A Reflection on “Zombie Jesus” and the Resurrection

We’re surrounded by the DEAD. We’re among them — and when we finally give up we become them! We’re living on borrowed time here. Every minute of our life is a minute we steal from them! You see them out there. You KNOW that when we die — we become them. You think we hide behind walls to protect us from the walking dead? Don’t you get it? We ARE the walking dead!

There exists a certain contingent of my friends who enjoy sending me well-wishes at this, the holiest and most magical time of the year for us who believe, by means of the greeting: “Happy Zombie Jesus Day.” We can thank the TV show Futurama for introducing the idea of “Zombie Jesus” into pop consciousness as a 2-second throwaway joke several years ago, and since then the phrase has just taken on a life of its own. And these friends of mine may or may not realize how much this particular overture, however well-intentioned, irritates the ever-loving caca out of me. It’s not that the joke itself wasn’t funny, or that I find the remark offensive. I understand the impetus of the joke, it was funny in its limited context, and It really does take some doing to offend me. If anything it is simply insensitive, and my sensibilities are not that special.

What bothers me about it is that the whole picking up of the “Zombie Jesus” ball and running with it has reached a point where it really does reflect a lack of understanding–possibly borne of deliberate misunderstanding–about just what the Resurrection of Jesus was and what it meant and why the recognition and celebration of it has occupied a central place in Western culture for not just decades, not just centuries, but now millennia. A zombie is a re-animated corpse, that functions solely and just barely on cell memory and instinct (primarily the instinct to eat in order to sustain the body). Outside of comic book and television drama, re-animated corpses are not worth celebrating, let alone centering an entire religious social cultural movement around, and certainly not one that lasts. Even setting aside the mindless feeding aspect, the Bible speaks of prophets raising from the dead in the Old Testament, and Jesus Himself raised people from the dead in the New. What makes one more re-animated body so special, especially when the Person died in such an ignoble and humiliating way?

What was Resurrection of Jesus, and what makes it so special?

The Four Gospels were the earliest part of the New Testament to be recognized as Scriptural canon. Many accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry and message were written in the early days of the Church; the ones attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were determined by the immediate successors of the Twelve Apostles–that is, by the bishops of the early 2nd century A.D.–to be authentic and authoritative. Before the end of the 2nd century the Church leaders would state that these four together and only these four contained the truth of Gospel message in its entirety. Debates would rage over the authenticity of of letters and apocalyptic literature and Jewish scriptures for several centuries, but the Four Gospels were a constant. And it is in the chapters and verses of these four accounts that the mystery of the Resurrection of Jesus was, and still is, communicated.

Mark‘s Gospel was the first of the four to be written down, and was likely based on the transcribed stories and sermons of Saint Peter. The original ending of the Gospel, however, may have been lost, and most of the Resurrection account comes from a 2nd century source. In any case this account tells of other disciples coming to the eleven Apostles, who are hiding in their upper room, reporting that they have seen the risen Lord. But the Apostles do not believe the stories, prompting Jesus to appear before them and chastise them for their unbelief. But why? Why would they not believe? After all, Jesus Himself had predicted on several occasions that He would rise, including the night before He died. A priest-friend of mine likes to refer to Mark’s Gospel as the “Dragnet Gospel,” because it’s “just the facts.” For the most part it is simply a statement of the events surrounding Jesus, so the rationale for the Apostles’ unbelief will not be found here.

Matthew‘s Gospel, which is in large part an expansion of Mark’s, was written with something more of a personal agenda. The author of the Gospel lived and served among conflicting Jewish and Christian factions, and the Gospel was written in part to settle the conflict by presenting Christianity as essentially Jewish. Consequently the author employs a fair number of elaborations filled with symbolism rooted in the Old Testament (Jesus giving Peter the “keys to the kingdom” and delivering a grand sermon of commandments “on the mountain” being possibly the most famous examples). The eleven Apostles come face-to-face with the risen Jesus only at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, where once again “on the mountain” He assumes the authority of the eternal “Son of Man” (see Daniel 7). The text says that when the apostles saw Jesus “they worshiped, but they doubted.” Despite seeing with their own eyes their Master fully alive after a horrific and degrading death, still their faith is not as strong as it should be. There is a doubt in their minds. Why? Again, Jesus prophesied his resurrection at least three times. And they had seen Jesus raise the dead on more than one occasion. Now he stands before them, alive when once he was dead. For all Matthew’s elaborations and reconciliations, the account is silent on the reason for the Apostles’ nagging unbelief. Whence, then, comes the doubt?

Some light is shed in the Gospel of Luke, the New Testament’s investigative reporter. His purpose in writing a Gospel is clear from the first lines of the Chapter 1: since so many others have been writing their own accounts, he has set upon making a fresh investigation of the events in order to create as definitive a record as possible. In his account of the Resurrection his sources relate two stories: the famous story of the Emmaus road, and the appearance in the upper room. In the first, he travels with two disciples who do not know Who He is until He breaks bread with them, whereupon He vanishes. In the second, He appears in the upper room to His apostles, who think Him a ghost until they touch his wounds and watch Him eat “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (24:39b). These stories give us the beginnings of an explanation: they doubt because they don’t think it’s Him. In the first story He’s perhaps disguised, or perhaps these disciples aren’t as personally acquainted with Him as the Apostles are, and in the second the Apostles themselves think He’s a ghost. But this account doesn’t satisfy our curiosity completely. Even if the Apostles thought Him a ghost, surely they think it’s His ghost, don’t they? If it looks like the Lord and talks like the Lord then surely it’s the Lord, right?

Our questions may no longer duck an answer once we come to John‘s Gospel, the enlightened Bible historian’s favorite source of consternation. Compiled at the end of the first century A.D. likely by disciples of the Apostle John, it is strikingly different in character and content from the other three, which have made the “Synoptic Problem” every Bibliophile’s favorite headache (the “Synoptic Problem” can best be summarized by the old Sesame Street song “Three of these things are kinda the same, but one of these things just doesn’t belong here”). This “problem,” however, was resolved over 1800 years ago by Irenaeus of Lyon, who advocated reading each Gospel in the light of the others. In this way, John’s account is like a theology that gives the “synoptic” accounts their meaning–or, as I once read, a lens through which to view the other three. Keeping this focus in mind, we can find in John’s account of the Resurrection the light that shines in the darkness of our question. When the Apostles first encounter the risen Jesus, He appears to them despite their being behind locked doors, where He is identified by His wounds. But when they and other disciples encounter Him outside of this space, they do not know Who He is. When Mary Magdalene encounters Him on Easter morning, she looks right at Him and mistakes Him for a gardener. Finally, after four the post-Resurrection appearances described in the account, the author goes so far as to make this startling statement: “[N]one of the disciples dared to ask him ‘Who are you?’ because they realized it was the Lord.”

Why do they doubt? Because they don’t know it’s Him. Why do they not know it’s Him? Because He is different, quite visibly different. And that is the key to what the Resurrection is and what makes it so special. If the Resurrection were simply the re-animation of Jesus’ physical body, just as Jesus had done to Lazarus and to the daughter of Jairus, the doubt would make little sense, especially in the light of Jesus’ repeated prophecies. But if the Resurrection involved something beyond a simple re-animation, as appears to be indicated by the Gospel accounts, then the Apostles’ doubt makes perfect sense. Jesus is somehow changed, in such a way that the Apostles cannot even describe what the change was except to say that He wasn’t visibly the same Person they knew. This is not a zombie, a re-animated corpse showing vestiges of a previous terminated life. Jesus is, in a way, the Anti-zombie: a once-dead person now fully alive in a way completely and gloriously different than before.

Here’s the deal. God came into this world as a man to die as a man to accomplish the redemption of Man. At the beginning of time as we know it, created Man chose himself over His Creator and so fell from a state of grace. After the passing of ages, God chose a single people as His own through whom to work His divine plan within time, and for over a thousand years this people used items and rituals that were by their own admission earthly copies of heavenly things. They were used as tools in order to maintain an agreement with God whereby He would preserve them as long as they followed His instructions. This covenantal practice reached its annual zenith in the Day of Atonement, where the high priest would enter the most sacred of spaces and effect a blood sacrifice to buy back God’s favor. If a person accepted the sacrifice on their behalf by contrition and repentance, God would remember his sins no more.

Since the death of Jesus–the God-Man–was the ultimate atonement sacrifice: a timeless being enters time to die once for all time. In His Resurrection, we see not simply a re-animated body but a glimpse of what Man was supposed to be all along.

That promise is ours, if we accept the sacrifice. Until we do, it is we who are the walking dead.

Have a happy and joyous and blessed Easter, everyone!


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