek, the last shall be first nonsense. What Nietzsche proposed instead was a morality of power, of self-assertion. Be strong. Dominate. Pursue “the will to power.” If it tends toward weakness, throw it out. If it increases your sense of power, go for it.

Follow this course, Nietzsche said, and we will arrive at something called the Superman. Philosophers are typically careful to explain that Nietzsche’s German word would be better translated “Overman” than “Superman.” Superman, they tell us, conjures up images of capes and underwear worn on the outside of the pants. It carries a sense of superpowers and inhumanity. Well, so what if it does? I’m not a philosopher, so I don’t need to be as careful with my categories. It seems like this is exactly the sort of thing Nietzsche was proposing (cape and exo-underwear aside).

Nietzsche’s Superman was the next phase for mankind. Man has a certain dignity because he has risen above the animals. But man is not the last word. He is more of a transition. If we can make it, if we can assert ourselves and continue to develop, then we will arrive at the Superman. Our caped-crusader Superman is a superhero precisely because he is an improved form of humanity.  Nietzsche’s Superman may as well be a superhero, because he embodies the improvement that needs to be made in order for mankind to reach his destiny.

This Superman is the one who does what he wants—not in such a way that he is helplessly driven by his lusts, for that too would be a sign of weakness, but in such a way that he does exactly what he means to do. The Superman would be free, unconstrained by obligation, servitude, and especially deity. His life would be a declaration of independence, an autonomous hero to surpass what mankind has been able to achieve.

Personally, I can’t imagine a worse future for humanity. Is that what we really need, a post-human being who is more assertive and dominant? Who stands on her own autonomy and does exactly what she means to do at every moment? That’s a terrifying thought.

Nietzsche’s line of thinking fits well within a Darwinian view of life. But if there is any truth to the biblical statement that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9), then Nietzsche’s Superman would be the equivalent of a Super Villain. From the time of the ancient Greeks (and even before), people have assumed that what they needed was a more powerful version of themselves. And thus the Greek gods were basically amplified humanity: superhero versions of themselves, with all of the desires and vices of their human counterparts. Yet this didn’t work out very well in Greek mythology, and we have ample evidence from the history of the world that man cannot be his own savior.

We need a better superhero to rescue us. Someone who has the power to do not just whatever he wishes to do, but the power to transform. Power over the natural world, for example. Or how about power over death? Power to take the dead and raise them back to life. Power to take this clearly broken and hurting world and turn it into something truly and eternally wonderful.

I could get behind a superhero like that.


How Nietzsche Killed God

Mark Beuving —  August 22, 2012 — 3 Comments

On a bright nineteenth-century morning, a madman lit a lantern and rushed into a crowded marketplace in a German town. “I seek God!” he exclaimed. No self-respecting townsperson in the post-Enlightenment world believed in God, so the madman’s cry was met only with laughter.

“I’ll tell you where God is,” returned the madman. “God is dead! God remains dead. And we have killed him.” At this, the townsfolk grew silent. The madman went on to explain the ramifications of this murderous act, but still no response from the crowd. Throwing his lantern to the ground, the madman cried out, “I have come too soon! The deed has been done, but news of it has not yet spread this far.” From there, the madman went into church after church, singing a funeral dirge to God and declaring the churches to be nothing more than tombs to the divine.

Friedrich Nietzsche told this parable of the madman (loosely paraphrased above, you can read the whole text of this short parable here—I’d definitely recommend reading it). The story is provocative, to say the least. What exactly did Nietzsche mean when he said that God is dead? How is this possible?

Nietzsche’s parable is brilliant. His observation is incredibly astute, even if you don’t like what it’s saying. Before Nietzsche came on the scene, humanity had indeed killed God. Or the notion of God. With the Renaissance, gifted individuals recovered something of the ancient Greek way of thinking, which set aside myth, superstition, and revelation and focused on what a person could learn for himself. Beginning with myself alone, how can I use my brain and my senses to decide what is true and what is false?

This return to autonomous human reason picked up in the Renaissance, came to a head in the Enlightenment, and then continued to grow bolder and more absolute. By the time Nietzsche came on the scene, people no longer needed God. Science was explaining away the mysteries of the world, and Darwin had finally developed an alternative explanation for the origins of the world.

And so Nietzsche entered the proverbial marketplace declaring the death of God. God had been killed, yet people didn’t seem to be aware of the implications of their unadulterated faith in scientific naturalism.

But Nietzsche’s parable isn’t as hostile toward religion in general as it might appear. Nietzsche had a huge problem with Christianity as an institution, but he kind of admired Jesus (sound familiar?). Nietzsche wasn’t trying to get people to stop believing. To the contrary, he recognized that some sort of spirituality was necessary to find meaning in life.

In The Madman, Nietzsche rightly emphasizes the significance of losing faith. The people in the marketplace did not believe in God, but to a large extent their lives would have been shaped by a memory of this belief. Nietzsche warns us that if God is dead—really truly dead, entirely discounted—then everything will change.

What Nietzsche is saying in The Madman is not that God is dead so let’s throw a party, he is saying that God is dead and he must be replaced with something. In the post-Enlightenment world, faith in God had been replaced with faith in science. But Nietzsche, himself an atheist, insists that a person cannot live a faith-free life. God is dead, so what must we do to find meaning for our lives in his absence?

“What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Here is why I bring all of this up. Even a bitter atheist like Nietzsche knows that life is meaningful. He understands that life cannot be lived apart from some sort of spiritual pursuit. What “festivals of atonement” or “sacred games” must we develop in order to replace our old, dead religions? Even an atheist fills her life with liturgy. If we deny the existence of a transcendent God, we are the only possible replacements. Prepare yourself, you’ve got some huge shoes to fill.

Nietzsche’s spiritual alternative to God was a fascination with the world around us. We will find meaning for our lives precisely by rejecting false notions about God and jumping into the world around us. For Nietzsche, vitality itself was the meaning of life.

What I find fascinating is that this is exactly the approach that the Preacher tried in Ecclesiastes. He, too, supposed that meaning could be found by throwing himself into life. But what the Preacher found is that all of life is meaningless apart from God, yet overwhelmingly meaningful with God.

This world is a certain type of place, and regardless of what we choose to believe, the world itself does not change with our convictions. As Francis Schaeffer would say, people can choose to believe what they want, but they still have to live in the world that God made. It’s a meaningful world, a world that is badly broken yet still overflowing with glory, and a world in which God is anything but dead.