TIME magazine shocked the American public on April, 8, 1966, by publishing a simple cover with one red-letter question on a black background: “Is God Dead?”
When TIME reproduced their 1966 cover design this April – now with the question, “Is Truth Dead?” – Southern Baptist ministers and theologians reaffirmed their confidence in the eternal truth of the living God.
“Truth is not dead,” Owen Strachan, associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, told The Pathway.
“Humanity has an unshakable thirst for truth. Truth is burned on our hearts and imbued on our brains. People are starving for truth today. They are living in the wreckage of a world that has willfully gouged out its eyes to truth.
“But we who preach Christ have the means of salvation and surety. I believe in days ahead that many will disagree with us, but that our promotion of absolute truth, a coherent worldview and a Savior will prove irresistible to many left in the wilderness by postmodern education.”
That TIME magazine would follow up their talk of God’s death with talk of truth’s death is no surprise, Strachan added. “The two ‘deaths’ are directly related. If God is not with us, then we have no foundation for truth.”
The 1966 cover article, written by TIME religion editor John Elson, featured the radical “Death-of-God” theological movement of the 1960s.
Though relatively short-lived and small, this movement gained notoriety for its leaders, who championed the radical 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s slogan, “God is dead,” to advance their own theological views. By talking of God’s death, they meant different things: Some meant that talk of God was simply illogical and meaningless; others that, since modern people couldn’t accept the traditional view of the Christian God, the church ought to abandon talk of Him altogether; and others that God had utterly abandoned His divine nature forever when He became incarnate as the fully human – and merely human – Jesus of Nazareth.
Church historian Miles Mullin says Christians shouldn’t be shocked that the 1960s produced such a radical theological movement. After all, the ’60s aren’t called the “radical ’60s” for no reason.
“Radical changes were taking place internationally as the world entered the post-colonial era, radical changes were taking place legally in the United States as Civil Rights leaders aggressively and publicly asserted that African Americans should be treated as full citizens, and radical changes were taking place culturally in America as social mores from the past were challenged and overturned,” Mullin, vice president for academic administration and professor of religious history at Hannibal-LaGrange University, said. “In this context, is it any surprise that radical theology emerged as well? Or that TIME found the radical Death-of-God theologians so intriguing? Or that they would print such a radical cover?”
Nevertheless, for many Americans at the time, the 1966 TIME article did come as a surprise, evidenced by the 3,421 letters the magazine’s editors received from readers.
“People were alarmed. They were shocked,” David Baker, pastor of First Baptist Church, Belton, Mo., told The Pathway. “I remember it. I was 16 years old when it came out. I remember my pastor addressing it the Sunday after it came out.
“It was a different time. People had not been exposed to that kind of thinking. There were a lot of folks that were shocked that anybody would make that statement, particularly that a major magazine would put it out on the shelves.”
For Baker, however, it is only natural that, little more than 50 years later, TIME is publishing a cover design that questions the existence of truth. After having questioned the existence of God, TIME, as well as many people in American society, has removed the only foundation for absolute truth.
Skepticism about God’s existence enabled the growth of postmodernism in the 20th-century – that is, the philosophical movement that teaches there is no ultimate truth, no grand narrative to explain the meaning of life for everyone.
“People now speak, even in conservative circles, of exclusively personalized truth: ‘My truth.’ ‘Your truth,’” Strachan said about this relativistic tendency within society. “Truth today is no different than an item on a fast-food menu; you can take it or leave it.”
What follows the death of truth?
TIME’S 1966 article about God’s alleged death ultimately pronounced the death of truth in much of society, according to John Greever, an adjunct theology professor of theology at Missouri Baptist University and pastor of First Baptist Church, Fenton, Mo. TIME’s more recent cover, questioning the existence of truth, is actually behind the times, he added, since some experts have actually pronounced the death of postmodern skepticism about truth.
“Postmodern thought is philosophically bankrupt,” Greever said. “There is no way that you can logically, consistently and compellingly argue that there is no truth in any truthful way.”
But what, Greever asked, comes in the wake of postmodernism’s death? His answer was not heartening.
“What comes after the degradation of absolute and objective truth is tyranny and oppressive thought. … That’s why we have protests. That’s why we have shouting matches. It’s no longer about what anyone’s viewpoint or perception or perspective is, but about whether or not they conform to the common narrative of life or thought.”
Such oppression was on display, for example, when the state of Washington sued Barronelle Stutzman, a Southern Baptist flower shop owner, after she refused – because of her biblical convictions – to design floral arrangements in 2013 for a same-sex wedding. Such oppression was on display when Springfield’s Missouri State University in 2014 expelled Andrew Cash, a Christian counseling student, simply for saying that he could not in good conscience counsel same-sex couples; he would instead would refer them to a counselor who shared their beliefs about marriage and human sexuality.
Such oppression was on display when last year, the NCAA began threatening the state of North Carolina with economic retaliation if they refused to repeal a law mandating that people could use only the restroom corresponding to their biological sex. In March, state legislators repealed the law. See related report.
As a matter of fact, by questioning the existence of truth this month, TIME magazine isn’t really trying to promote a postmodern, relativistic view of truth, according to J. Alan Branch, professor of Christian Ethics at Midwestern. Indeed, this month’s cover article in TIME apparently has very little to do with a philosophical discussion of truth’s existence. Rather, the article questions the honesty of U.S. President Donald Trump – a man little esteemed by the leftwing media.
“What TIME really means by ‘Is Truth Dead?’ is that they want abortion on demand, legalized euthanasia, legalized pot and abandonment of sexual restraint,” Branch told The Pathway. In other words, he acknowledged, they’re simply promoting their own brand of truth – a “truth” based on a liberal, progressive ideology.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Benjamin Hawkins is associate editor for The Pathway, mbcpathway.com, newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.)