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Nietzsche’s Evaluation of Christian Ethics

By Douglas Groothuis

Both inside and outside of academia, the multifaceted thought of Friedrich


Nietzsche continues to stimulate interest and generate controversy. Nietzsche has become
a kind of a posthumous prophet to the post-modernist movement with its suspicion of
universal rationality and morality, objectivity, and Western Christian sensibilities in
general. His searing criticisms of established religion and his apocalyptic but enthusiastic
predictions of a world without God or gods make Nietzsche a fertile source of intellectual
inquiry. His own vision for a post-Christian greatness of soul (found in the ubermensch
or Overman/Superman) has roused the moral imaginations of many desiring to transcend
all religious moorings without sacrificing human nobility.
Yet Nietzsche’s ethical thought, though provocative in its boldness, is difficult
to form into a coherent system. Despite the interpretative difficulties caused by his
aphoristic style, scorn of systematizing,[1] development as an author, radicality of
conceptions, and use of purposely inflammatory language, his ethical posture is clearly
critical of Christian ethics. Moreover, as we will see, it is imperative for Nietzsche to
refute or at least discredit the Christian ethos for his own ethical project to succeed.
Therefore, I will evaluates several key aspects of Nietzsche’s ethics—cosmic amoralism,
personal immoralism, and moralism—in relation to his critique of Christian ethics in
order to discern whether or not Nietzsche is successful in his deconstructive endeavors.

I. Cosmic Amoralism

In The Will to Power Nietzsche records the loss of what he calls “cosmological
values”—values objectively and inherently embedded in the cosmos. In discussing
nihilism, he observes that “the feeling of valuelessness” results when “the overall
character of existence” is interpreted as lacking purpose, unity, or truth.[2] These values
were once projected onto the world, but have now been withdrawn, revealing a value-
less, meaningless, purposeless cosmos.[3] Divine order, purpose, and morality have been
liquidated. The upshot is that we can find no natural or divine law to guide our actions.
Nietzsche says that without our own esteeming (value-creation), “the nut of the universe
is hollow.”[4]

II. Personal Immoralism

Nietzsche’s critique of morality is long and complex. His rejection of morality


stems from a fundamental denial of the pillars of most moral theories. This makes him, in
his own words, “the first immoralist.”[5] Nietzsche rejects the traditional concept of
moral responsibility whereby the actions of moral agents are judged solely by the
conscious intentions of the moral agents. For Nietzsche, the actual reasons for any action

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go far beyond conscious intent, back to an agent’s unchangeable “deep character.”
Nietzsche calls this perspective “extra-moral.”[6] The “decisive value of an action,” in
fact, “lies precisely in what is unintentional in it.”[7] In Human, All Too Human,
Nietzsche unmasks the “fable of intelligible freedom” by saying that we cannot hold
people responsible for their actions or even their nature because human nature “is itself
an inevitable consequence, an outgrowth of the elements and influences of past and
present things; that is, man cannot be made responsible for anything, neither his nature,
nor his motives, nor his actions, nor the effects of his actions.”[8] Free will is an error.
This is closely connected to his rejection of moral “oughts.”[9] If deep character goes
beyond conscious intention and determines actions, mere imperatives will have no
abiding effect on the agent’s actions; they will not change the incorrigible deep character.
People can only “become who they are” and nothing more.[10] With the rejection of
oughts comes the rejection of universal imperatives. Nietzsche rejects “the desired man”
in favor of “the actual man” who has much higher value. All desiderata about man have
been “absurd and dangerous excesses through which a single type of man tried to
establish his conditions of preservation and growth as a law for all mankind.”[11]
Nietzsche eschews universal ideals and imperatives because they demand actions and
attitudes that do not universally facilitate growth in power and health: “Reality shows us
an enchanting wealth of types, the abundance of a lavish play and change of forms—and
some wretched loafer of a moralist comments: ‘No! Man ought to be different.’”[12]
Related to this is Nietzsche’s rejection of what he called “opposite values.” The way a
thing is, is taken to be negative, but the way it is not is taken to be positive. These
dichotomistic evaluations include: ought and ought not, right and wrong, good and evil,
and true and false. But Nietzsche claims “there are no opposites.”[13] Such dichotomistic
thinking is mistaken.
This brief survey has covered only some salient points of the morality that
Nietzsche rejects. But before critiquing Nietzsche’s program, a brief overview of
Nietzsche’s moralism is in order.

III. Moralism

By “moralism” I mean Nietzsche’s positive ethical program. Of course, it bears


little resemblance to the moralism he constantly criticizes, but it is a moral system in the
sense of evaluation and prescription. Nietzsche rejects all universalizing, absolutist
moralities because he deemed them to be life-negating. Everything must, for Nietzsche,
serve life, enhance life. In The Anti-Christ he says quite clearly: “What is good?
Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself.
What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness.”[14] Yet Nietzsche is never altogether
clear about what this “life” really means.[15] The doctrine of self-creation is central to
Nietzsche’s moralism. In Zarathustra he states that he who creates “creates man’s goal
and gives the earth its meaning and its future. That anything is good and evil—that is his
creation.”[16] The creators of value must also be destroyers of the old absolutisms: “And
whoever must be a creator in good and evil, verily, he must first be an annihilator and

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break values. Thus the highest evil belongs to the highest goodness: but this is
creative.”[17] The project of the self-creator, of the overman, is to act as a god.[18]
Overman is “the meaning of the earth.”[19] “Not mankind, but overman is the goal.”[20]

IV. The Rejection of Divine Law

In critiquing cosmic amoralism, it should be noted that Nietzsche’s rejection of


divine law is often couched in less than convincing arguments. His genealogical criticism
of Christianity is speculative at best; even if it were partially successful it would not, in
itself, discredit the truth of Christianity. Showing the non-epistemic origin of a given
belief does not necessarily discredit the truth claim it makes. That must be done through
rational analysis in which the claim itself (and not just the psychological or sociological
inducement to believe the claim) is considered. To do otherwise is to commit the genetic
fallacy.[21] But most of Nietzsche’s arguments against theism concern its purported
deleterious consequences for people, not its objective falsity (this will be taken up
below). He may be reasoning that anything so manifestly anti-human must be false, but in
several places he posits the falsehood of theology with little or no argumentation.[22]
Even his famous pronouncement “God is dead” is more a cultural assessment of a post-
Christian culture than a metaphysical conclusion.[23] Nietzsche does not do much to
preclude the plausibility of divine law and revelation; he seems simply to renounce
(rather than disprove) Judeo-Christian truth claims.
This attitude is seen in “the ugliest man’s” pronouncement on the death of God:

But he had to die: he saw with eyes that saw everything; he saw man’s
depths and ultimate grounds, all his concealed disgrace and ugliness.
His pity knew no shame: he crawled into my dirtiest nooks. This most
curious, overobtrusive, overpitying one had to die. He always saw me:
on such a witness I wanted to have revenge or not live myself. The god
who saw everything, even man—this god had to die! Man could not
bear it that such a witness should live.[24]

Zarathustra (and so Nietzsche) seems to approve of this verdict. But it is not an


argument against deity, only a psychological revulsion in the face of omniscience.
Nietzsche is defying as much as denying.
The ugliest man incident offers no logical argument against the coherence of the
idea of omniscience or the existence of an omniscient being. It is, rather, a psychological
rejection of theism. Guilt must be eradicated; therefore, the God who sees all and knows
our guilt must die. A fuller account of Nietzsche’s reasoning might be this:
1. Christianity promotes guilt (we are ethically exposed before God’s
omniscience).
2. Guilt is life-negating.
3. What is life-negating is not desirable.
4. Therefore, Christianity should be denied (“this God must die”) in order to:

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a) extirpate guilt and thus
b) enhance life.
The first premise is affirmed by Christian theism. But a better formulation
would be that Christianity teaches that guilt is sometimes an appropriate response for
freely erring moral agents to experience. It teaches that true moral guilt should be
acknowledged, not that false guilt should be fabricated. I will not dispute Nietzsche’s
second premise, except to qualify it by saying that although a life permeated by guilt
would be vitiating, sporadic occasions of guilt might not be life-negating. As Nietzsche
might himself admit, this would especially be true if the guilt were to serve as an
instrument of self-overcoming.[25] I will grant Nietzsche the third premise, although I do
not think it is universally true.[26] Nietzsche’s treatment fails to consider an important
aspect of the Christian claim. Christianity teaches that moral guilt can be overcome by
faith in divine grace. Guilt is an appropriate response to moral failing because guilt is,
theologically construed, the result of sin: the breaking of God’s moral law which renders
a moral agent culpably immoral before a holy God. But the guilt is not an end in itself, a
terminal point beyond which there is no advance; rather, it is meant to lead people to
repentance and faith in God’s provision through Jesus Christ. The Christian claim is that
faith is the assurance that one is forgiven of one’s sin and accepted by God. Therefore,
believing that God is omniscient (and morally good) and that God knows one’s
wrongdoing does not, in the Christian view, condemn one to a life permeated by an
enslaving and enervating guilt. We may agree that Christianity “promotes guilt” (or,
better, exposes guilt) inasmuch as it claims to illuminate humanity’s true moral condition
before a morally impeccable deity. But it only does this to the degree that it offers a
release from guilt through forgiveness and the restoration of character through divine
grace.
These comments illustrate, first, that Nietzsche has not really given us much
food for thought concerning God’s objective existence or non-existence. Yet God’s non-
existence is required for his cosmic amoralism; for if the Judeo-Christian God does in
fact exist, the cosmos as God’s creation has meaning, purpose, and value (“cosmological
values”), and is governed by God’s moral law.[27] Second, Nietzsche’s psychological
arguments against the healthiness of Christianity may also be defective (more on that
below).

V. The Critique of Opposite Values

Central to Nietzsche’s rejection of Christian ethics is his criticism of “opposite


values:” the notion of a fixed and strong polarity or antithesis in ethical evaluation. He
views this oppositional moral stance as life-negating and overly rigid. Instead of ethical
disjunctions such as good versus evil, Nietzsche wants to rank values in accord with their
ability to enhance “life” as he understands it. Unlike the “anti-naturalists” who want to
suppress and deny natural propensities (of whom Christians are the leading
representatives), Nietzschean creators are essentially affirmers and not negators.
Nietzsche says, “We immoralists have . . . made room in our hearts for every kind of

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understanding, comprehending and approving. We do not easily negate; we make it a
point of honor to be affirmers.”[28] Waiving the question of whether Nietzsche is
consistently an affirmer or whether he too uses opposite values in his many
condemnations of Christianity[29], it may be that his attack on Christian ethics is
nonetheless misguided. Nietzsche understands opposite values in Christian ethics as
rendering every moral action either entirely good or entirely evil, and this he rejects. But
a Christian can claim that God permits or employs certain evils to exist in order to further
a greater good. The existence of an evil is then viewed as instrumentally good and thus
morally justifiable for some larger providential end. But the deontological character of
Christianity still denounces evil actions as negative because they are performed with ill
intent and violate an objective moral law. Keeping the moral law is opposed to breaking
it; virtue is opposed to vice. These are opposite values in the Christian understanding.
Any positive consequence coming directly or indirectly from an evil is, in a sense,
incidental, and not essentially related to the conscious intent of the agent who perpetuates
the evil through a freely chosen action.
This is illustrated in the Old Testament passage where Joseph condemns the evil
intents and actions of his brothers (who sold him into slavery in Egypt) and still affirms
that though they meant it for evil, God meant it for good (Genesis 50:20). What was
deontologically evil (a violation of God’s law performed with ill intent by one person
against another) may be used as an instrumental (or teleological) good by God through in
accordance with larger providential purposes.
So it seems that Nietzsche sets up something of a straw man argument against
opposite values. Christianity does not teach that evil actions have no possible value;
rather, Christianity teaches that evil intentions and actions have no moral value
redounding to the moral agent in question because evil actions are deontologically
defective.[30] Nietzsche does not make a distinction between moral value imputed to
moral agents and teleological value (because for him there is no cosmic teleology).
Although Nietzsche so misconstrues the Christian claim, his rejection of the opposite
values held by Christianity has deleterious ramifications for his own view. For Nietzsche
there is but one scale of hierarchical value ranking, and absolute moral condemnation
(based on opposite values) is excluded in principle. In the matter of moral judgments, the
Christian (or any deontologist) fares far better than Nietzsche because of her employment
of strong deontological negation. For instance, it is absurd to affirm, as Nietzsche must,
that the value of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews versus the value of a valiant person’s
attempt to save Jews are simply “complementary value concepts,” with the value of the
hero’s action being “more valuable” than Hitler’s atrocities. Hitler’s actions should be
negated outright as immoral, not put on a ranking scale.[31] It is questionable whether
Nietzsche could negate Hitler outright given his ethical assertions.[32] Inasmuch as he
cannot, his system is lacking—to put it kindly. The reductio ad absurdum cuts deep and
wide.

VI. Absolute Morality As Life-Negating

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As we have seen, Nietzsche is committed to the idea that a universal and
absolute morality is constrictive and life-negating. I can have my virtue in common with
no one, and I should—an imperative creeps in—never prescribe my virtue for anyone
else. Yet Nietzsche seems to be prescribing the virtues of self-creation and self-
overcoming throughout his writings. Further, why should he imagine that virtues must be
unique to be authentic? Why should Nietzsche think that a common unifying goal with
determinate virtues should be poisonous to life? It seems he believes that it would destroy
individuals’ unique integrity; it would “level” the incorrigible plurality of personalities in
the world. He appears to be reasoning this way:
1. There is an incorrigible plurality of personalities in the world.
2. Each person is unique with unique potential which should not be squelched.
3. Mandated common goals and determinate, universal virtues oppose this
plurality by “leveling.”
4. Leveling is life-negating.
5. We should reject what is life-negating.
6. Christianity prescribes common goals and determinate, universal virtues.
7. Therefore, Christianity is life-negating and should be rejected as a universal
prescriptive system.
I will first consider Nietzsche’s third premise, and then his first premise. My
aim is to suggest that Nietzsche again misconstrues the position he opposes by giving less
than a fair representation of the position he rejects. His own position will look less
attractive if what he rejects is seen in a clearer light.
The Apostle Paul teaches that all the Christian’s activities should glorify God
(common goal) and that the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love should be present
and growing in all Christians.[33] There is a common attitudinal standard, or ideal
character. Christianity, contra Nietzsche, stresses one way, not many ways; one truth, not
many truths. Yet within this singular moral goal (the glorification of God) and view of
virtue (faith, hope, and love, to simplify), great existential diversity is allowed and even
encouraged. There need not be, as Nietzsche claims, the kind of leveling that suppresses
human potential.[34] But how is this so? The Apostle Paul also stresses the diversity of
gifts, abilities, and personalities among Christians and emphasizes that a certain division
of labor is appropriate in Christian behavior.[35] Within the single ethical telos of
glorifying God by developing virtue there fits very nicely a plurality of personal projects
or divine callings. Yet these projects are not arbitrarily chosen or completely self-created.
The diversity of personal projects is consonant with the unified goal of moral purpose and
objective standards; there is unity without suffocating uniformity.
For example, under normal circumstances it would be absurd for a stuttering,
shy, and less than lucid person with an incredible gift for painting to be a preacher.[36]
To pursue the personal project of preaching would be inauthentic and life-negating. This
person has been gifted in art. But nothing in Christianity demands that he become a
preacher. He should rather be a painter! Gifts are given in order to be used appropriately,
but all toward the same end—the glorification of God and the development of
determinate virtues: faith, hope, and love. This need not in any way destroy the

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personality, ability or inclinations of individual Christians.
The Christian doctrine that humans are all created “in the image of God” claims
that they are not essentially different from each other; there is a human nature, however
varied in its expression. This disputes the idea of Premise One: that the diversity of
different types of people reduces to incommensurability. Christianity claims that God,
having created humans in his image, knows what is best for these moral agents. Some
activities and attitudes—such as theft and covetousness—are best avoided by all people
because they are not conducive to life as it ought to be lived. Defending the Christian
doctrine of human nature would take us far beyond the scope of this paper, but the point
is that the common goals and standards prescribed in a theistic morality do not
necessarily demand the life-negating leveling that Nietzsche envisioned.
The Christian claims is that God’s commands are not opposed to human
realization but are in accord with it. And history attests the fact that a great diversity of
personalities—from the gentle strength of St. Francis to the melancholic brilliance of
Blaise Pascal to the incorrigible effervescence G. K. Chesterton—have claimed to find
significance, moral development, and a flowering of individual potential within the
Christian moral framework. For these witnesses, the restraining of the flesh does not
entail the destruction of one’s unique personality, but rather its flourishing.
Although Nietzsche often affirms a radical relativism regarding virtues and
value-creation, he does say in Zarathustra, “A thousand goals have there been so far, for
there have been a thousand peoples. Only the yoke for the thousand necks is still lacking:
the one goal is lacking. Humanity still has no goal. But tell me my brothers, if humanity
still lacks a goal—is humanity itself not still lacking too?”[37] A Christian theist would
agree with this description, but would offer a radically different prescription: the yoke of
Christ himself.[38]
This critique has raised several troublesome questions about Nietzsche’s ethics.
His rejection of Christian ethics has been shown to be unconvincing because Christian
ethics (properly construed) does not seem to fall prey to the difficulties Nietzsche
ascribes to it with respect to opposite values and life-negation. Nietzsche’s rejection of
Christian ethics is radical, thorough, and blistering, but it remains less philosophically
cogent than his triumphant tone might tempt us to believe.

Endnotes

[1] Nietzsche said, “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “Maxims and Arrows,” section 26; in Walter Kauffman, ed., The
Portable Nietzsche (New York: Viking Press, 1975), 470.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, edited by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1968), 13.

[3] Although Nietzsche struggled against nihilism, and credits its advance to Christian decadence, he agrees
with its cosmic amoralism.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in Kaufmann, 171.

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[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, edited by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1969), 327.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (New York: Vintage, 1966), 44.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1985),
43.

[9] Nietzsche also held a metaphysical reason for rejecting oughts because they implied an impossible
counterfactual conditions which would alter the entire cosmos, but we will not pursue this here.

[10] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, edited by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), 266.

[11] Nietzsche, The Will To Power, 210.

[12] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in Kaufmann, 491.

[13] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 298.

[14] The Antichrist, in Kaufmann, 570.

[15] See Thomas L. Carson, “The Ubermensch and Nietzsche’s Theory of Value,” International Studies in
Philosophy, Vol. XIII (1981), 9-30.

[16] Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in Kaufmann, 308.

[17] Ibid., 228.

[18] The Will to Power, 503.

[19] Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in Kaufmann, 125.

[20] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 519.

[21] Of course, if Nietzsche can exhaustively and compellingly explain Christianity’s origin and
continuation by means of non-supernatural historical and psychological factors he would have explained
away the essential truth claims of the faith. But this is a tall epistemic order and one which he has not
fulfilled. For more on this see Keith E. Yandell, The Epistemology of Religious Experience (New York:
NY: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 119-159.

[22] Nietzsche, The Antichrist, in Kaufmann, 581-82.

[23] See Nietzsche, The Gay Science, in Kaufmann, 95-96.

[24] Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in Kaufmann, 378-79.

[25] This is a debatable claim which I won’t try to substantiate; nothing rests on it for my argument to
proceed.

[26] Martyrdom or other types of supererogatory self-sacrifice may be appropriate in some cases. Given
Christian theism, the giving of one’s life for the faith is not ultimately life-negating, but rather affirms one’s

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belief in eternal life.

[27] The point stands whether one believes that God’s nature grounds the moral law or whether the moral
law is somehow distinct from God but that God, as a perfectly good being, abides by it and wills it for his
creatures. For a convincing defense of the former thesis, see James G. Hanik and Gary R. Mar, “What
Euthyphro Couldn’t Have Said,” Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 4, No. 3 (July 1987), 241-61.

[28] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in Kaufmann, 491.

[29] See Nietzsche strong negations of Christianity throughout The Antichrist, for example.

[30] I am here only concerned with moral evil committed by human agents, not the problems of “natural
evil,” such as natural catastrophes beyond human control, or demonic evil.

[31] While the Christian can reject Hitlerian atrocities outright, it is not as simple to find the instrumental or
teleological value therein. But the distinction of moral and teleological values need not demand that one
always be able to discern what the teleological value might be. In some cases it may be much more obvious
than in others. This raises the problem of evil which cannot be discussed here.

[32] This criticism does not concern the issue of whether Nietzsche’s own philosophy is compatible with
Nazism; it rather deals with a weakness in his system which makes it prey to these kinds of criticisms.

[33] We will not here take up the unity of the virtues thesis verses Nietzsche’s “enmity of the virtues” thesis
except to say that Christianity denies an enmity view.

[34] If, of course, Nietzsche can hold to a view of potential-inhibition at all, given what he has said about
deep character.

[35] See I Corinthians 12-14; Romans 12:1-8; Ephesians 4:1-13, for instance.

[36] There are several cases in the Bible where God specially calls unlikely people for extraordinary roles,
but I’m concerned with the normal operation of gifts and opportunities. Even when unlikely people perform
God-ordained roles, they still find significance and fulfillment in their tasks, however counter-intuitive the
roles may seen.

[37] Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in Kaufmann, 172.

[38] See Matthew 11:28-30.

Douglas Groothuis (Ph.D., University of Oregon) is professor of philosophy at Denver


Seminary, where he has served since 1993. He has written ten books, including On
Pascal and On Jesus (both in the Wadsworth Philosophers Series), and he served as
contributing editor for Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World.
Copyright ©2005 Douglas Groothuis. All rights reserved. This article may be reproduced and circulated
only as “freeware,” without charge. For all other uses, please contact Douglas Groothuis to request
permission.

This article can be read online at: http://www.ivpress.com/groothuis/doug/archives/000116.php

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