Home > Christian History, Philosophy > Killing God In Different Ways

Killing God In Different Ways

Many have heard the phrase, “God is dead” or “the death of God” and so forth. Such a cosmic event is said to have happened in the 19th and 20th century. What is interesting to note, however, is that in that span of time, God was killed more than once and in more than one way by different groups of people.

The death of God refers to the death of a particular conception of God. The conception of God relevant here is the traditional monotheistic God of history who has and does intervene in the world. He is the literal creator of the universe, he has a grand plan for the history of humankind, he works miracles, and such a being exists objectively apart from his creation. This is the God that was dealt a lethal attack in the past few centuries.

In the Christian West, God was killed by what we could call the rational part of the soul: through the use of logos. Much of this had to do with the rise and advancement of science. More and more the empirical world was being successfully explained in naturalistic ways without any need to invoke God. God simply was not necessary. As the mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace so famously told Napoleon concerning the question about God’s role in his latest book on astronomy, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” And even though Isaac Newton was a devout theist, his new physics represented the new naturalistic view more than any other: the world was essentially a machine governed by impersonal laws. Eventually Darwin arrived shattering any supernatural origin of the species, Hubble discovered other galaxies showing how truly small and seemingly insignificant we are, and the rest of the sciences followed right along, each one narrowing and then eliminating the living space that God once had.

God’s death among the Jews was a very different story. In the Christian West, God suffered a long and silent death: it happened over the span of a few centuries and many didn’t even realize that it had happened (many still don’t). It took people like Nietzsche and others to spell it out. For many Jews, however, God died suddenly in a short span of time. He died during World War II. He died in Auschwitz. His killers: the Nazis and the Jewish people themselves. There is no more powerful description of this death than Elie Wiesel’s description of it in his classic book Night. The following is an excerpt from Karen Armstrong’s A History of God:

One day the Gestapo hanged a child. Even the SS were disturbed by the prospect of hanging a young boy in front of thousands of spectators. The child who, Wiesel recalled, had the face of a ‘sad-eyed angel,’ was silent, lividly pale and almost calm as he ascended the gallows. Behind Wiesel, one of the other prisoners asked: ‘Where is God? Where is He?’ It took the child half an hour to die, while the prisoners were forced to look him in the face. The same man asked again: ‘Where is God now?’ And Wiesel heard a voice within him make this answer: ‘Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.’

Armstrong goes on to say that since the Holocaust, “many Jews can no longer subscribe to the biblical idea of God who manifests himself in history, who, they say with Wiesel, died in Auschwitz.” According to many, it is the Holocaust, more so than any other event in history, that has made the problem of evil eternally unanswerable. Presumably at one point in Auschwitz, God was put on trial by a group of Jews. His charge: cruelty and betrayal. The verdict: guilty. The sentence: death.

The death of God in the West was seemingly dry. It was based on an ever-growing tradition of rationalism that saw science as the wave of the future. And it was proclaimed that the traditional monotheistic God no longer fit within this new tradition, and rightfully so. In contrast, the Jewish execution of God was filled with emotion. It was an emotional response to a particular event that had happened in history. It involved much grief, tears, and sorrow. To use Aristotle’s modes of persuasion once again, we might say then that the Jewish rejection of God was not merely a utilization of logos but also of pathos.

Muslims also killed God in yet another way. Whereas the death of God among the Christian West and among the Jews was a complete rejection of the traditional monotheistic God, the death of God among Muslims was merely a change of focus: one that would prove dangerous in the future. God would no longer be the main focus for certain Muslims. Instead, the focus was on getting Islam back to its glory days of the seventh and eighth centuries. As Armstrong states,

Islam…is a religion of success. The Koran taught that a society which lived according to God’s will (implementing justice, equality, and a fair distribution of wealth) could not fail. Muslim history had seemed to confirm this. Unlike Christ, Muhammad had not been an apparent failure but a dazzling success. His achievements had been compounded by the phenomenal advance of the Muslim empire during the seventh and eighth centuries. This had naturally seemed to endorse the Muslim faith in God: al-Lah had proved to be extremely effective and had made good his word in the arena of history…Now, however, something seemed to have gone radically wrong with Muslim history, and this inevitably affected the perception of God.

That which went “radically wrong” was the advancement of Western powers into Middle Eastern Muslim countries, perhaps resulting in a feeling of inadequacy and inferiority in the minds of many Muslims. There was, therefore, much emphasis placed on the success of Islam as an earthly establishment. This, however, pushed God out of the picture. He was no longer their primary focus. For these “earthly” Muslims, God was hardly ever mentioned at all. He was, in some sense, dead.

Source: A History of God by Karen Armstrong

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  1. 08/27/2008 at 6:57 am

    I need to continue reading Amrstrong's book. I have it, and started it, but never finished it. I knew of the death of the traditional Christian god, but I had never really thought about the death of YAWEH and Allah. Thanks for sharing this information.

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