Altizer was born in Charleston, West Virginia, and attended St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland. He was educated at the University of Chicago and graduated with B.A., M.A., and PhD degrees. His master's thesis examined the concepts of nature and grace in St. Augustine. His doctoral dissertation of 1955 examined Carl Gustav Jung's understanding of religion.
He took up a post at Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana, from 1954 to 1956 where he taught religion. He then became an associate professor of Bible and religion at Emory University where he taught from 1956 to 1968.
"Death of God" controversy
While teaching at Emory, Altizer's religious views were featured in two Time magazine articles in 1965 and 1966. The latter issue was published at Easter time, and its cover asked in bold red letters on a plain black background, "Is God Dead?"
Altizer has repeatedly claimed that the scorn, outcry, and even death threats he subsequently received were misplaced. Altizer's religious proclamation viewed God's death (really a self-extinction) as a process that began at the world's creation and came to an end through Jesus Christ—whose crucifixion in reality poured out God's full spirit into this world. In developing his position Altizer drew upon the dialectical thought of Hegel, the visionary writings of William Blake, the anthroposophical thought of Owen Barfield, and adapted aspects of Mircea Eliade's studies of the sacred and the profane.
In the mid-1960s Altizer was drawn into discussions about his views with other radical Christian theologians such as Gabriel Vahanian, William Hamilton, and Paul Van Buren, and also with the rabbi Richard Rubenstein. Those religious scholars collectively formed a loose network of thinkers who held to different versions of the death of God. Altizer also entered into formal critical debates with the evangelical Lutheran John Warwick Montgomery, and the Christian countercult movement apologist Walter Martin. The evangelical theologians faulted Altizer on philosophical, methodological and theological questions, such as his reliance on Hegelian dialectical thought, his idiosyncratic semantic use of theological words, and the interpretative principles he used in understanding Biblical literature.
In Godhead and the Nothing, Altizer examined the notion of evil. He presented evil as the absence of will, but not separate from God. Orthodox Christianity—considered nihilistic by Nietzsche—named evil and separated it from good without thoroughly examining its nature. However, the immanence of the spirit (after Jesus Christ) within the world embraces everything created. The immanence of the spirit is the answer to the nihilistic state that Christianity, according to Nietzsche, was leading the world into. Through the introduction of God in the material world (immanence), the emptying of meaning would cease. No longer would followers be able to dismiss the present world for a transcendent world. They would have to embrace the present completely, and keep meaning in the here and now.
Altizer now lives in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania. His memoir is entitled Living the Death of God. He is currently Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
- Lissa McCullough and Brian Schroeder, (eds.) Thinking Through the Death of God: A Critical Companion to Thomas J.J. Alltizer (Albany, NY: SUNY, 2004). ISBN 978-0-7914-6220-1
- D.G. Leahy, Foundation: Matter The Body Itself (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1996). ISBN 978-0-7914-2022-5
- John B. Cobb, (ed.) The Theology of Alltizer: Critique and Response, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970)
- Robert S. Corrington, book review of Genesis and Apocalypse, Theology Today, 49/1 (April 1992).
- Langdon Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-Language, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill, 1969).
- John Warwick Montgomery, The 'Is God Dead?' Controversy, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966).
- John Warwick Montgomery, The Alltizer-Montgomery Dialogue: A Chapter in the God is Dead Controversy, (Chicago: Intervarsity Press, 1967).
- John Warwick Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology, (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1970). ISBN 0-87123-521-8
- The Death of the Death of God [audio-tapes], the debate between Thomas Alltizer and John W. Montgomery at the University of Chicago, February 24, 1967.
- Christopher Rodkey, book review of Thinking Through the Death of God, Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory, 6/3 (Fall 2005).
- Harris, Matthew Edward. Gianni Vattimo and Thomas J. J. Altizer on the Incarnation and the Death of God: A Comparison. Minerva 15 (2011): 1-19. http://www.minerva.mic.ul.ie//Vol%2015/index.html
- Contemporary Jesus (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997). ISBN 0-7914-3375-7
- Descent into Hell (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1970).
- Genesis and Apocalypse: A Theological Voyage Toward Authentic Christianity (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox 1990) ISBN 0-664-21932-2
- Genesis of God, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993). ISBN 0-664-21996-9
- Godhead and The Nothing (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003). ISBN 0-7914-5795-8
- The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966).
- History as Apocalypse, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985). ISBN 0-88706-013-7
- Living the Death of God: A Theological Memoir (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006). ISBN 0-7914-6757-0
- Mircea Eliade and The Dialectic of the Sacred (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963),(Westport: Greenwood Press, 1975). ISBN 0-8371-7196-2
- New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake (Aurora: Davies Group, 2000). ISBN 1-888570-56-3
- New Gospel of Christian Atheism (Aurora: Davies Group, 2002). ISBN 1-888570-65-2
- Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961).
- The Self-Embodiment of God (New York: Harper & Row, 1977). ISBN 0-06-060160-4
Total Presence: The Language of Jesus and the Language of Today (New York: Seabury Press, 1980). ISBN 0-8164-0461-5
- (ed). Toward A New Christianity: Readings in the Death of God (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967).
- with William Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968).
- Hamilton, William, A Quest for the Post-Historical Jesus (London, New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 1994). ISBN 978-0-8264-0641-5
- "Altizer's Personal Website". http://altizer.narod.ru/biography.html. Retrieved 2014-08-08.
- Excerpt from Radical Theology and the Death of God
- Thomas Altizer,"Apocalypticism and Modern Thinking", Journal for Christian Theological Research, 2/2 (1997).
- "The Revolutionary", Emory Magazine, Autumn, 2006.
- "God is Dead Controversy", Emory History.
- The God is Dead Movement, Time Magazine, October 22, 1965.
- Review Gospel of Christian Atheism