When a massive earthquake devastated Haiti some years ago, I was on the ground shortly thereafter as chaos reigned and decomposing bodies filled the streets.
Driving around with two seminary professors with doctorates from very conservative American schools that don’t even much believe in supernatural miracles continuing today, I was shocked when they casually began speaking about the zombie problem in Haiti. Apparently, it was a reality they had dealt with on multiple occasions in their pastoral ministry.
What I learned is that our pop culture notion of undead creatures that emerge from their graves to feast on living flesh has a dark history. Go figure. Zombie origins trace back to the voodoo cults of West Africa. These practices were imported to the Western Hemisphere by way of Haiti, where voodoo is practiced by roughly half the population.
According to the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Cults, Sects, and World Religions ,“zombi” can refer to a snake deity, or “someone in voodoo circles who, as a result of having been put under a spell or having taken harmful potions or drugs, has had his or her mind come under the control of the substance and thus is easily manipulated to perform servile tasks mindlessly.” Voodoo sorcerers attempt to control living human beings or corpses by turning them into “zombis.”
Perhaps just as surprising as the living dead walking the earth in modern-day Haiti, there are a few passages in the Bible that seem to validate their existence. Zechariah 14:12–13 sounds like a page straight out of a George Romero script:
And this shall be the plague with which the Lord will strike all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem: their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. And on that day a great panic from the Lord shall fall on them, so that each will seize the hand of another, and the hand of the one will be raised against the hand of the other.
The context for this passage is a prophetic description of Jerusalem at the end of time. The Bible says it will be a “unique day,” which is certainly one way to put it. Apocalyptic predictions in Scripture are notoriously difficult to interpret. But in Zechariah, “Obviously a supernatural plague is in view,” as commentator James Smith describes it.
Zombie-like occurrences in Scripture are not limited to cryptic verses in the back of the Old Testament. After Jesus died, Matthew tells us:
The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 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.
According to Scripture, along with Jesus, God raised to life a few others who had been dead. “These were ‘holy people,’” observes commentator Stuart Weber, “those set apart for a special purpose [. . .] perhaps as confirming witnesses to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.”
Revelation predicts a similar episode, when “two witnesses” will prophecy in the city of Jerusalem for 1,260 days before “the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them” (Rev. 11:7). The passage goes on to say that their dead bodies remain in the street, much to the joy of God’s enemies. “After three and a half days,” however:
. . . A breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them. And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven. Revelation 11:11–13
Like those brought back to life after Jesus’ death, the “two witnesses” are resurrected as a miraculous testimony of God’s power and glory at a particularly significant moment in history. As commentator Dr. Bob Utley writes, “God used their visible bodies in a powerful resurrection manifestation of his power and confirmation of their message.”
Zombies in the Bible are distinct from the zombies we hear about in voodoo (living or reportedly dead bodies animated and controlled by demonic forces) and the zombies we find in pop culture (which commonly serve as cultural metaphors, an endless source of horror movie material, or an odd way for adults to wrestle with the inevitability of death). Biblical “zombies” are dead people that God raises to life, for a season, for his purpose.
What all of these zombie classifications have in common, however, is some form of revivification: mortal creatures resuscitated to a mortal existence. In theory, a demon could also indwell a deceased body giving it the false appearance of return from death. Jesus promises something more.
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” 1 Corinthians 15:12
A final “zombie verse” in Scripture demonstrates the power of God’s to take what is permanently dead and make it eternally alive. In one of the most well-known prophesies in the Old Testament, Ezekiel sees a vision of a valley full of dry bones:
And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then [God] said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. Ezekiel 37:7–10
The human remains that Ezekiel sees are beyond corpses. Bones on the verge of dust are strewn about the landscape, deader than dead. Standing before this tough crowd, God commands Ezekiel to preach. With that, the breath of God moves through the barren valley to recreate life in God’s people. He promises, “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezek. 37:14).
That is our condition—helplessly dead.
That is our need—God’s intervention.
That is our faith—there is hope for sinners.
For “any hope of victory over death would require a reunion of the physical body and the life-giving breath,” says commentator Lamar Eugene Cooper. “This is what Ezekiel saw,” and that is exactly what we have in Jesus. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied,” says Paul. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.”
The dead end of this post
When it comes to subjects like Satan, demons, and zombies, it’s tempting to go overboard and indulge an unhealthy fascination with the occult. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters , “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”
Ultimately, we’re far better served by knowing the God who defeated Satan, the Lord who rules over demons, and the only One with the power to give life, take it away—and give it back again even better than before.
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:54–57