God is dead Nietzsche

God is Dead: Nietzsche’s Most Famous Statement Explained

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous declaration that God is dead echoed down the 20th century. This article explains what Nietzsche really meant by the oft-misunderstood statement.

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  February 2022

6 MIN BREAK  

“God is dead,” the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously declares in his 1882 work, The Gay Science: “God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

By these words, Nietzsche does not so much mean that atheism is true — indeed, in the passage from which they’re taken, these words are presented as fresh news to a group of atheists — he more means that, because “the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable”, everything that “was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it”, including “the whole of our European morality,” is destined for “collapse.”

Nietzsche was writing, of course, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, a time in which science, mathematics, and philosophy arose across Europe to displace Christianity as the guiding authority on truth about life and the universe. For centuries, Christianity’s teachings about reality — that there exists a Creator outside time and space, and that we should abide by the rules of this Creator to ensure a good afterlife — were entirely dominant.

Nietzsche by Munch
“Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche”, by Edvard Munch, c. 1906.

However, the scientific revolution and the separation of Church and State across Europe pulled the authoritative rug from underneath Christianity’s feet. Atheism became not only acceptable among citizens, but popular.

Without a divine power underpinning our existential situation and moral outlooks, however, our paths into the future became rather uncertain. “How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” Nietzsche questions:

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?

In other words: where do we go from here? If God’s authority is no longer unquestionable, how on Earth should we live our lives?

We must face up to the enormity of the death of God

The appropriate response to the age of Enlightenment leading to the death of God, Nietzsche argues, should not be a jeering celebration, nor a shrug of indifference, but a period of deep disorientation and mourning. God was not just an innocuous source of faith and worship, Nietzsche recognizes: God was the indubitable authority that lent power and legitimacy to Judeo-Christian moral values.

While Judeo-Christian moral values aren’t exactly Nietzsche’s preference (he argues in On the Genealogy of Morality, for instance, that Christianity is characterized by an ascetic ideal, the twisted, harmful condemnation of desires we cannot help but have, like those for food and sex) — he sees their sudden removal as dangerous.

Indeed, regardless of its degenerative, life-denying properties (i.e. the valorization of self-denial in the name of ‘virtue’), the Judeo-Christian moral system is at least a mechanism for value creation, Nietzsche says. And this mechanism is so deeply embedded within Western culture — with many of its values like pity, altruism, and compassion regarded as commonsensical or even natural — that coming to terms with its collapse will be painful, psychologically damaging, and extremely difficult.

We thus face a long, daunting task of dismantling our now foundationless values to rebuild them in healthier, life-affirming ways. After all, as Nietzsche puts it (in a typically pithy statement that features in our list of Nietzsche’s cleverest quotes):

God is dead, but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. And we — we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.

Overcoming nihilism

Nietzsche worries that, if we fail to vanquish and decisively replace the shadow of values derived from God, we risk our culture slipping into a deep nihilism. The death of God means there is no going back: we either find a new mechanism for value creation — a “revaluation of values”, as Nietzsche puts it — or we will eventually descend into a world where, recognizing our values are ultimately foundationless and meaningless, we will become apathetic and cynical — even despairing.

Removing the comfort of God, Judeo-Christian morals, and an afterlife, and having nothing to really replace them with — moving from certainty about what life is for, to uncertainty about what life is for — could lead to an all-pervading numbness or anguish about our lives not mattering in a seemingly pointless universe.

If we are unable to become our own determiners of value (the blueprint for which Nietzsche famously hints at with his character of the ‘Übermensch’ or ‘superman’, as well as his doctrine of the eternal recurrence), then we’ll inevitably respond, Nietzsche laments, by burying our existential angst deep down, and by distracting ourselves with meaningless entertainment.

Nietzsche characterizes this predicament in his 1883-5 work Thus Spoke Zarathustra, presenting us with a devastating sketch of an apathetic, shallow, distracted humanity:

Behold! I shall show you the Last Man....The earth has become small, and upon it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small... A little poison now and then: that produces pleasant dreams. And a lot of poison at last, for a pleasant death. They still work, for work is entertainment. But they take care the entertainment does not exhaust them... No herdsmen and one herd. Everyone wants the same thing, everyone is the same: whoever thinks otherwise goes voluntarily into the madhouse... ‘We have discovered happiness,’ say the Last Men, and blink.

Perhaps we can recognize aspects of ourselves in Nietzsche’s sketch of the Last Man; perhaps we might think he’s being a little dramatic.

Regardless, his questions stand: if there is no longer an absolute, incontestable authority telling us how to live our lives, then how should we go about living? How can we evolve our values to avoid slipping into meaninglessness and nihilism?

Learn more about Nietzsche

Nietzsche has his own fascinating answers to the question of how we can overcome nihilism. These answers are most explicitly embodied in his character of the ‘Übermensch’, commonly translated as the ‘superman’ or ‘overman’ — a picture of what we could be, were we to move beyond good and evil, establish our own naturalized foundations for value, say ‘yes’ to the eternal recurrence, and each fulfill our potential to become who we truly are.

To help you learn more about not just the Übermensch but the entire philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche — as well as why this controversial, oft-misunderstood thinker holds such a special place in the history of philosophy — we’ve put together a bite-size introduction to his life, work, and 5 greatest ideas, with materials delivered direct to your inbox over 6 days. You can learn more and see if it’s for you here.

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