reparation, guilt, and the limits of personal responsibility

While reading Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals (1887), these thoughts percolated into my mind.

Why the excessive or obsessive guilt in some Christians?  What purpose is served by an obsession on reparation to God for mankind’s sins?





It seems that in some Christians’ minds God is still wounded by the Fall – even after Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary.

Of course, the Adam and Eve story, the story of the Fall, is a story that raises many more questions than it answers.  (We dealt with this in July, 2012.)   Nietzsche suggests, that over time as the concepts of guilt and conscience developed, primitive people came to think that the necessary reparation for human guilt could never be made, could never be sufficient.

Here we quote from The Genealogy of Morals, from his 2nd essay, “Guilt,” “Bad Conscience,” and the Like, section 21:

. . . .  that at last, with the impossibility of paying the debt, there becomes conceived the idea of the impossibility of paying the penalty, the thought of its inexpiability (the idea of “eternal punishment”)  . . . .

And, from section 22:

. . . .  This is a kind of madness of the will in the sphere of psychological cruelty which is absolutely unparalleled: – man’s will to find himself guilty and blameworthy to the point of inexpiability, his will to think of himself as punished, without the punishment ever being able to balance the guilt, his will to infect and to poison the fundamental basis of the universe with the problem of punishment and guilt, in order to cut off once and for all any escape out of this labyrinth of “fixed ideas,” his will for rearing an ideal – that of the “holy God” – face to face with which he can have tangible proof of his own unworthiness.  . . . .

In the context of his essay, Nietzsche is discussing the development of man’s concepts of guilt and conscience, and then of God.  However, some contemporary Christians give evidence of this very pessimistic idea that adequate reparation to God can never be made or achieved.  As well, we as fallen humans are always to be viewed as “unworthy” – at least in some people’s minds.  Unworthy of God’s love?

(We do not share Nietzsche’s atheism and do not necessarily agree with all the issues he raises in his writings, or the conclusions he reaches.  But, he did make some interesting and valid observations in various of his writings (which can be very challenging reading).)

other related thoughts

The Gospel means “good news”.  Indeed, it had to be good news, a positive, hopeful message, or people would not have converted to the new Christian faith in the early centuries.  Would you willingly put your life at risk for a pessimistic message?  The early Christians risked death, torture, being maimed, exile, loss of family and loss of property during the times of the Roman persecutions.  Many were killed.  Over the centuries, the Christian message appears to have been distorted in a negative, pessimistic way.

In my view, we are on this earth to make a stand, to take positions, and to seriously try to live a constructive, loving life – not to be spectators, not to be indifferent, not to be self-absorbed.  We, as individuals, are not responsible for the sins of others.  Yes, we ought to make some efforts towards getting the sinner to repent and make amends of his/her life.  But, ultimately, the other person is responsible for his/her sins – as we are responsible for our own sins.  Thus, we must be careful when we start assigning collective guilt to large groups of humans or to all of humanity.

Yes, we need a well-informed conscience, and need the personal humility that allows us to be honest with ourselves so that we can recognize when we are harming others and/or ourselves.  But, if we adopt a very pessimistic and obsessively guilty frame of mind, we do an injustice to ourselves and may become vulnerable to despair.  Another concern here is that we need to be careful not to allow fanatics or zealots to prey upon our guilt and manipulate us.  Oh yes, there are abuses of authority in organized religions both East and West.

For those Christians, who say “Jesus died for my sins” – beware of a flippant attitude here.  As a Christian, you are not given a free pass to sin as you wish. One must consciously strive to avoid sinning.  (Forgiveness of sins requires authentic and sincere repentance.)  And, sins of omission (failing to help others, failing to do the right thing) can be just as serious as sins of commission or actively doing wrong, harmful, destructive things.

The church pictured above (from our personal photo archives) is Saints Peter and Paul in the North Beach area of San Francisco.

copyright 2014 –

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