Archives For Philosophy

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.


Plato wasn’t the only ancient mind to have a huge impact on the church. In this post, I want to consider another key player: Aristotle. Not many people have had as enduring a legacy as Plato, but Aristotle is far from irrelevant. His writings haven’t had as big of a direct impact on the church, partly because his writings were “lost” for much of church history, and partly because his impact was more roundabout. Even so, the world we live in has been shaped by Aristotle’s influence—not only outside of the church, but inside as well. In fact, you think the way you do in part because of Aristotle’s influence.

Aristotle studied under Plato, and while he advanced the Platonic tradition in many respects, he also turned a lot of Plato’s teachings on their heads. For example, Plato taught that the heavenly world contained “forms” which gave meaning and identity to the individual things on this earth. So there is a perfect chair in heaven that defines chairness, and the chairs on earth are imperfect copies of that chair—they are chairs only insofar as they conform to the heavenly chair. Aristotle, on the other hand, explained that the essence of a chair did not exist in heaven as some universal principle, the essence of a chair lives within each earthly chair.

The implications of this are huge (believe it or not). Aristotle was saying that rather than looking to some heavenly principle to determine the meaning of things on earth, we need to look at the individual things around us, and from there we can find some sort of meaning or essence that we might call a universal principle. Is that making sense? In essence: meaning doesn’t come down from the clouds, it comes from observing the things we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Whereas Plato distrusted the senses, Aristotle believed that truth would be found through the senses.

Basically, Aristotle became the patron saint of modern science. His method of learning was not about revelation (waiting for a voice from heaven), he was all about observation (the scientific method). Beginning with the Renaissance and culminating in the Enlightenment, God was continually being pushed to the fringe of society. People became increasingly confident in man’s ability to explain his world apart from divine revelation. They grew optimistic about man’s ability to approve his world. They saw a golden age just around the corner, and science and reason would lead them there.

Notice that it wasn’t science that was leading people away from God. Rather, it was the assumption that science was capable of explaining everything about our world apart from God. Aristotle gave people confidence that they didn’t need to look to God for the answers, they could find them through observing the objects around them.

And here is where Aristotle began to mess up the church. Christians began to concede that yes, people can explain the world apart from God by observing the natural world. Yet they insisted that you couldn’t know God without revelation. So religion is important for your spiritual life, but everything else can be explained sufficiently through science. It’s an oversimplification, but essentially, the church decided that there were two types of things in this world (spiritual things and natural things) and there were two separate ways of knowing those two types of things (revelation/faith and science).

Ultimately, this box we have allowed ourselves to be placed in has grown smaller and more constricting. The secular world grants us our faith, but we are told that it is a private matter. Faith belongs in our hearts, not our public discourse, our workplaces, or our politics. The amazing thing is that Christians have largely gone along with this.

Aristotle was a wise and fascinating man, but let’s not allow his influence to keep our Christian worldview sequestered off into the realm of private prayer. The Bible still speaks to every area of human existence. We can and should explore the individual things in this world, but we should do so with the conviction that nothing in creation makes sense apart from the Creator.

At the end of the second century, Tertullian famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” He was combating a trend in theology that sought to integrate Greek philosophy with biblical truth. According to Tertullian, these two things belong in separate universes.

Tertullian’s question is a good one. What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? A lot, actually. We can argue whether or not Greek philosophy should influence Christian doctrine, but that Greek philosophy has influenced Christian doctrine is indisputable.

Most of you don’t care about Plato. Maybe you were forced to read some of his writings in college. At best, you may remember something about a republic, a cave, a philosopher king, and maybe even “forms.” How could someone whose books you couldn’t understand have an impact on the way you think?

The reality is that your thinking has been profoundly shaped by Plato. It just has. You don’t have to know who he is or what he taught. His impact on Western thought and culture—including Christian thought and culture—is incalculable.

Here are a few things that Plato taught, then I’ll explore how this has affected the way Christians think. Plato believed there were two worlds: the visible, earthly, material world; and the invisible, heavenly, immaterial world. The earthly world is somewhat artificial, misleading, temporary. The heavenly world is real, truthful, permanent. Human beings are much the same. Each person has an eternal soul that longs for the heavenly realm. Unfortunately, that soul is trapped within a material body, which must be escaped, transcended. The way to do this is through reason. Reason allows us to get beyond the material trappings of this world and look upon that which is real, heavenly, and ethereal.

Do you see where this is heading? Most Christians see the world in these same terms. We long to become disembodied spirits in heaven. This world is temporary, distractingly material, and gross. We want to get away from this earth, away from these bodies, and spend a disembodied eternity floating on clouds.

As a side note, this type of thinking is partially responsible for the grand cathedrals in Europe. They were designed to draw our eyes and thoughts away from this world and onto the mysteries of heaven. Beautiful, awe inspiring, and handed down to us compliments of Plato.

Of course, everyone who thinks this way believes that we get this worldview from the Bible. But the biblical world is different. In the Bible, the world is created to be good. Though the world is stained by sin, God’s creation still retains its goodness (it is in bondage to decay, but it looks ahead to the day of redemption—see Rom. 8).

The biblical story does not move from nasty materiality to blissful disembodiment. Rather, it moves from God creating a gloriously physical earth to God re-creating a gloriously physical earth. Look at Jesus, for example. In many ways, he validated the goodness of God’s material earth by taking on flesh. Jesus was not defiled by his body. And when Jesus rose from the dead, he did not vaporize and ghost off into space, celebrating his escape from the physicality of earth. He appeared in a resurrected body; a body that could pass through walls and suddenly appear and disappear, but that could also be touched, that could eat and (presumably) digest food (he ate fish with his disciples post-resurrection).

Plato would have us believe that this world doesn’t matter so much. Let’s transcend it. Let’s escape it. Let’s meditate and get our heads in the clouds.

But God placed us on this earth for a reason. God encased us in flesh for a reason. And when Jesus returns, he is not going back on his commitment to physicality. He won’t be feeling embarrassed about all of the sluggish limitations of matter and therefore create a new world in which we can all float around as thoughts or ghosts. Instead, he’s going to go with a world that is much like this one. A new heavens and a new earth that features a great city.

So don’t be so Platonically minded that you are of no earthly good. Be here, where God placed you, where he commissioned you, where he is empowering you.

In the previous two posts, I have described the naturalistic worldview, and laid out an argument by C. S. Lewis against naturalism. In this post, I’ll offer a second argument against naturalism, this time by the American philosopher Richard Taylor. If you had a hard time following Lewis’ argument, hang in there. This one is easier, and more pictorial.

Picture yourself sitting on a train. You look out the window and see a collection of rocks that spell out “The British railroad welcomes you to Wales.” You have never seen these rocks before, and you must decide what these rocks are doing there and whether or not to believe what the rocks are telling you.

You can explain the rocks and their message in one of two ways. The first option is to believe that these rocks arrived in their current positions by random chance. In other words, over the ages impersonal forces acted upon each of the rocks, and each rock finally came to rest where it is now. No intelligent force collected the rocks and made them spell out “The British railroad welcomes you to Wales,” they just happened to fall into place in such a way that this message appears through their formation.

The second option is to believe that these rocks were placed in their current position by an intelligent being. Someone developed a plan, collected the rocks, and put them where they are in order to spell out the message “The British railroad welcomes you to Wales.”

It’s important to recognize that each of these possibilities is valid. Rocks do get eroded and moved by the forces of nature. People do pick up rocks and set them in specific places. But while we may legitimately choose to believe either of these possibilities, we also need to be careful about the inferences we draw from them.

If we assume that the rocks came to be there by chance, then what are we to make of the sentence they spell out? If we believe the rocks came to their current position by chance and just happen to have formed the sentence “The British railroad welcomes you to Wales,” then we would be foolish to believe that we are actually arriving in Wales. In other words, we may well believe that the rocks got there by chance, but we should not believe any message that randomly situated rocks appear to be sending.

But if we believe that the rocks were placed there by an intelligent being, then it would not be illogical to look at the message the rocks spell out and take that message at face value.

To put it the other way around, if we are going to believe the message that the rocks spell out, then the only logical choice is to believe they were placed there by an intelligent being, not by chance.

Taylor likens this to believing the messages that we receive from our five senses and our minds. If we believe that our senses and our minds came about by chance, then we really should not believe what our senses or our minds tell us. If they came together randomly through impersonal forces, then why should we trust the messages we receive from them?

If we are going to trust the messages that we send from our five senses and our minds, then the only logical choice is to believe that they were designed with a purpose. The irony in this argument is that the naturalistic scientists who are studying nature and saying that everything came to its current form by chance are trusting their supposedly randomly formed senses and minds in order to reach their naturalistic conclusions.

The first argument against naturalism that I want to explore comes from C. S. Lewis. (If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of naturalism, see my previous post.)

C. S. Lewis explains that in order to show that naturalism is inadequate, all you need to do is identify one thing that cannot be explained in a naturalistic way. Naturalism says that there are no outside influences on the earth, that nothing happens in our universe that does not have purely natural, scientific explanations. To argue against naturalism, then, you don’t need to demonstrate that nothing happens according to natural principles, only that something doesn’t operate according to purely natural principles.

Lewis points out that “all possible knowledge…depends on the validity of reasoning.” In other words, if we are going to know anything about our world, we need the ability to reason, and we need to be able to trust our reasoning. Some scientifically minded people will say that they base all of their knowledge on science rather than on reasoning. But that’s not true. A scientific experiment needs to be interpreted, and this interpretation requires reasoning. Beyond that, the experiment itself needs to be set up in a certain way, and this too requires reasoning.

So back to Lewis’ point: if we are going to know anything about our world, we need to be able to trust our ability to reason. Yet the naturalistic worldview offers us no basis for trusting our reasoning. The certainty that we get from our processes of reasoning amounts to nothing more than a feeling in our minds. What objective scientific existence do the conclusions of your logic have? They only existent within our minds. They come only as decisions, feelings of certainty. They cannot be “scientifically” confirmed.

Lewis says that “unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.” But a naturalist cannot account for human reasoning naturalistically. In order to reason effectively, we need to be able to rely on certain “laws of logic.” These laws include things like the law of noncontradiction, which states that “A” cannot be both “B” and “non-B” at the same time and in the same sense. Without these laws of logic—laws that we follow intuitively every day without thinking about them—we would not be able to reason.

But these laws of logic cannot be scientifically verified. How do you scientifically verify a law of logic? Yet we all understand that these laws exist, and that reasoning does not work without them.

To apply Lewis’ argument, we have found with the laws of logic a case of something that cannot be explained in purely naturalistic terms. They cannot be scientifically verified. Again, this doesn’t mean that nothing operates according to scientifically verifiable principles, only that there are some things that can’t be explained in this way. Thus the naturalistic worldview is inadequate. It is insufficient as an explanation for the way our world works.

To put it another way, the naturalistic worldview is self-referentially absurd. This means that when you apply the standards of naturalism to itself, the whole thing breaks down. Naturalism claims that something must be scientifically verifiable in order to be true. But that claim cannot be scientifically verified. So when we apply the system to itself, when we make it self-referential, the system is absurd.

In the next post, I will offer another argument against naturalism, this time by Richard Taylor. His argument is both a little more fun and a little easier to understand (I think). But for that, you’ll have to wait till Monday.