Deicide Is A Funny Notion
By A.D. Freudenheim

3 August 2003

“Hey, hey Father – if God is all powerful, can He make a rock so big that He Himself can’t lift it?”
-- George Carlin, “Heavy Mysteries,” from the 1972 album Class Clown

And so it is, with that introduction, that I come to find myself thinking about something very serious, very problematic, and yet also slightly absurd: deicide. Can one kill God?


When I was a child, one of my favorite books was D'aulaire's Book of Greek Myths, with its astounding stories and terrific illustrations of ancient gods and goddesses. (Perhaps, having been named after Alexander the Great and his rival Darius, my interest was inevitable.) Although I recall being taught that these ancient Greek figures were fictional, or rather, mythological, I also know that I absorbed basic lessons behind the mythology: that these gods, with their crazy antics, were created to help the ancient Greeks explain the unexplainable in the world around them. I do not recall being taught an explicit distinction between the gods of the ancients and our “modern,” monotheistic God, but somewhere in there I must have absorbed the lesson. And therefore I always thought of God as, well, God: omnipotent, capable of anything that might be necessary. Unlike with the ancient Greeks and Romans, our God did not need to show up in disguise because God was everywhere, all around us, regardless of where we were.

Getting older, doubt set in. If God cared so much about us, why would two massive world wars have happened? Why would millions have been needlessly killed in the Holocaust? Why would millions more continue to live in misery, whether from outright poverty or lingering Stalinism? God’s involvement with us humans suddenly seemed not very reassuring at all. In fact, the capriciousness of Zeus and friends might have been the better choice for a religious focus: one would never know what to expect, but one could expect something, for sure. Our monotheistic God, on the other hand, is always being thanked for the things we wanted and received, while we must always blame ourselves for the things that go wrong; nothing is ever really God’s fault (unless it is something that happens to someone else as a result of some perceived moral transgression – that is a different story).[1] There is definitely a degree to which humanity seems forsaken.

Discovering Bauer, Feurbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and of course, John Lennon (“God is a concept by which we measure our pain...”[2]) it seemed fairly evident to me that if God existed, it was very much because we humans created him (or her). Perhaps we were not so different from the ancient Greeks after all. One facet of the mythology that always intrigued me was the gods’ immortality. When the rule of the Titans was overthrown, they didn’t die – they were immortal; they were disbursed, and went off to pursue their own mischief (as with Prometheus stealing fire and giving it to humans), but death was not an option. At a metaphoric level, death was similarly irrelevant. Sure, Nietzsche famously declared God dead, but it was not as though he had emerged from a back room holding a bloody knife or a smoking Colt 45. It never dawned on me that God might be anything but metaphorically “killed,” were anything to have happened to the Lord (or lords) at all.


Flash forward. Mel Gibson’s new movie “The Passion” has been all over the news of late, and I do not just mean The New York Times (where it merited two articles this weekend). Any reader of this column interested in a discussion of the movie should look elsewhere. Instead, I want to focus on the term deicide, which has been used in several of the articles about Gibson’s movie to describe the death of Jesus (the story behind “The Passion”). Undoubtedly, Jesus’ death is a crucial moment for Christianity – but I think it is also one of its most confusing parts. Jesus of Nazareth, was also the son of God, was also God’s incarnation as man? It’s starting to sound like the ancients again. Jesus died – was murdered; if you are a Christian, you believe that he died for humanity’s sins. (If you are not Christian, but are among those who accept Jesus’ existence as a human, and perhaps as a prophet, you probably think he died for saying things that the ruling powers-that-be (the Romans) did not appreciate.)

The basic details here are easy to master but hard to comprehend. Why would God, heretofore unseen by humankind except in the abstracted form of a burning bush, choose to show up at all? Why would God choose to show up by going through the process of conception and birth, rather than simply appearing – as God’s power surely allows? Most importantly, why would God allow himself, in the form of Jesus, to be killed? And ... if God-as-Jesus died, what are the ramifications for God-as-God? Doesn’t the idea that mere humans can murder a god fly in the face of what god-hood is supposed to be about?[3] In ancient mythology, it was possible to kill a human or animal incarnation of a god, but not the god per se. Gods were immortal; their immortality was not only part of their divine nature, it was crucial to understanding them as markedly different from mere humans.

Deicide is a strong word for all but the metaphorical. Without the fundamental elements of belief (and perhaps some suspension of disbelief) it is fuzzy. When journalists and commentators speak of deicide – in this case, of the story of the death of Jesus as a literal killing of God – I get uncomfortable, nervous, to say nothing of confused. Let’s stick to the facts here, folks – and the facts, such as they are, concern the contentious issue of belief. I accept that to millions of Christians around the world, the story of the death of Jesus is more than a story, it is the murder of their God-incarnate. They are entitled to those beliefs, as long as they do not forcibly impose them on others, and that includes Mr. Gibson, and his movie. But these beliefs should also be taken with a grain of salt, or perhaps a bag; let’s not start talking about deicide until we have all agreed on the details. I’m still waiting for proof.

[1] In an article on state of the Catholic Archdiocese
of Los Angeles, California, The Economist quotes an
archdiocese spokesman as saying “It’s a shame that Jesus
can't give us a stockmarket tip now and then.” From “LA story,”
The Economist, 31 July 2003
[2] “God,” by John Lennon, from the album 1970 John Lennon/
Plastic Ono Band
, originally released on the Apple label.
[3] Oh, I know – theologians have provided all sorts of “answers”
to these questions, and more. Lucky them.
Copyright 2003, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.