One of the most misunderstood yet most used Nietzsche‘s quote is “God is dead”. Christians claim that this quote signifies the emptiness of atheism. For example, Ravi Zacharias, the Hindu turned Christian apologist always quote Nietzsche and “God is dead!” as proof of atheism “emptiness”. Misinformed Christians, even, say, “This is a shattered appearance of Atheism in Nietzsche poem. It has the stare of death, looking into the barren desert of emptiness and hopelessness. The Nietzschean dogma, which dawned with the lantern being smashed to the ground, now ends in the darkness of the grave.”
Christians thought that when they attacked Nietzsche, they automatically attacked atheism. They seem to make Nietzsche the Jesus Christ of atheism. But in reality, attacking Nietzsche’s view is not the refutation of atheism. Nietzsche’s philosophy is not relevant to whether god exists or not. Also, Nietzsche’s view in morality has nothing to do with atheism. Atheism does not logically entail any theory of ethics. An atheist can accept nihilism or not, it doesn’t matter. Remember, an atheist can agree with any secular theories of ethics like objectivism and relativism.
Is the death of a god, what atheism really wants? Geeweez, how can something that doesn’t exist die? An atheist is not the mortician of the gods.
So what does Nietzsche mean when he said that “God is dead”?
Maybe it’s best that we read the story first before we analyzed and criticized it. The story of the “madman” can be found in Nietzsche’s work “The Gay Science” (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft), his last aphoristic work, first published in 1882. Section 108 (New Struggles), in section 125 (The Madman), and for a third time in section 343 (The Meaning of our Cheerfulness)
 The Madman. Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in thebright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seekGod! I seek God!” As many of those who do not believe in God were standingaround just then, he provoked much laughter. Why? Did he get lost? Said one. Didhe lose his way like a child? Said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us?Has he gone on a voyage? Or emigrated? Thus they yelled and laughed. The madmanjumped into their midst and pierced them with his glances.“Whither is God” he cried. I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from the sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as thought an infinite nothing? Do we feel the breath of empty space?
Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while?Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of thenoise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell yet of God’sdecomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we havekilled him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bledto death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is therefor us to clean ourselves? What festival of atonement, what sacted games shallwe have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must notwe ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been agreater deed: and whoever will be born after us – for the sake of this deed hewill be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners: and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground and it broke and went out. “I come too early,” he said then; “my time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering – it has not yet reached the ears of man. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars --- and yet they have done it themselves.”
It has been related further that on the same day the madman entered divers churches andthere sang his requiem aeternam deo. Let out and called to account, he is saidto have replied each time, “What are these churches now if they are not thetombs and sepulchers of God?”
Christians claim that the story shows atheism according to Nietzsche, means hopelessness and meaningless of life. That is not the case. It also doesn’t mean that God is physically dead. God cannot die. Not because he is omnipotent or immortal. God will not die because a fiction does not die. Mythological bestiaries are not governed by the laws concerning life and death. The gods, as manufactured by mortals in their own image and likeness to make life bearable is an illusion. You cannot murder an illusion.
It is Nietzsche's way of saying that the idea of God is no longer able of giving us source of moral code or teleology. God is dead, then, in the sense that his existence is now irrelevant to the bulk of humanity. The same sentiments are found on John Shelby Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change or Die: “The God of our traditional past, who was the source of our values, the definer of our sense of right or wrong, was simply no more. We, like the Jews of the old, has been forcefully removed from all that had previously given life meaning. The God we once worshiped has been obliterated before our eyes. We no longer knew who God was or indeed who we were” (ibid p.40)
Nietzsche identifies the predicament which the death of God corresponds to the existing moral considerations. According to Nietzsche, "When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one's hands.”
So, the shattered lantern means Christian morals, not atheism as Christians misinterpret it.
This is why in "The Madman"; the madman addresses the atheists (those who do not believe in God) about the problem to preserve any system of ethics in the absence of a divine order.
Nietzsche believes that Christian morality will not help us on the threat of nihilism and since we have “killed God” we are left with no epistemological or moral base from which we can derive absolute beliefs. He explained that Christian morality and pieties are incapable of providing men with real moral basis. We must go beyond the simple Christian idea of good and evil. Nietzsche also said that Christian morals are the morality of paltry people as the measure of all things. It is the morality of the herd, a slave morality. (Most of Nietzsche’s criticisms towards Christianity are found in his book, “Twilight of the Idols, published in 1888.)
The death of God is a way of saying that humans are no longer able to believe in any cosmic order since they themselves no longer recognize it. The death of God will lead, Nietzsche says, not only to the rejection of a belief of cosmic or physical order, but also to a rejection of absolute values themselves — to the rejection of belief in an objective and universal moral law, binding upon all individuals. In this manner, the loss of an absolute basis for morality leads to nihilism. Out of the death of God come active nihilism and the rise of supermen. There will be wars such as there have never been on earth before (He was certainly right on nihilism, but perhaps not about the “superman” who will inherit his concept – John P.). Nietzsche believed that the majority of people did not recognize or refused to acknowledge this death out of deep-seated fear. Therefore, when the death did begin to become widely acknowledged, people would despair and nihilism would become rampant, as well as the relativistic belief that human will is a law unto itself—anything goes and all is permitted.
Today, we are now living in a nihilistic social order, a post-modern society where black and white is hard to distinguish. Nihilism took root in the shady area between the flagging Christian era and the post-Christian era. To Nietzsche, nihilism is the consequence of any idealistic philosophical system, because all idealisms suffer from the same weakness as Christian morality. Relativism due to different religious belief seems to take its toll.
The recognition that "God is dead" would be like a blank canvas so being a Nietzschean means proposing alternative hypothesis. Nietzsche's remedy for nihilism is a revaluation of morals. He introduces transvaluation. This concept is beyond atheism. According to this concept atheism is not an end in itself. I even heard this reaction once in Luneta when a man asked me, “What’s the purpose of atheism if it’s just debates about the existence of god?” Do away with God, yes, but then what? Another morality, a new ethic, values never before have thought of because it seems to be unthinkable? According to Nietzsche, this innovation is what makes it possible to arrive at atheism and to surpass it.
In Section 108 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche wrote, “God is Dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. And we—we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.”
On Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, Section XXII,3
'DEAD ARE ALL THE GODS: NOW DO WE DESIRE THE SUPERMAN TO LIVE.'
Nietzsche believes in the rise of the Ubermensch (supermen). Men who desires through his will to power, which for him is just the will to live a higher, more productive state of being. He indicates that his superman is like Aristotle’s ethical ideal, the great-souled man.
I hope that this article have cleared this misconception.
Until next time,
Sources: The Portable Nietzsche - Edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann
Atheist Manifesto – The case against Christianity, Judaism and Islam by Michael Onfrey
Philosophy for Beginners by Richard Osborne
Why Christianity Must Change or Die by John Shelby Spong
Can Man Live Without God? By Ravi Zacharias
A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism by Ravi Zacharias