Impending Night: Nietzsche on Christianity
by Andries Joubert
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was one of those enigmatic, eccentric philosophers who inevitably become the loci of myth-making. He is (at least for the first few minutes) fun to read because of his lyrical, sort of “stream of consciousness” philosophy. As one commentator puts it, Nietzsche’s writings are understood by some as “the disturbing documents of the creative process of someone who was on the verge of madness.”[i] This is probably part of his charm. His boisterous, “you’re-all-idiots” style is nothing if not entertaining. And his choleric writing style and open contempt for Christianity marks him out as a proto-new-atheist. He is best known in popular culture for his wayward facial hair and for saying “God is dead.” Even though it has even given rise to the title of a Christian movie with an apologetics motif (God’s Not Dead), I’d bet that few people know the context of that well-worn quote.
It occurs in one of the aphorisms of The Gay Science. Nietzsche describes a madman who ran into the market place and started yelling, “I seek God!” People around him start laughing and try to figure out what he’s going on about. The madman responds ““Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers.” The madman then goes on to ask a series of striking questions, among them: “What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?… Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?” And then finally, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”[ii]
What is most captivating about this passage is its visceral depiction of the nihilism that results from the absence of God: “Is there still any up or down?…Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?” This is where Nietzsche differs importantly from many modern atheist apologists—he does not balk at biting the bullet of nihilism…
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