It’s a cliché of irreverent internet humor: atheists celebrating the Easter season by wishing their Christian countrymen a “Happy Jewish Zombie Day.” The joke is easy to dismiss—but perhaps there’s something to be gained from taking it seriously, more seriously than the jokers intend. How correct is it to compare the resurrected Jesus to depictions of the undead in popular culture?
Zombies, as popularized by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead and currently depicted on The Walking Dead, are mindless, rotting, infected corpses that hunger for human flesh. The classic zombie’s movement is invariably described as “shambling.” Jesus, by contrast, is trampling down death by death, as the Orthodox Paschal troparion puts it.
The accounts in the Gospels of Jesus’s post-Resurrection appearances suggest that his body is not decaying and necrotic but glorious, albeit with a sometimes veiled glory. First Mary Magdalene, then the disciples on the road to Emmaus, do not immediately recognize Jesus. Only when he wills it are their eyes opened to recognize their risen Lord. Then they worship him. Many disciples, seeing the risen Jesus, embrace his feet and do him homage. His feet are not the decomposing and discolored feet of a Romero ghoul—and yet they are wounded. The resurrected Jesus bears scars from his crucifixion and shows them to his doubting apostles, even inviting Thomas to probe his side. This may have been a frightening moment for Thomas, but the fright is more akin to abashed awe than appalled horror. His response, after all, is “My Lord and My God” (still the humble disciple’s prayer upon seeing the Body of our Lord in the Sacrament of the altar).
But Romero zombies are not the only form of undeath frequently depicted in popular culture. Some zombie-aficionados like to go back to the Haitian legends from which we take the term “zombie.” These zombies were undead slaves raised by bokors (sorcerers) using magic (rather than a virus, or one of the other pseudoscientific causes posited in non-supernatural zombie horror). Is Jesus anything like one of these zombies? Someone might point out that Jesus, dead and passive, was raised by a Power and Will not his own, like a corpse called up by a bokor. And yet we know the Power and Will of God are Jesus’s Power and Will! The Catholic catechism clarifies: Jesus “effects his own Resurrection by virtue of his divine power.” The Resurrection is not something that happens to Jesus. It is the work of the Trinity acting as one, fulfilling Jesus’s promise that he would lay down his life and take it up again.
If neither flavor of zombie will do, what of mummies? The climate of the Middle East, after all, is more conducive to mummies than to zombies. And Lazarus, resurrected by Jesus, lurched out of the grave in his burial cloths. Alas for the mummy fans, Jesus laid aside his burial cloths in the tomb, as both Luke and John attest. And his body was not anointed after death, as was customary (and requisite for Egyptian mummies), because he rose again, leaving the women who came to anoint his body the joyful mystery of the empty tomb. Stories of mummies often involve ancient curses elicited by trespassers from thousand-year-old gravesites. The grave could not contain Jesus for half a week. And as far as ancient curses go, Jesus’s death and Resurrection defeated the most ancient curse of all, that of sin. For everything a mummy might represent, Jesus represents that thing’s defeat.
There is one undead being often depicted as, if not quite glorious, at least glamorous: the vampire. Vampires tend to be physically attractive (if pale) and supernaturally powerful. Yet they are driven by a homicidal thirst for blood—rather the reverse of Jesus’s offering up his own blood for his Church, which we believe to be a sacrifice he makes daily at Mass. Vampires, whose legend originated in early eighteenth-century Europe, may well be a perversion of this very sacrament, their unslakable thirst a demonic parody of Jesus’s ever-flowing blood given freely for all. One popular tradition holds that vampires cannot enter a house unless invited by the inhabitant. Jesus in his post-Resurrection appearances freely comes and goes, sometimes dropping in on his frightened disciples unannounced in the upper room.
What if Jesus were a ghost? The disciples themselves feared this. But Jesus reassured them: “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” Jesus even eats a piece of baked fish in front of them—a playfully quotidian act that reassures them he is not a mere spirit but a body that can breathe and eat and be touched by the doubtful, like Thomas. When he appears again on the seashore, he helps the fishermen disciples to a miraculous haul of fish, then cooks the fish for breakfast at a simple charcoal fire. He is no ghost.
The corporeality of the Resurrection is the reality of the Resurrection. Jesus, raised in his body, is a promise to us who are his Body. God will not abandon us to the grave, or save only an insubstantial part of us. In our flesh, we will see God.
John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” makes the stakes clear. If Jesus is a ghost, to hell with him. “Let us not mock God with metaphor,” he writes. The poem begins:
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.
That is enough. We shall no longer seek the living among the dead. Jesus rose: not shambling like a zombie but kicking down hell’s door, not swaddled like a mummy but bursting the bonds of death in triumph, not thirsting like a vampire but quenching every thirst, not discarnate like a ghost but bearing glorious scars. Jesus is not undead. He is alive. Alleluia!
Alexi Sargeant is assistant editor of First Things.