The Zeal of an Ex-vangelical

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June 2023

The Zeal of an Ex-vangelical

Final-year ordinand Ben Somervell asks: How might Friedrich Nietzsche disciple us today?

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1875-1900)
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1875-1900)

Last year, I shocked a room of evangelicals when I responded to the question, “Who has discipled you most in your faith?” with “Atheists and the internet”. Ironically, the lapsed Christian Friedrich Nietzsche has become one such unwitting discipler for me.

A growing movement of “Ex-vangelicals” has emerged in recent years. As the name suggests, those involved have left the evangelical fold, embracing alternative worldviews including agnosticism, atheism, other Christian groupings, or other religions.

Nietzsche would fit well into this “ex-vangelical” category. His father and grandfather were both Lutheran pastors, and so Christian ministry was in his genes. Despite his father’s death in 1849 when Nietzsche was just five, Nietzsche became a devout believer, studying theology and winning a preaching prize. However, only a year later when Nietzsche was just twenty, he wrote that he had lost his faith and ultimately proclaimed, “God is dead”.

I began my journey with the 19th-century German philosopher when studying Theology at Durham. One of my closest friends at college had fallen under Nietzsche’s spell. He sung the philosopher’s praises so consistently that I ended up reluctantly reading some Nietzsche to see what all the fuss was about and to come up with a believing response. Once I was used to Nietzsche’s complex style, I began to see how one could admire his insights without accepting his atheistic conclusions: “He who knows only his own side of the argument knows little [even] of that” (John Stuart Mill). To answer the atheist’s challenge, it must first be properly understood. Also in Nietzsche, I found the forerunner to the “New Atheists” and located the roots of this seemingly new hatred of, rather than just disbelief in, God.

Nietzsche has been an invaluable tonic to my faith, providing a thought-provoking sounding board.

More than that though, Nietzsche has been an invaluable tonic to my faith, providing a thought-provoking sounding board. Paradoxically, I believe that God has spoken to me and refined my complacent and insular faith as I have digested Nietzsche’s attacks on his former religion. As a once-driven evangelical believer, Nietzsche occupies a unique position from which he can, even now, constructively dialogue with those of us who have retained our faith. He has inspired me to inhabit my faith, rather than simply putting on the “borrowed clothes” of faith. As I have engaged with Nietzsche, God has sustained my faith through the fiery brook of criticism, even speaking to me in that burning bush.

I pray that my story may inspire you to constructively engage with and, through the Holy Spirit’s miraculous power, learn from ex-Christians.

For more on this topic, see Ben’s essay, “Anti-Theism and Eschatology: Countering Nietzsche’s Claim That Christianity Is Too ‘Other-Worldly’”, in The Evangelical Review of Theology & Politics, vol. 11 (March 2023): 15–30.