The Dark Wisdom of the Madman: When a Society Starts Acting Like Atheists

By J. Aaron White

Getting to Know Ol’ What’s His Name

I had never heard of Friedrich Nietzsche, and I certainly had no idea how to spell his name. Yet, in an effort to bite off more than I could chew and push myself intellectually, I purchased a copy of R. C. Sproul’s classic work, The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped Our World. Within the first ten minutes of reading it, I knew it would be a seminal book in my life. Moreover, his biographical sketch of the life and philosophy of a man born in Leipzig in 1844 arrested my attention more than the others. Though figures such as Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud have all proffered ideas that have had massive influence over modern culture, it is Nietzsche whose thoughts dared to cut dangerously close to the marrow of modern thinking. In short, I realized that Nietzsche and his nihilistic worldview helped to explain our current cultural moment better than his colleagues…and with bone-chilling implications.

The Madman Speaks

The now-infamous phrase God is dead finds its genesis in Nietzsche’s thought. Though his philosophical writings (e.g., The Will to Power, Thus Spake Zarathustra) are voluminous and complex, his atheistic worldview can be boiled down to one word—nihilism. Nietzsche agreed with Charles Darwin in that there is no inherent meaning or value in a materialistic world, one brought about by mindless, non-spiritual random chance. However, Nietzsche was not content to be a polite atheist, one who lives as if moral objectivity existed. He was willing to press the idea that God is dead to its sinister conclusions. In one of his books, Nietzsche offers the following parable to make his point. The madman in the story rebukes the townspeople for failing to see the implications of an atheistic worldview:

The madman. Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? Asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? Asked another…The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God? He cried. “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained the earth from its sun? …How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe the blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.[1]

The madman in Nietzsche’s story is the wise one. The mocking townspeople are the smug, ignorant masses who fail to come to grips with the implications of an atheistic worldview. Carl Trueman unpacks the meaning of this dark parable: “The basic point is that the foundation of religion may have been exposed as false [i.e., during the Enlightenment], but the influence of religion, the systems of life and thought built on it, continue to live on, up until the present day…Nietzsche wants to put an end to this.”[2] In other words, Nietzsche wanted atheists to act like atheists.

Growing Impatient with Darwin

For Nietzsche, the affirmation that God is dead (i.e., non-existent) demanded a full-orbed overhaul of culture, ethics, social norms, etc. Rather than waiting for nature to take its course, Nietzsche asserted that the will to power was what mattered. Rather than fighting to preserve the species, man must assert himself, chart his own course, and seize power for himself. For Nietzsche, Christianity represented the antithesis of the authentic life. Rather than self-assertion, war, and grabbing for power, Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies, bless the poor, and seek the honor of others. Nietzsche saw Christianity as the main weapon used by the weak-minded to control the truly strong and powerful by demanding adherence to morality and civility. For Nietzsche, the morality of the herd sought to inhibit the morality of the strong, the masters of society who were willing to act like God is dead rather than merely talk about it. Nietzsche posited the idea of an Ubermensch (i.e., superman) as his ideal human. Sproul explains:

Nietzsche’s superman is a conqueror. Nature is vindicated, not by the masses who are merely able to survive, but by the few gifted persons who are geniuses and supermen…They are simply superior individuals such as have appeared from time to time throughout history. They include such figures as Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon Bonaparte…Nietzsche’s superman, who is supremely courageous, is the man who, knowing that there are no values, creates his own.[3]

The madman was right. If God is truly dead, the implications are staggering. Ordering one’s life as if transcendent moral values mattered is foolish. In short, God’s death means that the truly noble human is the one who courageously asserts their will, creating their own destiny, despite knowing that life has no inherent meaning.

When It’s Not Funny Anymore

Nietzsche’s ideas, like his wide-eyed madman, are laughable at first…but a pregnant silence often follows. What if someone took Nietzsche at his word and sought to become the superman, the one who asserts his own will to power and lived as if God did not exist? Moreover, what would happen if an entire society, steeped in therapeutic humanism and self-expression, decided to act on the madman’s wisdom? Dear friends, I fear that the dark wisdom of the madman is being heeded by the masses in our day—and it is not funny anymore. In fact, it is terrifying. This is so because, according to Nietzsche, “human beings are rather to create themselves, to be free of the demands that the idea of a Creator or a metaphysically grounded morality or an abstract and universal concept of human nature would impose on them.”[4] It is my conviction that our current cultural moment is nauseatingly close to barbarism. Unsurprisingly, Nietzsche felt that the barbaric societies of ages past were the most liberated and authentic humans since they asserted their will to power and dominance. The spirit of the age is one marked by unfettered self-expression, wanton disregard for objective morality, and the applauding and deifying of those individuals who assert their own will with no regard for their acceptance by society. In short, “In those days there was no king…everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

There is Only One True Superman

Despite trying to live as if man is king, the fact remains (and conscience bears witness to it) that a true leader, a genuine superman indeed exists. Rather than billions of humans donning faded crowns and issuing their own moral edicts, there is one King who sits upon his throne and rules over everyone and everything. God is not dead; he is risen indeed. In an age of violent self-centeredness, Christians are called to compassionately and courageously herald the good news that King Jesus offers terms of peace to rebels like us. Rather than living by our own standards, he calls us to surrender, to repent of our rebellion and come under his gentle, loving, joy-giving rule and reign. Jesus Christ is the Lord, the lawgiver who determines right and wrong. He is the one who declares, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17-18). Thinking God was dead, Nietzsche’s madman called for humans to live life to the fullest despite knowing it had no meaning. King Jesus calls his people to lay down their lives and take up their crosses, knowing that the suffering of this life can’t compare with the glory that awaits those who trust in him (Rom. 8:18). Friends, go and plead with the world to stop listening to the dark wisdom of the madman and beg them to bow to King Jesus while there is still time.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche “The Gay Science” quoted by Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 167.

[2] Ibid., 169.

[3]R. C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped Our World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000), 166-167.

[4] Trueman, The Rise and Triumph, 174.

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