Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical frame of thought has made him the target of numerous writings by theologians, apologists, various Christian writers, and many other scholars and commentators. Yet, his views pertaining to Jesus of Nazareth are often overlooked. Unfortunately, most of his works are interpreted in the broad view of his criticisms of Christianity. Typically, these ideas do not characterize his views of Jesus of Nazareth, but rather his opinion of St. Paul and the Church as an organization. They also serve to provide a useful backdrop of contrast between Nietzsche’s position on Jesus and the Church. In fact, his primary “doctrine,” the will to power, actually intersects Jesus’ life and actions at certain points. Christological sentiments expressed by Nietzsche appear to follow modern atheistic perceptions of Jesus’ life that detract from Jesus’ divine nature and label him as a moral thinker. However, when he is viewed from a sociohistorical viewpoint, Nietzsche’s works tend to differentiate Jesus of Nazareth from his contemporaries insofar that Jesus instead begins to embody attributes of the Übermensch (overman). Accordingly, these perspectives of Jesus greatly contrast with Nietzsche’s thoughts with the institution of Christianity; hence, it is useful to examine these thoughts to further cement his postulates relating to Christology. Nietzsche’s oft-misinterpreted opinions of Jesus of Nazareth actually integrate exceedingly well with certain aspects of the will to power; in turn, Jesus’ human nature is illuminated from an atheistic angle that understands Jesus of Nazareth as an Übermensch instead of a divine prophet.
Regrettably, critics of Nietzsche have a propensity for distorting his views of Christianity as an institution (and by extension, St. Paul) and the individual known as Jesus of Nazareth. Through the use of blanket statements that lack any philosophical depth or historical background, O’Malley attempts to label Nietzsche and his consequent views as pure power-lust. Father William O’Malley writes, “Nihilism is literally the doctrine that might makes right” (Meeting, 187-188). He presents even shallower criticisms when he writes, “In murdering God, Nietzsche empowered a line of self-justified Hitlers” (Meeting,188). Clearly, O’Malley has been blinded by his undying subservience to the Catholic Church. He fails to mention Nietzsche’s hatred of the anti-Semitism sweeping through Germany! “Your association with an anti-Semitic chief expresses a foreignness to my whole way of life which fills me again and again with ire or melancholy…” (Kaufmann, 456-457) writes an angry Nietzsche in a letter to his sister in 1887. Through the mishandling of his estate by his sister, the Nazis adapted the idea of the Übermensch superficially and for their own needs. Philosophy professor Christopher Rodkey also attacks this appallingly uninformed perspective: “[It is]…like linking St. Francis with the Inquisition in which the order he founded played a major role.” Ergo, Nietzsche’s primarily Christian critics are not only disgustingly misguided, but they also fail to distinguish between his attacks on overbearing and tyrannical institutions and his personal opinions of Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, Rodkey shows that Nietzsche’s abhorrence of the Church stems from St. Paul’s “greedy” and compulsive need for institutionalization. Christian apologist and writer C.S. Lewis nearly perfectly embodies what Nietzsche strived to destroy: the objectivity and Apollonian nature of Christian doctrine. Yet, C.S. Lewis acknowledges Jesus’ revolutionary nature in Mere Christianity: “He is not merely a new man, one specimen of the species, but the new man” (221). In contrast with his detestation of the institution of the Church, Nietzsche sees Jesus as the only true Christian. Rodkey wholly summarizes this notion wherein he writes, “In short, Nietzsche respects and admires Jesus of Nazareth, ‘but denies that he has any meaning for our age.’”
Certain attributes and characteristics embodied by an Übermensch manifest themselves within the psyche of Jesus of Nazareth. In essence, Nietzsche portrays Jesus as an individual rebelling against the old order to bring about a more Dionysian and less-rigid system and code of laws (Rodkey). The fact that he has been remembered throughout the past two millennia is also a worthy accomplishment of an Übermensch. When viewed from this perspective, Jesus begins to take the form of a peaceful rebel, but a rebel nonetheless. He encompasses many attributes of an individual engaged in their will to power. Nietzsche essentially strips Jesus of Nazareth of his supposed divine nature and instead paints a portrait of the paradigm shifter. Accordingly, when Nietzsche writes that “God is Dead” (Adler, 250), he is not merely stating that God does not exist and that Jesus’ divine nature is questionable, but also implicitly proclaims that the only Christian perished on the cross. By doing so, Nietzsche devises a contrast between contemporary Christians and the original Jesus of Nazareth: he considers one to be of the herd mentality, and the other to be of the “overman” mentality – one who blazed new trails. St. Paul and Jesus masquerade as these conflicting aspects of the human condition in The Antichrist. In reference to Jesus, Nietzsche writes, “He broke with the whole Jewish doctrine of repentance and reconciliation; he knows that it is only in the practice of life that one feels ‘divine’… only the evangelical practice leads to God, indeed, it is ‘God’!” (Kaufmann, 607). Nietzsche further iterates on this concept when he writes, “…one understood Jesus to have been in rebellion against the existing order” (Kaufmann, 614). Hence, Nietzsche and most Catholic theologians share similar views of Jesus’ anthropological and political temperament which manifests itself with Jesus’ rebellious actions against the old order. However, where current theologians and Nietzsche differs lies in their respective viewpoints of the idea of the “kingdom of God.” Nietzsche writes, “The ‘kingdom of heaven’ is a state of the heart – not something that is to come ‘above the earth’ or ‘after death’” (Kaufmann, 608). Ultimately, this thought causes Jesus to perish under a scared Jewish hierarchy. In this sense, Nietzsche proclaims that Christianity grew from the revenge of the original apostles rather than their forgiveness (Rodkey).
In essence, Nietzsche considers Christianity as a religious institution to be an inverse response to the death of Jesus by crucifixion. As stated previously, Nietzsche blames this on the early disciples and specifically Paul. Rodkey explains that Nietzsche believed Paul and these disciples were as power hungry as the original Jewish order that Jesus sought to disrupt. In turn, Nietzsche believes that the ethical and so-called moral frameworks that Christianity proposes are inherently flawed. Thus, Nietzsche derives that Christianity must be the antithesis of the very message that Jesus of Nazareth attempted to proclaim. He writes, “[Christianity is] a radical betrayal of the life view that Jesus had espoused” (Rodkey). This postulate is effectively summarized in The Antichrist in which Nietzsche contrasts the persona of Jesus of Nazareth with contemporary Christianity: “This ‘bringer of glad tidings’ died as he had lived, as he had taught – not to ‘redeem men’ but to show how one must live” (Kaufmann, 608-609).
Thus, Nietzsche considers Christianity to be the religion of the weak-minded through its adherents’ ignorance of the true nature of Jesus’ death when he writes, “[It is] the superiority over any feeling of ressentiment.” (Kaufmann, 615) Yet, he believes Jesus to have qualities of the Übermensch. Rodkey adequately sums up the contrast between Nietzsche’s opinions of Christianity and Jesus of Nazareth wherein he writes, “Furthermore, Nietzsche believes that Christianity has become the very establishment against which Jesus rebelled in Judaism: an already corrupt, stagnant, static, hierarchical religion.” Nietzsche sees this reaction to the death of Jesus, known as Christianity, to be the ultimate irony and hypocrisy of the Apostles. By elevating Jesus to a higher plane of existence, the disciples detract from what Nietzsche believes to be the true nature of Jesus; that of the evangel, the trailblazer, the inspired rebel. Nietzschewrites, “…the whole and only actuality of the evangel, is conjured away – in favor of a state after death” (Kaufmann, 616). Hence, in Nietzsche’s eyes, Jesus becomes tinted with characteristics of an Übermensch, which are subsequently erased by the disciples’ apparent necessity to justify their cause. Thus, Nietzsche’s perspective of Jesus of Nazareth provides another useful analytical tool in the examination of not only his historical context, but also his impact on the Christian faith and the derivation thereof.
Adler, Mortimer Jerome. The Great Ideas: a Lexicon of Western Thought. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity: a Revised and Amplified Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books, Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001
Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Walter Kaufmann. The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Penguin, 1976
O’Malley, William J. Meeting the Living God. New York: Paulist, 1998.
Rodkey, Christopher Demuth. “NIETZSCHEAN CHRISTOLOGY.” Saint Vincent College. Web. 20 Nov. 2010. <http://facweb.stvincent.edu/academics/religiousstu/writings/rodkey2.html>.