Nietzsche first said this in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where the character, Zarathustra, descends from the mountains to impart his knowledge on the people that live in the town below. During his descends, he encounters an old man who lives by a faith-based understanding. After his talk with the man, Zarathustra says:
Could it be possible? This old saint in the forest has not yet heard anything of this, that God is dead!
What does this statement mean?
In order to understand it, one has to first understand the context of the times Nietzsche wrote his book. At the time, scientific knowledge was blossoming. What was unknown was now beginning to be known. What was once attributed to beyond human understanding was being reeled back in and was known through the powers of man’s mind. Along with this, what was still unknown was not readily attached to some higher power but rather, it was starting to be accepted that what is still unknown could be or will be known sometime in the future. That the things that are not known by us are not beyond us but rather, we are capable of knowing them too.
Alongside this, also came the dethronement of man’s special position. The sun did not revolve around us. We revolved around it. Earth was just one of many planets, our galaxy one of many galaxies. Nothing special. Evolution showed us a map of how we came to be the dominant species. We were not chosen. It just how the chips fell.
So, we were not special then why would there be a special God to take care of us after death? If we are just another animal on this planet then why would we have a special God?
This meant that the human foundation upon which man had made his life was beginning to crack. Namely, a faith-based existence that is living for the future.
It is through this, the statement “God is dead” comes to be understood.
Now, what does this mean to me?
God is hope. God is fairness. God is a future. God is the answer to the suffering of life. God is a path.
People come to bear the trials and tribulations of their lives in the hopes that if they lived the proper life, they will then get neverending bliss.
Take this away, what is left?
The individual. You come to understand that there is no future. Only the present. In the book, Nietzsche through Zarathustra speaks a lot of the earth and how man needs to come back to earth and not be shepherded towards some future that does not exist. This means that we, as an individual, need to create his or her own meaning in life.
A meaning that allows for hope. A meaning that is worth the suffering. A meaning that shows you the path through the maze that is life.
There is a freedom in this statement. There is also anxiety because now you have to make a decision. Take responsibility. Cannot defer your life. Cannot lead yourself blindly. Open your eyes and see that life is what you make out of it. The meaning you give to it.
This is my understanding of this statement.