Nietzsche’s Critique of Christianity: His 3 Main Points

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" by Friedrich Nietzsche. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity? What are his criticisms about the belief in God?

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra to explain his philosophical views on life and humanity. In the novel, Nietzsche provides a critique of Christianity, criticizing the Christian idea of what humans are, the belief in God, and the concept of virtue.

Read on to learn about Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, according to Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Nietzsche’s Critique of Christianity

In Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his protagonist Zarathustra probably spends more time warning his hearers what not to do and be than he spends teaching them how to act. And most of his warnings hinge on Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity and all the “good people” of the Christian church who endorse and enforce the social values taught by Christianity.

In this article, we’ll explain one perspective on Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity by contrasting Zarathustra’s philosophical teachings with what he says Christians believe and practice.

#1: Criticizing the Christian Idea About What Humans Are

Christianity teaches that your body and soul are distinct from one another. Your body is the part of you that exists in the physical realm, while your soul exists in a spiritual realm, where it can live on after your body dies. But in Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, Zarathustra argues that trying to separate the physical from the spiritual is unhealthy because it leads Christians to emphasize the importance of spiritual wellbeing while de-emphasizing the importance of physical wellbeing. We can infer that in his view, you can’t have a healthy spirit without having a healthy body, since Zarathustra believes your spirit is just part of your body.

(Shortform note: While practically all Christians agree that your spirit isn’t just part of your body and will experience an afterlife, they have differences of opinion on exactly how your spirit and body relate to each other on earth. Some Christians, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, advocate spiritual well-being even at the expense of physical well-being through asceticism, just as Zarathustra alleges. But other Christians, such as Norman Vincent Peale, argue that your body and spirit are so intimately connected that you have to keep your spirit healthy in order to keep your body healthy.)

#2: Criticizing the Belief in God

In Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, he contends that God and the whole spiritual reality that Christians believe in are imaginary, and he provides both emotional and rational reasons for his position in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. At the emotional level he says that he cannot believe in the existence of superhuman gods because if they existed, he couldn’t stand to live as a mere human.

Zarathustra’s rational argument hinges on God’s identity as creator of the world. Zarathustra argues that God could not have created the world because God, by definition, is perfect, and the world is so full of imperfections and randomness that it cannot be the creation of a perfect God. Therefore the world must be the product of random processes, and God must not exist.

How God Can Create an Imperfect World

Christians have offered at least two counterarguments to Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity and Zarathustra’s allegation that the world is too imperfect and random to have been created by a perfect God. 

One attributes all the disorder and imperfection in the world to humans’ rebellion against God’s created order. God created a perfect world, but humans corrupted creation through sin. A variation of this argument attributes part of the blame to Satan, who also rebelled against God and tempted the first humans to do likewise. 

The other argument is that this world is perfect for the purposes that God intended it for. God never intended this world to last forever. Instead, he created it as a temporary staging ground for all the drama of human history. All its “imperfections” like death and disease ultimately work out for the best, whether by refining people’s character, preventing people from committing greater sins against each other, or serving some other purpose. And someday, when human history has run its course, God will destroy this universe and create a new, more permanent world where people who were reconciled to God in this life will live with him forever.

The Benefit of Randomness

Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity goes on to say that this random, imperfect, ever-changing world is better than any perfect, eternal world that God could have created. This is because creativity and progress are possible in this world and are what make life meaningful. But in a perfect, unchanging world, there would be nothing left to create, and therefore no reason to live.

(Shortform note: Some Christians would disagree with Zarathustra’s assertion that creativity is only meaningful in a world created by random processes. They assert that creativity is one way humans can both glorify God and relate to God because creativity is a trait that reflects God’s character as the creator. This makes creativity an important virtue for Christians as well as for disciples of Zarathustra, since Christians find purpose and meaning in their relationship with God.)

#3: Criticizing the Christian Concept of Virtue

When Zarathustra discusses how humans ought to live, he often contrasts his perspective with that of the Christian church. Thus Spoke Zarathustra presents Nietzsche’s perspective on virtue—here, we’ll recap Nietzsche’s values briefly to show the key contrasts with Christianity that he discusses in his critique of Christianity:

  • Zarathustra promotes individuality, arguing that right and wrong are not the same for everyone.
  • Christianity promotes conformity to an objective standard of right and wrong.
  • Zarathustra teaches self-love. Christianity teaches selflessness.
  • Zarathustra advises you to be joyful and passionate. Christians tend to be solemn and temperate.
  • Zarathustra thinks the concept of justice is counterproductive. Christians believe in moral and civil justice. 
  • Zarathustra believes that the desire for power is not only wholesome but crucial to the advancement of humankind. Christians warn that desiring power is unwholesome. 
How Well Did Zarathustra Describe Christianity?

The way Zarathustra portrays Christians as he contrasts his views with theirs is arguably inaccurate, or at least incomplete. Let’s round out his description of what Christianity teaches on the subjects he mentions:

Individuality: Zarathustra is correct that Christians promote conformity to a moral standard, but they also promote some amount of individuality under that moral standard. Christians refer to the Bible as a standard of objective morality, but the Bible also teaches that God gives individual Christians unique tasks to do or roles to fill

Some Christians, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, have taken the concept of Christian individuality even further, arguing that every true Christian has a dynamic, personal relationship with Christ: Christ tells you exactly what to do, and true Christianity consists of obeying Christ, not conforming to codified doctrines, per se. Presumably, this doesn’t turn into relative morality, because Christ would never tell you to steal or murder or do other things that the Bible says are evil, but it does make virtue a very personal matter, much as Zarathustra’s perspective does.

Self-love: Zarathustra’s perception that Christians encourage you to be selfless, not selfish, is mostly correct, though there are nuances to how Christians address the concept of self-love. Some Christians point out that for Christ’s commandment to “love your neighbor like you love yourself” to be meaningful, you have to love yourself. But other Christians caution that humans are so innately self-loving that deliberately practicing self-love is counterproductive. Instead, they argue the focus of Christ’s commandment is on loving others, which is a constant challenge.

Joy: It’s possible that the Christians Nietzsche personally met were solemn or even miserable people, but if so, they were not representative of Christianity as whole. The Bible urges Christians to be joyful and thankful, regardless of their circumstances, and religious people are statistically happier than non-religious people.

Justice: Most Christians believe in civil justice consistent with Zarathustra’s description, but there are exceptions. For example, as we discussed earlier, Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed Christians should only look to God for justice, not to civil governments.

Power: As we’ve discussed, Zarathustra’s concept of the desire for power encompasses both the power to lead your life as you see fit and competition for power or superiority over other people. Since Christianity teaches that you should submit to God’s will, seek to help others, and avoid conflict with them to the extent practicable, at face value, Christian teaching is opposed to Zarathustra’s ideas about the desire for power.

However, there are some nuances that make the controversy less stark. For one thing, some Christians argue that accepting the salvation of Christ actually gives you greater control over your own actions. The idea is that after you become a Christian, God gives you power to overcome your own sinful nature. This, in turn, gives you more freedom to do what you believe is right and to refrain from evil. This could be considered a Christian analog to Zarathustra’s desire for power to live as you see fit.

Additionally, in discussing how competition for power creates a social hierarchy, Zarathustra says that your desire for power drives you to obey people who are too powerful for you to overcome. This is because you’ll still hold more power under them than you would have if you picked a fight with them and lost. If an all-powerful God exists, as Christians believe, then Christians who submit to God’s will could be seen as acting in accordance with Zarathustra’s advice to attain power by associating with more powerful entities. 
Nietzsche’s Critique of Christianity: His 3 Main Points

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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