Nietzsche is identified as the arch-atheist of the culminating 19th century, the prophet of the Death of God and of Christianity. Like like many thinkers, Nietzsche described what he saw and what influenced him. Thus his reflections on Jesus are remarkably mild, remarkably positive.
Atheism is neither relevant nor contributory to this process, working to demolish rather than to understand. Nietzsche’s “philosophizing with a hammer” (the subtitle of Twilight of the Idols is “How to Philosophize with a Hammer”) is also an exaggeration, as his translator Walter Kaufmann points out. Nietzsche isn’t demolishing anything; he taps each idol to discover if it hollow.
In the 20th century, the demythologizing of Jesus begun in the Enlightenment culminated in the “historical Jesus” movement. The archaeological discoveries of the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea documents and apocryphal writings, plus the rise of exegesis and content criticism largely confirm the consensus about the historical Jesus. Also relevant was the rise of knowledge about Eastern thought that would provide a context to universal ideas.
Here are a couple of examples. Already in the mid-18th century, the deist Thomas Jefferson had written:
To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.
By doctrines, Jefferson makes clear that he refers to the virtues and ethics Jesus taught. And in the 19th century, French writer Ernst Renan says in his biography of Jesus:
Never has anyone been less a priest than Jesus, never a greater enemy of form, which stifles religion under the pretext of protecting it. By this, we are all his disciples and his successors; by this he has laid the eternal foundation stone of true religion; and if religion is essential to humanity, he has by this deserved the divine rank the world has accorded to him. An absolutely new idea, the idea of a worship founded on purity of heart, and on human brotherhood, through him entered into the world — an idea so elevated that the Christian Church ought to make it its distinguishing feature, but an idea which in our days only few minds are capable of embodying …
Whatever may be the transformation of dogma, Jesus will ever be the creator of pure religion; the Sermon on the Mount will never be surpassed. Whatever revolution takes place will not prevent us from attaching ourselves in religion to the grand intellectual and moral line at the head of which shines the name of Jesus. In this sense, we are Christian, even if we separate ourselves on almost all points from the Christian tradition which has preceded us.
Although he thought Renan too romantic, Nietzsche was equally interested in a human and humane Jesus rather than in a refined secularization of Jesus. He essentially salvages the core values of what can now be linked to Eastern thought in general and religious thought universally. These values are not so much ethics as a method or philosophy of how to live.
Nietzsche’s portrayal of the historical Jesus is startlingly at odds with the anti-Christian bombast of many predecessors, including much of his own work and specifically The Antichrist and Twilight of the Idols, where his most delicate passages on Jesus are found. Kaufmann notes that Antichrist could better be titled Antichristian, referring to the institutional “Christian” as his chief opponent, the adherent to authority, using the pointed vocabulary of slave morality in his exploration of the genealogy of Western morals.
Like earlier philosophers, Nietzsche rescues Jesus from both Judaism and Christianity. Nietzsche’s exceptionalism rescues Jesus as much from the atheists as well. This is because Nietzsche detects in Jesus not a dreamer, an idealist, a magiciana or a fraud (as do atheists) but a philosopher, and, therefore, a kindred spirit. The parallel is to Zarathustra, a philosopher misunderstood by the masses, offering a message doomed to fall on deaf ears, if not to be distorted for a nefarious purpose. Jesus is, like Nietzsche’s alter-ego Zarathustra, a “hermit” philosopher.
If I understand anything at all about this great symbolist, it is this: that he regarded only subjective realities as realities, as “truths” — that he saw everything else, everything natural, temporal, spatial and historical, merely as signs, as materials for parables. The concept of “the son of God” does not connote a concrete person in history, an isolated and definite individual, but an “eternal” fact, a psychological symbol set free from the concept of time. The same thing applies, and in the highest sense, to the God of this typical symbolist, of the “kingdom of God,” and of the “sonship of God.”
Nothing could be more unchristian than the crude ecclesiastical notions of God as a person, of a “kingdom of God” that is to come, of a “kingdom of heaven” beyond, and of a “son of God” as the second person of the Trinity. All this — if I may be forgiven the phrase — is like thrusting one’s fist into the eye (and what an eye!) of the gospels: a disrespect for symbols amounting to world-historical cynicism.
The “kingdom of heaven” is a state of the heart — not something to come “beyond the world” or “after death.” The whole idea of natural death is absent from the gospels: death is not a bridge, not a passing; it is absent because it belongs to a quite different, a merely apparent world, useful only as a symbol. The “hour of death” is not a Christian idea — “hours,” time, the physical life and its crises have no existence for the bearer of “glad tidings.”
The “kingdom of heaven” is not something that people wait for: it had no yesterday and no day after tomorrow; it is not going to come at a “millennium” — it is an experience of the heart, it is everywhere and it is nowhere.
This “bearer of glad tidings” died as he lived and taught — not to “save mankind,” but to show mankind how to live. It was a way of life that he bequeathed to man: his demeanor before the judges, before the officers, before his accusers — his behavior on the cross. He does not resist; he does not defend his rights; he makes no effort to ward off the most extreme penalty. On the contrary, he provokes it. And he begs, he suffers and he loves with those, in those, who do him evil. Not to defend one’s self, not to show anger, not to blame others. On the contrary, to submit even to the evil one — to love him, was nothing other than this practice — nor was his death anything else. The deep instinct for how one must live, in order to feel oneself “in heaven,” to feel “eternal,” while in all other behavior one decidedly does not feel oneself “in heaven” — this alone is the psychological reality of “redemption.” A new way of life, not a new faith.
These passages from The Antichrist, 33-35, place the historical Jesus with the sages of the East and the philosophers of life in the West. The concept of living in the present has become hackneyed and abused today, but the historical Jesus assembling common people to understand and practice the values of community are timeless. Together, the wise and the simple could order their lives into a kingdom of heaven would they but heed the sages.
This is not to say, of course, that Nietzsche was innocent of great bluster and belligerence, but those who claim that Nietzsche’s last ideas and works (published posthumously) were beset by insanity have only to read these passages on Jesus to know that Nietzsche was, on the contrary, in this instance, generous and soulful, striving for some personal accord that he would, however, never attain.