TIME OUT: Fifty Years Later, Answering Time Magazine’s Question, “Is God Dead?”

TIME OUT: Fifty Years Later, Answering Time Magazine’s Question, “Is God Dead?”

© 2016, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

Fifty years ago today, Time, “the weekly newsmagazine,” published what some consider its most controversial cover story ever.[1]  Inside the usual red border of the cover there was nothing but a stark black background with, under the Time banner, a question in three large red letters: “Is God Dead?[2]  The implication, of course, was not that God, a living being, had met with some misfortune or old age and had died; the question suggested that the world was coming to the realization that belief in the “traditional” God (the God of the Bible) was no longer tenable.  This God, then, was not only dead but had never existed in the first place; it was the possibility of belief in this God that was in danger of dying.

Now, I had heard of this famous issue of Time magazine long ago but had never read it; however, with the fiftieth anniversary of its publication approaching, I thought it was a good time to take a look at it and see how it would appear after half a century.  How would its claims stand up?  Would the article seem prophetic in hindsight?  Profound?  It turned out to be neither.  In fact, it turned out to be silly – remarkably silly.

The Original Article (1966)

According to the publisher, the reason for the article was “the visibly growing concern among theologians about God and the secularized world of the mid-1960s.  It was given impetus by the emergence of the ‘God is dead’ group of theologians … and the stir they created.[3]  The obvious first question we must ask is what was the reason for this putative “visibly growing concern,” and we reach the last paragraph of the second column of the article before any reason is given:

Nearly one in every two men on earth lives in thralldom to a brand of totalitarianism that condemns religion as the opiate of the masses … [this] has also drive millions from any sense of God’s existence.  Millions more, in Africa, Asia and South America, seem destined to be born without any expectation of being summoned to the knowledge of the one God.[4]

Are there any other evidence adduced that “God is dead”?  Elson cites Princeton theologian Paul Ramsey saying, “Ours is the first attempt in recorded history to build a culture upon the premise that God is dead[5] and the fact that “the anti-heroes of modern art endlessly suggest that waiting for God is futile, since life is without meaning.[6]  But this is not actual evidence; it is the bald assertion of a theologian and the personal predilections of some soi dissant artists.

In fact, strange as it may seem in light of the provocative cover, the article fails to adduce any actual evidence that “God is dead.  Elson, on the contrary, gives some glowing numbers about the strength of Christianity in America, telling us, inter alia, that “According to a survey by Pollster Lou Harris last year, 97% of the American people say they believe in God[7] and “a big majority of believers continue to display their faith by joining churches.[8]  Elson, however, seems to want to counter this rosy picture, saying

Particularly among the young, there is an acute feeling that the churches are preaching the existence of a God who is nowhere visible in their daily lives.  “I love God,” cries one anguished teenager, “but I hate the church.”[9]

Yet Elson offers no polling data (or any other data) to support this claim; the wail of “one anguished teenager” hardly counts as evidence.

To be sure, Elson does point out that the concept of God is under attack by “secularization, science, [and] urbanization,[10] which, he baldly asserts “have made it easy for the modern man to ask where God is, and hard for the man of faith to give a convincing answer, even to himself.[11]  Now, it may be true that the concept of God is under attack, but this sort of attack on the “God of faith” is nothing new; it has been going on since the start of the Enlightenment and it does not address the situation of 1966 more or less than it does that of other eras.

In sum then, Elson gives no real evidence at all to support the possibility that God is dead.  That is rather surprising given that solemn posture of the article.[12]  If readers didn’t notice that salient fact, it is probably because of what Elson gives us in lieu of evidence: talking heads making bald assertions.  The majority of these talking heads are theologians,[13] though, quelle surprise, not one is an evangelical.[14]

One after another, these theologians intone one way or another that God – by which is meant the traditional God, the “God of faith,” the God of the Bible – is dead, or at least dying.  According to Langdon Gilkey of the University of Chicago Divinity School,

The basic theological problem today is the reality of God.[15]

Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx tells us that

God has disappeared because of the image that the church used for many, many ages.[16]

And German Theologian Heinz Zahrnt asserts that

What is in question is God himself, and the churches are fighting a hard defensive battle.[17]

In fact, there is a “death-of-God group [that] believes that God is indeed absolutely dead, but proposes to carry on and write a theology without theos, without God.[18]  According to Elson, this group is “Principally Thomas J. J. Altizer of Emory University, William Hamilton of Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and Paul Van Buren of Temple University.[19]

Of course, theologians worried about the death of God have solutions to offer, which essentially consist of reinventing God, “a new God for a new generation,[20] as it were:

Union Seminary’s John Macquarrie, for example, proposes a description of God based on Martin Heidegger’s existential philosophy, which is primarily concerned with explaining the nature of ‘being’ as such.  To Heidegger, “being” is an incomparable, transcendental mystery, something that confers existence on individual, particular beings.  Macquarrie calls Heidegger’s mystery, “Holy Being,” since it represents what Christians have traditionally considered God.[21]

Other proposals include focusing on Jesus as “‘the man for others’[22] and not talk about God, because Jesus would make for “a spiritual hero whom even non-believers can admire[23]; work out a new theism based on the idea that God is changing along with his creation, so that “the world is creating God as much as he is creating it”[24]; and dispensing with the Trinity.[25]  This may, says Elson, “lead to a more realistic, and somewhat more abstract, conception of God.[26]  As Gilkey puts it,

God will be seen as the order in which life takes on meaning, as being, as the source of creativity.  The old-fashioned personal God who merely judges, gives grace and speaks to us in prayer, is, after all, a pretty feeble God.[27]

Now, these kinds of suggestions would be very apropos, if “God” were a consumer product.  Then indeed if market demand were down, we could reinvent or rebrand our product to try to increase sales.  It sounds very much as if that is what is happening here, at least in part; as Elson says about the theologians’ response to these issues that “in part, this reflects popular demand and pastoral need.[28]

But God is not a consumer product, and what these theologians are proposing can only be described as lunacy.  If one believes that God does not exist, then why rebrand His image in order to get people to believe in Him?  Why should we want people to believe in a God who doesn’t exist?  But if He does exist, then He is as He presents Himself in the Bible; that is reality and we cannot change it.  Even a child can understand this – but not, apparently, theologians, who “agree that such God-related issues as personal salvation in the afterlife and immortality will need considerable re-study.[29]  It is exceedingly difficult to conceive of anyone who believes in the God of the Bible suggesting such a thing.

Such a proposal is not new, of course; it is ancient.  We see King Jeroboam, for example, try it in 1 Kings 12:28:

Therefore the king asked advice, made two calves of gold, and said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!”

We see it in Isaiah 44:9-17.  We see it in Isaiah 46:5-7.  It is called “idolatry,” the making of a god the way one wants out of his imagination, rather than following the one God who is.  And that, folks, is what those theologians were calling for.  The names may be more sophisticated – “process theology” instead of Bel, “ground of being” instead of Nebo – but it is idolatry nonetheless.  A reinvented God is no God at all.

So even if all were as those theologians claimed and modern man were unable to accept the “traditional” God of the Bible, so much the worse for modern man; God Himself does not change to suit them.  Truly it is written,

… let God be true, but every man a liar. (Romans 3:4b)

But is all as they claimed?  Did they diagnose the situation correctly?  Let us jump ahead fifty years and see.

Fifty Years Later (2016)

The first thing we notice is that the main factor underlying the “death of God” idea seems to have been the spread of world communism (or, as its acolytes like to call it, “scientific socialism”).  In 1966, communism, with its avowed atheism and the new Soviet man, seemed ascendant everywhere, and some indeed seemed to think its ultimate triumph was only a matter of time, after which this man-made ideology would exterminate belief in God.  Elson, as we have already seen, lamented that

Nearly one in every two men on earth lives in thralldom to a brand of totalitarianism that condemns religion as the opiate of the masses … [this] has also drive millions from any sense of God’s existence.  Millions more, in Africa, Asia and South America, seem destined to be born without any expectation of being summoned to the knowledge of the one God.[30]

Yet a scant twenty-five years after the publication of Elson’s article, almost equidistant in time between that time and now, the Soviet Union disbanded itself and communism as a world force ceased to exist.  Only five countries now proclaim themselves to be communist (so that it is now about one in every five people living under that system, not “nearly one in every two”), and most of these countries, though totalitarian, are communist in name only.  And it is not true that people in such countries cannot come to know God; in China, for example, by far the largest communist country in the world, Christianity is growing so rapidly that by 2030 it may have more churchgoers than does the United States.[31]

Has the number of believers in America dropped since 1966?  According to the data provided by Elson, 97% of the American people professed belief in God in 1966.  A survey done by the Pew Research Center in 2015[32] found that 70.6% of Americans claim to be Christians[33] and another 5.9% follow other religions.  The number of “unaffiliated” (i.e. “those who do not identify with any organized religion”) is at 22.8%.

At first blush, this may seem to lend credence to the 1966 article’s claims.  However, it should be noted that most of the unaffiliated did not claim not to believe in God; atheists made up only 3.1% of the population, matching the 3% in 1966.[34]

More importantly, as Elson pointed out, while 97% of Americans professed belief in God, only 27% declared themselves deeply religious – which suggests that the change that is happening is not that fewer people believe in God but that those who used to go to church even though they didn’t care about God are beginning not to bother.  In fact, according to another survey done by the Pew Research Center later in 2015,

More than half of Americans (53%) now say religion is very important in their lives.[35]

That means that the share of Americans that take their faith seriously has effectively doubled since 1966, and now make up slightly more than half of the American public, as opposed to slightly more than a quarter fifty years ago.[36]  In other words, the data shows the exact opposite of what Elson’s “death of God” theologians were prognosticating.

It is also interesting that Elson claimed that “Particularly among the young, there is an acute feeling that the churches are preaching the existence of a God who is nowhere visible in their daily lives[37] and adduced “one anguished teenager.[38]  This certainly seemed intended to imply that belief in God was only (or mainly) being maintained in the older generations, and as the young people grow up and the older generation passes away, the “death of God” will certainly come to pass.  Yet, interestingly, today’s data[39] shows that the age group with the lowest percentage of “unaffiliated” people is the silent generation (born between 1925 and 1945) and the second lowest is the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) – and that is the group that includes those who were teenagers in 1966.  It seems that if they actually had had “an acute feeling that the churches are preaching the existence of a God who is nowhere visible in their daily lives” they got over it and embraced the reality of God.

There is another crucial factor that was overlooked by Elson in 1966His article focused almost exclusively on the United States; the rest of the world seemed to have been summed up in the brief statement

Nearly one in every two men on earth lives in thralldom to a brand of totalitarianism that condemns religion as the opiate of the masses … [this] has also drive millions from any sense of God’s existence.  Millions more, in Africa, Asia and South America, seem destined to be born without any expectation of being summoned to the knowledge of the one God.[40]

That was a colossal mistake; as important as the United States is on the world stage, Americans comprise only 4.35% of the world’s population.

What has happened in the rest of the world is exactly the opposite of what Elson assumed would happen:

While Christianity may be on the decline in the United States, the world is becoming more religious, not less.  While rising numbers of ‘nones’ — those who claim no religious affiliation when asked — claim the attention of religious pundits, the world tells a different story.  Religious convictions are growing and shifting geographically in several dramatic ways.[41]

Among other interesting facts, while the unaffiliated are expected to rise to 26% of America’s population by 2050, they will drop from 16% to 13% of the entire world population.[42]  And this may still not capture the true picture; the Pew Research Center study upon which these estimates are based did not take into account China because of the difficulty in obtaining reliable data on conversions,[43] and it should be noted that

Pew demographer Conrad Hackett said an estimated 5 percent of Chinese are Christians.  Purdue University sociologist Fenggang Yang estimates that the annual growth rate of Protestant Christians will continue at 10 percent, suggesting that China could become the largest Protestant country by 2021 and the largest Christian country by 2025.  If growth continues, two-thirds of China could be Christian in 2050.[44]

Elson’s gloomy prediction, then, that “Millions more, in Africa, Asia and South America, seem destined to be born without any expectation of being summoned to the knowledge of the one God[45] can now be seen not only to be wrong but to be diametrically opposed to what actually came to pass.

We should also note that there were churches who took the approach promoted by the theologians in the 1966 article,[46] and the results have been disastrous.  In Exodus: Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity, author Dave Shiflett points out that in the decade from 1990-2000, liberal churches suffered noticeable declines in membership: the United Church of Christ was down 14.8%, the United Methodist Church was down 6.7%, the Episcopal Church was down 5.3%, and the American Baptist Churches were down by 5.7%.[47]

Conservative churches (i.e. those that actually believe the Bible), on the other hand, were showing significant growth in the same period.  While the liberal Presbyterian Church USA declined by 11.6%, the conservative Presbyterian Church in America grew by 42.4%. The Southern Baptist Convention grew by 5%, the Christian and Missionary Alliance by 21.8%, and the Evangelical Free Church by an impressive 57.2%.[48]

This should surprise no one.  People who take God and His word seriously have no interest in the idols being served up by the “death of God” theologians.  People who don’t believe in God or His word have little interest in church, regardless of how drastically God is rebranded.  So the “death of God” theologians may know nothing about the “death of God,” but they certainly seem to know how to bring about the death of churches.

A salutary example is the case of the United Church of Canada.  As Margaret Wente explains,

Back in the 1960s, the liberal churches bet their future on becoming more open, more inclusive, more egalitarian and more progressive … something else began changing in the 1960s, too.  The liberal churches decided that traditional notions of worship were out of date, even embarrassing.[49]

In the forefront of this in Canada was the United Church, who

believe in many things, but they do not necessarily believe in God.  Some congregations proudly describe themselves as ‘post-theistic,’ which is a good thing because, as one church elder said, it shows the church is not ‘stuck in the past’ … As the United Church found common cause with auto workers, it became widely known as the NDP at prayer.  Social justice was its gospel.  Spiritual fulfilment would be achieved through boycotts and recycling.  Instead of Youth for Christ, it has a group called Youth for Eco-Justice.[50]

How has the United Church been faring?  The United Church’s high-water mark was 1965, when membership reached nearly 1.1 million.  Since then it has shrunk nearly 60 per cent[51] – and the average age of the remaining members is 65.[52]  It is “literally dying … [and] the United Church is not alone.  All the secular liberal churches are collapsing.[53]  God is not dead, but those churches that followed the advice dispensed by the “death of God” theologians of the sort treated with such respect by Time magazine in 1966 are certainly dying.

In sum, then, the 1966 article “Is God Dead?” is not profound.  Despite the posturing that it was saying something important, it was in reality a witch’s brew of talking heads making bald assertions, promoting a problem that wasn’t really there, and offering solutions that were anything but.  Nor was it prophetic; on the contrary, the following fifty years has shown that the author was wrong about virtually everything in the article.[54]

Afterword

Fifty years have passed since Time magazine published their provocative cover story “Is God Dead?

Fifty years have passed since John T. Elson and Bernhard M. Auer gave a wide public forum to the claims of “death of God” theologians Thomas J. J. Altizer of Emory University, William Hamilton of Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and Paul Van Buren of Temple University.

Fifty years have passed since Time magazine published the pontifications of those such as Heinz Zahrnt, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Langdon Gilkey as they gave aid and comfort to the “death of God” claim.

Fifty years have passed since John Macquarrie and Schubert Ogden and John Cobb and Bishop Pike proposed building idols that could take the place of God.

In one way or another, all of these men lent their voices to the “death of God” movement.

Yet God has outlived most of them.

Bishop Pike was the first to go; he died in 1969.  Paul Van Buren died in 1998, Heinz Zahrnt in 2003, and Langdon Gilkey the following year. John Macquarrie died in 2007, Edward Schillebeeckx in 2009, and William Hamilton in 2012.  These men all died without seeing the “death of God,” who at this time is still very much alive.

The author of the article, John T. Elson, and his publisher, Bernhard M. Auer, died within forty-four days of each other in 2009.

In fact, of all the “death of God” participants mentioned in our article, only Thomas J. J. Altizer and Schubert Ogden, both now 88 years old, and John Cobb, 91, are still with us.  Would anyone wager that they will live to see the death of God?

And so we have carefully analyzed the claims and predictions of the provocative 1996 Time magazine article “Is God Dead?” fifty years after its original publication to see how well its claims and predictions have played out.  There is only one possible final conclusion that can be reached, only one possible answer to the question posed on the cover of that issue on April 8, 1966, and that is “God is not dead.”  What is dead is the “death of God” movement.

“God is dead.” – Nietzsche

“Nietzsche is dead.” – God


Endnotes

[1] Elson, John T. “Theology: Toward a Hidden God.” Time 87:14 (April 8, 1966), pp.82-87.  (The author is not named in the article, but in the “A letter from the PUBLISHER” on p. 21)

[2] According to publisher Bernhard M. Auer, “After months of searching for a work of art suggesting a contemporary idea of God, the editors came to the conclusion that no appropriate representation could be found. In designing the first TIME cover ever to use only words, they decided that the ferment in modern theology was best suggested by the startling question hurled at a baffled world by the new theologians.” (ibid., p. 2)

[3] ibid.  (Bolding added.)

[4] Elson, op. cit., p. 82

[5] ibid.  If Ramsey thinks this is qualitatively different from building a culture on the premise that there is no God, he does not explain how, and it seems to be a distinction without a difference.  Certainly, revolutionary France beat Ramsey’s “culture” to this by more than a century and a half.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.  It should be noted that according to Harris, Elson tells us that “of the 97% who said they believed in God, only 27% declared themselves deeply religious.”

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid., p. 83

[10] ibid., p. 85.  Elson asserts that “the most important agent in the secularizing process was science.” (ibid., p. 84)

[11] ibid.  Our website is one of many examples disproving Elson’s claim that it is “hard for the man of faith to vie a convincing answer” to questions about the credibility of God.

[12] According to publisher Auer, “In Time’s 43 years of publication, no story has been approached with more deliberation than this week’s cover treatment of the contemporary concepts of God.” (ibid., p. 21)

[13] Elson also enlists, inter alia, Nietzsche and social anthropologist Dr. Claude Lévi-Strauss (ibid., p. 82)

[14] The only evangelical mentioned in the article is Billy Graham, who is allocated six column lines out of total of 946 column lines (including 35 in the footnotes).

[15] Elson, op. cit., p. 82.  The qualifications of the theologians are quoted from Elson.

[16] ibid., p. 84

[17] ibid., p. 82

[18] ibid.  (Bolding added.)

[19] ibid., footnote.  (Bolding added.)  As absurd as this seems, Elson later speaks, apparently with a straight face, of “Christian Atheists.” (ibid., p. 85)

[20] Borrowed from the tag line for “Tarzan and the Lost City” (1998), which was “A new Tarzan for a new generation.”

[21] ibid., p. 86.  (Bolding added.)

[22] ibid., p. 85

[23] ibid.  Elson opines that this approach is not viable.

[24] ibid., p. 86.  This “process theology” is promoted by “Schubert Odgen of Southern Methodist University and John Cobb of the Southern California school of Theology.” (ibid., bolding added.)

[25] ibid.

[26] ibid., p. 87.  (Bolding added.)

[27] ibid.  (Bolding added.)

[28] ibid., p. 85.  (Bolding and italics added.)

[29] ibid., p. 87

[30] Elson, op. cit., p. 82

[31] Phillips, Tom. “China on course to become ‘world’s most Christian nation’ within 15 years.” The Telegraph. Posted on April 19, 2014, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10776023/China-on-course-to-become-worlds-most-Christian-nation-within-15-years.html

[32] “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” Pew Research Center: Religion & Public Life. Posted on May 12, 2015, at www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

[33] Evangelical 25.4%; Mainline Protestant 14.7%; Roman Catholic 20.8%

[34] It is possible, of course, that some of the 22.8% who are unaffiliated do not believe in God although they do not self-identify as atheists, which would mean that the segment of the American population that professes belief in God would have dropped somewhat.

[35] Theodorou, Angelina E. “Americans are in the middle of the pack globally when it comes to importance of religion.” Pew Research Center. Posted on December 23, 2015, at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/23/americans-are-in-the-middle-of-the-pack-globally-when-it-comes-to-importance-of-religion/

[36] Regrettably, only 27% of Canadians say religion is very important in their lives.

[37] Elson, op. cit., p. 83

[38] ibid.

[39] Lipka, Michael. “A closer look at America’s rapidly growing religious ‘nones’.” Pew Research Center. Posted on May 13, 2015, at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones/

[40] Elson, op. cit., p. 82

[41] Granberg-Michaelson, Wes. “Think Christianity is dying? No, Christianity is shifting dramatically.” The Washington Post. Posted on May 20, 2015, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/05/20/think-christianity-is-dying-no-christianity-is-shifting-dramatically/?postshare=241459906655890&tid=ss_fb-bottom.  (Bolding added.)  Granberg-Michaelson bases his claims on an earlier Washington Post article (Pulliam Bailey, Sarah. “The world is expected to become more religious — not less.” The Washington Post. Posted on April 24, 2015, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/04/24/the-world-is-expected-to-become-more-religious-not-less/?tid=a_inl).  The claims of this earlier article were based on the results of a Pew Research Center study, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050.” Pew Research Center. Posted on April 2, 2015, at http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/.

[42] “The Future of World Religions” in ibid.

[43] Pulliam Bailey, Sarah, op. cit.

[44] ibid.  (Bolding added.)

[45] Elson, op. cit., p. 82

[46] We cannot assume that all of these denominations were following the lead of the “death of God” theologians; they may well have embraced liberalism on their own.  But what happened to them does show what would happen to those who would heed the toxic advice of these theologians.

[47] This data is drawn from Albert Mohler’s summary, Mohler, Albert. “A New Exodus? Americans are Exiting Liberal Churches”, posted at http://www.christianheadlines.com/columnists/al-mohler/a-new-exodus-americans-are-exiting-liberal-churches-1333899.html.  According to this summary, Shiflett obtained his data from a Glenmary Research Center study from 2000.

[48] ibid.

[49] Wente, Margaret. “The collapse of the liberal church.” The Globe and Mail. Posted on July 28, 2012, at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/the-collapse-of-the-liberal-church/article4443228/. (Last corrected on July 30, 2012).

[50] ibid.

[51] ibid.

[52] ibid.

[53] ibid.  (Bolding added.)

[54] This does not mean, of course, that the church is not facing threats; it certainly is.  But it is not from modern man’s inability to accept the God of the Bible, but from the three-headed monster of historical criticism, textual criticism, and Darwinism, and the in-roads that liberal paradigm assumptions from these fields have made into evangelical scholarship.  See Tors, John. “The Three-Headed Monster and the Evangelical Betrayal of the Bible: Exposing the Major Weapons Levied Against the Trustworthiness of the Bible” at https://truthinmydays.com/the-three-headed-monster-and-the-evangelical-betrayal-of-the-bible-exposing-the-major-weapons-levied-against-the-trustworthiness-of-the-bible/ for details.

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