The obituary column is hardly the place where the newspaper reader expects to find the name of God. Yet a group of thinkers whose views have lately been reported by the press are spreading the news that “God is dead.” Now, God can take care of himself without our help. He will survive this attack as he has survived all others. Yet many people are concerned about this death-of-God view, and it would be well to consider its implications.

The denial of God is not at all new. In April, 1822, the French philosopher Auguste Comte presented a paper in which he outlined three stages through which all knowledge has to pass: (1) the theological or fictitious stage; (2) the metaphysical or abstract stage; and (3) the scientific or positive stage. As man moves from the theological level to the scientific stage, he puts away childish and superficial beliefs and comes to a true scientific understanding. Applying this thinking to the history of man’s ideas, Comte even sought to develop a kind of positivistic religion. On April 22, 1851, he predicted, “I am convinced that before the year 1860 I shall be preaching positivism in Notre Dame as the only real and complete religion.” He did not quite make it to the cathedral, but his spiritual descendants are teaching and preaching it in other high places.

Comtian positivism has seeped into the thinking of modern man. Many people now say that belief in God and the Church gradually abates, belief in man and his powers increases, and humanity written large takes the place of Christianity. Many who have such ideas do not understand the source of the attitude toward life to which they subscribe.

Karl Marx was another who sought to deny God. In saying that “religion is the opiate of the people,” he had much in common with Comte. Religion, he said, belongs to the realm of the mythological and the superstitious. It is an evil that stands in the way of change for the better. Thoroughgoing Communism is committed to the destruction of the Christian faith and the spread of atheism.

Sigmund Freud also attacked the idea of God and the Christian faith. In a little book called “The Future of an Illusion,” he wrote that religion is a kind of self-perpetuating group illusion for the maintaining of certain values and certain customs. When freed of religion and the inhibitions it imposes, a man has a better chance to live a normal and wholesome life.

Among others who try to deny God are the atheistic existentialists. There are two kinds of existentialists, one of them atheistic. Among those in this group are Camus, Sartre, and Heidegger. Camus, in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” describes the condition of man caught up in a meaningless struggle with no choice but to keep struggling. Sisyphus, you remember, was doomed to roll the rock laboriously up the hill; just when it gets to the top it rolls down and he has to start all over again. The only solution is to fall in love with his rock. As for Sartre and Heidegger, both brilliant writers, they are both atheistic.

Article continues below

Even the expression “God is dead” is not new; it was first used by Nietzsche, in the nineteenth century. Yet now we are seeing something else. We are seeing the spectacle of men who want to hold on to the word “Christian” but who are proclaiming baldly the death of God.

Thomas Hardy once wrote a poem called “The Funeral of God”:

I saw a slowly stepping train

Lines on the brows, scoop-eyed and bent and hoar,

Following in files across a twilit plain;

A strange and mystic form the foremost bore.

O man-projected figure, of late

Imaged as we, thy knell who shall arrive?

Whence came it we were tempted to create

One whom we can no longer keep alive?

How sweet it was in the years far hied

To start the, wheels of day with trustful prayer!

To lie down liegely at the eventide

And feel a blest assurance He was there.

Hardy considers God to be dead, but he is wistful and sad about it. The modern thinkers about whom we have been hearing proclaim boldly and even gladly that God is dead. They do not mean that God is unreal to people, or that the word “God” has lost its meaning; they mean that God is actually dead. This assertion is coupled with a lack of faith in the Church. One of the leaders of the movement has said, “God is dead, and the Church is his tombstone.”

Now, over against the point of view of these thinkers, let us examine Matthew 16:13–18, which has to do with an incident in the life of Christ. When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” They answered, “Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus said, “But whom say ye that I am?” In reply Peter said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus then said, “Blessed art thou, Simon, Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Article continues below

Three main ideas from this passage may be set over against the death-of-God thought. First, let us note these words of Christ to Peter: “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” Revelation is the basis of our faith. We believe, not what finite man has been able to find out about an infinite God, but what an infinite God in his mercy and love has revealed to us of himself in the “Word” that he has spoken unto us.

The Word of God is the authority to which we turn, the objective criterion standing over us. If our faith were merely a matter of what you believe or what I believe, then the whole matter would be subjective and would have no norm. But it is not. Faith is not something aimed at God as a sort of dimension of our own experience; it is something elicited in us by the Word of God.

Why is the Bible at the center of our churches? Why do we study it in our various church groups? Because in it we find the Word by which we are continually judged, and through which we find life by the Spirit.

Secondly, let us note these words of our Lord. “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The Church is certainly not above criticism. How could it be when it is made up of people like you and me? Indeed, it is one of the easiest institutions to criticize. But through the years the Church has been able to absorb criticism and learn from it, and to move out in new ways.

At the same time, let us remember something else. The Church has been called into existence by God himself through Jesus Christ. As the Scripture reminds us, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” We say in our ritual, “The Church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time.” The Church has tremendous survival power. It is here to stay.

Thirdly, let us notice the words Peter addressed to Jesus, words which Jesus approved: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” They tie Jesus and God together. The “God is dead” people want to get rid of God while retaining Jesus. This is not only religiously wrong but also theologically dishonest. It tries to bypass a problem with an aphorism. It is impossible to hold on to the historical Jesus without God, because “Jesus without Jesus’ heavenly Father is not Jesus.” Peter’s confession is, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Let us consider their appeal for the historical Jesus. Joachim Jeremias, in his book The Central Message of the New Testament, deals with the word “Abba.” He contends that Jesus, in applying the word to God, introduced something new into the world. Here, he says, we have gone behind the kerygma to the historical Jesus himself. And what do we find? We find the Son in constant and living dependence upon the Father.

Article continues below

Jesus and the living God go together. There is no such thing as a Jesus-gospel. The Gospel is the news of the redemptive working of God in Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.”

Pascal, in his struggle for religious reality, finally came to a point when his life was changed and a new dimension of reality came alive for him. He later wrote a description of his experience that he wore next to his body. In this description were the words: “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars.…” That experience had become the great focal point of his life.

Above all else is the living God, whose loving heart is seen in his Son Jesus Christ, in whom and through whom there is life eternal.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.