This was released as the first single from 13, the first album Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler have recorded together since 1978's Never Say Die!.
This Sabbath doom anthem finds Ozzy questioning the existence of a higher being, given some of the hard times on Earth. The Blizzard of Ozz winds up by concluding that "I don't believe that God is dead." Speaking to BBC Radio 1's Zane Lowe, Osbourne explained how he came up with the song title: "I was at somebody's office and there was a magazine on the table and it just said the words 'God Is Dead.' And I suddenly thought, with 9/11 and all these terrorist things in the name of religion and how many people have died [because of] religion, when you think about the tragedy that's happened throughout time, it just came in me head. You would think by now their God would stop people [from] dying in the name of. So I just thought, people must think there ain't no God, God is dead. And it just hit me. And I just started singing 'God is dead' [when I was laying down] rough vocals [in the studio] and Geezer gave me the lyrics about it.
Geezer is the lyricist in Black Sabbath," he continued; "I wrote a few sets of lyrics, but he's the main lyricist. I come up with the ideas and he fills the blanks in. At the end of the [song], there's still a bit of hope, because at the end, I sing, 'I don't believe that God is dead.' It's just a question of when you see something dreadful like people killing each other with bombs and blowing tube trains or the World Trade Center, you think people must go, 'There is no God.' [But] it's a load of B.S., you know."
The single's artwork was created by Heather Cassils and features an image of Friedrich Nietzsche in front of an atomic explosion. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) first came up with the phrase "God is dead" in his 1882 book, The Gay Science and repeated it in his famous work Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Nietzsche wasn't talking about God dying in a literal sense, but as someone who no longer believed in such a cosmic order. He believed the Christian God was no longer a viable source of any absolute moral principles.
Butler told FasterLouder
that Ozzy Osbourne came up with the album title in 2012: "We were going through different titles for the album, and Ozzy just said, 'What about '13'? It's going to be out in 2013.' And we'd written 13 songs at the time. Then when we got to the studio we wrote three more, just off the top of our heads, jamming. Then that made it 16 but the record company said, 'The songs are really long, you can only fit eight on there.'"
The song's music video was directed by filmmaker and social activist Peter Joseph, who is best known for his counterculture/social revolution film series under the banner title of "Zeitgeist". The clip is comprised of symbology extracted from his documentary trilogy, combined with archival imagery of Black Sabbath. "After an initial hesitancy in the direction proposed using just existing footage from my films, I quickly realized it was to be an extremely interesting and original expression," Joseph stated in an interview. The gesture of the song 'God is Dead?', with its subtle reflection on the often dark world we inhabit and questioning of how such a world can be if there was a god, resonated with me."
He continued: "It was expressed at the start that my work had been an influence on the song to begin with, so that was very inspiring to hear."
The 13 album was helmed by legendary producer Rick Rubin. He told Mojo magazine that his biggest challenge was operating with three individuals who previous record together was back in 1978. "When I started working with them, they really hadn't worked together in such a long time and, because they've had such success in their career over the years, it was almost a case of red light fever," he explained. "There was an anticipatory anxiety among different members of the band and they were worrying about whether [the music] would be any good, and whether they were up to the task. The history and myth of Sabbath loomed large and everybody really wanted to do it justice. No one wanted to do it just for the sake of it. The idea was that we were only going to do this as long as this was going to be as good an album as they've ever made."
13 features Rage Against The Machine's drummer Brad Wilk, whom Rick Rubin suggested should replace original Sabbath sticksman Bill Ward. Guitarist Tony Iommi admitted to Guitar World magazine: "We had our doubts, because they play a different, funky sort of music. But after a few days of rehearsal, we knew Rick [Rubin] was right. Brad was a really good player, and he was getting it. We liked his style and the way he tried different things instead of being regimented. It was sort of jazzy and loose, like Bill."
13 entered the official UK album chart at the peak position. Sabbath's previous #1 LP was nearly 43 years previously, in October 1970, when the band's second set, Paranoid, reached the summit. This meant that the band broke the record for the longest time between #1 hits. Bob Dylan previously held the UK's longest-gap record, having waited more than 38 years for his 1970 chart topper New Morning to be followed up with another UK #1, Together Through Life in 2009.
The 13 album sold 155,000 copies in the United States in its first week of release to land at position #1 on The Billboard 200 chart. It was the group's first long player to top the chart and only their second to reach the Top 10, following 1971's Master Of Reality, which reached #8.
The song almost had another title that would have created even more controversy. Ozzy Osbourne told Shortlist magazine: "I was in a doctor's office and there was a magazine in there with that line on the cover. I thought, 'Yeah - people flew planes into the World Trade Center because of God, there's all this f--king s--t going on in the world in the name of God."
So Ozzy gave Geezer Butler that line and the bassist wrote the lyrics, wanting to call the song "American Jihad." Osbourne told Butler that there was no way that was going to happen with him up front having to sing it. He said, "I would have had a f--king army after me. 'And now we're gonna play ... "American Jihad"' [mimicks gun noises, mimes slumping to the ground]. I'm not worried about assassination, I just hope that if it happens, the bloke's a good shot and I don't feel any pain. [laughs]."
Geezer Butler explained the song's meaning to The Pulse of Radio
: "It's about this guy that sets out to prove that God is still alive," he said, "and he has this voice in his head saying that God's dead, and he can't get rid of the voice telling him, so he goes out and kills everybody."
site named this their Best Metal Song of 2013. They said: "'God Is Dead?' is a push and pull of heaviness and atmosphere, which embodies what the band was all about from the beginning."
This won the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance. Leading up to the ceremony, a surreal scene took place on the red carpet where Ozzy's daughter, Kelly Osbourne, was covering the event for the E! network as a fashion reporter, and appeared on their "glam cam" with her dad and his bandmates. Kelly wore one of Ozzy's old crucifixes for the occasion.