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Examples:

Was God dead as Nietzsche had said?

Had God died like Nietzsche said?

(The context is past-tense first-person narrative.)

What's the difference? And why?

  • The second sentence would be more felicitous as: "Had God died as Nietzsche said?" It would make some sense if it were "reported thought", I think. As he entered his third hour on the queue at the New Jersey DMV office, Wittgenstein thought: "Had God died as Nietzsche said?" – P. E. Dant Jun 30 '17 at 1:53
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Both of those are odd verb tenses for the context. I think it would have been better to phrase these:

Is God dead as Nietzsche said (he is)?

Did God die as Nietzsche said (he did)?

This makes the contrast between the two more obvious. "Is" asks about a condition, while "did" asks about an action.

The difference between these is subtle. "Is God dead?" could apply either to the actual, physical death of "God" or to a the death of the conceptual abstraction of a "God". Either way, the question asks about the resulting state, and not about the time, reason, or cause of death.

"Did God die?" can also refer to either the real or conceptual "God", but asks whether this action actually took place. Because it's more focused on the action, there is more attention to the details of when and why and who might have caused God to die, and not just whether the condition exists.

  • (The context is past-tense first-person narrative.) – alex Jun 30 '17 at 1:48
  • I prefer the Parmenidean view that it is the word "God" that dies when the utterer of the word ceases to exist. – P. E. Dant Jun 30 '17 at 1:57
  • @alex Even though these are indirectly quoting Nietzsche, it's not necessary to backshift the text of the quote because these are universal philosophical questions and not time-dependent. If Nietzsche says "God is dead" then God is still as dead now as then -- unless you want to make some kind of philosophical argument about the impermanence of death as related to deities. But that's outside the scope of your question. – Andrew Jun 30 '17 at 15:34

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