God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?|Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125| tr. Walter Kaufmann
The meaning of the phrase is often not understood, and the "death" Nietzsche refers to is often misconceived to be physical, rather than metaphorical, as Nietzsche originally intended it to be.
The death of God is a way of saying that humans are no longer able to believe in any such cosmic order since they themselves no longer recognize it. The death of God will lead, Nietzsche says, not only to the rejection of a belief of cosmic or physical order but also to a rejection of absolute values themselves — to the rejection of belief in an objective and universal moral law, binding upon all individuals. In this manner, the loss of an absolute basis for morality leads to nihilism. This nihilism is what Nietzsche worked to find a solution for by re-evaluating the foundations of human values. This meant, to Nietzsche, looking for foundations that went deeper than Christian values. He would find a basis in the "will to power" that he described as "the essence of reality".
Nietzsche believed that the majority of people did not recognize (or refused to acknowledge) this death out of the deepest-seated fear or angst. Therefore, when the death did begin to become widely acknowledged, people would despair and nihilism would become rampant. This is partly why Nietzsche saw Christianity as nihilistic. He saw himself as a historical figure like Zarathustra, Socrates or Jesus, giving a new philosophical orientation to future generations to overcome the impending nihilism.
Martin Heidegger understood this part of Nietzsche's philosophy by looking at it as death of metaphysics. In his view, Nietzsche's words can only be understood as referring not to a particular theological or anthropological view but rather to the end of philosophy itself. Philosophy has, in Heidegger's words, reached its maximum potential as metaphysics and Nietzsche's words warn of its demise and that of any metaphysical world view. If metaphysics is dead, Heidegger warns, that is because from its inception that was its fate.
Nietzsche uses the metaphor of an open sea, which can be both exhilarating and terrifying. The people who eventually learn to create their lives anew will represent a new stage in human existence, the Übermensch — i.e. the personal archetype who, through the conquest of their own nihilism, themselves become a mythical hero. The 'death of God' is the motivation for Nietzsche's last (uncompleted) philosophical project, the 'revaluation of all values'.
Earlier in the book (section 108), Nietzsche wrote "God is Dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. And we — we still have to vanquish his shadow, too." The protagonist in Thus Spoke Zarathustra also speaks the words, commenting to himself after visiting a hermit who, every day, sings songs and lives to glorify his god:
What is more, Zarathustra later refers, not only to the death of God, but that 'Dead are all the Gods'. It is not just one morality that has died, but all of them, to be replaced by the life of the übermensch, the new man:
In 1961, Vahanian's book The Death of God was published. Vahanian argued that modern secular culture had lost all sense of the sacred, lacking any sacramental meaning, no transcendental purpose or sense of providence. He concluded that for the modern mind "God is dead". In Vahanian's vision a transformed post-Christian and post-modern culture was needed to create a renewed experience of deity.
Both Van Buren and Hamilton agreed that the concept of transcendence had lost any meaningful place in modern thought. According to the norms of contemporary modern thought, God is dead. In responding to this collapse in transcendence Van Buren and Hamilton offered secular people the option of Jesus as the model human who acted in love. The encounter with the Christ of faith would be open in a church-community.
Altizer offered a radical theology of the death of God that drew upon William Blake, Hegelian thought and Nietzschean ideas. He conceived of theology as a form of poetry in which the immanence (presence) of God could be encountered in faith communities. However, he no longer accepted the possibility of affirming belief in a transcendent God. Altizer concluded that God had incarnated in Christ and imparted his immanent spirit which remained in the world even though Jesus was dead (contrary to New Testament writings like 1 Peter 1:2).
Unlike Nietzsche, Altizer believed that God truly died. He is considered to be the leading exponent of the Death of God movement.
Rubenstein represented that radical edge of Jewish thought working through the impact of the Holocaust. In a technical sense he maintained, based on the Kabbalah, that God had "died" in creating the world. However, for modern Jewish culture he argued that the death of God occurred in Auschwitz. Although the literal death of God did not occur at this point, this was the moment in time in which humanity was awakened to the idea that a theistic God does not exist. In Rubenstein's work, it was no longer possible to believe in an orthodox/traditional theistic God of the Abrahamic covenant; rather God is a historical process.