Why Nietzsche is Wrong About Christianity and Suffering

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was a man of affliction and suffering. And he was undeniably anti-Christian—a fact evident through his blatant profession of atheism and attacks on Christianity. On the subject of suffering, he was especially critical of the God he declared dead and His followers. In The Genealogy of Morals, he presented a twofold argument: he believed Christianity only addressed the symptom (i.e. suffering), not the cause, and he claimed that Christianity was merely a system invented for the alleviation of suffering. His understanding of suffering is partly correct; the root of the problem must be addressed and an individual should overcome suffering, not simply alleviate its pain. However, Nietzsche’s attacks on Christianity are irrational, because the latter actually addresses the cause of suffering and overcomes it in a method similar to the one prescribed by Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s accusation that Christianity fails to address the cause of suffering is a result of reverse causality; he argues that Christianity’s explanation is not valid but fails to provide an alternative. Pain, or the feeling derived from suffering, is an indicator that something is wrong. If one has a broken finger, it will hurt to flex it; the pain is a result of brokenness. With this in mind, Nietzsche asks if a Christian priest is “really a physician.”[1] That is, do priests—or more broadly, does the Bible—address the cause of suffering? Nietzsche claims it does not, but that it “combats only the suffering itself, the discomfiture of the sufferer, not its cause, not the real sickness.”[2] Contrary to this claim, Christianity does address the cause of suffering, the real sickness. Scripture teaches that “the wages of sin is death,” implying that the suffering in this world is a result of sin.[3] However, in the preceding section of Nietzsche’s essay, he denies sin as a plausible cause for suffering. He writes, “[M]an’s ‘sinfulness’ is not a fact, but merely the interpretation of a fact, namely of physiological depression.”[4] He claims that “sin” is an invention of mankind to explain suffering. Since it is simply an invention, his logic would conclude that addressing it is not addressing the cause of suffering. But Nietzsche must be held to his own standards: he offers no alternative explanation of the cause of suffering. To suggest that “physiological depression” is the cause of suffering is circular reasoning; physiological depression, by all definitions, is a form of suffering.

Nietzsche also attacks Christianity’s treatment of suffering, falsely accusing the faith of reacting to suffering with methods of alleviation rather than enduring through suffering to overcome it and become stronger. He writes, “Christianity in particular may be called a great treasure house of ingenious means of consolation: it offers such a collection of refreshments, palliatives, and narcotics.”[5] He describes several of these “narcotics,” which Christianity supposedly employs: hypnotism, which results in “auditory and visual hallucinations;” mechanical activity, including “the pleasure of giving pleasure,” or the proverbial “love of the neighbor;” and an “exploitation of the sense of guilt,” or blaming one’s own sin for all of one’s own sufferings.[6] While there are some professors of Christianity who teach that one or more of these methods is the proper way to handle suffering, such teachings contradict Scripture.

The Bible does not call believers to alleviate their pain through hypnotism, preoccupation with loving others, or unjustly sulking in their sinfulness. Rather, it calls believers to face the suffering encountered in life directly and endure through it. In the Old Testament, Jeremiah, the “man who has seen affliction,” tells the one suffering that “it is good that he waits silently for the salvation of the Lord.”[7] Likewise in the New Testament, James writes, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.”[8] God does not command Christians to alleviate or avoid the pain of suffering; He calls believers to embrace it as an opportunity to grow. And while in some cases they face suffering as a result of sin in their own lives, they much more often face suffering simply because they live in a fallen world—the greatest example being Jesus, who was sinless yet faced suffering to the point of death. The Christian response to suffering is akin to that of Nietzsche’s, who is credited for the phrase, “what does not kill you makes you stronger.”[9] Both face the reality of suffering and the new strength that can be found by enduring through it.

Not only are the two accusations that Nietzsche makes against the Christian response to suffering unwarranted, but the Christian response is also more successful than Nietzsche’s. Suffering is a fact of life for humanity, and no person who has ever walked the earth has been able to escape it. Humans may attempt to overcome this condition on their own, but left to their own devices, they will inevitably fall short of attaining peace. Nietzsche’s own life is a testament to this, as he spent the last ten years of his life insane.[10] But Christianity offers a path to peace in the midst of suffering. It recognizes the cause of suffering as sin, and it acknowledges that the best way through the suffering is patient endurance. Moreover, it teaches where the true endurance to overcome affliction comes from: “the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.”[11]


[1] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. by Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989), 129.

[2] Ibid., 129.

[3] Romans 6:23, New American Standard Bible.

[4] Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, 129.

[5] Ibid., 130.

[6] Ibid., 132, 135, 140.

[7] Lamentations 3:1, 26.

[8] James 1:2-3.

[9] Christopher Flannery, “God is Dead,” (HON 300 lecture, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, Sept. 18, 2017).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Second Corinthians 4:7.