Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

Good Friday with Fred: The Cross of Jesus

Good Friday with Fred: The Cross of Jesus

Friedrich Nietzsche wasn’t coy about his loathing for Christians and the Church; read this, for example. Thus it might come as a surprise to readers that he largely esteemed Jesus Christ. Of course, being a product of the late 1800s, Nietzsche’s Jesus more resembles the reimagined Jesus of critical scholarship than the Gospels and history. Nevertheless, he admired Jesus, finding him to be both an impressive and imitable man.

Below we’re going to consider that instinct in some of Nietzsche’s writings as well as popular culture. Then I’ll briefly explain why it doesn’t provide a full picture of Jesus, before finally exhorting readers with the real wonder of Jesus’ death.

The Anti-Christ Admired the Christ

Consider a few passages from Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ. Commenting with overwhelming approval and admiration, the German writes that Jesus “died as he lived, as he taught - not to ‘redeem mankind’ but to demonstrate how one ought to live. What he bequeathed to mankind is his practice: his bearing before the judges, before the guards, before the accusers and every kind of calumny and mockery - his bearing on the cross. He does not resist, he does not defend his rights, he takes no steps to avert the worst that can happen to him - more, he provokes it” (§35).

You may have a few quibbles, such as: Jesus’ supposed provocation; or Nietzsche’s rejection of redemption. But the philosopher’s assessment of Christ and his crucifixion is—by and large—widely affirmed today. This is likely because it’s difficult to deny that Jesus’ life and death was a historical watershed. Since then, very few individuals have shaped civilisation or society to the extent that the itinerant Jewish rabbi and carpenter has. The mark Jesus left is indelible. And his continued significance is irrefutable. So much so that one of the most ardent critics of Christianity to ever live still upheld Jesus as an example, one who embodied resolve and determination.

Listen to how Nietzsche continues: on the cross Jesus gave flesh to his gospel, “Not to defend oneself, not to grow angry, not to make responsible…But not to resist even the evil man - to love him.” Here the German comes tragically close to understanding Jesus’ death. That is, on the cross we see grace, as Jesus refuses to hate those who hate him. As he called on his disciples to do, Jesus loved his enemies to the end (Matthew 5:43-44). Sadly, the German doesn’t major here—as both the Gospels and Epistles do. For Nietzsche again prefers to see in Jesus a model of uncompromising commitment.

So, a few aphorisms on in his Anti-Christ, Nietzsche writes, “Jesus himself could have desired nothing by his death but publicly to offer the sternest test, the proof of his teaching” (§40). With his typical self-confident dismissal of all others, Nietzsche insists everyone else got Jesus wrong—except for him. According to the German, then, Jesus demonstrates to all onlookers unflinching resolve to one’s commitments. The crucifixion was Jesus’ “sternest test,” and the philosopher deems him to have passed with flying colours, however misunderstood he’s been since.

As I’ve already noted, Nietzsche’s Jesus is one that many people today readily celebrate. In recent years I’ve heard the likes of Jim Carrey and Jordan Peterson, along with many others in between,pointing to Jesus’ example in the face of staunch opposition and impossible odds, failure and severe suffering, and even death.

To use Nietzsche’s words, Jesus demonstrates how to live—and die—with conviction. In doing so he left us an approach to adversity and hardship. If you’ll forgive a colloquialism, Jesus stuck the landing. Despite the many opportunities to turn from his course, “to avert the worst,” he drank the poison, or cup. By dying for what he taught in accord with what he taught he gave the greatest defence of it. In this way he becomes someone worth imitating, an inspirational man to whom we ought to aspire. But to treat Jesus like this blatantly ignores at least one crucial piece of the passion narratives: Jesus was terrified.

The Cross Is Much More Than a Demonstration

As I wrote years ago, “Jesus’ agonising plea for rescue, his weakness supplemented by an angel’s strength, and the sweat like blood prevents us from saying that Jesus was bold before death (Luke 22:42-44)…That day was not an unflinching display of bravery.” Jesus begged the Father that he might be spared the cross (Matthew 26:39, 42, 44). During those last moments, the disciples witnessed their Lord wilting in fear, agonising over the prospect and sorrowful before his tremendous suffering.

If you’re looking for someone to imitate, based on their sheer resolve then you can do better. Try Socrates, who drinks his hemlock without worry, nonchalantly asking a friend to settle one of his debts. But Jesus offers us so much more than a stirring model. He accomplishes so much more than an admirable demonstration of grit.

What he offers us can only be understood in light of his terror and agonised prayers in Gethsemane. For there we learn that his death is like none other in history—it’s supremely unique. “My Father,” Jesus prays, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). That cup was nothing less than God’s wrath, so Jesus’ lips recoil and his face winces. Here is no model; here is a Saviour.

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