The God on the Cross: How Christianity Rigged the System

Nietzsche on Dishonest Christians and the ‘Offense’ of the Crucifixion

David Clay / 5.12.20

This one was written by David Clay:

The second stanza of Weird Al’s affectionate send-up of Amish culture, “Amish Paradise,” opens with the narrator running into some trouble with the “English”:

A local boy kicked me in the butt last week
I just smiled at him and I turned the other cheek
I really don’t care, in fact I wish him well
‘Cause I’ll be laughing my head off when he’s burning in hell.

There’s a jarring incongruity between the narrator’s Amish pacifist ethic and his desire for ultimate (and incredibly disproportionate) revenge — and it’s pretty funny.

A decidedly unfunny variation on the same theme can be found in the church father Tertullian’s (d. 240 AD) book, On the Shows. Why should Christians avoid attending pagan theater productions and gladiator matches? In part because they can look forward to much better entertainment at the Last Judgment: “What an ample breadth of sights will be there then!” Tertullian chortles, before meticulously describing the melting flesh of provincial governors who had themselves burned Christians, the tragic actors making good use of their vocal abilities as they scream in torment, the pagan philosophers humiliated before their disciples as they all burn together, and so on and so forth. In depressingly inevitable fashion, he saves the Jews for last. It’s horrifying stuff, even when you account for the intense persecution of Christians occurring at the same time.

Edward Gibbon includes this passage in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, commenting that ancient Christians “were sometimes seduced by resentment and spiritual pride to delight in the prospect of their future triumph” over the then-dominant pagans. Gibbon’s observation reads like the thesis statement of another work reproducing the Tertullian passage, this one penned by a German classical scholar named Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. In the first essay of his seminal Genealogy of Morality (1887), Nietzsche cites Tertullian along with the Book of Revelation as evidence that Christians, for all their pious chatter about “forgiveness” and “loving your enemies,” really want victory and revenge every bit as much as their opponents.

And why shouldn’t they? Revenge is, as Homer pointed out, “sweeter than honey.” For Nietzsche, what’s contemptible about Christians isn’t their desire for ultimate victory over their foes (everyone wants that), but rather that they’re dishonest about it. Being a generally mediocre, insipid, and timid lot, they have underhandedly changed the rules of the game. Throughout history, and in all major cultures, the strong have dominated the weak in straightforward fashion. If you wanted ultimate validation, then you needed to be stronger and more glorious than everyone else. No one (or at least no one important) had a problem with this model for millennia. These Christians, however, have somehow pulled off a nasty bit of moral alchemy, making weakness desirable and strength detestable. The essay’s main business is giving an historical account of how this alchemy took place.

Nietzsche begins his investigation by examining the concept of “good” in ancient cultures spanning from Greece to Rome to Iran. It was common for the word “good” to carry the nuance of “high,” “well-born,” “strong.” The word “bad” denoted the opposite: “vulgar,” “plebeian,” “low.” Since the aristocrats held power, they defined what was good, and what was good was exactly what they possessed: physical strength, exuberance, victory, high spirits, glory, and domination. “Bad” was weakness, timidity, defeat, melancholy, humility, and submission.

For centuries, everything went along swimmingly — for the aristocrats. The dominated, the “plebeians,” naturally resented their overlords. They launched the occasional “slave revolt,” trying to fight the aristocrats on their own terms, but this was a risky business. Eventually, the dominated hit on a “cleverer” plan to give vent to their built-up resentment. They didn’t wage their revolution on a physical battlefield, but in the arena of language. Instead of the spectrum “good (high) vs. bad (low),” they substituted the spectrum “good vs. evil,” in which “evil” is defined precisely by the characteristics of their oppressors. For instance, “pride,” a great virtue in the old system, became a cardinal sin in the new.

Since the aristocrats had become definitionally evil, necessarily the weak and oppressed were now the “good.” Nietzsche details how the lower class fabricated new moral values: inability to take physical revenge became “gentleness” or even “forgiveness”; timidity and lowness became “humility”; impotence to take what they wanted became “patience”; and craven submission to authority “obedience.” Nietzsche stresses that the motive behind the creation of these new values was vengeance, which is now ever-so-piously placed in the hands of a God who prefers the weak. “We’ll be laughing our heads off while you’re burning….”

The plebeians have clearly won for the time being, at least in the West. Europeans, Nietzsche observes with near-physical revulsion, are growing “better-natured, cleverer, more comfortable, more mediocre, more indifferent, more Chinese, more Christian.” As a result, we’re tired of human beings. The old overlords could be terrifying, sure, but at least they got a lot out of life. At least they were interesting.


I’m not in a position to evaluate Nietzsche’s story from an historical/philological perspective. What I do know is that he has managed to hit on an unpleasant insight into the religious human’s soul. For those of us who aren’t particularly beautiful, or athletic, or creative, or good at making money, etc., “Christianity” can be an attractive route to claiming victory in the never-ceasing competition of life.
For example: as a kid, I was nothing to speak of physically; I had no artistic or musical talent; many of my peers tended to inch away if they found themselves somehow locked in conversation with me. But no matter — I knew an awful lot about the Bible, and wasn’t that better anyway?

On a similar note: those guys in high school who were good at getting with girls — clearly they were immoral, unlike virtuous (i.e., awkward) yours truly.

I’ve heard from other Christians, and I’ve heard from my own lips, phrases like “None of it matters if you don’t know Christ,” when confronted by a non-Christian who excels in an area in which the speaker would like to excel, but does not.

And so on and so forth. As Nietzsche describes in excruciating detail, Christians use their religion as a means of venting envy, fear, hatred, resentment, and insecurity every last day of the week. Even the command “Love your enemies” we manage to use as a way of making spiritual capital over and against said enemies. We so easily forget that heaping coals on our enemies’ heads is for their repentance and salvation, not for the satisfaction of our injured egos.


A most distressing sight — but Nietzsche does not have the final word here. I personally find him perhaps the most capable of those critics of Christianity who are not wrong, but who are also not ultimately right. That’s because, like most of these critics, he doesn’t quite grasp the true significance of the Cross.

On the one hand: more than any other modern writer I’ve ever read, Nietzsche grasps the shock and horror, the “offense,” of Christ’s crucifixion. If “good” means strength, glory, and freedom, then the cross is God’s utter rejection of the good in favor of the bad. No one could ever dream up a more thorough victory of the weak and detestable over the strong and glorious than “that horrible paradox of a ‘God on the cross’ … the unthinkable final act of extreme cruelty and self-crucifixion for the salvation of mankind [emphasis in the original].” The cross, Nietzsche perceives, has given the weak all the ammunition they need to wage guerilla warfare against the strong — ‘See, God himself became one of us!’ — thus damning humanity to self-chosen weakness, mediocrity (abetted, no doubt, by “grace”) and stagnation.

On a more fundamental level, however, Nietzsche misinterprets the crucifixion. The cross is neither an attack on “strength” nor a promotion of “weakness” per se. In fact, it is God’s judgment on what Luther calls humanity’s “thirst for glory” in all its forms. Our search for an ultimate validation apart from Christ goes down myriad paths. Some of these paths are secular, some pious; some of them are bold and ruthless, others “spiritual.” If we’re strong and beautiful, we trust in these things; if we’re not, we find creative ways of undermining the value of strength and beauty. The common denominator is always the same: we want enoughness, and we’ll game the system in any way necessary to get it.

The “God on the cross” destroys our various schemes, and in exchange offers the very thing Nietzsche himself longed for. At the end of his earlier work, We Philologists (1874), Nietzsche muses that “when we experience happiness … the reason is that we are not thinking of ourselves, but of our ideal. This lies far off; and only the rapid man attains it and rejoices.” But no one is rapid enough to outrun the clamoring, insatiable self. “The thirst for glory,” as Luther says, “is not ended by satisfying it.” The ideal, the “enoughness” for which we long, cannot be reached no matter how hard we run.

The good news is that the Ideal has run to us, overlords and plebeians alike. “Good” is not a concept we can press into the service of our own agendas, but a Man who bids us come and die, that we can really live.

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2 responses to “The God on the Cross: How Christianity Rigged the System”

  1. David Zahl says:

    Wow, really loved this, David. Thank you!

  2. Bill says:

    Well worth reading more than once! Good stuff.

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