Chapter 11: Mourning over a Dead God
Let us now turn back the pages of time and visit another kind of challenge to the theistic consensus that has accompanied what we have just been observing, as a concomitant undercurrent—namely, that the God of unqualified and opposable omnipotence is, in fact, not the living God of scripture at all but is, for all intents and purposes, no less than dead. It is one thing to assert that such a God never had true being in the first place. It is altogether another to recognize that such a God had tremendous power over the minds and faith of Christians for two millennia but has now ceased to wield such clout. Mourners of this celebrated demise have not exactly been clothed in black. Might one rather say, “rejoicing over a dead God”?
We begin in the nineteenth century with two influential philosophers and a Russian novelist, then move forward to the “radical” decade of the 1960s and the rewriting of theology in the light of the Holocaust.
A PROJECTION OF HUMAN WISHING: LUDWIG FEUERBACH
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72) adopted G. W. F. Hegel’s understanding that the cosmos is the “objectification” of Absolute Spirit and took it  one step further: God became for him the objectification of the human spirit writ large. In his groundbreaking The Essence of Christianity (1841), Feurbach observed that Christianity (and religion in general) represents the projecting of humankind’s most desirable attributes onto an Other, named “God.”1
The fundamental claim that Feuerbach made is that “the qualities of God are nothing else than the essential qualities of man himself.”2 Specifically, they are projected onto an externalized God by the desires of humans for the image of perfection: “Man—this is the mystery of religion—projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject.”3 Therefore, in God, we have only ourselves and our own activity as an object;4 in religion, we contemplate our “own latent nature.”5
What I find truly fascinating is that Feuerbach concentrated a great deal of energy on love, not on power, as being at the heart of this projective activity. He discussed omniptence in the contexts of God’s providence and of prayer,6 and then later in the sections in Part II on the false, or “theological,” essence of religion. But I have found him minimally making what seems the obvious statement to be explored, namely, that the doctrine of omnipotence is the projection onto God of the wish for absolute, controlling power among human beings. A passage from his The Essence of Faith According to Luther (1844) must suffice: “Omnipotence confirms the divine promises.” It is based not on specific wishes but rather “on the unspecific over-all wish that there be in general no natural necessity, no limitations, no opposition to the human being and to human wishes; it is based on the wish that everything be only for men and nothing against men.”7
One relevant assertion maintains: “Creation out of nothing is the highest expression of omnipotence; but omnipotence is nothing else than subjectivity exempting itself from all objective conditions and limitations, and consecrating this exemption as the highest power and reality.”8
Love, on the other hand, occupies the very center of Feuerbach’s thesis.
Love is God himself, and apart from it there is no God. Love makes man God and God man . . . What the old mystics said  of God, that he is the highest and yet the commonest being, applies in truth to love, and that not a visionary, imaginary love—no! a real love, a love which has flesh and blood, which vibrates as an almighty force through all living.9
“God is love” means essentially, for Feuerbach, that love is God for us.10 The divine love “is only human love made objective, affirming itself.”11 This image of love becomes perverted when
God appears to me in another form besides that of love; in the form of omnipotence, of a severe power not bound by love . . . So long as love is not exalted into . . . an essence, so long there lurks in the background of love a subject who even without love is something by himself, an unloving monster, a diabolical being, whose personality, separable and actually separated from love, delights in the blood of heretics and unbelievers,—the phantom of religious fanaticism.”12
It is a chilling reminder of just why Feuerbach as well as others could come to regard this understanding of God as an enemy to be done away with.
So, finally, “the imperative of love has infinitely more power than that of despotism. Love does not command . . . The imperative of love works with electro-magnetic power; that of despotism with the mechanical power of a wooden telegraph.”13
“God is love,” Feuerbach avowed, “is the sublimest dictum of Christianity.”14 The death of a controlling deity external to human projections provides a basis for Feuerbach’s intriguing reversal of 1 John 4:8,16, whereby it became possible for him to proclaim the obverse, that love, in fact, is God: “Love is not holy because it is a predicate of God, but it is a predicate of God because it is in itself divine.”15
Eberhard Jüngel raised the telling question: “Is not Feuerbach right when he fears that theology is more interested in the ‘absolute power of God’ and in the ‘hidden God’ (potentia dei absoluta, deus absconditus) than it is in the truth that God is love?”16 But the direction in which Feuerbach took his challenge to the conventional notion of God is finally not all that helpful, given that the projections are toward those of an Ideal Human who has no real existence. We are left with a void, after all is said and done.
“RETURNING THE TICKET”: FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY
I interrupt this parade of Christian theologians (and a philosopher) to take a brief detour sideways to the insight of a Russian novelist of note, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81). In The Brothers Karamazov (1880), in the section immediately preceding his powerful narration of the Grand Inquisitor and the returned Jesus, Dostoyevsky has Ivan Karamazov relate to his brother Alyosha a number of incidents involving the utterly unimaginable suffering visited upon innocent children, and then states, in regard to the promise of eternal bliss:
I can’t accept that [eternal] harmony . . . I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tormented child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to “dear, kind God!” It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? . . . I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.17
The theme of truth masked in fiction is not so much that God is dead but that God has become the enemy, the One to be rejected—a theme we have previously noticed. If such a God as tradition champions reigns in eternal bliss, then give my ticket to Heaven to someone else, Ivan pleads.
That vision of an inimical god had been cryptically presented nearly a century earlier in the apocalyptic poetry of William Blake in his Jerusalem (1804):
Satan: Worshipd as God by the Mighty Ones of the Earth . . . such is the way of the Devouring Power.18
Blake’s vision of omnipotence turned evil was strongly highlighted by another scholar to be encountered shortly in this chapter, Thomas Altizer.19 But first, the wish was strong to rid humankind of a deity whose unchecked power wreaked havoc on the lives of the innocent, and this option was seized exuberantly by our next challenger.
“WE HAVE KILLED GOD”: FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE
The German scholar Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was an intellectual prodigy whose career in teaching and writing was foreshortened by the severe onset of mental illness, the cause of which has been debated ever since. Even though his writings were characterized by often bewildering flights of the imagination, I find no justification for regarding them as inflicted with mental disability. His was simply a genius difficult to categorize.
The most well-known of Nietzsche’s imaginings is encapsulated in his tale of the madman who went about the marketplace loudly proclaiming that God had died and that we, God’s minions, have performed the fatal deed. Even given its familiarity, I believe it merits citing here at length.
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Have he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed.
The madman sprang 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? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we  doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was the 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? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous 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 distant stars— and yet they have done it themselves.”
It has been further related that on that same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are all these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”20
Nietzsche penned the paradigmatic obituary for the classic conception of God as essentially omnipotent over all. He wrote in The Antichrist (1888):
That we find no God—either in history or in nature or behind nature—is not what differentiates us, but that we experience what has been revered as God, not as ‘godlike’ but as miserable, as absurd, as harmful, not merely as an error but as a crime against life. We deny God as God. If one were to prove this God of the Christians to us, we should be even less able to believe in him.21
For Nietzsche, God has to die in order for Übermensch, “overhuman,” to be born. That is the essential direction in which his provocative project of thought ran. Overhuman is not some projected aspect of contemporary humanness at its most actualized. Rather, the human race itself is merely a bridge between apes and overhuman,22 who is the only alternative for Nietzsche to nihilism. If value is not received from the divine, it must be self-created. We in our present state are not equipped to achieve that. So the transvaluation of values awaits the coming of the overhuman for its full accomplishment.
In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–85), Nietzsche repeated his proclamation that God is dead23 and proceeded immediately to follow that with the proposal, “I teach you the Superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed.”24 The death of God has freed humankind to reach forward toward its own true destiny. It is therefore a liberating death, freeing humans (the overhuman) to take on the responsibility of defining good and evil, right and wrong.
In this respect, Nietzsche seemed to take no interest in Feuerbach’s elevation of love as the most important aspect of our projection of ultimate perfection. Quite to the contrary, his passion was for an unchecked “will to power,” the title of his published notebooks edited after his death by his devoted sister Elisabeth.25 One can readily read out of this objective the sense of a power struggle that Nietzsche’s madman and prophet gave voice to: a power struggle between God and humankind. And for him, God’s death is the necessary outcome of that struggle.
Certainly the later Nazi obsession with an Über-race that stood conventional notions of morality on their head and brought about massive  human destruction can be characterized as a perversion of Nietzsche’s Übermensch. But the very fact that overman is something toward which we are moving, rather than an aspect of the present human scene, is an indication of how perilous the negative potential in Nietzsche’s vision is. The will to power among mere mortals who are not overman can be devastating to the point of demonic. The outcome here, alas, is that power has won out over love even as the God of absolute omnipotence has been seen to have expired.
GOD’S SELF-ANNIHILATION: THOMAS J. J. ALTIZER
It was the “cool” thing to be part of the announcing God’s demise in the decade of the ‘60s, the presumed event even gracing the cover of Time magazine.26 For Thomas J. J. Altizer (b. 1927), the reality driving his intellectual output was anything but a temporary fad. It was deadly serious.
Although his work penetrated more deeply into the issue of transcendence over against immanence, Altizer was joined in his quest by other scholars and particularly by the American Jewish educator Richard L. Rubenstein, who maintained that “after Auschwitz,” the title of his book on this subject,27 it was no longer possible to entertain the idea of a Judeo-Christian God presiding over the affairs of humankind. The horrors experienced by some six million Jews and others in the Holocaust simply shattered all conventional claims that God will somehow “make it all right” in the end. Eventual heavenly bliss cannot be seen as a justification for unrelenting suffering on Earth.
We live in the time of the “death of God.” This is more a statement about man and his culture than about God. The death of God is a cultural fact . . . I am, however, a religious existentialist after Nietzsche and after Auschwitz. When I say we live in the time of the death of God, I mean that the thread uniting God and man, heaven and earth, has been broken. We stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos, unaided by any purposeful power beyond our own resources.28
For Rubenstein, “God really died at Auschwitz.”29 For Altizer, however, God really died, first, on Golgotha. He writes in The Gospel of  Christian Atheism (1966) that in the crucifixion, but even in the incarnation itself, God ceased to “exist or to be present in his primordial form.” God “abandoned or negated his transcendent form.”30 This entails “an understanding of a fully kenotic Christ” with the concomitant “emptying of the power of God,” a movement theologians have heretofore been unwilling to acknowledge.31
A “metamorphosis of the sacred into the profane . . . negate[s] its original identity, thereby passing through the death of its original form . . . Christianity, and Christianity alone, proclaims the death of the sacred.”32 The Word becoming flesh in Jesus “is only truly and actually real if it effects the death of the original sacred, the death of God himself.”33 But this God whose death Altizer is proclaiming is precisely theism’s God, the classic God-image that represents the triumph of power over love, a God “known as transcendent and impassive . . . a primordial deity who is unaffected by the processes of time and history.”34 Chapter 4 is entitled “The Self-Annihilation of God,” where Altizer states that “to confess the death of God is to speak of an actual and real event . . . a historical and a cosmic event, and, as such, it is a final and irrevocable event.”35
God’s dying into total immanence is not an end in itself but is the necessary precursor to the eventual dawning of an apocalyptic fulfillment of human potentiality. The explanation shows Altizer’s affinity for the apocalyptic poetry of William Blake that we observed above.
When the reality of God is eschatologically identified with his dawning Kingdom, then God can be known only as an active and apocalyptic process that even now is becoming all in all . . . This is precisely the function of a poetic apocalypse. Accordingly, such an apocalypse must be an imaginative disclosure of a universal and kenotic process that moves through an absolute and total negation to reach the epiphany of a divine and human Totality that thereby becomes all in all.36
Altizer goes on in History as Apocalypse (1985) to interpret Blake’s final apocalyptic vision in Jerusalem 96 that God, who is love, dies precisely in order that the human being, who is love, may be fully actualized. “The ‘Divine Image’ dies in Jesus so as to abolish the solitary and transcendent  God who is the source of judgment and bring about an apocalyptic union that is a full coming together of God and man.”37
Altizer’s program is bold and unflinching. It is an attack on divine transcendence that shares with his predecessors a veritable celebration of the death of the traditional God of theism. But is it genuine, and is it necessary? If God is conceived differently than tradition has presented and elevated, if the transcendent God is simultaneously the immanent God who is perennially with us and not over against us, if God’s being is first love, after which power comes to be defined within the implicates of love, then such a God would be one whose death truly would be mourned. The question at the funeral is quite obviously: Which God, whose God, died?
- Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, tr. George Eliot (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 14.
- Ibid., 19f.
- Ibid., 29f.
- Ibid., 30.
- Ibid., 33.
- Ibid., chs. 10, 12.
- Feuerbach, The Essence of Faith According to Luther, tr. Melvin Cherno (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 59 (both quotes).
- Feuerbach,The Essence of Christianity, 101f.
- Ibid., 48.
- Ibid., 52f. See ibid., 64, where Feurbach defended the proposition that “Love is God, love is the absolute being.”
- Ibid., 55f.
- Ibid., 52f., emphasis mine.
- Ibid., 125f.
- Ibid., 263.
- Ibid., 273.
- Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 316.
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Constance Garnett (New York: Random House, 1950), 290f., emphasis original.
- William Blake, Jerusalem, Plate 29 , lines 17–18, 24, in David V. Erdman, ed., The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, newly revised edition (New York: Random House, 1988), 175.
- Altizer notes that Blake understood how our worship of a God of ultimate and absolute power turns God into its obverse, Satan, “the way of the Devouring Power.” “The closing pages of Jerusalem record a vision of a coming apocalyptic coincidentia oppositorum, revealing how the final union of God and man will annihilate the God who alone is God by resurrecting him as ‘The Great Humanity Divine’.” Altizer, “William Blake and the Role of Myth in the Radical Christian Vision,” in Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1966), 191.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Bk. 3, #125, tr. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), 181f. This was a part of the first edition, published in 1882.
- Nietzsche, The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and tr. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), 627, emphases original.
- “Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman—a rope over an abyss.” Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Prologue 4, tr. Thomas Common, in The Philosophy of Nietzsche (New York: Random House, n.d.), 29
- Ibid., Prologue 2 (27).
- Ibid., Prologue 3 (27), emphasis original.
- Nietzsche, The Will to Power, ed. Walter Kaufmann, tr. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1967).
- Time, April 8, 1966, the cover asking the question, “Is God Dead?”
- See Richard L. Rubenstein, After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1966).
- Ibid., 151f.
- Ibid., 224.
- Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 44.
- Ibid., 43.
- Ibid., 51.
- Ibid., 54.
- Ibid., 43.
- Ibid., 103.
- Altizer, “William Blake and the Role of Myth,” op.cit., 187.
- Altizer, History as Apocalypse (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1985), 204.