To really get to grips with Nietzsche's "God is dead", it is necessary to consider it in the context of some other relevant passages in his books. This phrase gets tossed around a lot and specifically associated with the idea of the Christian God, but if this were all he was saying it would hardly have been noteworthy: Hegel said that "God is dead" had become the "sentiment of modern religion" as early as 1802. Nietzsche's point is about much more than that: it is actually an attack on the whole tradition of metaphysics, which is the branch of philosophy which deals with what philosophers call Being. The realm of Being is supposedly a realm of ideas and concepts which is accessible to reason - "the eyes of the mind", rather than your actual eyes.
God, of course, would belong to this realm - but so would a boatload of concepts that earlier philosophers used, from the Ancient Greeks to Hegel. Plato, for instance, thought that there was a realm of forms - basically ideas - which was prior to the world of appearances (which are the "mere" things we see), and superior to it. And he thought that to contemplate this realm of forms was, like, totally awesome dude. This clearly is very similar to the Christian God, who exists on a superior plane to all these items you see swirling around you in the actual real world, and who you can relate to through mental activity. And in another place, Nietzsche says that the latter concept emerged out of the former.1
Now Nietzsche, needless to say, didn't believe in God. And he wasn't going to buy what Plato was selling about "forms", either. What Nietzsche meant when he said that God was dead was that all these ideas of metaphysics which drew a distinction between the "real" world which was supposedly invisible to everyone apart from philosophers or the devoutly religious (who hadn't yet been able to actually tell us anything definite about it) and the "world of appearances" had been debunked. So on top of the obvious moral dimension to the death of God, there was also this dimension which the philosopher who translated my version of the book calls "epistemological-metaphysical", that is, concerning knowledge of Being.
The madman.— Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!"— As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?— Thus they yelled and laughed.
This is how he introduces the "madman". In this first paragraph, we see him seeking God - and that is enough to label him mad. Even though it's a bright morning, he has lit a lantern because he is trying to illuminate things even further - to look behind "appearances" and see the "true nature" of the universe. But all these people laugh at him, because such ideas are now seen as fairy tales which are only fit for children, or those who want to escape the real world.
What killed God and metaphysics was the rise of doubt as the central concern of modern philosophy. There was the problem that whatever the philosophers said about this "real" world which apparently transcended the world we see, they'd never proved anything about it; and nor had they ever managed to themselves leave the normal world and cease being subject to it. And then Christianity had said that this "true world" couldn't be found anywhere in normal life, but awaited "the sinner who repents": so again it was beyond the realm of the provable. Nietzsche describes the next step like this, under the heading "How the 'true world' finally became a fable":
The true world — unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And being unattained, also unknown. Consequently, not consoling, redeeming, or obligating: how could something unknown obligate us?
(Gray morning. The first yawn of reason. The cockcrow of positivism.)2
What Nietzsche is basically saying is that with the death of all of these ideas of a transcendental realm above the actual realm that we humans see, we've been thrown back on what we perceive with our own senses. And with God dead, it means that we can escape all of these old theories that deny life and the things that sustain life - such as trusting our senses - and build a new system of values based on what sustains life. He delivers a devastating critique to philosophers -
About life, the wisest men of all ages have come to the same conclusion: it is no good. Always and everywhere one has heard the same sound from their mouths — a sound full of doubt, full of melancholy, full of weariness of life, full of resistance to life. Even Socrates said, as he died: "To live — that means to be sick a long time: I owe Asclepius the Savior a rooster." Even Socrates was tired of life. What does that prove? What does it demonstrate? At one time, one would have said (and it has been said loud enough by our pessimists): "At least something must be true here! The consensus of the sages must show us the truth." Shall we still talk like that today? May we? "At least something must be sick here," we retort. These wisest men of all ages — they should first be scrutinized closely. Were they all perhaps shaky on their legs? tottery? decadent? late? Could it be that wisdom appears on earth as a raven, attracted by a little whiff of carrion?3
By a "little whiff of carrion", he means by the creation of values which deny and are destructive of life in the world of our senses for the sake of some higher "truth". "We deny God, we deny the responsibility that originates from God: and thereby we redeem the world."4 He wants the creation of new systems of values that aren't based on these transcendental ideas, but instead on what sustains and encourages life - and "the conditions of life might include error."5 He wanted to get rid of the morality of Christianity and the whole metaphysical way of looking at the world, of pretending there was something else above it, and to begin focusing on what was here and now, and how man could be creative and have his own dignity within this realm.
But the parable of the madman is only just beginning. The madman goes on to talk about the sheer enormity of the deed which has been carried out, this killing of God - he says that humanity is unchained from its guiding star, and all previous standards have been overturned and confused. He asks if it isn't possible that having killed God, man must now act like Gods to become worthy of the deed - meaning that if all our standards and morals came from God before, then we now need to replace them with something that we create ourselves; that is, these new values. Modern doubt left all previous systems of value without any theoretical underpinning, so we need new ones - this was a big part of Nietzsche's life project. But when the madman explains this to the people in the market, they "were silent and stared at him in astonishment."
"I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering — it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars — and yet they have done it themselves!"6
Man created God in the first place, says Nietzsche - and now that we've killed him, we need to create something to take his place. Something more life-affirming, not something which seeks to escape the actual world like the philosophers did. And he thought that after a period of time in which everyone realized that God and the old metaphysics was dead, eventually people would realize this and set about creating new values. The problem was that once you take away God and everything else with a claim to actually provide you with the truth about the right way to live your life, you're going to be left with a vast array of competing truth-claims; and hence, war.
Nietzsche was fully aware of this, and at one point he says that religious wars "signified the greatest progress of the masses hitherto; for it proves that the mass has begun to treat concepts with respect."7 There is no reason why a plurality of value-creating individuals - in his view, after all, no different from a plurality of God-creating men who arrive at different views of God - will not run into the same problem. And there is no guarantee that, once you plunge into the process of value-creation, what comes out the other side is going to be at all pleasant to behold for us. After all, our societies are still deeply run through with Judeo-Christian morality and all sorts of beliefs that are totally beyond the competence of science to say anything about. And because science can't say anything about them and we killed God and metaphysics, there's a yawning gap between our theory and our practice.
So the consequences of God being dead, so often touted triumphantly by those who associate religion with oppression and superstitution, are rather ambiguous. We now have political systems founded entirely on the basis of reason and science, but reason also tells us that every previous regime existed with the blessing of some higher power, whether you see it as real or imagined; and once the certainty of this higher power has been lost, what might emerge out the other side when we take on the onus of value-creation could just as easily be Nazism as liberal democracy. Nietzsche had no doubt that the outcome of this process would be war, not peace - but at least it would be war carried out with the dignity of man intact, not projected onto some imaginary force. The end of God and metaphysics means we are on our own. What we'll make of it remains to be seen. But how have we been doing so far?
1. Twilight of the Idols, "How the 'True World' finally became a fable", 1 - 2.
2. Ibid., 4.
3. Twilight of the Idols, "The Problem of Socrates", 1.
4. Twilight of the Idols, "The Four Great Errors", 8.
5. The Gay Science, Aph. 121.
6. The parable of the madman is in The Gay Science, Aph. 125.
7. Ibid., Aph. 144.