J. Todd Billings, The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020.
“He won’t live to see his daughter graduate high school.” This was my first, aching thought when I heard the prognosis of J. Todd Billings’ cancer diagnosis as his student in seminary. I grieved for his wife, who will sooner or later be widowed. I grieved for his children who would live out their days with that aching loss. I even grieved for myself, who feared losing a friend. Yet, the cancer diagnosis had happened to someone else. The death that seemed promised was someone else’s death. Yet, in The End of the Christian Life, Billings invites us all to contemplate our own mortality. Weaving together real-life narratives with poignant theological insight, Billings offers sober, christ-centered hope for mortal creatures like us.
The End of The Christian Life moves from death to life in Christ. Billings begins with an exploration of the biblical language of Sheol. He notes that it is not just the abode of the dead, but is a place where even the living can cry out to God and long for God’s presence at the temple. Life in Sheol is life cut off from the land of the living. It is life swallowed up by death. Yet, even before our final breath, we can be swallowed up by Sheol.
After an intimate look at just what it feels like to live in the pit of Sheol, Billings confronts us with the nature of death. Is it an enemy or a friend? The answer, surprisingly, is both. We rightly see death as an enemy and a consequence of the fall. There is something wrong about dying. Yet, there is also something fitting about dying. We are creatures, not God. We were made with limits, and there can be times where death can even be considered good. When Christians celebrate life and proclaim hope of eternal life in Christ in the face of death, this is right. When Christians lament and weep and question and cry out to God in the face of death, this too is right. For most of us, Billings points out, our deaths will be a mixture of the two.
Ultimately, Billings seeks to help us live as those who will die. This powerlessness in the face of death and the recognition of our mortal limits can cast us back upon the LORD to guard and hold us even in death. Yet, ours is a culture that denies death. What pretends to be the pursuit of life can easily be motivated by the fear and denial of death. Billings sees this firsthand as he navigates the steady barrage of cancer treatment and the hope that the next treatment, the next remedy will finally do the trick and bring the cure. Even (perhaps especially) Christians can be tempted to deny our mortality when we view blessing primarily in terms of health and healing.
Billings ends by circling back to the language of Sheol and longing for the temple. He centers the Christian hope in the presence of the crucified and risen Christ. Jesus Christ has tasted death for us and, in union with him, we will one day be raised to life in him. The hope of the presence of God in the temple finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. We are not the center of the story, even the story of our death. Christ is. We are graciously invited to join the chorus.
The End of the Christian Life is not just for those facing death or the death of a loved one. It is for all of us who walk this mortal road. This book will change the way you pray and read the Scriptures. Perhaps the greatest gift it offers is a spiritual geography of death and life in Christ. The biblical language of Sheol, temple, barrenness, and fullness is rich and needed for the Christian life. Billings’ treatment of these words expands and deepens our reading of the Psalms, Job, the Prophets, the Gospels, and Revelation. Our contemporary world has given us faulty maps to navigate our life and death. Billings gives us deep, biblical language to orient us well as we pray, read, and wrestle with life as mortals.
In his characteristic balanced, gentle, but convicted style, Billings also exposes the false, but ever so appealing, pathways of our death-denying culture. He avoids false dichotomies and easy answers, all the while holding forth the astounding hope found in the resurrected Christ. He critiques the way prosperity teaching has infected our understanding of faith, death, and healing. Yet, he also reveals why this teaching is so appealing, even to the most orthodox. He is gentle, but firm even as he points out the errors of longing for life after death without judgment.
The End of the Christian Life will change how you live. Each of us will die. None of us knows when. Death is not something that only happens to other people. It will happen to us. Our best works and most supreme achievements will crumble. Yet, the promise of God in Christ remains secure. We will one day be brought into the promised land where Christ is and join our voices in the chorus of praise. As we look forward to that day, may we already begin singing.