Friedrich Nietzsche’s attacks upon Christianity were so vituperative that his sister had to delay the publication of the book and still censor parts of it. Nevertheless, the work that was published has resonated through time as one of the most charged and unique criticisms of that most popular faith.
Nietzsche begins “The Antichrist” with a preface describing his ideal audience; He is writing about what is to follow for the intellectually honest individual who is free from bias and hard allegiance to ideologies. This individual is strong enough to confront Nietzsche’s ideas squarely.
Christianity as Harbinger of Decadence
Right from the jump, Nietzsche introduces his condemnation of modern morality in shocking, provocative language. He associates modern morality with an overarching anti-life sentiment that suppresses the instinct of man to survive and express himself. The elevation of principles like pity and charity are only fated to hasten the demise of mankind.
Nietzsche advocates a moral principle that is true to humanity’s life-affirmation instincts and is free from moralistic prescriptions that have no real connection to nature. Propped up by the decadent influence of Christianity, mankind is producing weak men and that is leading them to their end.
Christianity and Western philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer are at fault for elevating decadent values like pity which only succeeds in glorifying and preserving weakness. Pity negates life and sustains itself by promising a continuation of life in a more amplified, vital state after death. Nietzsche sees this after-life heavy sentiment as representing a mentality that devalues the present life, that removes all chance of improvement and enhancement, and that encourages destruction.
At the vanguard of this corrupting influence is a class of people which include priests, theologians, and philosophers whom Nietzsche accuses of intellectual dishonesty. He associates their willingness to exempt their religious doctrines and morals from usual scientific standards of inquiry and criticism with an unwillingness to confront the possible falsehood of their position face to face.
Friedrich Nietzsche criticizes philosophical concepts like Kant’s categorical imperative as being anti-life because they are not sourced from man’s instincts or address the peculiar situation of the individual but from some supposedly high concept or idea that has no solid support.
Nietzsche then next compares Christianity to Buddhism, noting that while both are decadent religions, Buddhism is far more practical as it deals with overcoming suffering rather than sin. Suffering is real and present with us while sin is an abstract concept invented out of ressentiment. Christianity does not attempt to proffer ways to overcome suffering, rather it glorifies it. More importantly, because Buddhism arose out of a dominant class, it is honest and powerful and does not resort to sneaky moralistic ideas such as faith, hope, and charity.
The Falsification in Biblical History
Nietzsche then traces a smooth transition between Jewish morality and Christian morality. The Jewish priest class aligned itself with the lowly and took advantage of the ressentiment found in this disadvantaged class to gain power for themselves.
This class subverted the original conception of God as brave, strong, and powerful by introducing the type of demand, concern over petty affairs of humans, and extreme sensitivity to perceived slights. God ceased to be an expression of life-affirmation, of positive will, and instead took on the garb of a sensitive, vengeful, and moralizing deity who is opposed to life and happiness.
For Nietzsche, the priestly class constructed God to “Interpret all happiness as a reward and all unhappiness as a punishment for obedience or disobedience to him, for ‘sin’”
Having succeeded in entrenching their moral and religious system and temperament, the priestly class then sought to rework the history of the Jews by interpreting every misfortune as God’s punishment and every victory as his reward according to the degree of obedience. Having falsified the history of the Jews and reworked God’s image in their favor, the Jewish priest then completed their control by immunizing themselves from criticism and threat to their power by claiming to have received God’s instructions and commandments that coincidentally demanded strict obeisance to God through the priests themselves.
Paul The Villain, Christ as The Misunderstood
Nietzsche’s “The Antichrist” can be read as his condemnation of the religion of Christianity as a purveyor of false morality that degrades and sickens the human race. In laying such charges at Christianity, Nietzsche differentiates the prevailing Christian ideology as constructed and propagated by the Apostles of Jesus Christ- Paul especially- from the original message from Jesus Christ. Nietzsche rejects the gospels as being full of fabrications written to imbibe Jesus with qualities, words, and actions that the Apostles desire for their propaganda.
For Nietzsche, select parts of the Bible that display Jesus’ non-confrontational, peaceful, non-judgmental, and accepting demeanor represent the authentic image of Jesus as different from parts that present him as anti-establishment, fiery and resentful which Nietzsche believes to be fabrications by the Apostles. For Nietzsche, the disparity between these two personae as represented in the gospels is drastic enough to be clear evidence of their incompatibility and thus exposes a fabrication borne out of an agenda of those responsible for presenting the gospel of Christ to the world- his disciples.
Nietzsche believes that there is ample evidence to support the claim that contrary to being a divine being sent to save the world from sin, Jesus was more a fully mortal childlike personality who preached for a state of being that emphasized universal love; equality achieved through a repudiation of class, privilege, and caste; a perfect state of acceptance of one’s station in life that is free of resentment and anger and thus free from an eventual desire for revenge.
This is exemplified in Jesus’ attitude during his trial when he refused to defend himself, showing thus perfect acceptance. For Nietzsche, Jesus represented an acceptance and childlike state that is free of all passions, does not resist, does not get angry, does not hold responsible, that turns the other cheek, and advocates love for all, even for those who we see as our enemy. These represent Christ’s real, undistorted message, the original gospel, the glad tidings he brings, essentially the Kingdom of God. Nietzsche sees the Kingdom of God as understood by Jesus as representing this state of mind, rather than a supernatural place, time, and occasion that is yet to come.
The Dubiousness of Christian Values
Nietzsche opposes Christianity on multiple grounds. One such ground is his observation that Christians typically profess faith without doing much to demonstrate their belief and piety asides from engaging in performative religious activities like taking communion and going to the church, or giving to charity.
Nietzsche blames Christ’s Apostles, most especially Paul with his theory of justification by faith, and later Church fathers like Martin Luther, for inverting the original gospel of Christ which supposedly emphasized a life of practice and works built around that childlike accepting, non-judgmental, service-driven life that is pious, non-resentful and consistent. Paul went against this to introduce a doctrine that declares that merely believing and having faith in Christ was enough. Nietzsche believes that Paul knew that he would not be able to live like Christ, so he had to find a way to justify not needing to do that.
As a result, Nietzsche considers Paul as the “the first Christian”, the one who as a result of his incapacity for living like Christ invented the remedy of justification by faith and in so doing allowed the sinful and immoral to persist in their way of life while calling themselves Christians.
By doing this, Paul births the religion of Christianity- a distortion of Christ’s original gospel- and escapes the necessity of following either the Jewish laws or Christ’s more demanding way of life. Nietzsche psychoanalyzes that Paul had been resentful of the Jews who were able to follow the law and so sees his doctrine as the perfect revenge against them.
Christianity as an expression of Ressentiment
Next Nietzsche examines how the feeling of ressentiment or resentful opposition to the dominant order, crept into Christianity. Nietzsche saw Jesus’ behavior at his trial and eventual execution on the cross as his most important legacy, his message of perfect acceptance and a disinclination to feelings of resentment, revenge, or envy on display to everyone. But Jesus’ disciples learned the wrong message.
Consumed by anger at the dominant class of Jews who have so caused the execution of their leader, the Apostles began to introduce traits of rebellion against the Pharisees and Sadducees and an acerbic opposition to the dominant order into Jesus’ character.
As a result, a strong feeling of revenge and vengeance was introduced as a central tenet of Christ’s message. His gospel of the “Kingdom of God” which was supposed to represent a practical way of life came to represent a supernatural event that will bring vengeance to supposed enemies of the people of God.
For Nietzsche, the idea of a different life outside the present allowed Christians to not strive for perfection in this life as there was an assurance of another. It also provided a base for the doctrine of retribution and reward- here Christians endure their present disadvantaged position with the assurance that there is a reward in a future life for them as well as punishment for their oppressors.
The Dishonesty Behind Christian Faith
Next, Nietzsche refuted the doctrine of faith as being a substitute for truth, a copout for intellectually dishonest people who cannot prove their position by force of evidence and logical reason. Nietzsche saw the concept of a higher truth, vis a vis the “wisdom of God” as opposed to the “wisdom of men” as a false standard that demands that normal standards for weighing propositions and theories are not applied.
Faith is not validated by force of conviction, as seen in the suffering of martyrs, because convictions can arise from falsehoods. People can believe anything strongly, and the strength of this belief does not by itself make the belief true. For Nietzsche, convictions should arise out of an objective weighing of evidence and should still be honest and open enough to accept superior argument or the presence of evidence.
This mentality is foreign to Christians because Christians are fundamentally weak people who need their doctrines, their philosophy of life to be true. They need it to be true because they desire convenience, pleasure, their assurances of rewards for themselves and eternal torment for their enemies, and most of all they want God to exist, for Jesus to have died for their sins and thus assured them of eventual resurrection.
The strong do not need anything to be true but instead seek the truth. Power for Nietzsche is measured by how much the human being can endure truth even at the expense of his convenience and pleasure. The powerful man is built of such a constitution that he has a will to truth that is resistant to even the strongest desire for self-preservation. So, in Nietzsche’s eyes, Christians are weak people.
But it is essential to realize that the bulk of Nietzsche’s criticism is directed more at insincere Christianity. He is against those who are unchristian in their practice but profess Christianity, as well as those who superficially seem Christian in their practice but whose motivation and state of mind are essentially unchristian. It is based on this idea that Nietzsche condemns the glorification of pity and altruism in Christianity.
Pity for him is not only an insincere performative action that glorifies the individual by practically inviting another to witness his goodness, it also prevents progress in the pitied in the form of encouraging him to strive for perfection. The low and unfortunate are sick, and they should not be spared in acts of self-defeating sentimentality but should be encouraged to transcend their condition through a kind of tough love.
Additionally, since we do not pity those we admire, pity involved a measure of condescension and contempt. Christianity in elevating pity degrades the value of suffering as a means towards self-perfection and so ironically does the most to keep the mediocre, the unfortunate in their condition by being a religion of comfortableness.
In revealing the insincere motives behind seemingly well-intentioned Christian virtues such as faith- which is employed because Christians are not capable of living like Christ or facing the truth about the world in honesty- and altruism- which is employed because Christians want an avenue to do good deeds for selfish purposes, Nietzsche advances his attack on the defective impact of Christianity on human morality. Still, it is instructive to know that Nietzsche acknowledges that there are sincere Christians who live like Christ, genuinely care for others and not just for an instrumental purpose, and are honest.
Although he acknowledges that such Christians are rare, his attacks are on those who sneakily hide under the façade of Christian morality to perpetuate their dishonest and base inclinations.
The Slave Morality Behind Christianity
Ultimately Christianity fosters slave morality, which is a morality occasioned and structured by the response of the oppressed, the lowly, and disadvantaged to their situation. It is the morality that preaches humility, weakness, and pity because the slave cannot be otherwise. For Nietzsche, slave morality is borne out of resentment, anger, and desire for revenge of the slaves, the lowly against their superiors.
They seek to do this by encouraging a morality that negates, antagonizes, and demonizes the advantages of the superior. This is distinguished from Master morality which does not owe to a situation. A master moralist does well even when his strength and capacity allow him to do evil. Master morality was found in Greek culture with its intellectually honest leanings and its fondness for life affirmative morality. It was also the dominant spirit that spurred the Renaissance, as well as Islamic culture. But the Christian morality is decadent and that spirit is present as well in Western morality and philosophy.
So for Nietzsche, Christianity promotes Slave morality, and consequently decadence in the human race.
Was Nietzsche an atheist?
One can make the reasonable deduction that Nietzsche did not believe in God as is popularly conceived of in the world’s major or minor religions. However his major focus was in investigating how people came to believe in God. Nietzsche’s interest in God was purely secular and he sought to use humanity’s characterization and conception of God to make deductions about humanity itself. How powerful God was, what his morals were, what his predisposition was revealed plenty about the people who worshipped him and that was more important for Nietzsche than definitive statements about whether God existed or not.
Did Nietzsche hate Christians?
While it is true that Nietzsche devoted a lot of time to attacking Christianity, he in truth restricts the bulk of his criticism to what he sees as nihilistic, decadent, dishonest, and cowardly sentiments behind Christian ideals. However, like his admiration of Jesus Christ shows, Nietzsche is more tolerant of sincere Christians. He also sees a lot of positives within Christianity.
Did Nietzsche admire Jesus?
Compared to his characterization of other Christian figures like Apostle Paul and other Apostles, Nietzsche’s passages on Jesus are almost entirely glowing. While he does infantilize Jesus by seeing him as a not yet fully mature, childish, and fully mortal prophet, he also characterized Jesus as sincere and pure as opposed to the apostles whom he describes as sneaky and dishonest.