God in the Zombocalypse

It was inevitable, really, that I would eventually have to blog about zombies. A working theology of the undead isn’t something that was really given much attention for the last couple of thousand years. The Summa has no “First Article: Whether the Undead Are Still Bearers of the Imago Dei?” nor can you find a section titled “Are Zombie Shows Totally Depraved?” in Calvin’s Institutes. But in the 2000s, the crawling, shambling, biting hordes are everywhere — comic books, novels, movies, television shows, music . . . just everywhere. Factor in all the merchandise associated with the proliferation of zombies in media and you discover a world filled with them — just not in the apocalyptic, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it sort of way. What, then, shall we say to these things?

I want to begin by saying I think the origin of the zombie matters, how precisely it gained its unlife. The standard these days seems to be a virus of some sort, either one which arises naturally or one which is genetically engineered. The virus reanimates basic functions (such as those in the medulla and cerebellum) while leaving alone the higher cerebral functions. It creates a body bent on sating a hunger for flesh (ostensibly so the virus can reproduce and spread) but which is ultimately devoid of a mind or soul. (I’m not sure how a monist views zombies, come to think of it.) Of course, a virus is only one method of creating undead. Fans of fantasy fiction have known for years that certain dark magics can also produce a reanimated corpse of varying degrees of awareness. Yes, the fabled necromancer may create a horde of soulless shamblers, but a sorcerer afraid of death may become a lich or find another way for soul and body to co-exist in a form of undeath. Then there’s the whole issue of vampirism, regardless of degree of sparkle. (Options abound.) Theologically, then, I propose we separately consider viral and magical zombies, in that order.

A body reanimated by a virus is precisely that and no more: a walking corpse, devoid of any semblance of personhood or the image of God. The walker is host to another entity pulling its strings; it is merely a mockery of a human, more puppet than person. It’s not a sick person needing to be made well; it’s a morbid marionette. Like any other dead, it should be treated with respect and dignity — after, of course, it’s “killed” again (but, really, returning it to the earth is affording it respect). A relative or colleague’s body may be difficult to put down, but remember: the soul is gone, and you would in fact be doing them a service in preparing their body for the true resurrection.

The same principle applies to soulless magical undead, I should think. Throw a human soul into the mix, however, and you’ve got a different problem entirely. The very nature of the zombie shifts from reanimated husk to outright abomination against the Lord God Almighty. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, after all (2 Cor. 5:8), and so to place the soul back into its earthen vessel is, in some sense, to remove it from eternity. Death has separated the two, and ne’er the twain shall meet this side of the eschaton. To bring them together again is to commit a blasphemy. It violates the divinely-established natural order to recall souls after bodily death, one reason mediums and spiritists are sharply condemned in Scripture (Lev. 19:31,20:6; Deut. 18:9-13; Isa. 8:19). This is not to say, however, the ensouled zombie constitutes a person made in the image of God. It is instead a perversion, a person trapped in the prison of death. Thus these, too, are to be dispatched and returned to the dust from whence they came. End the undead abominations and free the souls.

. . . OK, I really just wanted a chance to talk about zombies.

On a serious (and more applicable) note, even in these apocalyptic wastelands, we can find the presence of God. Some shows, like AMC’s The Walking Dead, feature(d) characters of faith. They remind us of God’s goodness and faithfulness even when each day is a violent struggle for survival. (And one character in particular is careful to further remind us the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age will most assuredly not look like the zombocalypse.) It is possible to find love and grace, joy and contentment even in such dire situations as these. We learn about the importance of trust and community. We receive tutoring in thankfulness. We’re made all-too-aware of the sinful, broken nature of human beings (live ones) and our universal need for repentance and the salvation made possible through Jesus Christ. Every so often, we feel a call to service and sacrifice vicariously through the lives of the survivors. And occasionally one setting may even give us a glimpse of God’s grace and provision directly.

Should a Christian, then, watch/read/listen to zombies just as the rest of our culture does? Before I answer, let me make a confession: The Walking Dead was a seminary requirement for me. OK, not literally, but I did watch several seasons of the show with a group of many other pastors-in-training. I’m not free from bias here. But I do want to say a few things about the suitability of such things for the average church member (clergy are exempt from such considerations, obviously . . . yeah, no, these are for us, too). The first is simple: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). While there are theologically redemptive elements in zombie stories, I’m not 100% convinced they meet the Phili. 4:8 standard. Second, the level of violence and gore is a concern, particularly when its highly visible as in movies and TV shows. It’s not something I would recommend ingesting on a regular basis — what we take in affects what comes out, after all, and I can assure you that casually discussing the latest rounds of decaptitations will get you uncomfortable looks in the grocery store. It can impact you in other ways beyond conversation, too: you could become more angry, more violent; some have developed seemingly interminable zombie-themed nightmares; a few begin to long for an actual zombie apocalypse, perhaps to finally openly be the person of violence they are inside.

Of course, those arguments can be used against a great many things, and perhaps they should — or shouldn’t. I do, however, want to balance them against a duty of cultural awareness (not participation, but awareness). We as Christians should know what’s going on in the world around us. If we have any desire to show people a faith which can address and interact with all areas of their lives, then we need to stay abreast of current trends and topics. Especially if you work primarily with the younger crowd, it may be vital for you to talk about a few undead-related topics. That should certainly be a consideration in deciding if zombies are right for you. I eventually decided they weren’t right for me (well, some of them weren’t). And that’s OK, too.

In the end, though, I encourage us all to be ready for the true resurrection of the dead, to have our souls washed in the blood of the Lamb and the waters of baptism. Remember: some zombies flee from the power of God.

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