Friedrich Nietzsche is most often portrayed as an anti-Christian provocateur. He is presented as if he were John Wick, Baba Yaga, the one you send to kill the Boogyman. But instead of killing his dog and stealing his car, some misguided, entitled Christians stole his faith.
It’s not difficult to argue that Nietzsche hated Christians, the Church, and Jesus. One of his most provocative works, The Antichrist, is an all-out assault on the Christianity of his day. And he is the one that declared unabashedly: “God is dead.”
But is that all there is to Friedrich Nietzsche? Is he nothing more than a disgruntled, bitter, resentful former theology student? If a Christian were to read The Antichrist with an open mind, they would quickly discover a scathing attack not directed so much at the historical, real Jesus (whom Nietzsche never denied was born, lived, and died crucified on a cross) but at the moralistic, therapeutic deism that dominated the German churches during the late nineteenth century.
Nietzsche understood the consequences of what Jesus did on Good Friday better than almost every theologian in Church history. Nietzsche intimately knew the Christ that he rejected. Nietzsche was honest and explicit in his rejection of Christ. He refused to go along with the consequences of Jesus’ words on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
As Giuseppe Fornari wrote in A God Torn to Pieces: “Nietzsche rejected Christ because he couldn’t believe in a God who offers this universal forgiveness.”
It’s easy to dismiss Nietzsche as a villain because of his rejection of Jesus Christ, but he saw clearly what so many Christians fail to recognize or willfully ignore. Nietzsche rejected Christ because he couldn’t believe in a God who offers forgiveness to all people. But how many of us who confess that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior don’t believe in that God either? How many of us see people in church every Sunday whom we hold suspended in judgment for some wrong they have done to us? Maybe we are more like John Wick than Friedrich Nietzsche. We cannot forgive the ones who did us wrong until justice is served, refusing to accept that justice, God’s justice, was already meted out at the cross.
We can demonize Nietzsche all we want, but as Christians, we agree with his definitions of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice for us more than we disagree with him. While Nietzsche would ultimately reject Christ because of such definitions, as Christians, we confess them as true more than we disagree with him. Read in full Nietzsche’s Good Friday meditation about God’s death:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe the 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? (The Gay Science, section 125.)
Nietzsche locates the violence not coming to us from God’s side of the house but to God from our side of the house. We killed him. We stabbed him with our steely knives. We invented new rituals and traditions, new atonement festivals, and cleansing waters of atonement. Jesus was killed by us. Jesus was OUR sacrificial victim. Jesus provided an alternative to the whole history of human sacrifices. Instead of more violence and death, he offered himself as a one-time, all-time atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world; past, present, and always. Instead of violence, he pronounced forgiveness, and so we killed him for it.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Nietzsche didn’t reject Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. He rejected the forgiveness that accompanied Jesus’ sacrifice. Nietzsche could not accept that Jesus died to convert murderers into forgivers. That’s why Nietzsche rejected Christ. As Christians confess, to know Jesus Christ is to know that in his life, death, and resurrection, he sends preachers under the authority of the Holy Spirit to pronounce forgiveness to all, even to those who have become “murderers of all murderers.”
In fact, outside of Christ, the only thing that can unite the whole world is the violence they carry out against the divine victim. For sinners, the only way history can progress is with God out of the way. The world hates Jesus (John 15:18) because he comes to lead us to love and forgive all, including our enemies.
Therefore, Nietzsche has much to teach us about the reality of being baptized sinners. We confess our belief in a Christ that we simultaneously reject because he takes from us the very thing we assume we cannot live without, our sacrifices.
And yet, despite our refusal to accept Jesus as the Christ, he shows us grace and mercy, setting us free so that we may confess: Yes, I pulled my knife out too. I drove the blade up to the hilt. And yes, it’s true; I reject your forgiveness of others even while I beg you to forgive me. And yes, I think converting murderers to forgivers is absurd and a terrible sales pitch if you’re trying to attract new converts. But because you sent your Spirit wrapped in words that converted my heart, I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief!
Nietzsche was so close to Christ that he stood in the shadow of the cross. But he rejected the divine victim because the forgiveness stretched out on Golgotha was an unacceptable alternative to human history, to our sacred violence and deicidal sacrifice in particular.
But without the Holy Spirit converting us through the words of Christ, doesn’t that describe all of us? We stand in the shadow of Christ’s cross, which overshadows all of history, and apart from the Holy Spirit’s work, we all mock and wag our tongues at the crucified one. We all turn our faces away. We all together reject him.
Thank God that we have upside-down theologians like Friedrich Nietzsche, who God sends as preachers to drive us back to the cross and salvation, where we are converted. Where murderers are transformed into forgivers, and all who believe are comforted with the promise of new life and eternal salvation in Christ Jesus so that our personal history (and all human history) is eclipsed by the grace and mercy of our heavenly Father in Jesus Christ.