What Does Nietzsche Mean When He Says That God Is Dead?

An explanation of this famous bit of philosophical graffiti

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“God is dead!”  In German, Gott ist tot!  This is the phrase that more than any other is associated with Nietzsche. Yet there is an irony here since Nietzsche was not the first to come up with this expression.  The German writer Heinrich Heine (who Nietzsche admired) said it first. But it was Nietzsche who made it is his mission as a philosopher to respond to the dramatic cultural shift that the expression “God is dead” describes.​

The phrase first appears at the beginning of Book Three of The Gay Science (1882). A little later it is the central idea in the famous aphorism (125) titled The Madman, which begins:

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!" — As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? — Thus they yelled and laughed.

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. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? 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? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

The Madman Goes on to Say

 “There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”  Met by incomprehension, he concludes:

“I have come too early….This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars — and yet they have done it themselves.”

What Does All This Mean?

The first fairly obvious point to make is that the statement “God is dead” is paradoxical. God, by definition, is eternal and all-powerful. He is not the kind of thing that can die. So what does it mean to say that God is “dead”? The idea operates on several levels.

How Religion Has Lost Its Place in Our Culture

The most obvious and important meaning is simply this: In Western civilization, religion in general, and Christianity, in particular, is in an irreversible decline. It is losing or has already lost the central place it has held for the last two thousand years. This is true in every sphere: in politics, philosophy, science, literature, art, music, education, everyday social life, and the inner spiritual lives of individuals.

Someone might object: but surely, there are still millions of people all over the world, including the West, who are still deeply religious. This is undoubtedly true, but Nietzsche doesn’t deny it. He is pointing to an ongoing trend which, as he indicates, most people haven’t yet fully comprehended. But the trend is undeniable.

In the past, religion was central to so much in our culture. The greatest music, like Bach’s Mass in B Minor, was religious in inspiration. The greatest artworks of the Renaissance, like Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, typically took religious themes. Scientists like Copernicus, Descartes, and Newton, were deeply religious men. The idea of God played a key role in the thought of philosophers like Aquinas, Descartes, Berkeley, and Leibniz. Whole education systems were governed by the church. The vast majority of people were christened, married and buried by the church, and attended church regularly throughout their lives.

None of this is true anymore. Church attendance in most Western countries has plunged into single figures. Many now prefer secular ceremonies at birth, marriage, and death. And among intellectuals–scientists, philosophers, writers, and artists–religious belief plays virtually no part in their work.

What Caused the Death of God?

So this is the first and most basic sense in which Nietzsche thinks that God is dead. Our culture is becoming increasingly secularized. The reason is not hard to fathom. The scientific revolution that began in the 16th century soon offered a way of understanding natural phenomena that proved clearly superior to the attempt to understand nature by reference to religious principles or scripture. This trend gathered momentum with the Enlightenment in the 18th century which consolidated the idea that reason and evidence rather than scripture or tradition should be the basis for our beliefs. Combined with industrialization in the 19th century, the growing technological power unleashed by science also gave people a sense of greater control over nature. Feeling less at the mercy of incomprehensible forces also played its part in chipping away at religious faith.

Further Meanings of "God Is Dead!"

As Nietzsche makes clear in other sections of The Gay Science, his claim that God is dead is not just a claim about religious belief. In his view, much of our default way of thinking carries religious elements that we are not aware of. For instance, it’s very easy to talk about nature as if it contains purposes. Or if we talk about the universe as like a great machine, this metaphor carries the subtle implication that the machine was designed. Perhaps most fundamental of all is our assumption that there is such a thing as objective truth. What we mean by this is something like the way the world would be described from the “god’s eye point of view”–a vantage point that is not just among many perspectives, but is the One True Perspective. For Nietzsche, though, all knowledge has to be from a limited perspective.

Implications of the Death of God

For thousands of years, the idea of God (or the gods) has anchored our thinking about the world. It has been especially important as a foundation for morality. The moral principles we follow (Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Help those in need.  etc.) had the authority of religion behind them. And religion provided a motive to obey these rules since it told us that virtue would be rewarded and vice punished. What happens when this rug is pulled away?

Nietzsche seems to think that the first response will be confusion and panic. The whole of the Madman section cited above is full of fearful questions. A descent into chaos is seen as one possibility. But Nietzsche sees the death of God as both a great danger and a great opportunity. It offers us the chance to construct a new “table of values,” one that will express a new-found love of this world and this life.  For one of Nietzsche’s main objections to Christianity is that in thinking of this life as a mere preparation for an afterlife, it devalues life itself. Thus, after the great anxiety expressed in Book III, Book IV of The Gay Science is a glorious expression of a life-affirming outlook.

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Westacott, Emrys. "What Does Nietzsche Mean When He Says That God Is Dead?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/nietzsche-god-is-dead-2670670. Westacott, Emrys. (2023, April 5). What Does Nietzsche Mean When He Says That God Is Dead? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/nietzsche-god-is-dead-2670670 Westacott, Emrys. "What Does Nietzsche Mean When He Says That God Is Dead?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/nietzsche-god-is-dead-2670670 (accessed June 4, 2023).