The Last Christian

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.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

  • Jeannine

    Thank you for this beautiful meditation, Fr. Schall.

  • Donato Infante III

    I’ve posted this before and I’ll post it again because I think it sums up what Nietzsche meant by the quote but in a much better way:

    “Woe to me if I say: ‘I believe’ and feel safe in that belief. For then I am already in danger of losing it (see Cor 10:12). Woe to me if I say: ‘I am a Christian’—possibly with a side-glance at others who in my opinion are not, or at an age that is not, or at a cultural tendency flowing in the opposite direction. Then my so-called Christianity threatens to become nothing but a religious form of self-affirmation. I ‘am’ not a Christian; I am on the way to becoming one—if God will give me the strength. Christianity is nothing one can ‘have’; nor is it a platform from which to judge others. It is movement. I can become a Christian only as long as I am conscious of the possibility of falling away. The gravest danger is not failure of the will to accomplish a certain thing; with God’s help I can always pull myself together and begin again. The real danger is that of becoming within myself unchristian, and it is greatest when my will is most sure of itself. I have absolutely no guarantee that I shall be be privileged to remain a follower of Christ save in the manner of beginning, of being en route, of becoming, trusting, hoping, and praying.”

  • David Murdoch

    There’s one minor doctrinal error which Father Schall has made here: ‘If a human being were sinless, he too would have had to be divine like Christ Himself.’ < - as catholics we believe that St Mary was without any original or personal sin, and yet we know that she was not divine like her Son. Nietzsche’s criticism of christianity is like what St Paul wrote about how the cross of Christ is foolishness to the world. It is foolishness in the eyes of the world, but the foolishness of God is greater than the wisdom of the world. We are all sinners, but as Jesus said: Matthew 10:38 and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. If we don’t carry a cross like Jesus did, then as Nietzsche said, we are not christians. But there have been many who have taken up their crosses besides that One who died on calvary, which Nietzsche simply is not acknowledging.