Perhaps no phrase will ruffle theological feathers faster than “God is dead.” When Thomas JJ Altizer pronounced these words as a Christian theologian, many Christians felt offended and demanded consequences for his heretical teachings. Perhaps ironically, it seems that Altizer’s point was that the “orthodoxy” by which he was being measured was actually a theological rejection of the incarnation and crucifixion that it pretended to preserve. Indeed, this orthodox rejection of those historical Christian moments served to protect itself from those historical realities.
|Thomas JJ Altizer, The New Gospel
of Christian Atheism
I’ve been reading Altizer’s The New Gospel of Christian Atheism. His goal is to bring forth a relevant theology for the modern era. His “radical theology” (as the “death of God theology” is more officially known) takes to heart the most significant change that modernity experienced: a new understanding of death. Prior to modernity, death was thought of more as a doorway into something else. Maybe one was on the way to heaven, or hades, or whatever vision of the afterlife was called. With the modern worldview, however, came a deeper understanding and appreciation for the totality and finality of death.
What does it mean to say “crucified, dead, and buried” in the context of an incarnate God? A religion of recurrence, renewal, or return tends to envision death as a stopping point on the way back to the primordial reality where we started. In other words, it’s like flipping a light switch. God is alive (lights on), God dies (lights off), God is resurrected (lights back on). This works for a pre-modern understanding of death. For moderns, however, death is both total and final. For God to die on the cross, all of that which is God must die (not just part) and that death must be permanent (not reversed, ever). The move from living God to incarnate God to dead God to resurrected God cannot end where it began. If death isn’t total and final, it isn’t death. Resurrection, then, isn’t simply turning the lights back on (which would be a move backward), but rather something entirely new (a move forward) into an apocalyptic future.
I like the way Altizer opens the following documentary. He says,
God is dead. I mean that the Transcendent Lord, the Sovereign God who is revealed in the Old Testament (the Bible if you will), the God who is confessed in the Christian tradition, that this God is no longer present, no longer manifest, is no longer real. Furthermore, I intend to say not that this God is simply missing, not that this God is in eclipse, but rather that this God is dead.