The prophetic madman who cried ‘God is dead’

By: Jose Sánchez-Perry

Frederick Nietzsche

In seminary — at my very open-minded seminary — I never get tired of hearing about the many historical atrocities that Christianity has caused throughout the centuries. This is not a test of our faith, presumably; but an attempt to be consciously aware of our religious faults and bigotries. With similar intents, it seems, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible declared the erroneous choices of the kings and the people, exhorting they should return to YWHW. Thus, many of the orations from the prophets began by saying, “Hear this word that the LORD has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt (Amos 3:1).” Or again, “Now the LORD is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate” (Isaiah 24:1). And finally, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (Jeremiah 7:3).

This is hardly an Old Testament notion. Some portions of the New Testament are similar in nature. When John the Baptist saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, knowing they were oppressors, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7)? And again, while standing on the plain, Jesus declared, “Woe to you who is rich; woe to you who is not hungry, and to the one who is happy” (Luke 6:24-26). I wonder how many of us would like to say this in our high-middle class churches. When Paul was informed that his congregation had withdrawn from the truth of the gospel, he wrote to them, “You foolish Galatians” (Galatians 3:1).

In its appropriate context, the prophets declared a return to the ways of God. So when Isaiah affirmed that the LORD had made the earth a wasteland, he attempted to point out the people’s social space and situation while they were in exile. This could also be deduced about the dialogues that Jesus and the Apostles had, since both they and the Pharisees and the Sadducees were all Jews. The relationship between prophets and the people has always been erratic. And here I wish to point out an example from the 19th century, a madman named Friedrich Nietzsche.

In some strange way, almost like Jesus did in the Gospels, Nietzsche makes his point by telling a parable:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, I seek God! I seek God!

Those who were standing in the market place began to laugh at the madman. It seems to be the case that the madman’s inquiry was delivered to those who did not believe in God. “Has he got lost?” asked one of them. “Did he lose his way like a child?” asked another.

Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed.

Suddently, the madman jumped into their dwelling, pierced them with his eyes and cried, “God is dead!” “We have killed him; you and I.”

While the tone of the story remains dark and isolated, Nietzsche’s prophetic imagination rises from the madman’s investigation. “But how did we do this?” he asks. How could humans perform such a deed, “drink up the sea?”, “wipe away the horizon?”, and “unchain the earth from the sun?” Nietzsche was a product of modernity and the industrialization. In a nut shell, modernity—for Nietzsche—is what killed God. Modernity attempted to discover all things, and find an answer to all things; perhaps inquiries that were erroneously pursued. And at the climax of the death of anything divine, the madman has to ask:

Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

Those sound like the lyrics of a hardcore song—anyone?

As the madman continued, those in the market place became silent, and stared at him with astonishment. In a last attempt to persuade them, he threw his lamp to the ground and said, “I have come to early . . . this deed [the death of God] is still more distant from them than the most distant stars and yet they have done it themselves.” Nietzsche’s point was that the enterprise of modernity—and the religious categories that subsequently followed—had not yet realized their atrocity. Like the prophets of old, Nietzsche wanted a return to a time when that which was holy and mightiest had not yet “bled to death under our knives.”

Like some other prophets Nietzsche was a scandalous, promiscuous, and strange individual. But I suppose that if we read him in the appropriate context, he was pointing to what had not yet come, but was already initiated. The madman who cried, “God is dead!” attempted to exhort a people who were lost. He brought the light to them, but the people laughed in return.

Here is a link to the parable:


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