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Zombies and a Gospel Conversation

Zombies have been an increasing presence in popular culture since 1968’s The Night of the Living Dead. What can the zombie apocalypse help us understand about Jesus’ resurrection?

Some people refer to Easter as “Zombie Jesus Day.” I’m guessing they are being provocative or trying to impress their like-minded friends. Perhaps it is because of this attitude that Christian writer Eric Metaxas has taken the position that zombies are a parody of the resurrection of the dead ( I think zombies are much more than a parody, and they can be part of a gospel conversation with our children and even with our unchurched neighbours. 

Jesus died and, after that, he walked around. These are two of the main things that zombies do, and it is upon these two qualities that the case for zombie Jesus is based. Missing, of course, is the third main characteristic of the ambulatory dead: the mindless consumption of living human flesh.

Zombies turned up in popular culture about a century ago, but they really took off with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and they’ve been going strong ever since. Why this popularity? The simple answer is that there is something about the zombie horde that resonates with our culture. Given the popularity of zombie narratives, it must be resonating a lot, and has done so for almost fifty years. Why? The popularity of zombies is due to the popular belief in our culture that we have outgrown Christianity and that materialism is probably true. By materialism I mean the belief that reality is material, and only material. There’s no room for the spiritual – no such thing as God or the human soul. 

More and more we have organized our lives and our society around materialism. On a popular level, we don’t really dig too deeply into the implications of materialism on human identity and the meaning of life. In general, we don’t have time to read and think about these heady issues. 

Monsters of our doubt
But we do have time to go to the movies. Many movies reinforce a materialist philosophy, but some question it. Zombie movies are among these. The zombie is a monster and, like all monsters, it is trying to tell us something about ourselves, something that we are trying to suppress. Zombies are an embodiment of our fears of a possible future if materialism is true.  

We are human beings, so we have first-hand experience with what one is. We know how human beings respond to a beautiful waterfall. We know what it means to fall in love and we know what it means to be very, very sad. We not only think thoughts, but we can think about our thoughts.  Is any of this possible if materialism is true? Even in a secular society, there is enough in this question to cause some doubt. Monsters turn up when we have doubts, and they keep coming back until they are dealt with. With the popularity of the zombie, we know that there are some doubts about being human in a materialist context. If there is no spiritual dimension to reality, would we respond to beauty as we do? Have emotions like love? Could consciousness signify that a human is more than matter? If materialism were true, wouldn’t we be zombies? Are we zombies? 

Body vs. Spirit?
The Apostle Paul faced some resistance to the resurrection of the dead as he proclaimed it.  The ancient Greek culture, too, had some incorrect ideas of what a human being was. Gnostics and Platonists taught that the body was evil, or at least inferior to the spirit. The resurrection of the body didn’t make any sense to them. Why would we want to resurrect that old thing? We can see very well what happens to the body after the spirit has left it – it rots and wastes away.  If humanity were to live beyond death, it would be in spirit, the good part, not in the body. Paul’s response to this incorrect anthropology is found in 1 Corinthians 15:35-44. Paul writes of a someone who seems to be stating that the resurrection of a corruption like a rotting corpse is impossible. Perhaps this “someone” imagined a shambling horde of animated, partially decomposed corpses. Paul declares this talk foolish and explains that as a dead seed goes into the ground and comes out completely new, so too, the “perishable” body goes into the ground and is resurrected “imperishable.”

Whole person resurrection
The error of Paul’s audience reduced the essence of humankind to spirit, where modern materialism reduces man to mere body. Paul says that you will get the resurrection all wrong if you fail to understand that a human being is both body and spirit and that the resurrection will be of the whole person. 

When Jesus rose from the dead he had a new, resurrected body. This is what Paul’s audience needed to understand about the resurrection. Paul’s words to the church in Corinth apply to our culture as well. We need to understand that Jesus wasn’t just reanimated body, but a heart and mind and spirit as well. Consequently, he was nothing like a zombie. And rather than eating living human beings, Jesus was satisfied with eating fish with his friends (Luke 24:42-43). This is very unzombie-like behavior.  

It is clear that in AMC’s The Walking Dead TV series, one would rather be truly dead than one of the “walkers.” A materialist resurrection is much worse than the nothingness of a materialist death. Disrespectful  internet trolls aside, I don’t believe that the zombie apocalypse is a parody of the resurrection of the dead; I believe it is a lament that resurrection isn’t what it used to be before we grew out of our belief.

The gospel message to the zombie culture is that human beings haven’t changed. We have always been a lot more than our material bodies and we still are. Our need for salvation has also not changed – there are no true zombie movies that don’t clearly present the truth of human depravity. The good news is that the God who made us with not just a body, but a heart and a soul and a mind as well, loves us so much that he redeems all of me. Jesus wasn’t a zombie, and neither am I. This is the comprehensive resurrection we celebrate this Easter. 

  • Trent teaches Humanities at Abbotsford Christian School in Abbotsford, B.C., and thinks a lot about the intersection of culture and faith.

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