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What Does Black Sabbath Mean by “God Is Dead?"

Reflections on evil and the murder of a pedophile priest.

A picture of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche features prominently in the artwork for the new Black Sabbath single “God is Dead?” Having previously written about Sabbath’s connection to Nietzsche in my book Black Sabbath and Philosophy, I was eager to hear the lyrics to the new song.

Unfortunately, I was initially disappointed with what I heard. The music is great, but the lyrics at first struck me as half-baked. At best they were inspired by a misunderstanding of Nietzsche, who gave us the phrase “God is dead.” For Nietzsche, this is a statement of God’s irrelevance. It means that the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition has become obsolete like a floppy disk; he is no longer the guiding force in people’s lives that he was in earlier times.

But in Sabbath’s new song the question “Is God really dead?” is asking whether God exists (not whether he is relevant). This is a question I think that Sabbath were concerned with throughout their classic albums from the 1970’s. Geezer Butler, the band’s primary lyricist, is a committed Catholic. But there is no faith without doubt. Looking at the world around us, we can wonder with Geezer “Is God really dead?” The narrator of “God is Dead?” asks “Do you believe a word of what the good book said? / Or is it just a holy fairy tale and God is dead?” The narrator at first answers his own question by repeating “God is dead” and punctuating it with “Right!” But in the final line of the song the narrator says “I don’t believe that God is dead.” The song trails off on an ambiguous note, though, as the narrator repeats the phrase “God is dead” three times. As I wrote in the introduction to Black Sabbath and Philosophy, Sabbath’s lyrics “are all about shades of gray, rich, suggestive, and ambiguous, often undercutting one message with its opposite.”

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Joe Bongiorno, author of the forthcoming book Black Sabbath: The Illustrated Lyrics, says, “It turns out that 13 might be a conceptual album since the lyrics for ‘God is Dead?’ appear to take place prior to the events of ‘Dear Father,’ which concerns the killing of a pedophile priest. ‘God is Dead?’ is told from the narrative perspective of the molested boy’s father who can’t stop thinking about killing the priest.” If Bongiorno’s interpretation is correct, then there is more to the lyrics than I first realized.

The narrator’s situation raises the so-called “problem of evil”: How can there be evil in a world created and governed by an all-good, all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God? Specifically, if priests molest young boys, then how can there be a God? We can certainly imagine the father of a molested boy asking this question. The traditional answer is that God gives human beings the gift of free will and we humans abuse our free will in committing acts of evil. God will ultimately mete out punishment for the pedophile priest. So the father of the molested child would be abusing his own free will and adding to the evil in the world if he took revenge by killing the priest.

But if there is no God and no divine justice, then things are different. The question then becomes: Can the father get away with killing the priest? He says, “I empathize with enemies until the time is right,” suggesting that he will not let other people see his murderous intention. Perhaps he will be able to get away with the murder. Maybe he won’t be caught; maybe the jury would let him off even if he did get caught. And if there is no God there will be no divine punishment. The ultimate question then would be: Can he live with himself if he crosses the line and commits murder? Would his own conscience be his jailer and torturer? Philosophers throughout history have disagreed about whether the conscience will let us get away with murder. For Black Sabbath’s answer we’ll have to wait for the release of the full album in June.

*William Irwin’s latest book is Black Sabbath and Philosophy: Mastering Reality.

William Irwin, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania.

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