Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) looms large in modern history—a short, but exceedingly productive life with gigantic repercussions and continuing discussions. Central to Nietzsche’s philosophy was an ongoing and frequent broadside against the “ascetic ideal,” embodied in the “great religions” of Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism.     Mostly, however, he focused on Christianity.     Thus, my project is briefly[1] to illustrate the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of Nietzsche’s view of this religion.     I will conclude that he had faint praise and vigorous damns.

Nietzsche has some positive comments about Christianity.     Towards the conclusion of GM, he says that, “There is, strictly speaking, absolutely no science ‘without presuppositions’…. a thought, a belief must always be there first.” (GM, 110, 4-6)[2]     This reference in the context of the “ascetic ideal” can only mean that science has arisen in the West because of Christianity. By this insight, he is seeing what most modern scientists do not.     That is, that science begins with belief, not reason.     Or, science reasons on the basis of belief.     But, not only are modern scientists confused on this issue, the antipathy of “faith” and “reason” among philosophers and scientists alike have perpetuated this confusion.     Reason always begins with faith, perhaps, better named “presuppositions,” as Nietzsche did here.[3]

Nietzsche likes the Old Testament, but not the New Testament!     (GM, 105, 5-15)     “In it, I find great human beings, a heroic landscape… the incomparable naiveté of the strong heart[4], still more, I find a people.”     (GM 105, 14-16)     In this description, he finds identity with his idea of vigorous people, carving for themselves a place among hostile nations and rejoicing with pomp and flair in their life and worship—a people with a keen sense of self-identity.     And, while he rejects the New Testament, the new inescapably rests on the old.     So, indirectly his praise of the old is at least a passing respect of the new.

Nietzsche cautions against what might replace the ascetic ideal.     “All these pale atheists, anti-Christians, immoralists, nihilists, these skeptics, ephetics, hectics of the spirit… these last idealists of knowledge…. This (ascetic) ideal is precisely their ideal, as well.”     (GM 108, 30 – 109, 3)     He continues in this vein for almost two pages, then he states, “From the moment belief in the god of the ascetic ideal is negated, there is also a new problem: that of the value of truth… the value of truth itself is called into question.”     (GM 110, 33-38)

Finally, he finds a place for Christianity in two accomplishments.     (1) “The ascetic ideal offered (humanity) a meaning…. shutting the door to all suicidal nihilism.” (GM 117, 33; 118, 3) (2) “Man would much rather will nothingness than not will…” (GM 118, 14-15)     While Nietzsche has had devastating and global criticisms of Christianity, he sees in this conclusion to his Genealogy of Morals some purpose for such beliefs.     “The will itself was saved… One simply cannot conceal from oneself what all the willing that has received its direction from the ascetic ideal… (even) a will to nothingness.” (GM 118, 16)

What does Nietzsche mean, “There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross?” (TA 39) [5] What, then, is Christianity? (1) He begins to answer this question a few sentences later when he says that “the distinguishing mark of the Christian … (is) the Christian way of life.”     Continuing, “not faith, but acts.” By contrast, Martin Luther, the originator of the sect which was the state religion of Germany of Nietzsche’s time, “cloaked” his “instincts” behind his “faith”… a shrewd blindness to the domination of certain of the instincts.” Thus, Nietzsche states that “acts” are consistent with his “will to power,” the striving of man to overcome suffering, or to make himself into something more than he was, or to achieve in some scholarly or artistic endeavor.     By contrast, “faith” is a “will to truth,” but in Christianity there is no truth because it substitutes an earthly reality for an after-earthly-life realm of happiness and contentment. Thus, Christians are shrewd, always talking of their “faith,” but acting according to their instincts.

(2) Christianity does not “touch” reality… “on the contrary, one recognizes an instinctive hatred of reality.” (later in TA 39)     Again, the Christian negates any “realness” to this life because he reveres the next.     Not only is he dishonest, he passes by any opportunity of “will to power,” that is, to achieve something on his own and of himself in his earthly life.

(3) Jesus offered “the most important thing of all: the example … by this way of dying, the freedom to every feeling of ressentiment.” (TA 40)     Jesus’ death “accomplished … the strongest possible proof, for example, of his teachings in the most public manner.” In this understanding of Nietzsche’s übermensch and will to power, Jesus—as the “only Christian”—was superior to those of his time and to those who would later follow him.     In this sense, He is an example to emulate… “to this day such a life is still possible, and for certain men even necessary: genuine, primitive Christianity.” (TA 39)

(4) “The Gospels had been, in fact, the incarnation, the fulfillment, the realization, of this ‘kingdom of God.’” (latter part of section TA 40)     By the “Gospels,” he appears to mean the actuality of Jesus’ life which He fulfilled.     Thus, Jesus Himself was the “kingdom of God,” not the future state that His disciples and later Christians (especially Paul) would claim.

Thus, Christianity was fulfilled in Jesus Christ himself in the four ways just enumerated—Nietzsche’s concept of the übermensch and his will to power.     In this achievement, however, Jesus was “the only Christian” because after Him, Christianity became a myth, a concept which I will now review.

It cannot be denied that Nietzsche hated Christianity.     While I have reviewed his “faint praise” of Christianity, these positives will not balance his vehemence against it.     He starts with Paul, the Apostle, a former Jew who was dramatically converted on his way to Damascus.     Paul was a “dysangelist,” as opposed to an “evangelist … as he invented his own history of Christian beginnings.” (TA 42)     He “falsified the history of man to make it a prologue to Christianity…. nothing remained in remote contact with reality.”     Thus, Paul was deluded at best, and a positive liar and deceiver at worst. These lies (my term) were “swallowed readily enough by the idiots among whom (Paul) spread his teaching.” (Ed’s italics)     Whether “idiots” is here used literally as those with limited brain capacity or those who have intelligence but willingly do not use it, there could hardly be a more derogatory term for Christians. Later, Nietzsche calls them “bigots” and being “three-fourths insane!” (TA 43)

Christianity “lured all the botched, the dissatisfied, the fallen upon evil days, the whole refuse and off-scouring of humanity to its side.” (TA 43)     “Christianity has waged a war on all reverence and distance between man and man … (preventing) every development of civilization…. The most vicious outrage upon noble humanity ever perpetrated.”

For all Nietzsche’s vigorous and profound denunciation of Christianity, as a professing Christian myself, I have to project some guilt onto the Christianity that Nietzsche experienced.     The Christianity that he knew was mostly a dead faith.     Christianity prospers in an environment where times are harsh and matters of faith may be life or death decisions.     In this milieu, Christianity grew from 1000 at the time of Christ’s death to 5-7 million by 300 A.D.[6]     Soren Kierkegaard circa the 19th Century wrote extensively of the apathy of Christians of that day.     Likely, part of this problem was Lutheranism being a state religion in Germany which made Christianity so common and familiar that its dynamic core was neglected.

Indeed, Christianity rightly understood and rightly experienced is the very ideal that Nietzsche sought. We could link his übermensch to Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith who does not stand out in society, but he is likely to be “middle class,” a family man, and interested in the arts, as well as the simple things of life. He is rarely, if ever, ruffled because his confidence is that God is in control. Surely, this Knight of Faith to be unruffled must have the “will to power” of an übermensch, for who else can meet all the demands of life in this peaceful way.

Nietzsche hates commonality, the “herd,” and the unthinking.     But true Christianity, if anything, is a thought-out, intellectual, reasoning religion with strong differences among believers. Consider how much has been written in treatises, creeds, and books by Augustine of Hippo, the Scholastics, the Reformers, and all the other theologians! Indeed, Rodney Stark ( just quoted above) wrote a book entitled, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.[7] (Ed’s underline) In this book Stark accurately describes the growth of modern science, republics and democracies, and freedoms never before experienced on planet earth.     Perhaps, these great achievements had become commonplace by the time of Nietzsche, but surely they were über achievements by the     übermensch of Western Christianity.

The true New Testament Christian is not the pathetic, guilt-ridden man that Nietzsche portrays.     Guilt is the problem of the non-Christian, not the Christian, because Christ assumed the guilt of his own people.     He calls them to spread out over the whole globe, surely an über challenge that has almost been completed.     (Ed’s emphasis)     Nietzsche recognizes that modern science, a product of Christianity, would have achievements of which neither he nor we could ever have dreamed.     (GM 110, 18) Surely, Christianity has the motivation and rewards for overcoming suffering that Nietzsche strongly sought in his ideal man. Surely, the intellectual challenge of knowing Scripture in its three languages and complex genre fulfilled the same ideal.     Surely, the true Christian has that freedom of which Nietzsche wrote for “you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8: 32).     True Christianity is not the mind-numbing, anti-intellectualistic, guilt-ridden caricature of Nietzsche.

While the ultimate joy and peace for the Christian is Heaven, the after-life, that experience begins now. In the New Testament, the Kingdom of God on earth is synonymous with the Kingdom of Heaven, beginning in this earthly life.     Jesus said, “Come unto me all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest… you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-30).       This “rest” or peace of mind is what the Knight of Faith experiences—unruffled by life.     I daresay that this peace is central to Nietzsche’s übermensch.     Unfortunately, he failed to see this meaning, both historically and theologically.     Unfortunately, his contemporary Christians also failed to demonstrate the Knight of Faith or the vigorous, intellectual, and life-and-suffering challenges of the New Testament believer.

Note: I have not really exceeded six pages.     For some reason, the formatting inserted a large space at the bottom of page 2, that I could not find out how to remove.

P.S. Have you ever had anyone else compare Nietzsche’s übermensch to Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith?


[1] In a six-page paper       no less.       More! More! Good air, good air!

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998), translators Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen. Where GM is cited, page and line numbers are used.

[3] Oh, what I have left out here!       That faith and reason are inherently dependent upon each other needs exploration, but it cannot be done here. But my use of faith should be understood as not relating only to religions, as even atheists “believe,” that is, have presuppositions.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, any italics will be those of Nietzsche.       At least one assumes that these are Nietzsche’s, rather than those of the translator.

[5] The number in parentheses refers to the section number in The Antichrist. Quotes that follow without numbers are within the same section.       I will sometimes refer to “later” when I have skipped several sentences.       I used an online source as follows: Translation by H. L. Mencken, published 1920.

[6] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996), 5-6.

[7] Rodney Stark … (New York, NY: Random House Books, 2005).