The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live
As I write this review, the Covid death toll in the United States has exceeded 400,000; worldwide the count is well over 2 million. The frank words of the letter of James come to mind: What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes (Jas. 4:14) This pandemic has brought death and questions of mortality to our collective consciousness in a way many have not experienced before. For some, it has heightened our fear of death, for others it has nurtured indifference and avoidance. J. Todd Billings latest book, The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live, contemplates the “myriad of stories we tell ourselves about death” and with determined candor and resonant joy reminds the reader of the true hope we have, in this life and the next, in fellowship with Jesus Christ.
Readers familiar with J. Todd Billings will recall his 2015 memoir, Rejoicing in Lament, published after his diagnosis of incurable cancer in 2012. Here he explores some of the theological territory covered in that book even as he engages further, “how life is lived among the dying” (14), struggling to make sense of what dying means especially in his lived communion with those in the cancer community. Billings writes as scholar, theologian, and guide, but mostly he is fellow pilgrim, further along and farther in on the unavoidable path–we are all dying. “Even with all of our ingenuity and planning and technology and wealth, in the end we are still impotent before death.” (108)
Billings considers dying and our mortal limits from several perspectives, identifying our dominant cultural avoidance of death while also probing our simultaneous fascination with near-death experiences and heavenly images. Chapter 2, for example, explores the competing narratives of death that exist within the Christian story—death as enemy and death as friend. “For us and our loved ones, our own dying will likely be both an offense and a gift, an affliction and a consolation, a catastrophe and a strange work of providence.” Some deaths are a violation, a horror, while other deaths are a fitting end and a coming home.
Anyone who has found themselves unexpectedly beside death, perhaps navigating decisions about an aging parent, or having received a grave diagnosis, transported suddenly from a life of well-being to a new space of illness or pain, will nod in recognition in Billings’ description of the ‘strange new world of modern medicine.’ His chapter titled Interplanetary Exploration considers the gift of medicine, but also its costs. Living in a culture that seeks to distance us from death, we can find ourselves unprepared for the real demands of death when it arrives at our door.
Yet, the heart of this book is less about death than it is about God’s great gift of life. ‘To keep death daily before one’s eyes,’ as St. Benedict prescribed, is the only way to true freedom. “As strange as it seems, coming to terms with our limits as dying creatures is a life-giving path.”
In this Covid reality, Billings’s thesis is as essential as ever: “We are beloved yet small and mortal children of God, bearing witness to the Lord of creation who will set things right on the final day. Our lives are like a speck of dust in comparison to the eternal God, and we cannot be the true heroes of the world. But we can live lives of service, loving God and neighbor, in a way that does not allow the fear of death to master us.”
Christian hope is not in what but in who—the God of Israel, the God who is for us in Jesus Christ. “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rm. 14:8). Billings conveys in fresh wonder the good news that God brings life from death. Even with incurable cancer, he witnesses the joy of depending on the promise of God to dwell with his people from the dark pit of Sheol (chapter one and perhaps my favorite), throughout this mortal life into the new creation in the age to come. This is an invitation into a song of expectant praise and thanksgiving as we wait for restoration, resurrection, and the mercy of our God . . . to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death (Lk. 1:78-79).
I read this book with a group of pastors. We read this book as church leaders and mere mortals; we are all dying. It is not easy to talk about death, but this might be just the time to pick up this beautiful book. Billings has just published a Lent study guide to accompany this book. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we return. I can think of no better way to pray our way to Easter than with these reflections offered by Billings and Katlyn DeVries.
“Lord teach us to number our days, so we might apply our hearts to wisdom” (90:12).