It should have been a good book by a dying man.

dying manIt should have been a good book by a dying man.  Review of The end of Christian life, by J. Todd Billings

This should have been a good book.  Billings is dying of a slow-growing cancer.  He will not die young, but he will not die old either.  Billings’ reflections on death have an urgency lacking for most authors.  But the book doesn’t work.  He criticizes the prosperity gospel, but a heavenly version takes its place.  Why can’t people just die?  Is the question too simple?  Too harsh?

The pit

Sheol, misleadingly translated in the Septuagint* as Hades, is the pit, Gehenna, a burning garbage dump outside Jerusalem, generally considered a metaphor for Hell.  Sheol is mentioned 66 times in the Hebrew Bible (Strong’s Hebrew 7285).  Most of the time it sounds like Sheol in the Odyssey (book 11), where feeble shades float around in what we might call a semi-conscious state.  Eleven times Jesus refers to Gehenna, only once to Hades (Luke 16:19-31).  Never does he go into detail, for he is far more interested in heaven, the kingdom of God on earth.  That’s what the Sermon on the Mount is about (Matthew 5-6)

“In general, I suspect that no mortal lives for long without visiting Sheol for a time.” (p 30)  Billings makes a good point.  If Sheol is alienation from God and man, then one might say that it is the living, especially when confronted with the death of a beloved, but also in states of serious depression who are in Sheol.  For some, a diagnosis of incurable cancer will be enough to send them there. 

But we are the ones wailing, not the deceased.  It’s almost as if we are the ones who have gone to Sheol, not them. (p 34)


Psalm 88 describes life in the pit.

I am overwhelmed with troubles
    and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
    I am like one without strength.
 I am set apart with the dead,
    like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
    who are cut off from your care.

 You have put me in the lowest pit,
    in the darkest depths. . . .
 You have taken from me my closest friends
    and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
     my eyes are dim with grief.

How to get out of Sheol

Death punctures our hubris, says Billings.  The world is not a drama in which we are the focal point (p 116).  This seems just right.  Death, particularly the diagnosis of our own immanent death, reminds us of our smallness in the scheme of things.  Life will go on without us.  Who will remember us in one hundred years?

How to deal with this fact?  God is our only hope, “both now and in the age to come.” (p 116)  But God is our only hope only if immortality is the only solution.  Many have found sufficient meaning and satisfaction in having lived a good life in this world.  Millions of Jews, fellow children of Abraham, find life in this world sufficient.  So do some Christians.  For many of us, faith that the world is suffused with God is enough.  For others, life itself is enough.      

Here is where Billings, and so many other Christians, go wrong.  Belief in God enriches our life in this world, a world rendered sacred, holy, and meaningful because it is gift of the creator.  Everything is gift.  Why must life last forever in order to be an invaluable gift?  Its value stems from its impermanence.  Job died old and full of years, a Biblical idiom for a good life.  God compensated him for his suffering.**  But Job didn’t live forever, not even in heaven, which is never mentioned. 

The prosperity gospel

Billings doesn’t caricature the prosperity gospel.  Sure, he mentions Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker’s “God wants you to be happy.  God wants you to be rich.” (p 121)  But he wisely considers that his own every day and quite reasonable wants might be part of the prosperity gospel.

And yet, when I’m honest, in my day-to-day life I feel a genuine attraction to the prosperity gospel. On days when I feel beaten down with the effects of cancer treatment, any hope leaking through the cracks is enough for me. . . . The prosperity gospel seems to point me in a more constructive direction . . . . Think positively and go for it. I can get out of this. If I try hard or take a step of faith in the right way, I will be rewarded with the good life. (p 123)

This seems almost reasonable, but it’s wrong.  God may or may not care about you personally, but he doesn’t seem to care if you are happy or well.  But Billings knows this.  God, he argues wants us to suffer as Christ suffered, so that we may earn eternal life.  It is this last step that seems so mistaken.

            Suffering with Christ

Paul, the reader may recall, suffered from persistent pain, what he called his “thorn in the flesh.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)  Paul prayed to be delivered from his affliction but wasn’t.  Analyzing Paul’s Greek grammar, Billings concludes that God is the cause of his suffering. ***  “The apostle is directed to understand his affliction as part of that weakness in and through which God’s powerful grace is operative.” (p 137)  God wants us to suffer as Christ suffered, in order that we, like Christ, may be glorified with him (Romans 8:17). 

The Christ was expected to come as a powerful warrior who would conquer the enemies of the Jews and establish peace and order under his rule.  Instead, Christ came as a suffering servant who was tormented, tortured, and murdered so that humanity might be redeemed through his “strength made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).  Redemption comes not from glory, but from the place of suffering.  If we wish to be redeemed, we too must suffer as Christ suffered, as Paul suffered.  Or at least we must be prepared to suffer as they did, not only without complaint but as an experience of grace, a blessing. 


Because in suffering like Christ we assure our place in heaven, where we shall live forever amidst spiritual riches.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

Jesus is referring to spiritual treasure: believe in God, love your neighbor, and you will inherit eternity.  At least that is how this passage is generally read.  Heaven becomes a reward that cannot be taken from you.  Nobler than Jim and Tammy-Faye, it remains a spiritual version of the prosperity gospel, in which not wealth but eternal life is earned.  

Read in context, that’s not the message of Jesus in this passage.  His message is not to worry about material things, and don’t try to impress others with your piety.  But Billings would have us so identify with Christ that our suffering becomes a measure of our spiritual integrity.  Let me say it once more (I’ve said it in lots of posts).  The goal is not to be like Christ; the goal is to follow his teachings about love of God and neighbor. 


Sometimes we just suffer.  Sheol is not where we go after we’re dead.  Sheol is where we go when life loses its meaning.  God makes ours a more meaningful world, but not a kinder one.  Kindness is what humans have to offer each other.  That’s how the Sermon on the Mount should be read.  In the Kingdom of God, all are merciful.     


*  The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), from the third and second centuries BCE.  It can be quite misleading.

** Almost all experts agree that the original version of the Book of Job ends at 42:6, where Job accepts the power of God to do what he will and that justice has nothing to do with it (Scheindlin).  The epilogue, 42:7-16 is a later addition, intended to make God more merciful and just by restoring to Job more than he lost (if that is, new children can replace dead ones). 

*** Billings argues (correctly as far as my weak Greek allows me to judge) that Paul’s statement, “a thorn was given [to] me in the flesh” is a “divine passive,” indicating that “God is the unseen agent behind the bitter experience.” (p 136)  Not truly a grammatical term, but a theological one, divine passive indicates that the action of the verb is produced by God.  That seems to be the intent of the original author. 


Todd Billings, The end of the Christian life: how embracing our mortality frees us to truly live. Brazos Press, 2020.

Raymond Scheindlin, “Introduction” to The Book of Job, translated by Scheindlin. Norton, 1998.

picture by Marc Chagall

4 thoughts on “It should have been a good book by a dying man.”

  1. I feel sure many people suffer hell while they are on earth.But to believe in heaven and hell in an afterlife has many disadvantages: it can make people uncaring towards the poor.For as one person said to me :they will get their reward in heaven so I don’t have to do anything.
    She assumed that she was also going to heaven.

  2. I like the way you have ended. Although I think many people will be disappointed if there is no heaven after we die. But either way surely what you say is valuable that the kindness comes from the people we live with whom we love. It’s mutual ideally and then there the people we meet in everyday life and I suppose you could say the people we communicate with even though we can’t see them.
    But I would find it difficult to explicitly tell someone who is very ill that they will not see their lost loved ones when they die

  3. Last night, I just happened to have read Oliver Sack’s short final essays “Gratitude,” that he wrote just before he died. I’ve heard that he was a difficult man, but both the brevity and humility of the book impressed me. One of the last sentences in your essay Fred is most important to me, “Kindness is what humans have to offer each other.” I come from a completely different and non-theological world, but I’ve always felt that kindness is healing in the most profound sense. In Western medicine it’s often trivialized as “bedside manner.” We all die so medical intervention is not the whole story. Healing, kindness, goes much deeper. Perhaps that might be part of what you’re discussing.

    1. I really like you a comment Marc, especially the way you bring up the bedside manner. It really does trivialize the encounter.
      Of course most of the time it’s no longer even an encounter. Doctors don’t realise the power of their words especially for the bad.
      Kindness is the most important quality when you’re dealing with people who are vulnerable
      Sometimes letting people see that you are vulnerable…..
      We are too much isolated in our own world, and even isolated from parts of our self. So it’s very hard to listen to other people at all
      But it can happen and it does happen especially with people who are more humble. Someone wheeling me through the hospital a young man a porter who proudly told me
      I’ve been working here for 20 years.
      A lot of my friends wouldn’t think the hospital potter was a very low level man. That goes to show how proud we are in the wrong way when we feel we’ve got somewhere all by ourselves.

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