In recent years, movies and television shows about the “zombie apocalypse” have experienced something of a resurrection. While for the general public the undead often pass for general entertainment, scholars have long noted that the zombie, and the“zombie apocalypse,” offers a usable blank slate—a proxy onto which one can project culture’s prevailing fears. Zombies have represented society’s concerns about racism, communism, or nuclear annihilation. One can, with a little ingenuity, map just about any human anxiety onto the reanimated dead. A less explored perspective is how the zombie apocalypse speaks to Christian ideals. In the Nicene Creed, many Christians affirm their belief in “the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” This future life, or Christian “utopia,” is best described in the Gospels, and, of course, by Jesus Himself. When Jesus spoke directly or parabolically about the “kingdom of heaven,” He was speaking about the rightly-ordered society rooted in justice, mercy, and peace—how things would function if God’s sovereignty was fully manifested in the world. The purpose of this present study is to view the zombie apocalypse as a distorted vision of the “life of the world to come” or an inversion of the ethical system envisioned by the Gospels.
O’Brien, one of George Orwell’s fictional antagonists in 1984, tells his captive, Winston Smith, “We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power … God is power.” Although these words represent the official policy of Orwell’s totalitarian vision, the same statement could easily issue from the propaganda departments of the World Controllers in Auldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Margaret Atwood’s “republican” overseers in the Republic of Gilead. When disconnected from the ground of morality, ethical systems devolve into a simple formula that seeks power for its own sake. Peace, charity, and justice all stand in opposition to the acquisition of worldly power. As Niccolò Machiavelli observed, “Hence it comes that all armed Prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed Prophets have been destroyed.”
Machiavelli’s logic is hard to overcome, especially when faced with the breakdown of society after a zombie apocalypse. Does the collapse of the social order necessarily mean the collapse of all legal or ethical codes? This aptly addressed in Richard Mattheson’s I am Legend (1954), the acknowledged “primary source” for the modern zombie genre. Although Mattheson features “vampires” as the primary antagonist in I am Legend, critics have long observed that the novel has served as a blueprint for the subsequent zombie genre from which it later developed. Romero gave Mattheson full credit in 1968 when he released the first of the Living Dead trilogy. The protagonist Robert Neville wonders what keeps him from acting out his most base desires. After all, without police to catch him or clergy to condemn him, is not everything permissible? While he conducts medical experiments on the vampires, hoping to find a cure for their affliction, he turns inward to face his own moral conflict, asking himself why he always experiments on women. “She just happened to be the first one he’d come across, that was all,” Neville reassures himself. “For God’s sake! … I’m not going to rape the woman!”
But why wouldn’t he? Without fear of reprisal, imprisonment, fine, or even public disapproval, why would anyone deny themselves? Neville considers the question:
Once he might have termed it conscience. Now it was only an annoyance. Morality, after all, had fallen with society. He was his own ethic. Makes a good excuse, doesn’t it, Neville? Oh, shut up. But he wouldn’t let himself pass the afternoon near her. After binding her to a chair, he secluded himself in the garage and puttered around with the car. She was wearing a torn black dress and too much was visible as she breathed. Out of sight, out of mind…. It was a lie, he knew, but he wouldn’t admit it.
Even if morality had “fallen with society,” as Neville believes, he is able to restrain himself. But again, the question is “why?” Why behave, so to speak, in a dystopian society without apparent consequences? More importantly, why behave well when such behavior may hasten one’s demise? As Machiavelli advises, “If a Prince wants to maintain his rule, he must learn how not to be virtuous.”
Such is certainly the case with Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead. Here, the characters wage war only against the zombies outside of their barricaded farmhouse, but also inside, against one another in petty battles for power and control. In the end, most of the main characters perish, not as zombie food, but as victims of random gunfire, directed at no one in particular. Those who live past the initial apocalyptic bloodbath face an uncertain life of exclusion or rejection. Survivors are always driving away, shutting doors, blockading themselves in, and refusing others entry, no matter how desperate their cause. “We can’t take in any more!” they often say. “There is not enough room!” or “They’ll overwhelm us”
There is, of course, reason to be fearful of other survivors. In Black Summer, a woman who is offered shelter by a man posing as a Good Samaritan, quickly finds herself the victim of robbery and possible sexual abuse. Even characters that one may expect to act with valor disappoint. Don, one of the main protagonists played by Robert Carlyle in 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to 28 Days Later, introduces the film’s action by abandoning his wife to a zombie onslaught, thus saving his own skin. The characters of The Walking Dead suffer the ultimate betrayal when, after following a promising series of signs declaring, “those who arrive, survive,” they arrive at “Terminus.” Their welcome is short-lived, as they discover that the residents of Terminus plan to eat them.
Who can be trusted in the zombie apocalypse? Hardly anyone, it seems. People are always being assessed for their utilitarian value: they’re judged according to their skills and the material goods they bring to the group. The strong are included, so long as their strength holds out, while the weak are entirely expendable. In Black Summer, a group of survivors conspire to use their most vulnerable member (an Asian immigrant) as bait, throwing her to the wolves, so to speak, so they might save themselves. In the television series, Z Nation, condemned prisoners are purposefully infected with the zombie virus so that researchers might use the data to find a cure. Furthermore, Eugene Porter, a survivor in The Walking Dead, seeks the protection of the larger group by posing as a high-ranking scientist who alone holds the knowledge necessary to restore the world to normal. In reality, he is an imposter who possesses no such value. “I appreciate the positive affirmations and looking the other way on the perversion,” Porter explains when his deception is discovered, “but I know empirically and definitively I cannot survive on my own.”
Oftentimes, zombie films and television address the conflict between traditional ethical codes of the former world and the emergent nihilism of the zombie’s world. Take, for example, the interaction between the characters of Rick and Shane, two characters in The Walking Dead. Rick, at least in the early days of the apocalypse, wants to maintain normative standards of morality. He refuses to kill or steal, and he shares his resources with anyone in need. Shane, on the other hand, proves more ethically flexible. “Rick, you can’t just be the good guy and expect to live,” he advises, urging his friend to abandon quaint ideas about right and wrong and embrace the posture of a winner-take-all survivalism. Another Walking Dead character, Daryl Dixon, transforms from a loner and a genuine misanthrope to one who makes genuine human connections, even sacrificing himself for others, including those he only recently met. By contrast, his brother Merle becomes increasingly hostile toward others, and eventually takes up with “The Governor,” an authoritarian leader who runs a community built on fear and violence. And finally, Gerry Lane, played by Brad Pitt, the former United Nations superspy featured in World War Z, not only engages in relentless battle with the infected dead, but also opposes the self-serving forces in (what is left of) the American government, and the world at large. In the end, Lane offers himself as a living sacrifice so that the rest of humanity might be saved.
The glimpses of hope portrayed in these exceptions remain just that—glimpses, or even perhaps fading echoes. The overarching theme that pervades the zombie genre is bitter nihilism. The old world has ended and a new world has taken its place. Robert Kirkman, the creator of The Walking Dead, said as much in an interview during the show’s fifth season:
When viewing the zombie apocalypse through a Christian lens, one can see that the ethical system set forth in the New Testament is completely at odds with the system prevailing among the world of the dead. The human communities that organize in the wake of the zombie apocalypse are relativistic and guided by utilitarian pragmatism rather than virtue. Like the dystopian governments that tower over their puny human subjects in 1984 or Brave New World, these groups are often preoccupied with establishing, preserving, and even expanding their temporal power and absolute control of people and resources.
Jesus offers another vision. In Luke’s telling of the Parable of the Great Feast, the king plans a lavish feast and invites the who’s-who of society: all of the folks with money and means. Surprisingly, they all send their regrets, claiming to be busy with this or that. And so the king orders his servants to “go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” This parable, with its reversal of worldly values, gives us a glimpse at Jesus’s ideal community. All are invited, but surprisingly, the weakest members of society are the ones who turn up at the Feast—the very opposite of those living inside the walled communities of the zombie apocalypse. God’s preferential option for the poor has so permeated Christian thought that even the most well-to-do societies have not been able to forget it. As the famous table grace of St. Brigid of Kildare reads:
God bless the poor,
God bless the sick,
And bless our human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink,
The Walking Dead’s tagline is “Fight the Dead: Fear the Living.” Indeed, most post-apocalyptic scenarios, whether they include the undead or not, take a dim view of human nature, reducing the whole of humanity into its Darwinian essentials. “You are either the butcher or the cattle,” said Gareth, leader of the Terminus community as he licked his lips and sharpened his knives. Of course, battle-hardened Rick, his former idealism eroding, orchestrates a daring escape and in time turns the tables on his captors. He then issues a new command to his own motley band of survivors: “We’re not leaving till every last one is dead. And then, the slaughter commences.
This dog-eat-dog scenario is the Christian ideal in reverse. Jesus was well aware of worldly dangers. He lived and died, after all, as an ethnic minority in the grips of an empire governed by violence. But rather than urge His followers to arm themselves and adopt an under-siege posture, Jesus gives some radical, even startling, advice: “You have heard that it was said: Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It is one thing to avoid potential troublemakers, as the Zombie Survival Guide advises, allowing them to fend for themselves, but to love them and pray for their well-being? Surely, this is asking too much! And yet, perhaps to love others as oneself is the preeminent Christian imperative, even when resources are scarce.
The characters of The Walking Dead, Z-Nation, Girl With All the Gifts, and the 1978 remake of Night of the Living Dead always seem to be on the edge of starvation, a tin can away from destitution. In fact, the struggle for resources oftentimes eclipses the larger struggle against the undead. The so-called “Saviors” of The Walking Dead control a veritable empire of struggling communities from which they exact tribute; it is a heist, the cost of continued survival. Rebellion is met with insurmountable force, crushing the conspirators and making public examples of their corpses (reanimated, of course), and dissent is exposed through a network of eavesdroppers, spies, and self-serving traitors.
Jesus would have recognized much of His own social and political situation in the zombie apocalypse. He lived under an emperor who declared himself the people’s “savior,” all while organizing the population for the purpose of exacting burdensome taxes. For these unfortunate people, resistance often ended bloodily at the chopping block or the cross. And yet, in the midst of these unbearable conditions, Jesus told His followers:
You have heard that it was said: Eye for an eye and tooth for tooth. But I say to you: Do not resist the evildoer. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other; if someone sues you for your shirt, give him your cloak as well; if someone makes you go one mile, go with him an extra mile. Give to everyone who asks; and from anyone who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.
Jesus not only spoke of how one should respond to violence but also to demands for one’s resources. Giving one’s cloak in addition to a shirt may seem like an undue burden to place on an already oppressed people. What of going the “extra mile” for an enemy soldier? In either case, it would have been understandable for the Jews to refuse their oppressors’ demands or even rebel against them. But, as G.K. Chesterton observed, “to have a right to do a thing is not at all the same to be right in doing it.”
Christians exegesists have struggled with Jesus’s clear but seemingly unreasonable teaching to refrain from all forms of violence. Since at least the time of St. Augustine, many Christian thinkers have turned to the Church’s “just war” theory, which justifies violence if certain objective criteria are met. Other interpreters, perhaps chiefly Reinhold Niebuhr, believe that Jesus’s “turn the other cheek” command was gesturing to an eschatological future kingdom, and consequently, could not possibly apply to present circumstances. Others have thought that Jesus was referring to only a special class of Christians, and that abstaining from violence was something akin to celibacy. It might work for some, but certainly not for all. After all, it is difficult not to applaud the efforts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, in his efforts to execute Hitler. And certainly, the zombie apocalypse presents a host of opponents similar to Hitler in single-minded cruelty.
The New Testament does not readily accommodate any of the interpretations above. Rather, Jesus consistently preaches a message of nonviolence. When arrested, and facing his own execution, Jesus urged his disciples to put away their weapons, saying “those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” prohibiting, it would seem, even self-defense. Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” “Greater love has no one than this,” echoes John’s Gospel, “that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. Looking beyond the Scriptures, we see that oral tradition supplies us with accounts of martyrdom of most of the original twelve apostles, save for John, who presumably died in Ephesus. It is difficult, therefore, to reconcile the ethical world of the zombie apocalypse with that presented in the Gospels. The former is a Macchiavellian world in which ethics were never more than social constructs, and in which one may do anything to anyone if it ensures survival. The latter, on the other hand, emphatically insists that the core of Jesus’s ethical teaching is the unwavering commitment to kindness, even to those who wish us harm, and even to the point of death.
If the zombie apocalypse presents a world of scarcity, of scraping and hoarding, and even stealing in order to get by, the Gospels present its opposite: a world of abundance. Jesus dramatized this when faced with an acute food shortage by multiplying seven loaves and a few small fish into a feast for 4,000—and enough for leftovers. He continually admonished His followers to stop worrying and focus on the moment. Does not God provide for the birds of the sky who neither reap nor sow? The early Christian communities appeared to have actualized Jesus’s teaching, not by relying on supernatural miracles, but by relying on each other. The Book of Acts reports that they refused private property, that “they owned everything in common” and as a result, “there was not a needy person among them.” Based on the picture presented in the New Testament, we can see that the early Christian communities were organized around love and concern for others, especially for “the least of these.”
The wisdom of such community planning is likely to raise eyebrows among the more practically inclined. Will not the life raft soon be overwhelmed? Will not our resources be stretched too thin? Surely, we cannot take everyone in. Maybe. And maybe not. As we have seen, the New Testament is not concerned with Machiavellian power-grabbing, or even maintaining our own security or safety. The imperative to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and to do so out of one’s own resources—no questions asked—is at least as old as the Bible itself. For, in doing so, “some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it,” writes the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
But still, some are skeptical of the worry-not school of economics. Those are the people who will never have enough. For them, the world is a resource to be mined and exploited, and a world from which treasures can be extracted without end. They will call their greed “security,” because they trust only in things. Then there are so-called the oddballs, the crazies, those who give thoughtlessly and love wastefully. Not least of these is Dorothy Day, the 20th century saint who observed:
A custom existed among the first generations of Christians, when faith was a bright fire that warmed more than those who kept it burning. In every house then a room was kept ready for any stranger who might ask for shelter; it was even called “the stranger’s room.” Not because these people thought they could trace something of someone they loved in the stranger who used it, not because the man or woman to whom they gave shelter reminded them of Christ, but because—plain and simple and stupendous fact—he or she was Christ.
Day underscores perhaps the core distinction between the Christian worldview and that of the zombie’s world. For the Christian, everyone is made in God’s image; everyone, no matter how absurd it may seem, is the figure of Christ Himself. But for those trapped in the values of the fallen world, truly the dystopian world, every man is an enemy, a potential threat, or even a resource to be used before he becomes one of the walking dead.
John Gillespie. “The Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the World to Come: The Zombie Apocalypse as the Gospel in Reverse.” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 3. (Fall 2019): 87-106.
“The Nicene Creed,” Anglicans Online, accessed 15 June 2019, http://anglicansonline.org/basics/nicene.html.
G.K. Chesterton, A Short History of England, Project Gutenberg, 2007. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/20897/pg20897.txt.
Dorothy Day, “Room For Christ,” Houston Catholic Worker, accessed July 21, 2019. https://cjd.org/1995/12/01/room-for-christ/.