Life, death and what comes after?
Review of "The End of the Christian Life" by Todd Billings.
J. Todd Billings’ End of the Christian Life is the most profound, challenging and comforting book I’ve ever read about death and life. As well it pulled me back to my grandfather’s death decades ago.
Soon after immigrating to Chicago in the early 20th century, Jacobus Cornelis Dekker changed his Dutch name to James Cornelius; that’s my name too. Two years after his beloved Hannah died, Grandpa suffered an aneurysm on a cruise to Hawaii and died in Honolulu. In November, 1967 I was a pall-bearer for Grandpa Dekker’s funeral, a man I admired more for his affection for me (and other grandkids) than for his business success and carpentry skills.
Every year for Christmas and birthdays, this dear man took me to Root Brothers Hardware to buy US$10 worth of tools: a 40-piece drill kit, Stanley chisels, a level, block and bench planes and more. Until we carried Grandpa’s coffin to the open grave, I’d rarely thought about death. As we set it down, though, the bronze plaque on the vault cover caught my eye: JAMES CORNELIUS DEKKER, 1887-1967.
I cried for the first time since Grandpa’s death, but it took weeks to realize the tears were both for the death of a man I loved and for my first bludgeoning encounter with my own mortality. I had helped bury an earlier incarnation of me. Was that the end of Grandpa’s life? When and where would my life end? What is life for, if you end up dying alone, an ocean and continent away from family?
Fifty-four years later I see that bronze plaque with my name ever more frequently, surely whenever I recite the Apostle’s Creed. Where is Jacobus Cornelis now? Where will this James Cornelius be in a future I don’t fear, but wonder about mighty often.
Vain yearning for earthly immortality
Intimately woven into his own life with incurable cancer, Western Theological Seminary Professor Billings critiques the West’s deeply-rooted denial and fear of death. He attributes both to the blessed gift of vaccines, now preventing formerly pernicious diseases, and to the pervasive – ultimately senseless – desire to be in control of our lives; we refuse to recognize our limits. In one evocative observation, he cites J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion that “the curse of the elves is to be immortal,” soberly concluding, “for sinful humans to live forever would be a terrible burden, not a gift.”
In an extended discussion on human yearning for immortality, Billings gives the lie to consumerism’s promises shilled in the “quasi-religious space” of shopping malls offering “the good life” of technical gadgetry and superficial physical beauty. Then, in a remarkable leap to modern medical practices that can keep people alive longer than is conscionable or respectful of real human life, he links our culture’s death-denying temptations both to idolatrous consumerism and the sequestering of “the ill and the aged not in our homes but out of sight.”
I recall one needless result of our death-denying culture. A 47 year-old friend was paralyzed spiritually and emotionally for days the first time he saw a dead body. By contrast, I think of a long-time missionary to Africa who in a moment of almost rude candour told me, “Africans can die so suddenly from so many things that they accept death as part of life. They mourn family and friends’ deaths, but don’t fall into mute heaps like we tend to.” Another missionary in East Africa recently wrote me, “Most people I know don’t worry much about COVID. So many daily diseases, threats and events can kill them.” Those are strong pills for Westerners to swallow, but there is no sugar-coating that bitter but needed medicine.
Death lessons from children
Billings poignantly describes his son Nathaniel’s response after his zebra fish died. “Nathaniel cried out in grief and led me to the backyard. I dug a small hole . . . as I held a fishnet containing the tiny corpse…. ‘He will lie in the ground for two days,’ Nathaniel said solemnly. ‘But then he will go to Nathaniel-world!’” Billings notes that this event memorialized a “passage,” “a moving over from one side to another.” Though Billings’ book is beyond the ken of young children, parents could wisely introduce death to their children by reading them Katherine Paterson’s splendid Bridge to Terebithia. There Paterson gently, movingly narrates young Jess’s experience of his friend Lesslie’s death and how he heals after she “passed away” across that bridge.
Many have asserted that “passing away” is a soft euphemism for death, but perhaps it’s a fitting phrase that recognizes the transition from one life to another; after all, none other than St. Paul called death “falling asleep.” Maybe there will be both fish and dogs in the next life, even though my mother would not much like the dog part. If indeed canines have passed St. Peter’s muster, I wonder how my mom’s getting on in that “house with many mansions.”
Our ‘warranted and proper’ belief
While he never attempts to prove empirically the existence of afterlife, Billings does offer a compassionate and thorough survey of near-death experiences as possible clues of what lies ahead. As well he combs the Bible for the many evidences of “heaven,” which finally can be accepted only by faith and in Hope. Referring to Alvin Plantinga’s Warrant and Proper Function, Billings notes that “the vast majority of our beliefs cannot be proved, yet they are proper and warranted for us to hold.” We see through a glass darkly, so “even true beliefs involve a certain amount of guessing.”
Meanwhile, for as long as we are on earth the hope of life forever in God’s presence soaks life today with transcendence. That is, because we know/believe the history of Jesus in human flesh “tabernacling among us,” he was not only God’s earthly temple. More still, Jesus reminds us from God’s right hand that we are in part, if not perfectly, also God’s temples, belonging to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. In still more Heidelberg Catechism idiom, that also means that our earthly lives are to overflow with gratitude, kindness, graciousness, love and a yearning for the perfect justice and bliss of the afterlife. God will show that to us in God’s good time. While that promise can obviate fear of death, it never makes the loss of a dear one painless.
Most winsomely and consistently, J. Todd Billings’ latest gift to us is not primarily a book about yearnings for “heaven.” It is, rather, a bold and encouraging exploration, not of the ceasing of earthly life, but of the goal of Christian life. The Greek word telos, meaning “end” or “goal,” hovers silently in the background as a book-long trope and whimsical, winking pun.
Ultimately Billings offers an eloquent instruction manual, complete with discussion questions after every chapter, for Christians to learn again both how to live and die well. Thus he links “heaven” to earth before death. While not necessarily a work in practical apologetics, End could also challenge agnostics who, like Freud, deny transcendence, claiming fear of death invented the “neurosis” of belief in God. Maybe we’ll all be surprised by what and whom we meet on that Day of days.