Once a year, in the city where I live now, there’s what’s advertised as a “Zombie Walk.” On this night, people (typically young city-dwellers) dress up as the living corpses of horror lore and lumber out about hands-out, moaning as they swarm together through the city streets. A young Christian who happened upon this told me it was the closest thing he conceive of what hell must sound like.
I thought about the zombie walkers this morning as I read a piece by author Chuck Klosterman in the New York Times on why zombies have made such a comeback in American popular culture. Klosterman argues that the zombie stories represent, for many contemporary Americans, “allegories for how their day-to-day existence feels.”
The main truth about zombies, he argues, is that zombies, dead as they are, keep coming. As soon as you “kill” one dead man, there’s another right behind him. “In other words, zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work emails on a Monday morning or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or following Twitter gossip out of obligation, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche.”
Clearly, there’s something about the zombie that resonates with the current mass imagination. Not only are zombies making a comeback in horror film, but they are everywhere in popular fiction, from apocalyptic zombie war novels to adaptations of classic fiction featuring the undead (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is one example). A forthcoming video game is set to feature Richard Nixon, of all people, as a zombie hunter.
I think there’s more to it than Klosterman’s technological overload scenario. The zombie represents what it means to feel dead and yet unable to stop living. That’s, at root, a spiritual condition before it’s a sociological one.
Those familiar with the Christian story know that the primal human sin brought about the sentence of death. What we don’t often note is that this death penalty was itself radically gracious. After joining the serpent in his insurrection against God, the man and the woman were spiritually cut off from the life of God. They were dead. God exiled them from the Garden of Eden not because he was spiteful toward them, but to get them away from his appointed means of their ongoing life, the Tree of Life. God sent the sinful humanity out of the sanctuary “lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Gen. 3:22).
Cut off from the tree of life, the rebellion of Adam and Eve would at least end in the expiration of death. With the passing of each generation of sinners, there was the hope of a new start, a start that ultimately comes when a new root buds out of the human vine, the virgin-born Son of Eve.
Throughout the biblical story, though, there are those who think death alone is the problem. The Gospels tell us, for instance, of those who question Jesus about how to “inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:16; Lk. 10:25). Jesus goes on to point out what this way toward life entails, often leaving his questioners perplexed and disappointed (Matt. 19:21-22;Lk. 10:37).
That’s the whole point of the gospel. The good news isn’t just about escaping the end of existence. Worse than that is an ongoing life trapped in spiritual deadness. That isn’t life at all. To live as a dead creature driven along by demonic desires (Eph. 2:1-3) is more akin to a zombie than to the abundant life promised in the gospel. After all, in our sin, what were we: walking corpses that lived simply to feed our appetites.
Perhaps that’s why so few are persuaded by our appeals to eternal life. For some, the very idea of life that goes on and on and on is the bleakest thing imaginable. And for good reason. They are, like we were, the walking dead. The gospel does promise eternal life, but only after it promises death.
In Christ, we are crucified and buried. Our old zombie self is finally given rest. And then, in Christ, we are raised, not just to continuation of life, but to “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4), to a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).
The next time you see a zombie novel on a bookstore display, or the next time you pass a box office advertisement for some gory zombie film, stop and pray for those who feel like the living dead.
And remember that this was your life story once. You were dead to the source of your life. You were walking by a power driving you to consume more and more of what could never give you life. And there was no end in sight. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5).