BY Lily Rothman
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.”) TheNational 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.