The Early Life of Thomas J. J. Altizer

Thomas J. J. Altizer

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on September 28, 1927, Thomas J. J. Altizer is considered one of the most radical, distinctive and interesting theologians of the 20th century (1).

Altizer received his A. B., A. M., and Ph. D. in the History of Religions program at the University of Chicago. Altizer went on to teach at Wabash College in Indiana until leaving for Emory University where he taught until 1968. Emory University is where Altizer's "death of God" theology garnered national attention.

The National Spotlight

During Altizer's 12 years at Emory, he associated with a group of like-minded theologians who identified as "Christian atheists." Altizer writes that he was given "deep support throughout this period" (2.)

"The truth is, that I was given deep support throughout this period, and while I offended many permanently, and lost every hope of a foundation grant or a major academic appointment, I have never regretted the offense that I gave. A new community opened to me, a community of a wide variety of people, for this country is passionately religious, and at bottom, in rebellion at what it has been given as religion" (3.)

TIME magazine

_TIME_ magazine, 1966

April, 1966, TIME magazine front page 

Altizer's "death of God" theology was twice featured in TIME magazine, first in 1965 and again the following year. Releasing around the Easter Holiday, the issue featuring the question, "Is God Dead?" emboldened in red, induced national outcry upon hitting newsstands.

The 1966 issue prompted a record number of responses to the editor, followed by Altizer touring the country making public appearances (4.)

The First Televangelist

Altizer's national tour was highlighted by a cut-short appearance on the popular Merv Griffin Show.

The _Merv Griffin_ Show

Altizer's appearance on the Merv Griffin Show ended as he rushed towards the exit while the crowd called for for his death.

Altizer later wrote that he "became one of the most hated men in America" (5.)

"Murder threats were almost commonplace, savage assaults upon me were widely published, and the churches were seemingly possessed by a fury against me" (6.)

Altizer says that he used these media opportunities to preach the death of God as news of joy and redemption. Because of this, Altizer jokingly refers to himself as the first televangelist (7.)

Altizer's "Death of God" Theology

Death of God Documentary

So what does Altizer's "death of God" theology preach?

Altizer draws some of his theology from the idea's of fellow theologian, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. According to Altizer, "Hegel’s idea of kenosis and the dialectical process of self-negation of being, provides him a way of interpreting the self-emptying of the Incarnation" (8.)

Altizer uses Phil. 2:7 as a basis for his kenotic (emptying) doctrine of Incarnation (9.)

Philippians 2:7 - (10.)

but emptied himself, 
    taking the form of a slave, 
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,


Altizer found God's self-sacrifice to be a redemptive act of self-negation (11.)

1. God's kenotic Incarnation manifests the presence of Jesus in the world

2. The profane (not sacred)is redeemed through the unity and presence of Christ in history

3. This represents the self-giving love of God

What does Altizer think about the "death of God?"

  1. Historical Context

    • The death of God is a cultural factor

      * "God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence" (12.) 
  2. The "death of God" is the death of the "wholly other" transcendent God

    • Altizer's affirmation of the nature of God's presence in the world
  3. An attempt to interpret the contemporary form of Christ in the world

  4. A collapse into the world of the transcendent God (classical view of God)

So what does this mean? How is this good news?

  1. A world without fear of a transcendent, omnipotent and judgemental God

  2. Living for the world "here," not "there"

  3. A shift from a distant God to one that is here in our world

Thomas J. J. Altizer in Recent Years

In 2006 Thomas J. J. Altizer released his memoir entitled, Living the Death of God. Although in his late eighties, Altizer fervently continues with his studies.

Altizer is a frequent contributor to theology conventions, some of which are published online.

Recording of Altizer's 2009 talk at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, in Montréal, Québec. 

Additional Resources

Thomas J. J. Altizer has authored numerous books that explore his theology:

_The Gospel of Christian Atheism

Additional Online Resources

  1. Critique and Response of the theology of Altizer

    • Author: John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D., Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology
  2. Biography of Thomas J. J. Altizer (1927-Present Day)

    • Publisher: Boston University
  3. Emory Magazine, Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Revolutionary

    • Publisher: Emory University


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