We live in a death-denying and death-defying culture. We know, on an intellectual level, that one day we will die, yet we tend to avoid contemplating this inescapable truth more than is strictly necessary. For modern people, death is an abstraction, a problem that can be solved with the right diet, workout regimen, or technology. Twenty-first century American society, with its endless distractions and constant stream of entertainment, seems designed to aid us in our quest to ignore or transcend the fact that we are subject to death. Our lives are spent waging a futile war against our inevitable end, and then we die.
These are not particularly novel observations. Over the last half century or so, a multitude of scholarly and popular books have argued as much. In 1973, for example, Ernest Becker’s landmark work The Denial of Death claimed that nearly all human cultural activity is “designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.” A few years later, Philippe Ariès’ The Hour of our Death, a lengthy study of the change in Western attitudes toward death, drew attention to the institutionalization of death, which has removed the process of dying from our daily lives. Similarly, Sherwin B. Nuland’s How We Die, published in 1994, lamented the depersonalized and over-medicalized nature of end-of-life care. More recently, enormously popular books like surgeon Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and mortician Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes have urged readers to reject the tendency to deny or ignore the fate that awaits us all.
I mention these books—and there are many, many others I could have named—simply to say that the conversation about our attitudes and approaches to death is well-trodden ground. And yet, the question of how to live and die well in light of our apparent annihilation persists.
Perhaps most alarming for Christians is that when it comes to death and dying, the church seems to be taking its cues from the prevailing culture. One study found that devoutly Christian patients were more likely than non-religious patients to choose aggressive, and often painful, treatment in their final days of life, fighting mortality to the bitter end. They were also less likely to have end-of-life care plans in place. The church graveyard is now a relic of the past, as most churches have moved away from burial and accepted cremation as an equally valid means of handling mortal remains. Despite the hope and promise of eternal life, there appears to be very little differentiating the way Christians approach death and dying from the rest of society.
In his book The End of the Christian Life, theologian J. Todd Billings invites Christians to stop waging war against mortality and instead learn to embrace and even give thanks for our finitude. The assumption underlying the common response to death is that the less we think about our end, the more content we will be in the present. Billings rejects this idea, writing, “As strange as it seems, coming to terms with our limits as dying creatures is a life-giving path.”
In other words, true life begins only when we accept and regularly reflect upon the fact that it will one day end. And it is through the daily contemplation of death that we begin to understand the promises of God and arrive at genuine resurrection hope. For Billings, the call to memento mori—remember your death—is not a morbid exercise in stoicism; it is an urgent matter of discipleship for Christians of all ages.
Billings is more intimately acquainted with the reality of death than most. At age 39, he was diagnosed with a rare, incurable form of cancer. He does not have the luxury of thinking about death in abstract terms. When he writes, “Only those who know they are dying can properly trust in God’s promise of eternal life,” he writes as one who has been tossed by the vicious storms of life and discovered that the anchor of gospel hope has indeed held.
But to arrive at such a bold claim with any sort of credibility, one must first go through Sheol, the Pit, the place where we feel most abandoned by God. Billings begins his book with a rich reflection on the idea of Sheol in the Old Testament, specifically looking at the Psalms and the story of Jonah.
Most middle- and upper-class Americans lead lives of comfort and control, blissfully unaware of the looming shadow of death. Eventually, though, something happens—we receive a grim diagnosis, a loved one dies unexpectedly, a pandemic upends life as we know it—and we wake up in the Pit, crying out to God but feeling like he has gone silent. The Psalms, Billings says, give us permission and the language to pray from the depths of despair. It is these moments of despair that we begin to gain clarity and perspective. We are not in control of our lives. We will not live forever.
From this posture of acceptance, we are able to recognize our desperate need for a savior, someone to pull us out of the Pit and rescue us from the curse of Sin and Death.
The chapters that follow tackle a wide range of theological and cultural issues related to death and dying.
“Is death an enemy or a friend?” Billings asks in one chapter. Drawing on the works of church fathers Irenaeus and Augustine, Billings makes a compelling case that the answer is, surprisingly, both. Although death is, as the Apostle Paul writes, “the last enemy,” we can rest in the mystery that through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, accepting our death becomes an opportunity to grow closer to the living God. Billings writes, “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.”
In another chapter, Billings probes our culture’s tendency to deny death, turning to Scripture as well as the work of Ernest Becker to understand what it means to be freed from living under the slavery of death-terror. Elsewhere, Billings reflects on the Christian faith’s ars moriendi tradition—the art of dying—to explore what it means to achieve a good death when many of our liturgies (used in the broad, James K. A. Smith sense) for dying have been replaced by the instruments and values of modern medicine. “At the door of death,” Billings writes, “doctors have replaced pastors, and the ventilator has replaced the prayer book.” His conclusion on this matter is, in my estimation, one of the key insights from this book that will help the church recover and practice a distinctly Christian way of dying: “we need to rediscover the value of preparing for death as a lifelong feature of discipleship” (emphasis mine).
I found Billings’ chapter on the subtle ways in which the prosperity gospel—the idea that God wants us to be healthy and wealthy—has infiltrated the church’s theology of death and dying to be particularly perceptive. We may not admit it, but many of us believe that if we just have enough faith or pray hard enough, God will heal us from disease, allow us to conceive, or rescue a loved one from the brink of death. As a pastor, I encounter this mindset all the time. But this leaves no room for a theological framework for suffering. When we find ourselves in Sheol, it means that either our faith or God’s promises have failed. But God has never promised that we will prosper according to the standards of the world. In fact, “Christians,” Billings writes, “should expect a life with unexplained suffering.” We are challenged to live in the tension of experiencing union with Christ while residing in the midst of a fallen world full of death and decay.
Tension is a recurring theme throughout the book. Billings challenges us to press more deeply into, rather than turn away from, the inherent tensions that death presents. Generally speaking, common secular approaches to death seek to resolve these tensions, but they do not provide existentially satisfying solutions. If death should always be denied and resisted, then our creatureliness is a problem that must be overcome, or—in the case of Silicon Valley billionaires—a system that must be hacked. If death is only a sobering reality to be embraced, part of the natural order of things, then we are reduced to mere matter, and our greatest hope is to maximize pleasure now and then become fertilizer for whatever comes next.
Billings’ frequently reminds readers that at the center of the Christian faith lies the ultimate paradox: Jesus Christ, the God-man, the immortal creator who himself became a mortal creature, the one who conquered death by becoming subject to death. The tensions of death are only and forever resolved in the person and work of Jesus.
We embrace our own deaths so that we might cling more tightly to Christ’s death as our only hope. We look upon our small, weak, and deteriorating bodies with affection because they direct our gaze to the one who promises that one day we will receive imperishable bodies. If our meditations on mortality simply turn our eyes inward rather than upward, then we have missed the entire point.
In one respect, Billings focuses on many of the same topics that come up time and again in literature on death. But there is something fresh here, both for readers new to the idea of embracing death as a path to life, and for readers who have long practiced the memento mori tradition.
As a celebrated scholar and professor, Billings brings theological depth and nuance to his work that many treatments on death—even Christian ones—lack. And yet this book is also immensely pastoral. As a cancer patient, Billings is walking a difficult, painful path. But on his journey, he has found beauty and comfort in learning to accept that 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.” This book is his explanation of the hope that is within him, and it is an invitation for others to experience the good news that we need not be mastered by the fear of death.
But how, then, do we go about creating a church culture that views preparing for death as a central part of discipleship? How do we, as followers of Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord who holds the keys of death, allow the truth of the gospel to shape not only how we live but also how we die?
These are the questions I was left with as I reached this book’s final pages. Billings provides a strong foundation and helpful starting point for this conversation. Ultimately, though, the specifics need to be worked out in the context of the local church. And it will take courage, commitment, and creativity.
For starters, church leaders could host workshops throughout the year to help congregants of all ages, the young and old alike, plan their funerals. This would provide frequent opportunities to facilitate frank conversations about death, and it would create a space for people to contemplate what it means to prepare to face God. As an added benefit, it would lighten the logistical burden placed on friends, family members, and pastors in the event of an unexpected death.
There could also be a legal and medical element to these workshops. Lawyers in the church could volunteer their time to help people set up wills, and doctors could explain advance directives and various end-of-life care scenarios. The goal should be to give Christians plenty of opportunities to think theologically about these decisions long before the moment of crisis actually occurs and practicality takes precedence.
Another way for churches to resist the cultural tendency to deny death is to provide avenues for cultivating intergenerational friendships. Our society often overlooks the elderly, treating them as a burden. The church should be a place where the elderly are seen, respected, and cherished. A community that cultivates authentic, intergenerational friendships will be a community where everyone actively serves and cares for those who are near death or grieving a loss.
Along those same lines, pastors should encourage laypeople to visit the church’s sick or homebound members together as a family. This would give lonely congregants a richer sense of true Christian community, and it would allow for young children to become familiar with the aging process. And when a church member dies, everyone in the household of faith should make an effort to attend the funeral. Sign kids out of school for an hour or so and bring them along so they, too, can bear witness not only to the awful reality of death but to the unshakable hope of the gospel in the midst of sorrow.
These are just a few simple ways to incorporate the practice of preparing for death into discipleship. Surely there are many other ways to accomplish this same goal (for example, I dream of leading a men’s retreat where we discuss the theology of death and build our own caskets), but we must begin somewhere. In The End of the Christian Life, Billings gives us the much-needed theological grounding for such an important endeavor, and he casts a beautiful vision of living small and dying well, confident in the sure promises of our savior and the hope of the life that is to come.