The Death of God

08 Apr


Is God dead?

That was the cover of Time Magazine 43 years ago today.

Time shocked the religious sensibilities of the Church crowd with their pre-Easter edition asking the lurking question in so many minds during the tumultuous 60s: Is the all-powerful, almighty God talking about by Christians for centuries really dead? This is still a good question to ask four decades later.

It looks like Newsweek is borrowing a play from Time‘s playbook with their recent cover “The Decline and Fall of Christian America” – in the shape of a cross. I do not have the space here to interact with that article…maybe I will in a future blog, but my initial reaction is “good.” Let the “Christian” America, the neo-Christendom, fall so that the Church of Jesus Christ can emerge. Kierkegaard calls Christendom (when the Christian faith is too closely enmeshed with a political nation) a “misfortune” because people think they are Christians because they live in a “Christian” nation. He says in Christendom “All became as simple as thrusting a foot into the stocking. And quite naturally, because in that way Christianity became paganism.” (From Training In Christianity I.f)

No the Christian faith, the Christian gospel, the Christian Church must be subversive if it is to retain its revelatory identity.

Does the fall of Christian America mean the death of God? Perhaps. But back to the Time magazine article.

The cover story in the 1966 Time “Death of God” issue is entitled “Toward a Hidden God.” It opens with these lines.

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.

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. How does the issue differ from the age-old assertion that God does not and never did exist? Nietzsche’s thesis was that striving, self-centered man had killed God, and that settled that.

The current death-of-God group believes that God is indeed absolutely dead, but proposes to carry on and write a theology without theos, without God.

The article created quite a stir in the Church in the 1960s. Some questioned whether it was a perverted prophecy, wondering if this was forecasting the future—a world without God. The article centered on a small group of theologians who developed a doctrine aptly titled “The Death of God.” One of the guys leading this cause was Thomas Altizer, an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta. Altizer’s Ph.D. work was in the area of theology and he had taught religion courses in the past.

The theory concocted by the “death of God” group was that God poured his entire being into Jesus of Nazareth, and then when he died on the cross, he poured the entirety of God’s spirit on the earth so that God himself ceased to exist. The death of Christ was essentially the death of God, the annihilation of the existence of God. These guys were not popular, as you can imagine. They built their idea (in part) on the thoughts of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who, in the nineteenth century, proclaimed the death of God. The madman in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra becomes his spokesman, saying:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
—Friedrich Nietzsche
Thus Spoke Zarathustra

We can laugh at Nietzsche’s claim, saying to ourselves “surely God is not dead. He is still at work in the earth. He has not ceased to be.” Nevertheless, we are living in a world where people are increasing living their lives as is God is dead.

USA TODAY ran a cover story a few weeks ago proclaim the decline of the Christian faith in the United States. A study done by the American Religious Identification Survey, reports that even though the population has grown by 50 million people in the last 18 years, 15% of Americans claim no religion at all. That is up from 8% in 1990. One of the researchers said, “More than ever before, people are just making up their own stories of who they are. They say, ‘I’m everything. I’m nothing. I believe in myself.'”

The subtext to his statement is: God is indeed dead.

People may be open to spirituality, but the idea of an all-powerful, infinite, eternal God who has created heaven and earth and demands a certain moral standard out of people is increasingly become a dead idea. When Nietzsche wrote and proclaimed the death of God, he was referring to the death of the Christian religion and the death of proclamation of the Christian Gospel.

But the death of the Christian gospel means that people will live as if God is dead.

And that is what we see when we see evil and oppression in the world—people living as practical atheists, living as if God is dead.

Yet it is not completely unthinkable. I believe there is a time when we can say God died. When Jesus was born, we rightly say that God joined us; he became one of us. We call this the incarnation. At Christmas time, we celebrate the birth of Jesus as Emmanuel – God with us; God joining us in human birth. And yet when we look at the death of Jesus, we cannot over look the implication; God also joined us in human death.

And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. [34] And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [35] And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” [36] And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” [37] And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. [38] And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. [39] And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Mark 15:33-39 ESV

The Church has traditionally celebrated three holidays – the holy days – that correspond with the passion of Christ: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday. These three holy days correspond to the three events proclaimed in our gospel, the central Christian message of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

Good Friday climaxes with the death of Christ, but is also a day to reflect on the suffering of Jesus.
Holy Saturday is the day of morning when Jesus’ lifeless body lay in the tomb.
Resurrection Sunday is the day Jesus rose up from the dead.

Good Friday unites God with our sin and suffering.
Resurrection Sunday unites God with our new life and future resurrection.
But Holy Saturday unites God with the ultimate payment for our sin – death itself.

Jesus died not only as the Son of Man, but as the Son of God. He never ceased being God when he was born a man and he never ceased being God when he died as a man. So in a real sense, God in Christ died and on Holy Saturday God himself was united with a cold, lifeless, human corpse.

This is the real offensiveness of the Christian message, but it is at the heart of all we believe.

Holy Saturday does indeed mean the death of God.

But Holy Saturday is not the end. Our message is not simply death and burial, but death, burial, and resurrection.

As awful and horrific as Good Friday & Holy Saturday is, the good news is that Resurrection Sunday is coming!

Prepare for the celebration.

Strike up the band.

Crank up the amps.

Turn up the lights.

Sunday will be the ultimate Christian celebration, when we celebrate “the love which has given itself in death is now renewed with the new life of resurrection” (N.T. Wright).

God in Jesus did join us in human death so that we could join him is resurrection!

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Posted by on April 8, 2009 in Theology


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