The End of the Christian Life (J. Todd Billings) -- A Review
THE END OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live. By J. Todd Billings. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020. 239 pages.
We will all die. Although the age at which we die varies, we are mortal beings, and that means there will be a termination point. The nature of our deaths also varies. A contributing factor can be a disease, including cancer. While I've been fortunate to be relatively healthy to this point in life, I've known many who have suffered and died of cancer and other diseases. I've been their friend, their family member, and their pastor. We who are tasked with the call to ministry are often charged with helping people make sense of their realities. So, could "embracing our mortality free us to truly live?" That is the premise of a new book by Todd Billings.
Todd Billings is a Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is also living with terminal cancer. With that diagnosis in mind, Billings has joined several other theologians in connecting their experiences with terminal cancer with their theologies. These theologians, including Kate Bowler and Deanna Thompson, have shared how their experiences have illuminated their understandings of God and their own mortality. With this book, Billings adds his perspective, drawing on his roots in the Reformed tradition.
Billings offers as the thesis of the book The End of the Christian Life, the idea that whatever our condition in life, "true hope does not involve closing over the wound of death. Instead, even the wound can remind us of who we are: beloved yet small and mortal children of God" (p. 11). It is that reference to smallness that Billings returns to at the end of the book. He writes in the conclusion: “Admit it, you have no superpowers. Look toward the light, toward the temple. You are small; you need deliverance” (p. 214).
He writes the book as a response to a world that seeks to deny and cover over the realities of our mortality. Having terminal cancer while in his 40s, with a wife and young children, Billings can't afford to deny his own mortality. He can only live with it. While an earlier book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ, provided more of a memoir of his experience with cancer, this book offers a deeper theological exploration of mortality, though with reference to his cancer. In thinking about where to place this book, I believe it rightly fits in the category of eschatology, as it calls on us to ponder ultimate realities. Although it also fits with pastoral theology.
Billings begins the book with a reflection on living in the "pit." Titled "Welcome to Sheol," the first chapter uses this biblical concept to contemplate the possibility that as a cancer patient he has discovered that "the shadow of death covers the faces of the living" (p. 21). Dealing with constant pain, difficult treatments, and the reality that his tenure in this life is limited, he lives in Sheol. He notes that "Sheol is the Pit, the place of the living and the dead who are silenced and cut off, crying out to the Lord for deliverance" (p. 23). This opening chapter serves as a reminder to those of us who have not entered Sheol that we are dying from the day of our birth. It is a fact that cannot be mended.
With this premise laid out, Billings moves on to "two views of mortality." Those views are that either death is an enemy or a friend. From his own experience, he has come to understand that death can be both enemy and friend. Following Augustine, he concludes that surrendering to the premise that we cannot master death can be liberating. But he believes that a mediator, Christ, is necessary to the journey. Thus, we can see death as a fitting conclusion to life and also as unnatural. Perhaps different situations call for different perspectives.
While we may not be able to master death, we often live in denial of death. This is the subject of chapter 3. He notes that from his own experience, our bodies have a survival instinct. We want to live. That's part of who we are. Yet, death will come. So, how do we overcome the fear of death to live fully the lives we have before us? Our culture has done its best to push death to the margins, to recognize our mortality again is freeing. Billings speaks of the "beauty of living small," of recognizing that in the big scheme of things, we're playing a rather small role. That allows us to place things in the hands of God.
As he continues, he addresses the role of modern medicine, which he has benefited from, including chemotherapy and other treatments. But these treatments have their own drawbacks. There are, he reminds us, tradeoffs from medicine—both benefits and side-effects. Thus, choices must be made, for if we are not careful medicine can become an idol that denies our mortality. This is a helpful chapter that speaks to the role of medicine in our lives, helping us think through our choices. It also speaks to the process of dying, and the way we observe the end of life, including funerals.
There is an intriguing chapter that addresses the growing prominence of prosperity thinking. He notes that cancer patients are generally a religious bunch. They overwhelmingly view prayer as important to their lives. The challenge here, because of this growing embrace of prosperity thinking, is that those who tend to be more religious also tend to be those who pursue heroic measures. In fact, he notes that religious people are three times more likely to do so (p. 127). Perhaps, Billings suggests there is a different kind of prosperity, one that accepts our mortality, but welcomes the presence of God.
One of the key eschatological questions has to do with the possibility of life after death. Billings fully embraces the promise of resurrection but notes the growing belief in the witness of near-death experiences. He doesn't deny their reality but does invite us to ask questions about the meaning of death and the concept of life after death. What is the biblical picture? He addresses, as well, the hope of reunion after death with loved ones which so many embrace. Why is this? These are good questions that invite conversation, something he does here.
The final chapter is titled "Hoping for the End as Mortals." Billings notes that while he recognizes that he is mortal, he doesn’t always live according to this recognition. However, his cancer, which includes various forms of pain including tingling and sharp pain in his feet, are bodily reminders that we are but dust and to dust we'll return. These reminders speak to the truth that we are "small yet beloved creature[s] belonging to the Creator. I cannot save the world. I cannot do all I have ever imagined or desired to do. Like the hundreds of generations of mortals who have come before me, my body aches, I am small, and I am dying" (p. 180). This reality includes the promise of an afterlife, but it also, suggests, involves judgment, something that our culture, including Christian culture, finds problematic. He asks us to consider the premise that "a God without wrath is a God who whitewashes evil and is deaf to the cries of the powerless" (p. 203). That is also part of the conversation about mortality. The question is, what is our hope if we accept our creatureliness?
It's not easy, accepting our mortality. I like life (most of the time). Then again, I'm in relatively good health and don't have to worry about daily survival. I assume that at sixty-two I have a couple of decades left to live. Of course, as a pastor, I am called upon to minister among the sick and the dying. I am tasked with leading people in saying farewell to loved ones. So, I know the reality of death. As I write this, our world is reeling from a pandemic that has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands and shows no signs of abating. So, how do we address our mortality? While my theology differs at points from that of the author, I found The End of the Christian Life to be a most useful meditation on our mortality. I would suggest that clergy will find this a most helpful book as we walk with those who suffer from disease and die while we serve as their pastor. The same is true of other Christians tasked with this responsibility. In the end, we will be reminded that we are not superhumans, and that recognition may help us live better in the presence of God.