Tuesday, 15 January 2019

The Death of God

God is dead.

Those are three interesting words. Some would regard them mournfully, some joyfully, some with hope, others with pain, and a great deal many with indifference.

God is dead.

I've recently been pondering three images of God's death.

1) Nietzsche's parable of a madman
Friederich Nietzsche was a German philosopher who wrote at the end of the 19th Century. He wrote a parable where a madman runs into the village square proclaiming that God is dead, and that it is they who have killed God. Churches are now nothing more than God's tomb, the place where nothing but God's memory is kept alive.

Nietzsche's point is that Western society has no need of God. We are now the masters and mistresses of our own destiny. The highest one can climb is to become a god themselves dictating what they choose to do and to be. This philosophy, to pursue one's own self-importance, gain and pleasure, are what it means to become a god.

In this parable those who listened to the madman couldn't understand what he was saying. They couldn't comprehend the concept of God's death, much less that they were the ones who had killed God. A hundred or so years ago, Western culture was still largely religious, but Nietzsche's point is that the people lived as if God was no longer a factor, in life and in society. Nietzsche wasn't sad about this. Rather, he just wanted to point out to the readers that this was the case. And it makes one wonder whether the people in churches today actually live as if God is alive.

2) Wiesel's God hanging from the gallows
Ellie Wiesel was a Jew who, when he was 15 and 16 years old, spent time in German concentration camps. Wiesel's book Night recounts the time when he saw a young boy with the face of a sad angel being strung up and hanged. The boy was too light and it took some 30 minutes of squirming before the gallows finally achieved their objective. Somewhere behind Wiesel, a man yelled out, 'For God's sake, where is God?' And Wiesel replied within himself, 'Where is he? This is where--hanging here from the gallows.'

For Wiesel, the suffering and atrocities he witnessed left him with an impression that God is dead, or at least should be dead.

While in one concentration camp, Wiesel was invited over several nights to witness three rabbis putting on a trial. Who was the one on trial? 


They put God on trial for allowing the atrocities of the holocaust to occur. And their verdict?


God was found guilty.

And the sentence? Well, Wiesel, in that moment staring at the boy in the gallows, wondered that perhaps this should be God's sentence.

The suffering that Wiesel witnessed stole his innocence. His innocence about the world, about how humans treated each other, and even his innocence about a benevolent God that, before the concentration camps, he was determined to devote his entire life to.

God hanging from the gallows.

3) Christ's death on the cross
The Christian story also tells about God's death. How God became human, lived as one of us, and then was found guilty and nailed to a cross. After hours of pain and slow suffocation, Jesus finally succumbed to death.

Jesus' death, according to the Bible, is redemptive. It was part of God's way of drawing a broken humanity back into relationship with God. It was God's way of traversing the most awful of human realities to drag us from the brink of death and destruction into new and eternal life.

Because, as the Christian story tells us, three days later, Jesus rose back to life. Death couldn't keep God down. And death and suffering and pain and indifference would never win. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, 'Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?'

The death of God
God's death is met with mourning, joy, pain, hope, laughter, indifference. Whether it be Nietzsche's God who was killed by secularism and its decision, whether theoretically or in practice, that it no longer needed God, or Wiesel's witness of God hanging upon the gallows or the Christian belief of God's redemptive death on the cross.

As a Christian, I feel that I need to sit deeply with each of these three images.

I need to see how our culture has no room for God or God's meddling interference.

I need to be profoundly moved by the nonsensical suffering of others who faced a pain so deep that it felt like their God had been murdered, and if someone else hasn't already done it, then God deserves the gallows.

I need to be shaped deeply by the realisation that God cares so deeply that God would die on a cross to reconcile humanity and this broken world back into perfect relationship.

And while my life and my faith is shaped most by the third of these images, I still need those other two to deepen my faith, to force me to ask hard questions, to weep and to be angry, to see the connection between divine suffering and human suffering, divine activity and Western humanity's (and of course my own as a product of the western world) indifference toward God.

So, what's my reaction to God's death? Well, mourning, joy, pain, hope, laughter, indifference, gratitude...