‘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… God is dead.
God remains dead. And we have killed him.1
God is dead. And we have killed him.
That’s a passage from one of the most important 19th-century German philosophers you’ve probably never heard of: Frederick Nietzsche. Nietzsche wasn’t a Christian and was explicitly anti-Christian. And yet, he saw with crystal clarity what was happening in the culture around him.
He saw the implications of the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment: a movement dedicated to making sense of the world through human reason alone, without the need for God.
It was a movement that killed off the Western world’s perceived need for God, with far-reaching consequences:
1) Thanks to the Enlightenment, God is now Considered Unnecessary for Life and Meaning in the West
Nietzsche’s madman passage is his way of showing the world that Enlightenment philosophers have killed God — namely, made God unnecessary to life.
As author Carl Trueman points out:
The underlying idea [of Nietzsche’ madman] is that Enlightenment philosophy has quite purposefully rendered God implausible or unnecessary. It has done away with him.2
And so, Westerners now believe God doesn’t exist — or at least, is irrelevant to a life of meaning and purpose. They don’t feel they need God to make sense of their lives.
And yet, although they don’t feel the need for God, they still live as if God exists:
2) But Westerners Still Live as if God Still Exists
Most secular Westerners might not give a moment’s thought to God. But they still live as if God exists.
British historian Tom Holland, who wrote that excellent book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, has observed that the Christian Gospel did too good a job in the Western culture. So completely did Christianity shape people’s thinking about morality that Westerners believe key aspects of Christian ethics (e.g. universal human rights) are self-evident.3
We see this idea of (Christian) morality being ‘self-evident’ in Thomas Jefferson’s immortal sentence on the American declaration of independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
While this truth might have seemed self-evident to a non-Christian like Jefferson, it was only because he was steeped in a Christianised culture. Such beliefs about humanity are not ‘self-evident’ to people of other times and cultures.
But the idea that Christianity shaped Western morality raises an urgent question:
If the Judeo-Christian God is the foundation beneath much Western morality (e.g. universal human rights), what happens when we make God unnecessary — when we ‘kill God’?
3) Nietzche Saw the Consequences of a World Without God:
Other narratives jump in to fill the void.
If God is ‘dead’, if God no longer thought to exist, then the consequences are immense.
As Nietzche’s madman so eloquently puts this:
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?4
Getting rid of God induces moral and metaphysical vertigo — at least for a while.
As Truman points out:
But the nonexistence of God is not like the nonexistence of unicorns or centaurs. Nothing significant has been built on the supposition that those mythical creatures are real. To dispense with God, however, is to destroy the very foundations on which a whole world of metaphysics and morality has been constructed and depends.’5
Frederick Nietzche saw what many Enlightenment philosophers didn’t: there are consequences to our ‘killing God’.6 And while many Enlightenment philosophers — and many atheists today — assumed that the Christian-based morality as the West understands it is self-evident to any reasonable person, that state cannot last.
We can’t have the fruits of the Kingdom without the King — at least not for long.
Something else will take the King’s place and lead to a different Kingdom. With a different view of the world. A different form of morality. And we’re now seeing some of those other ‘Kings’ bubble to the surface of Western culture.
As author (and atheist) Douglas Murray points out:
The answer [to the philosophical vacuum in the West] that has presented itself in recent years is… “social justice”, “identity group politics” and “intersectionalism”. [This] is probably the most audacious and comprehensive effort since the end of the Cold War at creating a new ideology.
The ideology known as ‘Critical Theory’, ‘wokeness’, or ‘Social Justice Theory’ has jumped from the fringes of academia to the school classroom, the corporate boardroom, not to Hollywood and much of mainstream media.
Of course, Western culture is a mix of various ideologies and beliefs. It’s not homogenous or uniform by any means.
But as Nietzsche saw over 100 years ago, once the God of the Bible is declared dead, the doors are open for other Kings to take His place. And such Kings transform our society — but not for the better.
- Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self – Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020), p. 167.
- Ibid., p. 168.
- Taken from Stephen McAlpine.
- Quoted in Trueman, p. 167.
- Trueman, p. 168.
- ‘But here is the rub: Enlightenment philosophers have failed to draw the necessary, broader metaphysical and moral conclusions from this notion. In fact, we might say that they have had neither the intellectual acumen nor the courage to do so…’ Trueman, p. 168.