“God is dead,” declares Nietzsche’s madman in his oft-quoted passage from The Gay Science. Though not the first to make the declaration, Nietzsche’s philosophical candor and desperate rhetoric unquestionably attribute to its familiarity. In graphic brushstrokes, the parable describes a crime scene:
“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God,’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I! All of us are his murderers…Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder?…Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”(1)
Nietzsche’s atheism, unlike many contemporary atheistic mantras, was not simply rhetoric and angry words. He recognized that the death of God, even if only the death of an idol, introduced a significant crisis. He understood the critical role of the Christian story to the very underpinnings of European philosophy, history, and culture, and so understood that God’s death meant that a total—and painful—transformation of reality must occur. If God has died, if God is dead in the sense that God is no longer of use to us, then ours is a world in peril, he reasoned, for everything must change. Our typical means of thought and life no longer make sense; the very structures for evaluating everything have become unhinged. For Nietzsche, a world that considers itself free from God is a world that must suffer the disruptive effects of that iconoclasm.
Herein, Nietzsche’s atheistic tale tells a story beneficial no matter the creed or conviction of those who hear it. Gods, too, decompose. Nietzsche’s bold atheism held the intellectual integrity that refused to make it sound easy to live with a dead God—a conclusion the new atheists are determined to undermine. Moreover, his dogged exposure of idolatrous conceptions of God wherever they exist and honest articulation of the crises that comes in the crashing of such idols is universal in its bearing. Whether atheist or theist, Muslim or Christian, the death of the God we thought we knew is disruptive, excruciating, tragic—and quite often, as Nietzsche attests, necessary.
Yet for Nietzsche and the new atheists, the shattering of religious imagery and concepts is simply deconstruction for the sake of deconstruction. Their iconoclasm ultimately seeks to reveal towers of belief as houses of cards best left in piles at our feet. On the contrary, for the theist, iconoclasm remains the breaking of false and idolatrous conceptions of God, humanity, and the cosmos. But added to this is the exposing of counterfeit motivations for faith, when fear or self-interest lead a person deeper into religion as opposed to love or truth, or when the source of all knowledge becomes something finite rather than the eternal God. While this destruction certainly remains the painful event Nietzsche foretold, God’s death turns out to be one more sign of God’s presence. As C.S. Lewis observed through his own pain at the death of the God he knew:
“My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? The incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.”(2)
For Lewis, it was the death of his wife that brought about the decomposition of his God. For others, it is the prevalence of suffering or the haunt of God’s silence that begets the troubling sense that our God is dying. At some profound level, the season of Lent takes us to God’s death as well, perhaps for some in more ways than one. Like the Incarnation, the crucifixion leaves most of our ideas in ruins at the foot of the cross. The journey to death and Golgotha is an offensive journey to take with God. But blessed are those who take it. Blessed are those in pain over the death of their Gods. Blessed are those who mourn at the tombs and take in the sorrow of the crime scenes. For theirs is somehow the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom somehow able to hold Golgotha, a kingdom able to hold death itself.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York: Vintage, 1974), 181-182.
(2) C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 66.