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“Is ‘God Is Dead’ Dead?”

Written by: on June 27, 2014

“Is ‘God Is Dead’ Dead?”

I began my undergraduate studies in the mid-nineteen sixties. It was a time of turbulence and turmoil. President Lynden Johnson rapidly escalated the Vietnam War when he took office following the assassination of President John Kennedy. The social, political and economic upheaval and chaos were rooted in the expanding civil rights movement and the anti-war demonstrations. I had pre-empted my certain draft status by volunteering for military service and by the middle of the decade, I was discharged and began by studies, having felt a call to Christian service, at a small, conservative Christian liberal arts college.

My discharge and move to a city relatively isolated from the mainstream of political and cultural turmoil, Portland, OR, sheltered me from the brunt of the activism and demonstration taking place in much of the country. My small town Sunday school upbringing, it would seem, made me quite prepared for the Bible study, church history and theology classes that immediately undertook with great enthusiasm. One day, however, an event occurred, perhaps only overshadowed by “Greek 101,” that really shook things up. In the introductory theology class, the class settled in for a lecture. As he began the lecture, the professor had this look I had come to recognize. I had come to call it his “wry” smile – the kind of smile that said, “I am going to tell you something and if you believe it, I can sell you anything!” He held up the April 8, 1966 edition of Time magazine. In bold red letters against a black backdrop it asked the question, “Is God Dead?”


The primary article in the issue that produced the cover was written by John T. Elson, “Toward a Hidden God.”[1] Elson began his article with the somewhat antagonizing comment, “Is God dead? It is a question that tantalizes both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he is, and atheists, who possibly suspect that the answer is no.”[2] It was not “tantalizing” to a group of twenty-or-so year old just beginning to find their way in the world of religion studies. This is well-founded as Elson continued:

Is God dead? The three words represent a summons to reflect on the meaning of existence. No longer is the question the taunting jest of skeptics for whom unbelief is the test of wisdom and for whom Nietzsche is the prophet who gave the right answer a century ago. Even within Christianity, now confidently renewing itself in spirit as well as form, a small band of radical theologians has seriously argued that the churches must accept the fact of God’s death, and get along without him.[3]

Actually the lengthy and well researched article was written in response to an earlier issue of Time that presented the theological climate from the perspective of the “God Is Dead” movement. For a group of first year theology students, this article infamously began:

“We must recognize that the death of God is a historical event: God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence … The death-of-God theologians do not argue merely that Christianity’s traditional “image” of the Creator is obsolete. They say that it is no longer possible to think about or believe in a transcendent God who acts in human history, and that Christianity will have to survive, if at all, without him.” [4]

To accent the turmoil in the theological world, the editors of Time acknowledged the difficulty in time and energy to produce a cover for the issue that addressed the then contemporary view of God. After a year of consideration, it was determined there was no way to pictorially of graphically represent “the visibly growing concern among theologians about God and the secularized world of the mid-1960s. … the emergence of the “God is dead” group of theologians and the stir they created.” [5] Consequently for the first issue in the 43 year history, the Time cover was printed using only words. The question, “Is God Dead?” best represented “the ferment in modern theology” caused “by the startling question hurled at a baffled world by the new theologians.”[6]

These events, perhaps, skewered my context and perspective on Culture and the Death of God by Terry Eagleton. The book is superb, scholarly, well written and academic.[7] He traces the rise and decline of religion from the enlightenment to the present post-modern context. My own experience of philosophy and broad-based knowledge of philosophers is some-what limited; Eagleton takes a comprehensive and thorough knowledge and understanding of these for granted. Culture and the Death of God is so creditable that any serious student or theologian cannot, especially with its recent publication date and thorough inclusion of historical and current ideas, exclude it from a studious rendering. Grappling with the history shifts in philosophy and theology, faith and culture is a significant task; it is an essential task when approached from Eagleton’s perspective as “less about God than about the crisis occasioned by his apparent disappearance.”[8]

The trite rebuttal given by beginning undergrad students almost half a century ago to those espousing a death of God theology is not sufficient for today:

GOD is DEAD! (Signed) Nietzsche.

NIETZSCHE is DEAD! (Signed) God.

Within a few years of the rise of the God is Dead Movement, it appeared move on as a fad; perhaps blown out of proportion. It might be that Eagleton’s position was proven true at that moment in history; “Atheism is by no means as easy as it looks.”[9] In an article published less than five years after defining the theology of the movement, Time asked a different question, “Whatever became of The Death of God?” In other words, “Is ‘God is Dead’ Dead?”[10]

[1] John T. Elson, “Toward a Hidden God” Time, April 8, 1966, 87, 14, 98-109.

[2] Ibid., 98.

[3] Ibid.

[4] 1965. “The “God Is Dead” Movement.” Time 86, no. 17: 79. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 27, 2014).

[5] Editorial, Time, April 8, 1966,  87, 14, p37.

[6] Idid.

[7] Terry Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014). Kindle.

[8] Ibid., 28

[9] Ibid.

[10] 1969. “Is “God Is Dead” Dead?.” Time 46. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 24, 2014).

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