Cover. Ceiling of the Room of the Giants, Palazzo Te, Mantua, Italy [1532 - 1534]. Painter and architect: Giulio Romano [1499 – 1546].


This text is replicated from Nietzsche and the Death of God [2012], by The Academy of Ideas.



In their own words: 'The thirst for knowledge has consumed humanity since the dawn of civilisation. However, [in the last one hundred years] there have been numerous 'gate-keepers' - a centralised educational system, the state and the mass media - to the world of knowledge. What this [means is] that whomever controls these institutions controls the ideas that spread through a population. The goal of [Academy of Ideas] is to further the spread of knowledge and freedom. We create content examining the ideas put forth by humanity’s greatest philosophers, psychologists, and economists. These individuals left us with a commodity more valuable than all others. Some people have said that money rules the world, some say politicians, some say weapons – they are all wrong. The truth is that ideas rule the world, they always have and always will. It is ideas that will, for better or worse, shape the destiny of mankind.'


'God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. 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 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?'

- Friedrich Nietzsche


In this lecture we will analyse what is perhaps Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s [1844 - 1900] most famous and controversial statement: 'God is dead'. We’ll look at what such a statement meant to Nietzsche, what led him to make such a bold pronouncement, and what he thought would happen if this belief were to become as widespread as he anticipated.

So what did Nietzsche mean by his statement ‘God is dead’? On the surface it may appear that he was referring to the observation that belief in the monotheistic* god of Christianity was on the decline. However, such a view is not generally accepted by modern day scholars, rather many suggest instead that with this statement Nietzsche wanted to symbolise his conviction that faith in true world theories in general were deteriorating.

* monotheistic [adj.] 'of or pertaining to monotheism; believing that there is but one god,'

American philosopher Julian Padraic Young provides a perceptive definition of the main characteristics of true world theories, and explains why these theories are so effective in convincing individuals that life has a purpose:

'A true world is a destination; a destination such that to reach it is to enter…a state of ‘eternal bliss’, a heaven, paradise, or utopia. Hence true world philosophies…give meaning to life by representing it as a journey; a journey towards ‘redemption, towards an arrival that will more than make up for the stress and discomfort of the traveling.'


Many scholars and philosophers, who have been influenced by Nietzsche, have claimed that in communicating the death of God to the masses, Nietzsche should be characterised as a modern day prophet. What is it about his message that qualifies him for such an honourable title? Nietzsche was only one of a number thinkers in his time to recognise the growing skepticism towards Christianity, as well as other less prominent true world theories. So surely this alone does not qualify him for the title of ‘prophet’. 

Rather, the uniqueness of Nietzsche’s message lay in his remarkable ability to foresee the potentially devastating consequences which would befall those individuals unable to retain their faith in true world theories. Nietzsche thought that when true world theories lost their influence, individuals would be torn from the very worldviews which gave their lives meaning, and the strength to persevere in life despite sometimes miserable conditions. In short, Nietzsche understood that the death of God could potentially vault a large majority of the human race into a state of nihilism.*

* nihilism [n.] 1817, 'the doctrine of negation' [in reference to religion or morals], coined by German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi [1743-1819]. In philosophy, an extreme form of skepticism [1836]. The political sense, [rejection of fundamental social and political structures,] was first used c. 1824 by German journalist Joseph von Görres [1776-1848]. Turgenev used the Russian form of the word [nigilizm] in 'Fathers and Children' [1862] and claimed to have invented it. With a capital N-, it refers to the Russian revolutionary anarchism of the period 1860-1917, supposedly so called because 'nothing' that then existed found favour in their eyes.

The great German-American philosopher, translator, poet and author Walter Kaufmann [1921 - 1980], in his classic work on Nietzsche, Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist described exactly why Nietzsche is often heralded as a modern day prophet:

'Sometimes prophecies seem to consist in man’s ability to experience his own wretched fate so deeply that it becomes a symbol of something larger. It is in this sense that one can compare Nietzsche with the ancient prophets. He felt the agony, the suffering, and the misery of a godless world so intensely, at a time when others were yet blind to its tremendous consequence, that he was able to experience in advance, as it were, the fate of a coming generation.' 

The generation following Nietzsche in many ways seemed to have experienced the fate he had prophesied. As the historian Ronald Stromberg, in his book Redemption by War, explained, the turn of the 20th century marked a time when  intellectuals in Europe were gripped by a growing sense that life was meaningless – and it was this feeling which can help to explain the now forgotten fact that the vast majority of European intellectuals were in fact pro-war in the years leading up to World War I. Stromberg wrote: 


'How, in the end, are we to explain this so fateful explosion of warlike ideas and sentiments among all manner of European intellectuals in 1914? Of the ingredients we have found to be pervasive, all are important: hatred of the existing society; the apocalyptic 'sense of an ending'; need for some kind of worthy cause to give meaning to one’s life; sheer thirst for adventure against the background of a dreary materialism…'


Fortunately the modern age is much different than the spirit of the early 20th century, as today most individuals are not fervent war supporters [?]. Instead, modern individuals seem to search for a cause which will give meaning to their life in different ways. However, this search for many appears to be a lost cause, as despite the high standard of living we enjoy in the West, the question ‘what is it all for?’ still grips most of us in our moments of solitude. As the Austrian psychiatrist and psychologist Victor Frankl [1905 - 1997] pointed out:

'For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socio-economic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.'


Nietzsche announces the death of God in a famous aphorism in his book The Gay Science, called The Madman. In this passage he tells a tale of a madman who runs out onto the street screeching  'I seek God! I seek God!' Understandably, those on the street give him a strange look and continue on with their evening, however, the madman does not cease. He yells: 'God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers…There was never a greater event,- and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history before this!' Despite the madman’s attempt to enlighten his fellow citizens regarding the enormity of the death of god, the individuals on the street pay little attention to him. When he noticed the utter indifference of those around him, 'he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished': 


'I come too early, I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is travelling, – it has not reached men’s ears.'


Later in his life, Nietzsche reached the opinion that the loss of faith in true world theories was in fact the most glorious event to befall mankind. In his book, The Gay Science, he wrote:

'In fact, we philosophers and 'free spirits' feel as if we are illumined by a new dawn, on receiving the news that 'the old God is dead'; our hearts overflow with gratitude, wonder, premonition, anticipation. At last the horizon seems to us open again…the sea, our sea again lies open before us; perhaps there has never yet been such an 'open sea.'

A universe without God, or without a transcendent purpose driving the lives of men toward a common end, was in fact a universe, according to Nietzsche, where strong and creative individuals could freely sculpt their own worldviews. However, this attitude of Nietzsche’s did not come naturally, but was an attitude that he came to adopt only after years of struggle, pain, and suffering.  

Early in his life, Nietzsche experienced first-hand the misery of living in what he believed to be a godless world; it was a world with no transcendent purpose and thus no meaning, in which mankind had no special place in the scheme of things. In other words, this worldview led him to experience the agony of nihilism. In one of his earlier works,  Human, all too Human, Nietzsche expressed this agony, when he wrote:

'But the tragic thing is that we can no longer believe those dogmas of religion and metaphysics, once we have the rigorous method of truth in our hearts and heads, and yet on the other hand, the development of mankind has made us so delicate, sensitive, and ailing that we need the most potent kind of cures and comforts - hence arises the danger that man might bleed to death from the truth he has recognised.'


The question we will now examine is why he held the conviction that God was dead. In our modern times, it is usually taken for granted that the general decline of faith in religions and true world theories is a result of the growth of the natural sciences. However, Nietzsche took a different stance. In his book The Dawn, he illuminated his position:

'In former times, one sought to prove that there is no God – today one indicates how the belief that there is a God could arise and how this belief acquired its weight and importance: a counter-proof that there is no God thereby becomes superfluous. When in former times one had refuted the 'proofs of the existence of God' put forward, there always remained the doubt whether better proofs might not be adduced than those just refuted: in those days, atheists did not know how to make a clean sweep.'


Nietzsche didn’t think it was possible to refute the existence of true worlds by putting forth an argument which utilised the latest findings ascertained by science, as he understood that true world believers would counter with arguments of their own.

Instead, Nietzsche thought he had refuted the existence of true worlds with his keen and penetrating psychological insights.  He looked into the mind of the believer and understood why it was that they held such beliefs. Faith in true world theories, Nietzsche espoused, fulfilled deep seated psychological needs – such theories were created by individuals in need of solaces to protect them from the harsh realities of this life.

Before we conclude we will examine an apparent contradiction in Nietzsche’s thought with regards to his views on the death of god. In a very important, and often neglected passage from his book Human, all too Human, Nietzsche admits that for all we know a true world, or what here he calls a metaphysical* world, could indeed exist. He wrote:

'It is true, there could be a metaphysical world; the absolute possibility of it is hardly to be disputed.'

metaphysics [n.] 'the science of the inward and essential nature of things,' 'branch of speculation which deals with the first causes of things,' from Medieval Latin metaphysica, from Greek ta meta ta physika 'the [works] after the Physics,' title of the 13 treatises which traditionally were arranged after those on physics and natural sciences in Aristotle's writings. 

This may appear, at first glance, to be a contradiction in Nietzsche’s thoughts. How could he proclaim the death of God while also stating that a true world could exist for all we know?

This possible contradiction is cleared up with the realisation that Nietzsche thought that his psychological insights into the mind of the believer had discredited the validity of true world theories, but he did not think it had disproved the existence of a true world, whatever that may be, altogether. In the back of his mind Nietzsche was always aware that he, like all other humans, did not have special access to ultimate truths, whatever such truths would entail. So although he claimed ‘God is dead’, he admitted that in fact a true world in some form or another could indeed exist.
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