Don Hamilton remembers the day well. This was back in 1966. He was 12 when a classmate asked him the question: “Does your father think that God is dead?” Hamilton had to admit that the answer was yes.
Before long, another friend’s grandmother had started lobbying to have his father, William Hamilton, who was then a professor at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y, fired. Rather than going to church, the family started doing Bible reading at home, on their own. Eventually, they left Rochester. There was no way to hide Hamilton’s radical view after the April 8, 1966, cover of TIME Magazine asked the same question as young Don’s friend.
Is God Dead?
The story by TIME religion editor John Elson—and the gut-punch question on the cover, the magazine’s first to include only text—inspired countless angry sermons and 3,421 letters from readers. (For example: “Your ugly cover is a blasphemous outrage.”) The National Review responded by asking whether TIME were, in fact, the dead one. Bob Dylan even criticized it in a 1978 interview with Playboy: “If you were God, how would you like to see that written about yourself?” Fifty years later, it remains one of the most iconic TIME covers ever produced.
Those three words that had stirred debate among a few radical theologians had suddenly captured the imaginations—and fears—of the nation. They also captured a moment in time. Thomas Altizer, another death-of-God theologian featured in the story, believes the same story today would have a far more muted reaction. “At least I can’t imagine it,” he tells TIME. “We are in a very different world.”
The question had been brewing for a few years among Hamilton and Altizer and their colleagues, notably Paul van Buren and Gabriel Vahanian. (Hamilton and Vahanian both died in 2012; van Buren in 1998.) In 1966, Altizer and Hamilton published a book of essays on the topic, Radical Theology and the Death of God, right around when the TIME story came out.
The article was far more nuanced than the cover might suggest, but Hamilton and Altizer were not hedging in their views. It’s tempting to take them metaphorically, to say “death” and mean “irrelevance,” but they were speaking literally. The idea was not the same as disbelief: God was real and had existed, they said, but had become dead.
To Hamilton, the Death of God was largely an ethical problem. Jesus Christ was a better model than God for the work that needed to be done by man, of which there was a lot—particularly, for him, within the civil rights movement. He saw religion’s place in the human realm, not in heaven. Altizer took that idea a step further: Jesus Christ had to die in order for the resurrection to happen all those Easters ago, and likewise God had to die in order for the apocalypse to take place. That’s why, despite receiving death threats, he recalls being “ecstatic” during debates over TIME’s cover.
The civil rights movement was just one of many real-world events that made the question seem apt. In 1966, it wasn’t so easy for Americans to believe that a beneficent God was actively steering the lives of man. After years spent battling evil abroad, American Christians watched as Godless communism drew its sinister curtain across the world. And at home, with its million daily inhumanities, their own nation oppressed citizens due to the color of their skin.
“As always, faith is something of an irrational leap in the dark, a gift of God,” TIME explained back then. “And unlike in earlier centuries, there is no way today for churches to threaten or compel men to face that leap; after Dachau’s mass sadism and Hiroshima’s instant death, there are all too many real possibilities of hell on earth.”
Those “atrocities of the 20th century” weren’t the only ingredients in the mix, says Peter Manseau, author of the new history of American spirituality One Nation, Under Gods. There was also news—whether of Muhammad Ali’s joining the nation of Islam or of the War in Vietnam—that forced Americans to think about religions other than Christianity, and a counterculture that encouraged questioning assumptions.
Looking back, there’s another fact in the story that stands out even more as an artifact of the time: survey results showed that 97% of Americans believed in God. The number of God’s devotees has been shrinking ever since. In 2014, Pew found that only 63% of Americans believed with absolute certainty. (Gallup numbers were roughly the same, if you include the “fairly certain” respondents as well.)
Among those concerned with the state of religion in America today, one of the most pressing topics is the “rise of the nones”—the increasing number of people who may identify as spiritual, but claim no religion of their own.
And yet, even as Americans belief in God declines, religion retains a powerful hold. Its presence is felt throughout politics, education and pop culture. And the two sides of this story are not unconnected. Religion can no longer be assumed, goes one theory, and thus it doth protest.
“Nobody would ask whether God is dead [today],” says Rabbi Donniel Hartman, author of the new book Putting God Second. “You can’t understand three-quarters of the conflicts in the world unless you recognize that God is a central player.”
Read more: “God Will Never Die” -Rabbi David Wolpe
An informal survey of theologians and monotheistic religious thinkers reveals a few major themes, each of which reflects the way the world—and the otherworldly—has evolved over the course of 50 years.
The rise of pluralism and diversity has forced American believers of different stripes to engage one another. That means confronting a world full of other people who believe different things about what is supposed to be, in the case of the Abrahamic religions, one God. This issue arose this year at Wheaton College, when a professor at the evangelical school was suspended after stating that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.So the question might be something like, “Is that you, God?”
On the other hand, just as World War II and civil rights were part of the death-of-God movement, the disconnect that has always hovered at the edges of faith—how can an omnipotent God exist in a world with so much misery and injustice?—continues to press religious thinkers to grapple with how to sustain faith while living a mortal life.
Finally, others see all that suffering and wonder not only why believers are not acting to stop it, but whether God is at fault. That’s a sentiment that William Hamilton himself hinted at in a 1985 interview, that maybe God didn’t die but that “the wrong people have him and he should be killed.”
For some people, however, the question has never changed. There are radical theology Facebook groups; an admin of one of them, Christopher Rodkey, a 39-year-old United Church of Christ pastor in Dallastown, Penn., is putting together a 50th-anniversary edition of Hamilton and Altizer’s 1966 book of essays. And Ross Hamilton, Don’s older brother, believes there’s still enough interest in his father’s work to merit a documentary.
And Thomas Altizer is still hard at work.
When I caught the nearly-90-year-old theologian by phone, he was in the middle of writing about death. His subject matter has not changed, but the world has. Theology is relegated to the margins. Radical thought is less welcome. God, for better or worse, is not up for debate. He still proclaims his apocalyptic theories, but the ecstasy he felt in 1966 is gone.
“All the things that were crucial to me in the ’60s are now gone,” he says. “I’m not saying this is a bad time, but I think it’s a rather empty time—empty of the joy that we once celebrated.”
What Is the ‘Is God Dead?’ of 2016?
“Is the God that these people have just described the same one I’m wondering about?” -James Hudnut-Beumler, president, the Association of Theological Schools
“Should Christians believe in a God who’s a Christian?” -Justo González, author of The Story of Christianity
“Who is God?” -Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, author of Muslim Cool
“Does God still believe in humans?” -Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Learning to Walk in the Dark
“Is Jesus necessary for salvation? One of my best friends is Jewish. Am I going to see him in heaven? I think the answer is yes, but what does that mean for Jesus?” -Father Jim Martin, author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage
“Are we going to make the sacrifices needed to insure that the Earth will be habitable for our kids?”-Rob Bell, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About God
“How is the Black Lives Matter movement challenging religious communities to rethink their understanding of faithful responses to the inequalities and injustices of our day?” -Emilie Townes, Dean, Vanderbilt Divinity School
“Why are Americans in general, and especially American Christians, so indifferent to the deaths of others? Is the American conscience dead?” -George Hunsinger, professor, Princeton Theological Seminary
“Should God be dead?” -Rabbi Donniel Hartman, author of Putting God Second
“What good would it be for the life of the world if God existed?” -Miroslav Volf, founding director, the Yale Center for Faith & Culture
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