The Death of God


Back in the 1960s, when I was still young, a major event happened on the American religious scene, when an Armenian-American theologian by the name of Gabriel Vahanian published a book in 1961 on "The Death of God," later followed by several other books, the most notable being Thomas J. J. Altizer’s 1966 book, “The Gospel of Christian Atheism.”  The brouhaha that erupted was the occasion of countless sermons, articles, and tirades, most of them vehemently denouncing the very idea that God could die, and a lot of them woefully ignorant of the meaning of the phrase in the sense that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) seems to have had originally meant it.


However, out of that controversy there eventually arose three interpretations:


One was, championed of course by atheists who gleefully joined the fray, was that the phrase should be taken in the literal or factual sense -- that God had actually died, or that there never was or could be such a thing as a God in the first place and that the very idea of God or gods was a figment of early mankind’s primitive imagination. Nietzsche, who eventually was to claim that the world always was and would endlessly repeat itself (so who needs a Creator?) himself probably believed this. This idea of a repeating (Nietzcshe used the term “recurring”) universe was a very old notion, still entertained by those who like to speculate on ways to avoid the question of how to

otherwise account for our existence.


The second interpretation, stressed by Vahanian and those who bothered to carefully read Nietzsche and his little book "Thus Spake Zarathustra,” was a lot more subtle. It was that, regardless of the fact of whether God exists or not, our consciousness of God has died, because modern civilization, that is, “we [ourselves] have killed him." As a result, humans should now feel free, and to determine for themselves the world's future.


Eventually, this observation was soon born out when the Nazis (who ate up Nietzsche's ideas, especially about the emergence of the übermensh or "superman") seized power, and millions of good Germans -- including many otherwise devout Catholics and Evangelicals (i.e. Lutherans) -- traumatized by the humiliating defeat of World War I, skyrocketing inflation followed by the great depression, eagerly supported Hitler and his gang who promised to not only crush the danger of Communism but also to institute a "new world order" centered around a glorious new "third Reich" as Hitler called his vision of a revivified Germany.  Recent memory supplies the rest of that sad, murderous story.


But eventually, as the controversy has settled down, there has emerged a third interpretation, even though it is one which Nietzsche (whose clergyman father died when young Friedrich was only five) seems to have vehemently rejected. After being raised exclusively in a female dominated household consisting of his mother, grandmother, and two spinster aunts (plus a little sister – as his little brother had died as well) Nietzsche seems to have eventually developed an antipathy towards women, religion, and Christianity in particular. To him they all represented weakness in the face of an overbearing and vengeful God.  


No doubt that old image of an oppressive, dictatorial God of our childish imagination that haunted Nietzsche should have died long ago. But he also resisted the new image of a God who is concerned enough to identify himself unreservedly with the weakness of our suffering humanity – even to the point of dying a humiliating, excruciating death out of his love for us.  Yet this, according to St. Paul, is exactly what has happened in the life and death of Jesus in whom God was present "reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19).


If so, and this third interpretation is the breakthrough it should be, maybe we should thank the mad philosopher for his wild and provocative thoughts -- even though he resisted this liberating potential. If nothing else, perhaps Nietzsche’s refusal of faith, for all the turmoil it has caused, was, and still is, a challenge to Christians to take the real meaning of their beliefs more seriously!


R W Kropf  4/8/09                                                             Death of God.doc 09-04-09.html