The Death of God: Nietzsche’s Argument Explained

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 argument for the death of God? Why does he criticize Christianity?

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche explains his beliefs about life and philosophy in the influential novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra. According to Nietzsche, the death of God represents part of his argument against the spiritual reality that Christians believe in.

Read on to learn about Nietzsche’s argument for the death of God, based on Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

The Death of God & Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche’s fictitious novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra introduces the reader to Zarathustra, a prophet who is an avatar for Nietzsche and through whom he expounds his philosophy. In the novel, Nietzsche 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. According to Nietzsche, the death of God represents the death of a person who used to exist but has died.

In this article, we’ll explain Friedrich Nietzsche’s argument for the death of God, based on the descriptions found in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Criticism of the Belief in God

At the emotional level, Nietzsche 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.

(Shortform note: Based on Thus Spoke Zarathustra, we can infer that this is because Zarathustra’s purpose in life is to be a stepping stone on the pathway of human evolution. His ultimate goal for himself and all of humanity is to bring about the evolution of superhumans. But if superhuman deities already exist, then he would lose his purpose for living because they don’t need him to bring them into existence through human evolution. As a human in a world where superhuman deities exist, he would be an inferior being destined for extinction.)

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.

Why Nietzsche Says God Is Dead

While he sometimes argues directly for the nonexistence of God, in Nietzsche’s novel, he usually regards the death of God as the death of a person who used to exist but had recently died. He repeatedly remarks that “God is dead.” 

In several places in the novel, Nietzsche describes the death of God as the result of God being overwhelmed by the stress of his pity for mankind, becoming ill, and eventually dying. On one occasion in Nietzsche’s novel, Zarathustra meets the pope, who corroborates this account of the death of God. The pope claims to have been with God in his last hours and seen God die with his own eyes. 

But on another occasion, Zarathustra meets a man who confesses to having murdered God. His motive for murder was that he could not escape from God’s pity or from the shame that being pitied caused him.

(Shortform note: Nietzsche asserts that “God is dead” in some of his other books as well, where he elaborates further on what he means by it. Nietzsche believed that God only existed in your imagination, so God would “die” if you stopped believing in him. As such, Zarathustra’s various accounts of God’s death are simply poetic imagery that Nietzsche used to express his unbelief in God and highlight his perspective that pity was a vice.)

Nietzsche’s Views on an Afterlife

Since Nietzsche advocates for the death of God, what are his views on an afterlife? In the novel, Zarathustra argues that a human being is made up of a human body—not a body and soul, as some people believe. Zarathustra teaches that your soul, spirit, and consciousness are just parts or features of your body.

Zarathustra doesn’t believe in an afterlife in the usual sense, but he does believe in what he calls “eternal recurrence.” In his view, time is infinite in both directions: No matter when you live, there is always an infinite amount of time before and after you. He reasons that on this infinite timeline, everything that can happen eventually will happen. And eventually, it will all happen again. So after you die, someday in the eternal future, the same chain of events that led to your birth will happen again, and you will live again. 

(Shortform note: We can infer that, in Zarathustra’s teaching, when you ‘recur’ you have no memory of your previous lives. He doesn’t say this outright, but he never mentions memories of past lives. And if your memory is just part of your body, as he believes, then your memory would be destroyed when your body dies, so nothing would carry over to your next life.)

The Death of God: Nietzsche’s Argument Explained

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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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