In an age of cheap intellectual thrills and rampant theological illiteracy, there are all sorts of flash-in-the-pan theological trends which are all very temporary. They are here today and gone tomorrow. Plenty of trendy fashions in theology are all the rage for a brief period of time, only to quickly disappear from the scene.
Consider one such short lived theological fad: the death of God movement. It was basically a movement that was born, lived and died in the 60s. Given what a time of cultural and social upheaval the 60s was, it is perhaps not surprising that this theological movement flourished during this period.
And given that one of its leading proponents has just died, it may be a good time to look at this movement a bit more. There were a number of key figures in this short-lived school of thought, and they had different emphasises and understandings of what this secular religion was all about. Their thinking all came out of the previous several centuries of theological liberalism and neo-orthodoxy.
There were in fact various theologies of the death of God, and not just one. They more or less all acknowledged that the very concept of God in the modern world is incoherent, and we must resign ourselves to living in a world in which God cannot be known, if he even exists at all. John Frame notes how this movement was the logical outcome of these bigger theological streams, which accounts for their inherent weaknesses.
Says Frame: “If we agree (with liberalism and neo-orthodoxy) that God is too transcendent to be described in words, or too immanent for his acts and words to be distinguished from those of nature and man, then what do we have but a dead, or non-existent God?”
Nietzsche of course had famously said that “God is dead” in Thus Spake Zarathustra written back in the 1880s. And trends in secular or religion-less Christianity were found in others, including Bonhoeffer in part (even if he was misused by the death of God crowd). But there was plenty of fertile theological soil available for these thinkers to ground their views in.
As early as 1957 Gabriel Vahanian had penned his volume God is Dead. But it was the mid-60s when a mini-flood of books appeared along these lines. In 1961 William Hamilton had written a volume called The New Essence of Christianity which was certainly leading to the deicide theology.
In 1963 Paul van Buren wrote The Secular Meaning of the Gospel. In 1965 Hamilton penned Revolt Against Heaven. And in 1966 Thomas Altizer wrote The Gospel of Christian Atheism. He and Hamilton also co-authored Radical Theology and the Death of God in the same year.
Time magazine famously asked in the cover of its April 8, 1966 edition, “Is God Dead? This was its Easter edition no less. That certainly helped to popularise what was until then all the buzz mainly in certain theological circles. Also telling, a number of times the theology of Hamilton appeared, not in established theological journals, but in Playboy magazine.
Conservative evangelical theologian John Warwick Montgomery wrote a 500-plus page volume in 1970 called The Suicide of Christian Theology. There he looked in detail at the various theological trends in general, and the death of God school in particular.
He calls this movement “theothanatology” and devotes 100 pages to it. This section also includes the full transcript of his February 1967 debate with Altizer. In these chapters he thoroughly covers the unbiblical and irrational basis of this movement. He shows how beginning at a false starting point will always lead to a false finishing point:
“Why have the God-is-dead theologians so easily run into this humanistic dead-end? The answer lies in their starting point. . . . The God-assertions of mainline theology in the twentieth century are compatible with anything and everything, and therefore can be dispensed with as meaningless. God dies, and only modern secular man is left.
“This appalling situation … is the direct result of a refusal to acknowledge God’s power to reveal himself without qualification here on earth. . . . Mainline Protestant theology, having lost its doctrine of revelation and inspiration in the days of liberalism and never having recovered it, now finds itself incapable of showing why God is necessary at all.”
I raise all this because one of the leading proponents of this school – Hamilton – has just died, sadly, if not quite ironically. He and Altizer were the two most important figures in this short-lived theology. He may have been premature to pronounce God’s demise, but he should have realised that his own would be soon coming.
This faddish movement has simply been part of a bigger theological train of thought which is still being played out today. These theologians and their trendy fads will come and go, but God himself lives on, and always will. Try as we might to rid the world of God, it just will not happen. The wisdom of men will always be trumped by the foolishness of God, as Paul states (1 Corinthians 1:25).
There is a well-known illustration of all this involving some graffiti found on a bathroom wall which has been mentioned many times, and is worth closing with here. Evidently someone had scribbled on a wall: “‘God is dead’ – Nietzsche”. To which someone replied underneath: “‘Nietzsche is dead’ – God”.