Theology of the Undead

Zombies from George Romero's Night of the Living Dead

The intent of this post is to briefly examine the theological implications of the undead, namely zombies. I broach this topic because I am a fan of zombie movies and appreciate the use of the undead as an allegory of the human condition in the 20th century and now into the 21st. I originally desired to post this on Halloween but…

The prefigurement of the zombie in modern media today can be traced to the 1964 big-screen interpretation of Richard Matheson’s classic book, I Am Legend. Granted this book is refers to those persons “infected” with the degenerative viral antagonist as vampires, it this viral antagonist and the slow, persistent movement of the infected in the movie, which interestingly enough is contradictory to the novel that really lays the foundation. The film’s title is Last Man on Earth and stars Vincent Price. Stream or download it at the Internet Archive.

If my memory serves me correct, it was this rendition I Am Legend that partly inspired George Romero, father of the zombie subgenre, to make a film centered on these humans turned flesh-eating monsters. Please correct me if I am wrong, but it is also my understanding that Romero’s intent was to portray this diseased humanity in this fashion as an allegory representing the human condition as he saw it. As I see it, it still does but I refer to this condition as relativism. Like Last Man on Earth, this film is in the public domain is also available at the Internet Archive.

All that said, there is a ghoulish, unseen reality in the world we live in. Rather than it being populated by zombies or even vampires, this part of our reality is dominated by the Enemy – Lucifer. This is the perversion of what many theologians consider to be the once preeminent and most powerful of all of God’s angelic creatures prior to his own fall. After the fall, God did not remove or rescind the angelic nature of Lucifer and those other angels that followed suit, but rather he banished him to the earth.

It is in this banishment that man come face to face with the Enemy in the Garden of Eden. The resulting Sin of Adam, which is rooted in pride, so disordered our relationship with God that our own human nature was affected and thus the pain of disease and mortality entered the world. It is from this point that I have often pondered the plausibility of the undead as any CHristian is well aware, demons exist and can obsess and even possess persons having influence over physical surrounding and even human bodies.

When thinking about this we must first understand the differences between humans and angelic beings. Humans, of course, are humans because of our immortal soul but this is not the defining factor of man. What defines man from other beings, both material and spiritual, is the unity of body and soul (CCC 364). The Catechism states the following on this unity:

The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body:(234) i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature. (1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church 365)

Thus it is the unity of body and soul that makes us human. It was this human nature that the Incarnate Word took upon Himself through His mother, the Most Blessed Virgin. And it is in recognition of this that we refer to her rightly as Theotokos, the God-bearer or Mother of God. The key difference between the perfect human nature of Christ is the fact of the Hypostatic Union of this nature with the eternal, Divine Nature of God. Jesus is True Man and True God. It is in this image than man was made.

The Divine Nature of the Triune Godhead is spiritual. God the Father is a spirit as is God the Holy Spirit (obviously). This is the type of being that the angels are. They are not Divine as God but rather are spiritual in nature. As Saint Thomas Aquinas rightly pointed out, angel is their office and spirit is their nature. Being incorporeal beings, angels are not limited to laws of nature (physical) as we are. In this sense, they are superior to us. Thus we understand that, “As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendour of their glory bears witness (190)” (1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church 330).

Because of their nature, angels are able to manipulate and affect the material world in a manner that exceeds our own abilities, such as taking possession of the body of a person. Gaining possession cannot be done by force however, a person must give consent of the will and in some fashion invite the possession to occur. Keep in mind that the demon cannot take possession of the soul, only the body. In doing so, the soul can suffer great loss and agony at being so separated from God, yet the person does maintain their freedom of will though it may be increasingly difficult to exercise in a fashion that would radically affect the demonic possessor.

Bodily possessions are extremely rare but do exist and can only be properly combated through the authority of Jesus Christ exercised through the fullness of Holy Orders that is the office of the bishop or local ordinary. The Catechism speaks on exorcism by stating:

In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism. The solemn exorcism, called “a major exorcism,” can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. The
refore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness.(177) (1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church 1673)

The nature of the priestly office does afford any presbyter to ability to cast out demons but without the authority of a bishop, the unauthorized Rite can result in terrible consequences for the possessed and even the attempting exorcist. The similar is true for the case of demonic obsession, which is the term that refers to the ability of a demon to manipulate matter in a manner that would cause some fear, terror, physical danger or even intrigue and curiosity on the part of a witness or affected person. These may be more familiar to the secular world as a haunting or poltergeist activity.

All of this talk about angels, demons, possession and obsession is key to my personal thoughts behind the “theology of the undead.” Stemming from my limited understanding of the nature of man and angels coupled with the reality of evil and its direct influence on us and our world, it is my contention that for the existence of the undead to be plausible it would be a direct cause of mass demonic possession. Of course, this would first be something that God would allow for whatever reason and seeing that this did not occur, even during Old Testament times during when it appeared that demonic possession was more prevalent, or even after the death of Christ on the Cross where the Gospel of Matthew records, “the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many”  (Matthew 27:52-53).

This seems very descriptive of a zombie-apocolypse but in reality it was a mass resurrection that could only occur because of the power God. He is the sole author of life. The case of the undead is not one of resurrection as those who are resurrected do not appear to be inherently more violent than in the past, in contrast, I would argue that their resurrection was due to God’s expressed love of their piety. The secular notion of flesh-eating zombies does not match this.

Again, assuming that God would allow a zombie-apocolypse to occur, we must keep in mind that these persons would remain human persons and would merit all the rights duly given to them. Zombies would not and could not be dead. I say this with fictional certainty rooted firmly in doctrinal fact because, “It belongs to the Holy Spirit to rule, sanctify, and animate creation, for he is God, consubstantial with the Father and the Son…. Power over life pertains to the Spirit, for being God he preserves creation in the Father through the Son(64)” (1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church 703). So all animate objects so because of a soul. In the case of a human, this soul is spiritual and immortal and not material and mortal, though the body is.

So operating under the assumption that zombies must in fact remain as living humans, we must certainly rule out the fact that the dead would rise to eat the flesh of the living but that does not rule out some sort of desire that would cause a person to act excessively violent beyond their control, a la 28 Days and its sequel 28 Weeks. Still for me, the idea of decomposing bodies can seem to be an even more frightening thought as this could be the cause of a demon, who does not require food nor water, taking possession of the body and not nourishing it. Why would he when he could just move on to another? Imagine a world where those who would do you harm can do more to torment you beyond the physical.

This would seem a likely act of spiritual terrorism against humanity under which God would truly test the limits of human fidelity. Again, I strongly believe that God would not ever allow such an event to occur as this really seems something that may not find justification in the love and goodness that is God. In contrast, allowing humans to suffer the consequences of their own arrogance through the manipulation of God’s gift of life, etc. would seem like loving us some much that He gives us what we so desire.

What are your thoughts?

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