Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of all times, is most famous for his statement that “God is dead” (Gott ist tot) and his theory about the “Übermensch” – a kind of superior almost god-like human being. He most vigorously attacks Christian religion in his book The Antichrist. However, when it comes to Jesus there seems to be a certain hesitation or ambivalence on Nietzsche's part to condemn him fully; one cannot shake off the feeling that in his writing there is some admiration implicit for Jesus as a groundbreaking rebellious figure.
I believe that the English translation of “Antichrist” is actually misleading. This term is often equated with the diabolical opposite or arch-nemesis of Jesus himself. However, “Christ” in German also refers to Christians in general, so the “Anti-Christian” would be a more suitable title in my view. What Nietzsche does attack with furor and vengeance is the Christian tradition, not so much the philosophy that Jesus proposed or stood for.
According to Nietzsche, from the onset and spread of Christianity there was manipulation and dishonesty at work. The Apostles were weak and spineless creatures who probably did not really get what Jesus was all about, and they even changed some of his teachings to fit their own ambitious agenda.
Christianity, in Nietzsche's view, became a favorite religion among the poor and the oppressed who felt resentment towards the elite, the higher noble and educated classes. They followed what the German philosopher calls a “slave morality.” They simply do as they are told and infect others with weakness and lies, the biggest of which is the "deceit" of and about the heavenly afterlife.
To Nietzsche this proposition of salvation in the other world is simply false and even vicious because Christians wanted to control masses and to some extent bring down the noble classes to their level. The Christian faith is anti-nature and anti-life since it prohibits exactly what makes us most human. The body is not a prison to the soul; in fact, Nietzsche valued very highly the natural impulses that we have, especially our passions.
Nietzsche says that we should be like artists creating and modeling our own morality and that any strong emotion, be it anger, hatred, love, is in itself good and commendable. Christians who believe that sexual impulses are bad or try to discipline themselves with reason are “sick” and “broken” people; they lack will of power and confidence and will never amount to much.
Furthermore, Nietzsche sees Christianity as an infection that spreads and weakens people. The doctrine that all are equal is false and harmful, in his view. It cripples those with ambitious drives and limits their course of actions. In order to become a superior person, it is necessary to both create and destroy, to give and take life.
Where does Jesus fit in all this? In fact, Jesus was a very strong and determined person who fought against dogmatic high priests, the Roman guards and who tried to defeat them with a life-affirming philosophy. He was one of the few people who was fearless and intended to pave the way for many others to follow him, not only through his teaching but by his way of life.
The obsession of Jesus with the “Kingdom of God” was something that Nietzsche resented, but we should keep in mind that Jesus might have been alluding to the power within each of us and not a separate place for the afterlife since he actually says that this kingdom is within us. As such, it would conform to this drive for power and perfection that Nietzsche is so fascinated with.
Say what you may about Christianity as a religion or tradition, Jesus is, without doubt, an exceptional figure. He is accepted as a prophet in Islam; he was said to be imbued with Buddha Nature, and he was a social revolutionary who fought for the common people and for freedom from repression. He rejected slave morality by creating his own and paved a narrow path for the few who really understand his message. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “Jesus taken serious by the many, Jesus taken joyous by a few.”