A theologian, Hamilton started to study religion — specifically the existence of God — when he was a teen, when three friends were involved in an accident. Two, an Episcopalian and a Catholic, were killed; the third, an atheist, “escaped without a scratch.” After his education he ended up holding an endowed Chair at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. He continued to ponder the question of God being all-knowing and all-powerful, and how he couldn’t reconcile that with human suffering, such as the Jewish Holocaust. “I wrote out my two choices: ‘God is not behind such radical evil, therefore he cannot be what we have traditionally meant by God’, or ‘God is behind everything, including the death camps — and therefore he is a killer.’” The ideas weren’t exactly new, but his resulting book (co-authored with Thomas JJ Altizer), Radical Theology and the Death of God, created a firestorm when Time magazine featured the question on its cover on April 8, 1966, in giant red type: “Is God Dead?” — not a statement (“God Is Dead”), as many seem to remember (see cover, and read the full 1966 story on Time’s web site.)
“The death of God is a metaphor,” Hamilton said. “We needed to redefine Christianity as a possibility without the presence of God.” Despite having tenure at Rochester, he was no longer allowed to teach (his son said other faculty “hated my father,” and the family was no longer welcome at their Presbyterian church), so he left to teach religion at New College in Sarasota, Fla. “He rose to the occasion of the notoriety and made, I think, wonderful educational use of it, trying to clarify what this means, encouraging other people to try to think it through,” says Hamilton’s former student Ronald Carson, now an emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Texas. “It’s about living a good life. Bill would say, ‘Pay attention to the Christian story. Reread the Sermon on the Mount.’” In 1970 Hamilton moved to Portland State University, where he taught and was the dean of arts and letters. He retired in 1986, and died at his home in Portland on February 28 from congestive heart failure. He was 87.