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Thomas J.J. Altizer in the 1980s.

ALTIZER ARCHIVE/Altizer Archive via The New York Times

Thomas J.J. Altizer, one of a handful of radical theologians in the 1960s who espoused that “God is dead,” died Wednesday in Stroudsburg, Pa. He was 91.

His daughter, Katharine Altizer, said the cause was complications of a stroke. Mr. Altizer, who lived in Mount Pocono, Pa., was under hospice care at the time.

The idea that God was dead had been around for centuries, most prominently with Nietzsche in the late 1800s. But after the Second World War and the Holocaust, it re-emerged in the United States, as Mr. Altizer, who taught religion at Emory University in Atlanta, and others questioned whether a benevolent God could exist.

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The subject burst out of the ivory tower on April 8, 1966, when a stark Time magazine cover, all black with bold red letters, pointedly asked: “Is God Dead?”

The article, highly nuanced on the theme, focused mostly on how science and secularism were supplanting religion. But in a country where 97 per cent of adults said they believed in God, it touched off a ferocious backlash against the magazine and led to the vilification particularly of Mr. Altizer, who was more visible than the others, spoke to the press and had a certain theatrical flair.

“God is dead,” he asserts with finality in a documentary produced for National Educational Television after the Time article came out. “This God is no longer present, is no longer manifest, is no longer real.”

He even went on The Merv Griffin Show, a popular television talk program, though the event, held before a live audience in a Broadway theatre, was a debacle. He was given two minutes to speak. “The response was a violent one,” he wrote later, “forcing the director to close the curtains and order the band to play forcefully, and after this event a crowd greeted me at the stage door, demanding my death.”

His theology was esoteric and not easily understood, leaving most people, including many clergy, to react viscerally to its basic premise. Confusing matters was that the few theologians in his intellectual circle — including William Hamilton, Paul Van Buren and Rabbi Richard Rubenstein — did not agree among themselves on how God had died, why he had died or what his death meant. They were essentially writing God out of the picture, but they did not consider themselves atheists; Mr. Altizer called himself a Christian atheist, further muddying the waters.

“He was one of the country’s most hated, misunderstood, radical and prophetic voices of the past century,” said Jordan Miller, who taught religion at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, wrote articles with Mr. Altizer and considered him a mentor.

The “God Is Dead” cultural moment, such as it was, was short-lived. A year after the Time article, Mr. Altizer lamented that he was no longer “the bad boy of theology” but felt more “like the invisible man.”

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But he had inflamed evangelicals, and his lasting effect may be that he helped give rise to the religious right.

“I suggest that both evangelical and mainline Protestantism’s development from the late 1960s were a reaction against his theology,” said Christopher Rodkey, pastor at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Dallastown, Pa., and who also considered Mr. Altizer a mentor.

Thomas Jonathan Jackson Altizer was born on May 28, 1927, in Cambridge, Mass., a descendant of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, the Confederate general. His parents — Jackson Duncan Altizer, a lawyer, and his mother, Frances Helen (Greetham), a prominent socialite, who later worked for the American Red Cross — were in Massachusetts for only a short period, soon returning home to Charleston, W. Va., where they raised Thomas and his two younger sisters, Jane and Nell.

The family, which traced its lineage to the country’s founders, was wealthy. While much of the rest of the country had plunged into the Great Depression, the Altizers lived in a world of servants, socialites and formal dress for dinner.

Mr. Altizer’s daughter said in a telephone interview that her father “had a deep sense of shame of his family’s wealth.” He often ate in the kitchen with the African-American servants. Katharine Altizer, who is a family therapist, said Thomas’s father was an alcoholic, that Thomas tried to protect his mother from his father’s abuse and that he was prone to periods of despair.

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At the same time, she said, he was a natural showman. He acted in an amateur theatre and commanded attention when he walked into a room. Although he was ashamed of his privilege, she said, his heritage — and his namesake — imbued him with confidence.

“He rejected the politics of Stonewall Jackson,” Mr. Miller said in a telephone interview. “But having that ancestry was a validation for him that he was doing what he needed to do.”

Mr. Altizer was married three times and divorced three times. His first wife, Gayle Cygne (Pye) Altizer, was the mother of his son, John. His second wife, Alma (Barker) Altizer, was the mother of his daughter. His third wife was Barbara (Walters). In addition to his daughter, Mr. Altizer leaves his son and two grandchildren.

Mr. Altizer graduated from Stonewall Jackson High School in Charleston in 1944 and briefly attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., before enlisting in the army, where he worked on radios for bombers.

After the war, he went to the University of Chicago, graduating with honours in 1948. He received his master’s in theology from the university’s divinity school in 1951 and a PhD in history of religions from its graduate school in 1955.

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Mr. Altizer had hoped to become an Episcopal priest. But, as he wrote in his memoirs, Living the Death of God (2006), he failed a rigorous psychiatric evaluation; a psychiatrist told him that he would probably be institutionalized within the year. He had just been through a turbulent period, he wrote, having “experienced an epiphany of Satan.” He then had another epiphany, he added, that was more angelic but that nonetheless led to a religious conversion “to the death of God.”

Blocked from becoming a priest, Mr. Altizer spent Sundays serving as a lay minister at a multiracial Episcopal mission on Chicago’s South Side. Going on to a teaching career and speaking at conferences, he often lectured in the style of a preacher.

“He often wore bright-coloured clothing and spoke with a gusto and passion that wasn’t typical at an academic conference,” Mr. Rodkey said. “Sometimes he was yelling.”

Mr. Altizer taught briefly at Wabash College in Indiana before leaving in 1956 for Emory, where he gained the most attention over the next 12 years. In 1966, when the Time article came out, he also wrote two of his roughly 20 books: Radical Theology and the Death of God, with Mr. Hamilton, and The Gospel of Christian Atheism.

While many called for his ouster from Emory, the administration stood by him. But he left in 1968 to teach English at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Mr. Altizer, who moved to the Poconos in 1996, maintained that his views had been misunderstood and the anger directed toward him misplaced.

But, he wrote in his memoirs, “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.”

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