Death of God

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Death of God

"Is God dead?" asked Time magazine's cover story on April 6, 1966. The article referred to the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose answer had definitely been yes. Nietzsche, however, was not the primary reason for the story. Nor was American atheism. To the contrary, Time noted mid-1960s opinion polls, indicating that 97 percent of the American people believed in God and 44 percent attended religious services weekly. A post–World War II religious revival had peaked, but church membership still grew percentage-wise at a rate faster than that of the U.S. population.

Nevertheless, Time detected that the twentieth century made traditional religious faith problematic. World War II questioned God's providence, especially as awareness about the Holocaust, Nazi Germany's annihilation of Europe's Jews, began to emerge in full force. At the same time, scientific accomplishments, bolstered by emphasis on human responsibility for the world's future, energized optimism that found little use for a God whose reality was difficult to verify in a secular age. Thus, even if nearly all mid-sixties Americans claimed to believe in God, Time reported that fewer than 30 percent identified themselves as deeply religious.

The context for Time's 1966 story included four American theologians who stressed the death of God. Among them was the Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein. His influential book, After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism (1966), was the first by any American to probe systematically the Holocaust's religious implications. After Auschwitz, Rubenstein contended, belief in a redeeming God—one who is active in history—was no longer credible.

The stir caused by After Auschwitz linked Rubenstein to three young American Protestant thinkers—Thomas Altizer, William Hamilton, and Paul van Buren—who were dubbed "death of God theologians." Neither the labeling nor the clustering was entirely apt. None of the four was atheistic in any simple sense of the word. Nor were their perspectives, methods, and moods identical. What they loosely shared was the feeling that talk about God could not mean what it had meant in the past. In that respect, the term "radical theology" described their work better than the more sensational phrase "death of God."

Hamilton's essays in Radical Theology and the Death of God (1966) emphasized the optimistic mood of secular consciousness. Announcing the end of pessimism, Hamilton saw the late 1960s as a time for celebration and hope. He thought that despair-creating conditions—for example, poverty and racial discrimination—could be overcome by human ingenuity. Such views left little room for the God proclaimed by the Protestant Christian establishment. Van Buren also emphasized the secularity of postwar consciousness, but his book The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (1963) concentrated on the issues of verifiability and falsifiability concerning religious language. Given the linguistic criteria that he held at the time, the problem was that declarative propositions about God could not be uttered meaningfully. The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1966) displayed Altizer's speculative boldness. Advancing radical concepts of incarnation, it celebrated a rebirth of freedom and set forth a view of history in which all things were being made new. Unlike the three American Protestants, who hailed the death of God enthusiastically, Rubenstein was saddened to conclude that the idea of a God of history lacked credibility after the Holocaust. At least for him, history had shattered a system of religious meaning that had sustained people, especially Jews and Christians, for millennia. To live in the time of the death of God, he cautioned, was scarcely a cause for celebration.

These four diverse thinkers developed overlapping ways of thinking, sometimes independently and sometimes in relation to one another, that drove home the awareness that gods die when the visions they support disintegrate. Their work did not "prove" God's nonexistence; it showed little interest in that sort of philosophical argument. Instead the radical theologians' approaches, like Nietzsche's before them, emphasized analysis of current culture and experience. They sensed the onset of a fundamental spiritual change, one that put God's significance into eclipse.

The radical theologians' judgments were less than completely vindicated. Hamilton was too optimistic. Van Buren abandoned his linguistic criteria and returned to theological pursuits, especially those involving Jewish-Christian dialogue. Altizer's work did not sustain the interest it generated in the 1960s and 1970s. Only Rubenstein's post-Holocaust reflection got ongoing attention. Nevertheless, as a group these theologians made important, if unintended, contributions. Far from discouraging talk about God and religion, their questions, protests, criticisms, and alternative visions helped to guarantee an increasing diversity of religious life in the United States.

See alsoAtheism; God; Holocaust; Humanism.


Haynes, Stephen R., and John K. Roth, eds. TheDeathof God Movement and the Holocaust: RadicalTheologyEncounters the Shoah. 1999.

Ice, Jackson L., and John J. Carey, eds. TheDeath ofGod Debate. 1967.

Ogletree, Thomas W. The Death of God Controversy. 1966.

John K. Roth