God is Dead

‘God is Dead’ also known as The Death of God is a widely quoted statement by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche used the phrase to express his idea that the Enlightenment had eliminated the possibility of the existence of God. However, proponents of the strongest form of the Death of God theology have used the phrase in a literal sense, meaning that the Christian God who existed at one point, has ceased to exist.

The phrase first appeared in Nietzsche’s 1882 collection The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, also translated as “The Joyful Pursuit of Knowledge and Understanding”). However, it is most famously associated with Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Also sprach Zarathustra), which is most responsible for making the phrase popular. Other philosophers had previously discussed the concept, including Philipp Mainländer and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

God Is Dead

God Is Dead

Previous citings

Before Nietzsche, the phrase can be found in Gérard de Nerval’s 1854 Poem “Le Christ aux oliviers” (“Christ at the olive trees”), and claims he was citing a speech from Jean Paul. Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables “God is perhaps dead“, here apparently citing Gérard de Nerval himself. Hugo replies that de Nerval “confuses progress with God, and takes the interruption of the movement (progress) with the death of the Being.”

Discussion by Hegel

Discourses of a “death of God” in German culture appear as early as the 17th century and originally referred to Lutheran theories of atonement. The phrase “God is dead” appears in the hymn “Ein Trauriger Grabgesang” (“A mournful dirge”) by Johann von Rist. Contemporary historians believe that 19th-century German idealist philosophers, especially those associated with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, are responsible for removing the specifically Christian resonance of the phrase and associating it with secular philosophical and sociological theories.

Although the statement and its meaning are attributed to Nietzsche, Hegel had discussed the concept of the death of God in his Phenomenology of Spirit, where he considers the death of God to “Not be seen as anything but an easily recognized part of the usual Christian cycle of redemption”. Later on Hegel writes about the great pain of knowing that God is dead “The pure concept, however, or infinity, as the abyss of nothingness in which all being sinks, must characterize the infinite pain, which previously was only in culture historically and as the feeling on which rests modern religion, the feeling that God Himself is dead, (the feeling which was uttered by Pascal, though only empirically, in his saying: Nature is such that it marks everywhere, both in and outside of man, a lost God), purely as a phase, but also as no more than just a phase, of the highest idea.”

Hegel’s student Richard Rothe, in his 1837 theological text Die Anfänge der christlichen Kirche und ihrer Verfassung, appears to be one of the first philosophers to associate the idea of a death of God with the sociological theory of secularization.

Role in the philosophy of Philipp Mainländer

Before Nietzsche, the concept was popularized in philosophy by the German philosopher Philipp Mainländer.

It was while reading Mainländer, that Nietzsche explicitly writes to have parted ways with Schopenhauer. In Mainländer’s more than 200 pages long criticism of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, he argues against one cosmic unity behind the world, and champions a real multiplicity of wills struggling with each other for existence. Yet, the interconnection and the unitary movement of the world, which are the reasons that lead philosophers to pantheism, are undeniable. They do indeed lead to a unity, but this may not be at the expense of a unity in the world that undermines the empirical reality of the world. It is therefore declared to be dead.

Now we have the right to give this being the well-known name that always designates what no power of imagination, no flight of the boldest fantasy, no intently devout heart, no abstract thinking however profound, no enraptured and transported spirit has ever attained: God. But this basic unity is of the past; it no longer is. It has, by changing its being, totally and completely shattered itself. God has died and his death was the life of the world.

— Mainländer, Die Philosophie der Erlösung

Nietzsche’s formulation

The idea is stated in “The Madman” as follows:

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?

— Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann

But the best known passage is at the end of part 2 of Zarathustra’s Prolog, where after beginning his allegorical journey Zarathustra encounters an aged ascetic who expresses misanthropy and love of God:

When Zarathustra heard these words, he saluted the saint and said “What should I have to give you! But let me go quickly that I take nothing from you!” And thus they parted from one another, the old man and Zarathustra, laughing as two boys laugh.

But when Zarathustra was alone, he spoke thus to his heart: “Could it be possible! This old saint has not heard in his forest that God is dead!”

— Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, tr. R.J. Hollingdale


Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche used the phrase to sum up the effect and consequence that the Age of Enlightenment had had on the centrality of the concept of God within Western European civilization, which had been essentially Christian in character since the later Roman Empire. The Enlightenment had brought about the triumph of scientific rationality over sacred revelation; the rise of philosophical materialism and Naturalism that to all intents and purposes had dispensed with the belief in or role of God in human affairs and the destiny of the world.

Nietzsche recognized the crisis that this “Death of God” represented for existing moral assumptions in Europe as they existed within the context of traditional Christian belief. “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident … By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.” This is why in “The Madman”, a passage which primarily addresses nontheists (especially atheists), the problem is to retain any system of values in the absence of a divine order.

The Enlightenment’s conclusion of the “Death of God” gave rise to the proposition that humans – and Western Civilization as a whole – could no longer believe in a divinely ordained moral order. This death of God will lead, Nietzsche said, not only to the rejection of a belief of cosmic or physical order but also to a rejection of absolute values themselves — to the rejection of belief in an objective and universal moral law, binding upon all individuals. In this manner, the loss of an absolute basis for morality leads to nihilism. This nihilism is that for which Nietzsche worked to find a solution by re-evaluating the foundations of human values.

Nietzsche believed that the majority of people did not recognize this death out of the deepest-seated fear or angst. Therefore, when the death did begin to become widely acknowledged, people would despair and nihilism would become rampant.

Although Nietzsche puts the statement “God is dead” into the mouth of a “madman” in The Gay Science, he also uses the phrase in his own voice in sections 108 and 343 of the same book. In the madman passage, the man is described as running through a marketplace shouting, “I seek God! I seek God!” He arouses some amusement; no one takes him seriously. Maybe he took an ocean voyage? Lost his way like a little child? Maybe he’s afraid of us (non-believers) and is hiding? — much laughter. Frustrated, the madman smashes his lantern on the ground, crying out that “God is dead, and we have killed him, you and I!” “But I have come too soon,” he immediately realizes, as his detractors of a minute before stare in astonishment: people cannot yet see that they have killed God. He goes on to say:

This prodigious event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars — and yet they have done it themselves.

— trans. Walter Kaufmann, The Gay Science, sect. 125

Earlier in the book (section 108), Nietzsche wrote: “God is dead, but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. And we — we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.” The protagonist in Thus Spoke Zarathustra also speaks the words, commenting to himself after visiting a hermit who, every day, sings songs and lives to glorify his god as noted above.

What is more, Zarathustra later not only refers to the death of God but states: “Dead are all the Gods.” It is not just one morality that has died, but all of them, to be replaced by the life of the Übermensch, the new man:


— trans. Thomas Common, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, Section XXII,3

Nietzsche believed there could be positive new possibilities for humans without God. Relinquishing the belief in God opens the way for human creative abilities to fully develop. The Christian God, he wrote, would no longer stand in the way, so human beings might stop turning their eyes toward a supernatural realm and begin to acknowledge the value of this world.

Nietzsche uses the metaphor of an open sea, which can be both exhilarating and terrifying. The people who eventually learn to create their lives anew will represent a new stage in human existence, the Übermensch — i.e., the personal archetype who, through the conquest of their own nihilism, themselves become a sort of mythical hero. The “death of God” is the motivation for Nietzsche’s last (uncompleted) philosophical project, the “revaluation of all values”.

Martin Heidegger understood this aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy by looking at it as the death of metaphysics. In his view, Nietzsche’s words can only be understood as referring not to a particular theological or anthropological view but rather to the end of philosophy itself. Philosophy has, in Heidegger’s words, reached its maximum potential as metaphysics and Nietzsche’s words warn of its demise and the end of any metaphysical worldview. If metaphysics is dead, Heidegger warns, that is because from its inception that was its fate.

Tillich, Altizer, and the Death of God theological movement in the 1960s

Main article: Death of God theology

Although theologians since Nietzsche had occasionally used the phrase “God is dead” to reflect increasing unbelief in God, the concept rose to prominence in the late 1950s and 1960s, subsiding in the early 1970s. The German-born theologian Paul Tillich, for instance, was influenced by the writings of Nietzsche, especially his phrase “God is dead.”

The October 22, 1965, issue of Time magazine contained an article in the “Religion” section, entitled “Theology: The God Is Dead Movement,” that addressed a movement among American theologians who openly embraced the notion of the death of God. Then six months later the controversial Easter issue of Time appeared on April 8, 1966, shocking the public with the provocative question—in huge red type against a black background—”Is God Dead?” The main proponents of this theology in the mid- to late 1960s included Christian theologians John Robinson, Thomas J. J. Altizer, William Hamilton, Gabriel Vahanian, Paul van Buren, and the Jewish theologian and rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein.

William Hamilton wrote the following about American radical theologian Thomas J. J. Altizer’s redeployment of Nietzsche’s view:

For the most part Altizer prefers mystical to ethical language in solving the problem of the death of God, or, as he puts it, in mapping out the way from the profane to the sacred. This combination of Kierkegaard and Eliade makes rather rough reading, but his position at the end is a relatively simple one. Here is an important summary statement of his views: If theology must now accept a dialectical vocation, it must learn the full meaning of Yes-saying and No-saying; it must sense the possibility of a Yes which can become a No, and of a No which can become a Yes; in short, it must look forward to a dialectical coincidentia oppositorum. Let theology rejoice that faith is once again a “scandal,” and not simply a moral scandal, an offense to man’s pride and righteousness, but, far more deeply, an ontological scandal; for eschatological faith is directed against the deepest reality of what we know as history and the cosmos. Through Nietzsche’s vision of Eternal Recurrence we can sense the ecstatic liberation that can be occasioned by the collapse of the transcendence of Being, by the death of God … and, from Nietzsche’s portrait of Jesus, theology must learn of the power of an eschatological faith that can liberate the believer from what to the contemporary sensibility is the inescapable reality of history. But liberation must finally be effected by affirmation. … ( See “Theology and the Death of God,” in this volume, pp. 95-111.

Further reading

Nietzsche as a precursor to “death of God” theology

  • Heidegger, Martin“Nietzsches Wort ‘Gott ist tot'” (1943) translated as “The Word of Nietzsche: ‘God Is Dead,'” in Holzwege, ed. and trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Kaufmann, WalterNietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.
  • Roberts, Tyler T. Contesting Spirit: Nietzsche, Affirmation, Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Benson, Bruce E. Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.
  • Holub, Robert C. Friedrich Nietzsche. New York: Twayne, 1995.
  • Magnus, Bernd, and Kathleen Higgins. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Pfeffer, Rose. Nietzsche: Disciple of Dionysus. Canbury: Associated University Presses, 1972.
  • Welshon, Rex. The Philosophy of Nietzsche. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2004.

“Death of God” theology

  • Gabriel VahanianThe Death of God. New York: George Braziller, 1961.
  • Thomas J. J. AltizerThe Gospel of Christian Atheism. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966.
  • Thomas J. J. Altizer and William HamiltonRadical Theology and the Death of God. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.
  • Bernard Murchland, ed., The Meaning of the Death of God. New York: Random House, 1967.
  • Hamilton, William, A Quest for the Post-Historical Jesus. New York: Continuum, 1994. ISBN 978-0-8264-0641-5
  • Thinking through the Death of God: A Critical Companion to Thomas J. J. Altizer, ed. Lissa McCullough and Brian Schroeder. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.
  • John D. Caputo and Gianni VattimoAfter the Death of God, ed. Jeffrey W. Robbins. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
  • Resurrecting the Death of God: The Origins, Influence, and Return of Radical Theology, ed. Daniel J. Peterson and G. Michael Zbaraschuk. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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