by Christopher Howell, Ph.D.
Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric mov’d:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
“All hope abandon ye who enter here.”
“Man is the cruelest animal,” writes Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra. “At tragedies, bull-fights, and crucifixions hath he hitherto been happiest on earth; and when he invented hell, behold, that was his heaven on earth.”1
This observation is of a piece with Nietzsche’s overall critique of Christianity. Underneath its facade of love, joy, and harmony, is really a sneering face of hatred and envy.
Nietzsche’s accomplishment, as he looked back on his life a scant few weeks before his mental breakdown in Turin, was that he had “unmasked” Christian morality. “Have you understood me?” he writes in Ecce Homo, “[it is] that which defines me, that which makes me stand apart from the whole rest of humanity . . . the unmasking of Christian morality is an event which is unequalled in history.”2
In the end, it was the idea of eternal hell and conscious torment that showed this most obviously. Nietzsche’s argument here is worth probing deeply—both to summarize his thought, but also to see if, as I contend, an affirmation of apokatastasis is a way (perhaps the only way) to defeat his arguments.
Living up to his reputation as a master of suspicion, Nietzsche found secret animus everywhere in Christian behavior. “Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy,” he writes, “every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.”3 Forgiveness is a kind of revenge, even a display of power over another.4 Pity, a core Christian concept which Nietzsche arguably hated more than all others, was a way to demonstrate that one is “superior to animosity,” but this cannot be done without “considerable enhancement of that feeling of animosity.”5 Fake generosity abounds. We love our enemies as if we “expected praise for being so generous.”6 Schadenfreude delights us, and we all know it. When we see a neighbor suffering, we “go away content and elevated.” What a way to “pass a pleasant afternoon”!7 Loving a neighbor, too, is really a secret desire for power.8 Power is what makes people happy; in fact, it is the only thing we want. “Take away everything from them and satisfy them [power],” he wrote, “and they are almost happy.”9 If one’s morals determine one’s metaphysics,10 then “Christianity is the metaphysics of the hangman.”11
Eternal hell was his clincher in On the Genealogy of Morals. What other concept so clearly puts the lie to Christian pontificating about forgiveness, mercy, and love?
On the Genealogy of Morals is a masterwork, as easy to read as it is hard to understand. Nietzsche’s argument is furious, historically ungrounded, and yet endlessly entrancing. Religions are “in essence nothing but systematic cruelty,” he writes in the second essay on “Bad Conscience.”12 Punishment is a key component, first in the form of self-punishment—a primeval guilt that we visit upon ourselves as the price of civilization and the restraint of natural cruelty. It engenders guilt and remorse.13 Once “civilized,” humanity lacks “external enemies and opposition” and in response “lacerated, persecuted, gnawed, frightened and abused himself.” Absent a victim, cruelty turns inward. Psychological self-flagellation makes us interesting, though, it “create[s], out of its own self, an adventure, a torture-chamber, an unknown and perilous wasteland.”14 This activity “produced an abundance of novel and strange beauty, and perhaps has really been the first to give beauty at all.”15 But what are its psychological consequences?
In Nietzsche’s view, such self-abuse migrated into religious systems of punishment and reward—especially regarding debt owed to God and the afterlife. At first it was a tribal thing revolving around ancestors—a “burden of debts unpaid and the desire to discharge them”—but it was amplified to the stratosphere by Christianity. The Christian God is the most powerful, “for that very reason [He] brought into the world the greatest feeling of indebtedness as well.” The greatness of this debt was so immense that “the impossibility of paying the debt [led to] the notion that the debt cannot be paid, the sin is unforgivable (the idea of ‘eternal punishment’).” Such nihilism then “finds some palliation, Christianity’s true stroke of genius: God personally sacrificing himself for the sins, for the debts of Man.” He continues:
God himself personally paying himself; God as the one being who can deliver Man from what Man has become unable to deliver himself—the creditor playing scapegoat for his debtor, out of love (can you believe it?), out of love for his debtor!16
It does not end there, either. “Indebtedness to God,” he continues, “becomes his instrument of torture.” It is in this fashion that eternal hell becomes conceivable. The Christian lives in fear of “God the holy, as God the judge, as God the hangman, as transcendent, as eternity, as unending torment, as hell, as unimaginably vast punishment and guilt.” Such a moral world-picture, according to Nietzsche, is “a kind of madness of desire, manifested as psychological cruelty which is absolutely unparalleled.” To be certain, it makes us psychologically interesting, but “is at the same time imbued with a black, gloomy, enervating melancholy.”17 He elaborates:
Here is disease, certainly the most dreadful disease that has as yet afflicted men; and whoever can still hear (as so few now can) how the cry of love has rung out in this night of torment and madness, the cry of the most passionate ecstasy, of redemption in love, will turn away gripped by utterly overwhelming horror—in Man there is so much that is ghastly—for too long the world has been a madhouse!18
Hell becomes the psychological torture chamber of the world. Ironically, it punishes the believers more than anyone else (even the ones ostensibly destined for paradise). “It has been the conscientious and not the conscienceless who have had to suffer so dreadfully from the oppression of Lenten preachers and the fears of Hell,” Nietzsche writes in Daybreak, “thus life has been made most gloomy precisely for those who had need of cheerfulness.”19
More importantly, it also provides the vital crack in the mask of Christian ethics—revealing its true face of hatred, showcasing its breathless joy in the observation of cruelty. “They call it ‘the last judgment’, the advent of their kingdom,” he writes, “enough! Enough!” “These weaklings!” he exclaims, “they also wish to be strong some time.” The afterlife is where their anger can finally be unleashed on their enemies. Consider Thomas Aquinas, Nietzsche posits, “the great teacher and saint, whose authority in such matters is not to be questioned.” Then Nietzsche quotes from Summa Theologica: “The blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishment of the damned, so that their happiness will be more delightful to them.”
Up next is Tertullian, enthusing ecstatically about one day watching the enemies of Christ burn away. Nietzsche quotes, “How vast the spectacle that day, and how wide! What sight will wake my wonder, what my laughter, my joy and exultation?” These will be “things of greater joy than circus, theater or amphitheater or any stadium.”20
One could add Cyprian (though Nietzsche does not): Why do Christians turn the other cheek? Because they know that “the divine vengeance defends them . . . our certainty of vengeance makes us patient.”21
Or Jonathan Edwards (no such list would be complete without a Calvinist): “the sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever. It will not only make them more sensible of the greatness and freeness of the grace of God in their happiness, but it will really make their happiness the greater, as it will make them more sensible of their own happiness. It will give them a more lively relish of it: it will make them prize it more.”22
As Lewis Mumford observed, “This divine consecration of cruelty perhaps accounts for the fact that cruelty was never included among the seven mortal sins.”23
Contemporary theologians shy away from this. Many follow C.S. Lewis’s view that hell is willing self-abnegation, the destination of those who favor their own will over God’s and who “lock the doors from the inside.”24 But where the urbane theologians have balked, the flock have not. If anything, the Christian will-to-punishment is making itself more and more manifestly obvious—if our political culture is to believed. Recall those proud Christians for whom “the cruelty is the point.” The recent public abuse of refugees at Martha’s Vineyard sent terminally online Christians into rapturous ecstasy, inflamed by a sadistic lust for more—all because such cruelty was “based.” We have all seen the vast oceans of black bile belched up by “theobro” and “trad” twitter, evidence enough of how much joy our co-religionists derive from others’ suffering. They may shield themselves behind anime avatars and pepe the frog, but they are wearing masks no longer.
Nietzsche rams home his point with a sarcastic gloss on The Divine Comedy. If Dante should give hell the label “eternal love made me too,” then heaven should likewise bear the inscription, “eternal hate made me too.”25 Consider love unmasked.
It is difficult to see how Nietzsche can be refuted here. As David Bentley Hart observes on this very website, “The very thought [of eternal hell] tempts one to suppose that Nietzsche was right, and that all of Christianity’s talk of charity and selfless love and compassion is a particularly squalid and pusillanimous charade, dissembling a deep and abiding ressentiment and vengefulness.” John Milbank echoes this in a tweet, “The denial of apokatastasis tends to render Nietzsche right after all.”
Can apokatastasis rescue Christianity from Nietzsche’s condemnation? I submit that it can. And, moreover, Nietzsche can help it do so.
Nietzsche recognized that the early Christians were not much interested in eternal hell. In his view, it originally came from outside the church, apparent already “throughout the whole Roman Empire” and affirmed by “numerous secret cults.” Instead of this, the first wave of converts (like Paul) did not even think they would die. “To the first Christians,” Nietzsche writes, “the idea of eternal torment was very remote: they thought they were redeemed ‘from death’ and from day to day expected a transformation and not that they would die.” Their apocalyptic tidings had no room for hell, and it was only after they continued to linger in the world for generations that pre-existing ideas of hell were assumed into Christianity and “became a welcome instrument in the hands of proselytizers.”26
If such focus was alien to (at least the beginning) of Christianity, it became part of it as a method of ensuring obedience. In a word: punishment. But punishment (at least as revenge) is not a mode of Christian action. Witness Augustine’s frequent intervention to thwart torture and the death penalty.27 Punishment-as-revenge is a distinctly unchristian practice. Nietzsche himself suggests, adopting a startlingly Christian tone, that for “the promotion of happiness [one should] join Christianity in blessing one’s enemies and to do good to those who have offended us.” How to do this? Do away with punishment!28 “Take the concept of punishment,” he writes earlier, “and root it out! There exists no more noxious weed!”29 This is not to say, in my view, that Christians must deny there are severe consequences for immoral actions (something no universalist denies), but rather that punishment for the sake of revenge is simply impossible to maintain with any Christian ethics.
It is here that apokatastasis comes in, for it is a purgative and reformative view of the afterlife, rather than the punitive and retributive eternal hell. But before dwelling on that too much, we should look at Nietzsche’s own idiosyncratic version of apokatastasis—the eternal return.
It came to him in the form of a revelation while in Sils-Maria, and the hushed tones with which he discussed it, and fear it inspired in him, seems to indicate he thought it more than just a thought experiment. The “eternal return of the same” is similar to the Stoic doctrine of apokatastasis, which Ilaria Ramelli describes as “the periodical repetition of a cosmic cycle . . . based on aeons (αἰῶνες) or ‘great years’ that return again and again and are one identical to the others, or almost identical. The same persons will exist in each aeon, and these will behave in the same ways, and will make the same choices, and the same events will happen, in infinitum.”30 They were possibly inspired by Heraclitus, as Nietzsche suggested.31
Nietzsche’s doctrine is related in its first form in The Gay Science. He posits a demon whispering the eternal return in one’s ear, and then asking whether one would curse this demon or, instead, fall to one’s knees and confess that no more divine words had ever been uttered. Instead of saying “no” to life (as Nietzsche alleges Christianity had done), one must say “yes.” One must maintain this yes even in the face of the eternal return. To love life and the world so wholly that one would live it again and again and again—just so, for all eternity. “How well disposed,” he asks, “would you have to become to yourself to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate confirmation and seal?”32 It appears again in the climax of Zarathustra. It is an afterlife of joy, not hate. In his final “drunken” song, Nietzsche relates, “Joy, however, doth not want heirs, it doth not want children—joy wanteth itself, it wanteth eternity, it wanteth recurrence, it wanteth everything eternally-like-itself.”33 The love of fate, the amor fati, is the ultimate triumph in the face of nihilism. When one is able to look out over the vastness of time and the memories of one’s own life and say, “Da Capo!” (Again!) then one has defeated despair, hatred, envy, and said “yes” to life.
Needless to say, this is not exactly appealing—even when it is coated in Nietzsche’s ecstatic reveries. Augustine dealt with such an eternal return at length in The City of God and found it wanting. The intersection should not be surprising. As Hart notes, borrowing a line from Milbank, “The Genealogy of Morals is a kind of Civitas Dei written back to front”34 (though, perhaps, one needs to leave out Book XXI, which so compromises the beauty of Book XXII and reinforces Nietzsche’s criticism).
For Augustine, the cycles of the eternal return obliterate hope. Even if one were to achieve beatitude, for instance, at the end of the cycle one would be thrown back into the world again without any of the wisdom or enlightenment or spiritual progress one had attained. This is abominable. “How,” he asks, “can that be truly called blessed which has no assurance of being so eternally, and is either in ignorance of the truth, and blind to the misery that is approaching, or, knowing it, is in misery and fear?” For one, it contradicts the Christian doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice—he died and defeated death once, not endlessly.35 But even for the non-Christian it is too terrible to consider. Who could possibly bear to have one’s “bliss” ripped away and be “cast down from that eternity, truth, and felicity to infernal mortality and shameful foolishness?” Such bliss is ultimately untruthful, a deceiver. “Who, I say, can listen to such things? Who can accept or suffer them to be spoken?” Nietzsche thought he could. But could he truly accept repeatedly losing his revelation in Sils-Maria and being thrown back into his Protestant Prussian upbringing that he so despised? Augustine asked if one could truly love a friend who had been an enemy, if you knew that, one day, they would be your enemy again. Would not that love become tepid and dead? True virtue and love would be defeated and swallowed up in the ouroboros of the eternal return. No one, not even Nietzsche, could love such a world. If it was true, “it would be the part of wisdom not to know.”36 We should not be surprised, then, at Nietzsche’s sad end in Turin. Some knowledge cannot be possessed by the human mind without fracturing.
So, Nietzsche’s own apokatastasis offers us little. But what about Augustine? He rejected the Stoic apokatastasis, but he nevertheless rejected the Christian one too. However, he was challenged by Christ’s descent into hell and its universalist overtones (something I have written about on this website before).
In 414, Augustine wrote a letter to his friend Evodius, occasioned when the latter asked Augustine about the descent into hell, and whether it meant “hell was emptied.” Augustine confesses that it is perplexing to make sense of it but makes an effort. The descent is a part of doctrine, he writes, “Who, therefore, except an infidel, will deny that Christ was in hell?” The difficulty is in wondering if Christ emptied hell completely. He wonders about who was rescued, and writes, “Whether He did save all whom He found held in them, or some whom He judged worthy of that favor, I still ask.”
Augustine digs deeply into the subject but ultimately avoids a universalist reading, interpreting the preaching to the dead referenced in Peter in a more allegorical way. Sensing, however, that this is somewhat inadequate, he finishes off the letter writing:
If this exposition of the words of Peter offend any one, or, without offending, at least fail to satisfy any one, let him attempt to interpret them on the supposition that they refer to hell: and if he succeed in solving my difficulties which I have mentioned above, so as to remove the perplexity which they occasion, let him communicate his interpretation to me.
I spend time on all this because there is one deeply compelling comment Augustine makes in this letter. Augustine acknowledges that a sympathetic soul and a certain “disposition of mind” would wish for nothing more than all to be rescued from hell. Surely anyone would want this. “But of course,” he continues (using now Peter Brown’s translation), “it may well be that the verdict of human feeling is one thing, and the justice of the Creator, quite another.”37
What difference might there be between human feeling and God’s justice? Are we really required as Christians to believe that human sentiment—perhaps certain tender-heartedness, as Augustine called those who disbelieved in eternal hell—is something that belongs to us, and not God?
Here I turn back to Nietzsche, who flips the script. Human feeling, as Nietzsche showed, tended towards cruelty, malice, and the will-to-punishment. And is not God’s justice, as Augustine asked, different than human feeling? What about God’s love? Is that not too beyond ours?
Is not love, Nietzsche asks in Human, All-Too-Human:
visibly more stupid than justice? Certainly, but precisely for that reason all the pleasanter for every one. It is blind, and possesses an abundant cornucopia, out of which it distributes its gifts to all, even if they do not deserve them, even if they express no thanks for them. It is as impartial as the rain, which, according to the Bible and experience, makes not only the unjust, but also occasionally the just wet through to the skin.38
Perhaps our sense of fairness is undone by apokatastasis. Well, Christianity has a bevy of words for that: grace, mercy, forgiveness—or, in one: love. In fact, love might achieve the antithesis of justice. Our goal must be to learn to love as God loves, impassibly and without fail—especially if, as above, one transcends the desire for punishment-as-revenge. Love, Nietzsche argues, truly can be learned—and must be. This is our task. As he writes in The Gay Science:
In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fairmindedness, and gentleness with what is strange: gradually it sheds its veil and turns out to be new and indescribable beauty. That is its thanks for our hospitality. Even those who love themselves will have learned it in this way: for there is no other way. Love, too, has to be learned.39
Indeed. So, perhaps, Augustine and Nietzsche are both right in a way? Maybe God’s justice is different from ours? Because, as Nietzsche showed, ours is about power. God’s is about love. And if love, as Nietzsche argued, is seemingly “stupid” in its profligacy to all, even the wretched who do not deserve it, well, that was explained to us two thousand years ago. “God,” Paul tells us, “hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.”40
There is an old joke from Northern Ireland. A man is stopped on the street by a potential troublemaker. “Are you Protestant or Catholic?” The man stops, says, “I am an atheist.” “Well,” replies the troublemaker, “Are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?” Nietzsche was most certainly a Protestant atheist.
His conscience was formed in the furnace of Prussian schooling at Pforta and his father’s ministry. Even though he hated Christianity, his thoughts about it remained Protestant—his refraction of all Christian thought through penal substitutionary atonement, his fusion of debt and guilt, his deterministic view of reality. He even held Luther in a special place, but in reverse, for he damned him for saving Christianity from the moral debauchery of the Renaissance (an improvement, in Nietzsche’s view, if it had stayed that way—if only Cesare Borgia was pope, perhaps an integralist one). But when one scrutinizes Nietzsche’s critiques from a different theological vantage, his case becomes weaker. Instead of penal substitution, there is Christus Victor; instead of vengeful ressentiment, there is theosis; and lastly, instead of inscrutable sovereignty consigning the majority of humanity to hellfire, there is apokatastasis. If one approaches Nietzsche from this angle, his words become blunted, and he is even defanged.
Nietzsche’s unmasking of Christianity is a potent challenge. It is, I believe, unanswerable without apokatastasis. But with universal reconciliation, Nietzsche’s charges fall by the wayside. The accusations of secret animosity, of glee in the face of eternal suffering, become untenable. Nietzsche himself is not beyond the scope of redemption and we can—and must—learn to love him too. We will have no need for masks in the afterlife, for we will be unafraid to bare our faces in all honesty. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”41
I believe, in his own way, Nietzsche knew this. In 1885, after winning a settlement against his publisher, the perpetually impoverished Nietzsche came into some extra money. Once he took care of his debts, the first thing he did was buy an engraved tombstone for his father. Pastor Carl Ludwig Nietzsche had been dead for over thirty-five years, but it is clear that Nietzsche continued to love him and think about him, even as he turned so viciously against his father’s faith. As he wrote in Ecce Homo only a short time before his breakdown, “I regard it as a great privilege to have had such a father.”42 In this new tombstone, Nietzsche carved an inscription, a truth we have been striving towards this entire essay. He chose “Love never fails.”43
1 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. Thomas Common (Ware, UK : Wordsworth, 1997), 211
2 Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans. Antony M. Ludovici (Ware, UK : Wordsworth, 2007), 258-259
3 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Paul V. Cohn (Ware, UK : Wordsworth, 2008), 685
4 Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human, trans. Paul V. Cohn (Ware, UK : Wordsworth, 2008), 177
5 Ibid., 290
6 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), 200
7 Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak, trans. R.G. Hollingdale (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 137
8 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Michael A. Scarpitti (New York: Penguin, 2013), 121
9 Nietzsche, Daybreak, 146
10 Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 521
11 Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, trans. Antony M. Ludovici (Wordsworth: Ware, UK, 2007), 35
12 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 47
13 Ibid., 65-67
14 Ibid., 71
15 Ibid., 73
16 Ibid., 78
17 Ibid., 78-79
18 Ibid., 79
19 Nietzsche, Daybreak, 34
20 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 36-37
21 Quoted in Lewis Mumford, The Condition of Man (New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1973), 105
22 Jonathan Edwards, “The Eternity of Hell’s Torments,” https://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/eternity.htm
23 Mumford, The Condition of Man, 106
24 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015), 131
25 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 37
26 Nietzsche, Daybreak, 43-44
27 Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 189
28 Nietzsche, Daybreak, 121
29 Ibid., 13
30 Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Boston: Brill, 2013), 7
31 Ibid., 8 (see footnote 21)
32 Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 273-274
33 Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, 312
34 David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), 116
35 Augustine, The City of God, Book XII, chapter 12.
36 Ibid., Book XII, chapter 20.
37 Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 307
38 Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human, 53
39 Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 163
40 1 Corinthians 1:27
41 1 Corinthians 13:12
42 Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, 177
43 Julian Young, Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 9
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Christopher Howell teaches at Elon University. He holds a PhD in religious studies from Duke University, and his research focuses on religion and science. His first book is an upcoming history of the intelligent design movement to be published by NYU Press. He and his wife live in Durham, North Carolina.