Every Easter Sunday I will hear the mocking joke from somewhere: “Happy Zombie Jesus Day!”
It’s probably not the sort of thing you are supposed to take seriously. However it offers too good an opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ resurrection to pass up. Christians instinctively know that Jesus’ resurrection is very different to being a zombie. But how is it different?
An Old Accusation
Describing Jesus in creepy, undead terms isn’t a new thing. In the second century a pagan critic of Christianity made the accusation: ‘We hear that you are all cannibals–you eat the flesh of your children in your sacred meetings!’ (The Octavius of Minucius Felix, 197AD). He was, of course, referring to gossiped descriptions of the Lord’s Supper. However, Jesus opened himself to this charge. He once said:
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day”.John 6:54
That’s pretty confronting and gruesome talk! And Jesus didn’t back down. He was content to let many disciples remain offended by his words and turn away, whilst others uncomfortably mused ‘this is a hard teaching’ (6:60, 66). That’s an understatement!
Jesus wasn’t talking about the Lord’s Supper on this occasion, but these words and the Lord’s Supper are about the same thing. Both are talking about the nature of faith. Faith isn’t something that holds Jesus at a distance whilst expecting to benefit from him. It is about being united to the life of Jesus and being sustained by sharing in his life. Just as we are sustained day-to-day by the food we eat, Christians are sustained eternally by feeding on the life of Jesus by faith.
In recent years our culture’s fascination with apocalyptic and undead themes has grown enormously. Zombies, the undead, and the end of the world are major themes in fiction. Indeed, zombies are very often the reason for the end of the world!
Zombies are aggressive, undead cannibals with a dietary preference for brains. They are contagious, death-spreading predators. Anyone bitten will soon join the zombie horde and end up trying to eat their friends. (How many times has there been a member of the party hiding their zombie-bite under their clothing, thinking that they alone will be the exception to this rule?).
Zombie fiction is distastefully violent. Zombies aren’t simply killed like the bad-guys in an action movie. They need to be decapitated, dismembered, or mashed to a pulp. The genre is a gorefest. Most characters in these stories end up as zombies that need to be violently destroyed.
If that sounds perverse, it is because zombies themselves are a profoundly perverse idea. Zombies are not human. They are about death itself being given the power to animate human bodies like vicious puppets. They are the cruelest parody of life I know of, and a powerful projection of our deep-seated fear of death (Hebrews 2:15).
Perhaps it sounds surprising, but from one perspective the entire Bible is about the problem of zombies:
…you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to walk… gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.Ephesians 2:1-3
According to the Bible, we are the zombies. Zombies walk around in a state of death seeking to fulfil their insatiable desires. Their proper end is destruction. Likewise, sinful humanity lives in a state of spiritual death. We spend our lives selfishly trying to fulfil our shallow, godless appetites, sometimes even with the sophistication of a brain-eating zombie! Our proper end for this sub-human way of life is to face God’s judgement.
The Bible’s zombie theory-book is Leviticus. It lays out a theory of ritual purity that may seem weird to modern readers but is foundational to the gospel. Israel were prohibited from eating certain ‘unclean’ foods (Leviticus 11), from being inside God’s camp if they have skin diseases (14:1-32) and had to closely guard against the presence of mould in their houses and fabrics (13:47-59; 14:33-57). The common principle behind these things is association with the power of death and decay. This system taught Israel to see the world in terms of things that are clean or “life-ish” in contrast to things that are unclean or “death-ish”.
At the centre of Israel’s camp was the Tabernacle: God’s dwelling place among Israel. God is the holy source of goodness and life and cannot have any contact with sin and death. One of the most common zombie tropes is a team of ragged strangers, armed with clubs and bats, shut up in a building whilst a zombie horde tries to get inside. The forces of life on the inside fight off the invasion of death from outside. The Tabernacle had this kind of dynamic too. Any sinful zombie who attempted to come close to God’s holy presence would be destroyed. Life was shut off inside the Tabernacle and violently defended from the zombie hordes.
This Levitical system communicated just how impossible it was for zombies like us to enter God’s presence. For decaying zombies to be restored to wholeness and life would require a truly dramatic transformation.
Resurrection Life, not animated death
As cruel as it may seem, the Levitical system meant that lepers symbolised the deeper sin problem that we all have. These poor people’s skin was diseased and their bodies were falling apart. Each one was a tragic walking metaphor for the human condition. So when Jesus healed (‘made clean’) lepers, it had far greater significance than a mere miracle (e.g. Matthew 8:1-4; Luke 17:11-19). It meant that Jesus had come to bring life to sinful, death-ish zombies. He was even willing to die to save them.
The Levitical system also tells us about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection from death meant that he was holy and ‘did not see decay’ (Acts 2:27). By his resurrection, Jesus is life-ish through-and-through; a human-being eternally fit for life in God’s holy presence. Whereas a zombie is a decay-filled organism powered by death, biblical resurrection is about being a life-filled organism powered by God’s Holy Spirit. Zombies are about death cruelly swallowing up life. The Bible describes resurrection as life swallowing up death in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54). These things are complete opposites.
When Jesus told his disciples to eat his flesh he freaked a lot of people out. What Jesus was ultimately getting at was that Christians will one day share in the same resurrection life that he has. One day we too will be “life-ish” through-and-through, entirely freed of the powers of sin, death, and decay. The life-ish resurrection of Jesus is truly good news to our world of spiritual corpses.