Nietzsche’s aphorism, “The Last Christian died on the Cross,” has several interpretations. It is a cry of disappointment: The Christians who followed Christ did not live up to His example. Nietzsche was broken-hearted, even scandalized, by the failure of Christians to live as they ought. He wanted to be like the One who died on the cross. So, in this background, we write off historical Christians as a degenerate, gutless outfit lacking courage to follow their Master.
The next step, no doubt, is to figure out some other way to live, since our disappointment is so great. This “scandal” justifies a whole new theory: We have to be courageous. We have to be noble. We make our own morals. We are not “new men” but supermen, unflinching before the sick example of existing Christians. We are beyond good and evil; we define them. Yet Nietzsche’s new theory did not give him what he wanted, either. He was even disappointed in his own theories, a not uncommon experience.
Of course, if Christ ever expected His followers to be sinless just like Himself, He would have had a different theology from the one that He gave us. The very fact that He died to redeem us, and that we could have our sins forgiven, means that He did not expect that everyone would be, just like Himself, sinless. If a human being were sinless, he too would have had to be divine like Christ Himself. Implicitly, Nietzsche’s aphorism is itself a divine claim. The Christian who died on the cross was the Son of God, the Word made flesh. If He were not, we would still be in our sins.
In the reading for the Monday of Holy Week, St. Augustine writes: “The apostle Paul saw Christ, and extolled his claim to glory. He had many great and inspired things to say about Christ, but he did not say that he boasted in Christ’s wonderful works: in creating the world, since he was God with the Father, or in ruling the world, though he was also a man like us. Rather, he said: Let us not boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here, in the words of Paul through Augustine, we have the cross of Christ again.
What does Paul mean telling us that we are to “boast” in the cross of Christ? Augustine spells it out. We could easily and impressively say, “Look, our God created the world.” That would be true. We could give some reasons why this might be so. Or we might say, “Look, Christ could have been a political ruler.” After all, this is what many Jews anticipated the Messiah to be. If we recall the temptations in the desert, this world-rule is the deal that Satan offered Christ. The only thing He had to do was to fall down and adore the devil, who really was testing this figure to see who He was.
When Paul affirms that we are to boast in the cross, he is, I think, telling us that the way the Father did choose to redeem us was best for everyone concerned, particularly for ourselves. But this way involves the problem of the crucifixion, by no means a pleasant affair. Indeed, it was about the worst form of death anyone could suffer, not only because of its pain but because of its utter humiliation before other men.
The crucifixion has overtones among the Greeks. Sophocles said that, “Man learns by suffering.” Christ did not suffer just because He liked to try it out. The purpose of the Incarnation was the redemption of our sins, the ongoing ones Nietzsche could not quite figure out. God did not — or better, He could not — redeem us without our own free participation.
The crucifixion, in this sense, is an invitation to look at the consequences of our sins. Moreover, we are not looking at the Man suffering as if He were there justly. Pilate’s washing of his hands, however unmanly, did acknowledge that no guilt was in this Man.
Redemption is an invitation, not something forced on us. This invitation is all it could be if we are to freely accept the final destiny offered to us, that of living the life of the Trinity after the manner of the Son who died for us.
The “last” Christian was the Word made flesh who dwelt amongst us. This crucifixion is what happened to Him by our free agency. On seeing this result, unlike Nietzsche, we do not run off and found our own theory of true “being.” True reality is there before us.
Our response remains that of the Good Thief: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The Good Thief saw what Nietzsche did not, though he suspected it. The better path than the one we make for ourselves is already there. This is what our redemption is about.