“God is dead” is one of the most ubiquitous formulas in our modern world: not only in books, one can even find it in popular songs and movies.
It’s because this sentence represents the spirit of the modern West that it has become such a well-known slogan.
Many think it begins with Friedrich Nietzsche, the famed German philosopher who died in 1900. But, after analyzing his own words, we’ll see how it all really began with the shirk of the religion which birthed the West, that is, Christianity itself.
Nietzsche is known as a radical atheist philosopher.
He was influenced by the Darwinian evolutionists popular in his days, including Darwin himself but also the likes of Herbert Spencer. He critically applied these news trends of evolutionary thinking in his works, and thus would come up with “perspectivism” (some would say relativism) in the fields of epistemology and morality.
After all, what is “truth” in a Darwinian world where rationality is a by-product of evolution? What is “evil” and “good” in a Darwinian world where only mechanisms of “survival” and “reproduction” are operative?
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This is not the place to dwell too long into the details of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but those interested can read John Richardson’s Nietzsche’s New Darwinism, on how, despite often being very critical, Nietzsche’s application of a Darwinian worldview in different matters anticipate many philosophical movements to come, such as aspects of postmodernism.
But it’s essential to know that it is in such context of rising atheism and Darwinism in the West that his “God is dead” should be read, an idea which has a long subterranean history in German thought before Nietzsche as well, going back to Luther and Hegel.
So, let’s actually read him.
He wrote in the section 125 of his 1882 book The Gay Science:
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him-you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? (…) 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? (…)
It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and caned to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”
As the translator, Walter Kaufmann, says, we shouldn’t read this isolated, but in the wider context, and what we can see is that for Nietzsche this is not necessarily a positive civilizational development: indeed, the “madman” laments the “death of God,” a “death” in which Nietzsche perceived the rise of nihilism in Europe, a phenomenon the German philosopher himself deplored in many books.
So people who say that Nietzsche somehow endorsed the formula haven’t read these paragraphs at all, let alone the wider context, as he himself gives an explanation in the section 343 of the very same book:
The greatest recent event-that “God is dead,” that the belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable-is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe.
Even Heidegger, considered the greatest 20th century German philosopher, in his 1943 lecture Off the Beaten Track, says that “God is dead” is not specific to Western Christianity but about the more general end of of the possibility of a “metaphysical” or “supra-sensory” explanation of the world. But let’s stick with Nietzsche’s own exegesis of his own words and see how it’s indeed the “Christian god” which is the target, and why.
The “Murdered” God
Christianity is, obviously, synonymous with shirk.
One of their criminal dogmas of shirk is, due to their notion of the “incarnation,” that ‘Isa (‘alayhi as’salam) has two “natures,” both human and divine.
After centuries of heated discussion, the debate about these two natures was finally closed with the council of Chalcedon, in 451: hundreds of bishops united in modern-day Turkey to safeguard the supposed orthodoxy against the supposed heresies.
It’s noticeable that the Egyptian bishops refused the conclusions of the council, so till today the Oriental Orthodox Churches, comprising some 60 millions souls such as the Copts, are deemed as heretics by other Christians, and all those who refused the council were in fact the target of extreme violence, about which Christian historian Philip Jenkins has a book, Jesus’ Wars, where he shows it was worse than the crusades or the Inquisition.
The main heresy targeted by the council was Nestorianism, named after Nestorious, theologian and archbishop of Constantinople, a movement which refused the mainstream doctrine of the hypostatic union and the “communication of idioms” it implicated, that is, both natures are somehow essentially interlinked.
For their own religious reasons, Nestorians responded that this wasn’t the case. So for instance they refused to call Maryam (‘alayha as’salam) “mother of God” because she was the mother of the “human nature” but not the “divine” nature. Likewise, they also refused the Chalcedonian formula because it would mean that both ‘Isa (‘alayhi as’salam) and “the Father” suffered and died on the cross.
Nestorianism was an influential branch of Christianity, having adherents as far as the Uyghurs in East Turkestan currently occupied by communist China, until Amir Timur more or less erased it.
But the whole issue of “the Father” suffering and dying has given rise to technical terminologies about such heresies, with scholars using the notions of “theopaschism” or “patripassianism,” which have actually haunted Christianity since the beginning but never with such strength as they did during these 4th and 5th centuries.
Yet, Paul of Tarsus, as always, himself might be the inaugural culprit, writing in 1 Corinthians 2:8 that:
None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
“Lord of glory” is used in the Old Testament for God (see Psalm 24:7), so here Paul does imply that “the Father” was crucified as well.
It was thus only natural that Christian theologians followed him.
Take the case of Melito of Sardis, a 2nd century Jewish convert to Christianity considered a Church Father, itself the most authoritative category for a Christian theologian.
He wrote in his epistle On the Passover:
94. Pay attention, all families of the nations, and observe! An extraordinary murder has taken place in the center of Jerusalem, in the city devoted to God’s law, in the city of the Hebrews, in the city of the prophets, in the city thought of as just.
96. The one who hung the earth in space, is himself hanged; the one who fixed the heavens in place, is himself impaled; the one who firmly fixed all things, is himself firmly fixed to the tree. The Lord is insulted, God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been destroyed by the right hand of Israel.
What a chain of blasphemies! Can you imagine polytheists talking of their “gods” in this fashion?
A near-contemporary and Apostolic Father (a higher category within Church Fathers), Ignatius of Antioch, wrote in his epistle to the Romans about “the passion of my God.” And Gregory of Nazianzus, in the 4th century, yet another Church Father, in fact one of the single most influential figures in Christian history, said, “We needed a God made flesh and put to death so that we might live” and also that, “God is crucified.”
All of these come from the shirk of Christianity. Due to the incarnation and conflating of “divine” and “human” natures into ‘Isa (‘alayhi as’salam), it was an inevitable consequence that, through his alleged suffering and death on the cross, the so-called “divine” nature would be affected in some way or the other as well, and thus major theologians writing about the “murder,” “sufferings,” or “crucifixion” of God Himself.
It’s also interesting to note that because of Nestorius, those who opposed him in the name of orthodoxy such as Cyril of Alexandria began to mobilize a more prudent language, talking of the death or sufferings of “the Word of God” and not God Himself.
The “Death of God” Theology
Even if Paul of Tarsus and some Church Fathers explicitly talked of the sufferings and death of God, the majority of Christian theologians themselves refused to do so, not so much due to their scripture but because, influenced by Greco-Roman pagan philosophy (someone like Paul Gavrilyuk says it’s more nuanced, but it’s not that important for our discussion), they adopted the idea of “divine impassibility,” which would technically contradict the idea of God changing His nature, let alone dying.
Yet, today, this doctrine has lost its appeal. The late Ronald Goetz, himself a notable Christian theologian in the US, wrote an article in 1986, “The Suffering God: The Rise of a New Orthodoxy,” writing that “the ancient theopaschite heresy that God suffers has, in fact, become the new orthodoxy.”
He gave many examples.
Take Jürgen Moltmann, a German, and one of the most influential Christian theologians alive today. His most famous work is the 1972 book The Crucified God.
Goetz also mentions the “Death of God” theologians. Born in the 60s, influenced by the readings of Nietzsche of course, but also Heidegger and historical events such as the Holocaust, a set of Christian theologians centered around Thomas Altizer (died in 2018) decided to take the basics of Christianity to its fullest expression, and expressed the “death of God” or how atheism is inherent to the Christian shirk.
It obviously generated tremendous controversies. In 1966, Time magazine released an issue on this new theology with a cover asking “Is God Dead?” It received thousands of incendiary letters from devout Christians and, as the Time itself boasts, “Fifty years later, it remains one of the most iconic TIME covers ever produced.”
This is a sort of internal theological debate for Christians which for us is of no real interest.
But this whole discussion just showcases the blasphemous absurdity of shirk as a whole: the idea of “death of God” didn’t begin with Nietzsche, but with Christianity itself.