German philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was the first to proclaim, “God is dead.” Nietzsche holds an important position in the history of philosophy, serving as a forerunner to the secular movements of atheistic existentialism and secular postmodernism.
While Nietzsche remained very critical of institutionalized Christianity and Christians in particular, on occasion he spoke respectfully of Jesus Christ and of his character. Christian philosopher Ronald Nash even suggested that Nietzsche intentionally sought to serve as a type of gadfly to the Christian church.
Nietzsche once declared, “I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed.” A provocative yet stinging accusation against believers and their witness to Christ indeed! These words strike a chord with many people today. For example, Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) said, “If it weren’t for Christians I would be a Christian.” Thus, Nietzsche’s statement is worth careful analysis from a historic Christian perspective.
Responding to Nietzsche’s Claim
Ironically, Nietzsche’s critical declaration actually seems to affirm two central Christian truth-claims. First, the statement underscores the powerful point that Jesus Christ is different from all other human beings. Jesus’ extraordinary moral character and life makes his followers pale in comparison to him. Yet it’s not just everyday Christians who compare poorly to Jesus’ example—even the world’s great religious leaders fail to match Christ’s morally magnanimous nature. For example, have you ever heard anyone say “I find Muhammad to be an exemplary moral figure but I’m put off by his followers?” Not likely.
Second, historic Christianity teaches that human beings are sinners by nature (Psalm 51:5). Scripture indicates that sin has negatively impacted the entire being of human persons (Proverbs 20:9). Thus even persons who have experienced Christ’s redemption still struggle with sinful tendencies (1 John 1:8). So when Nietzsche bemoaned the lack of moral character among Christ’s followers, he identified a truth consistent with Christian teaching. After all, great sinners need an even greater Savior. Nietzsche’s statement therefore doesn’t actually conflict with the claims of historic Christianity.
However, one more point needs to be considered in light of Nietzsche’s claim. Scripture clearly implores believers to seek to live lives of integrity out of gratitude to God for his gracious forgiveness in Christ (Titus 2:11–14). Therefore Christians would do well to note that nonbelievers often form judgments about the truth of the Christian faith based upon the behavior of Christ’s followers. But what Nietzsche’s words don’t reveal is how often Christians do live lives characterized by such virtues as courage, humility, honesty, integrity, and love. Many believers clearly defy Nietzsche’s claim through lifestyles that make Christianity quite credible.
In closing, let me say that such distinguished Christian thinkers as G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis both asserted that Christians can either be the strongest argument for the truth of the faith or its weakest link. May all believers strive with their words and deeds to faithfully point to the Messiah who was crucified for the forgiveness of sins.
For more about philosophy and its relationship to the Christian worldview, see A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.