Re-Imagining the Walking Dead: Preaching an Apocalyptic Easter
Editor’s note: Continuing the series of posts for the Easter season on the significance of the resurrection for our faith and the church’s ministry.
Have you noticed that our culture seems to be obsessed with the apocalyptic? Societal collapse, economic freefall, natural disasters, invasion by aliens, the 2012 Mayan apocalypse, the singularity of Artificial Intelligence, or a deadly pandemic which could wipe out billions – these are just a few of the scenarios that many people love to fear. Such fears have led at least some to become “preppers,” stockpiling food, weapons, and other supplies in a bunker.
One of the latest versions of apocalypse has resuscitated the zombie genre, first made popular in George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead. The AMC television series The Walking Dead and Max Brooks’ World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide have raked in millions of viewers and dollars. Not only have such apocalyptic fears taken the stage in pop culture, a recent Wall Street Journal article points out that academics are even studying such phenomena. An intellectual journal for the study of culture has posited a few reasons why zombies have become such a rage. For many, the American Dream of perpetual progress and unquestioned trust in institutions such as government, health care, corporations, etc has come to a screeching halt. Apocalyptic stories, then, become ways of imagining what life might be like if some of the “too big to fail” institutions actually fail. Another thought is that the zombie apocalypse is just a reinvention of the Western genre, where the hero is a rugged individual fighting to survive. Yet another theory is that in the face of globalization and corporatization, “zombies lose their individuality, freedom of will, and everything that makes them human beings.”
The word “apocalyptic” is sometimes applied to such horrific situations, perhaps because the word is popularly connected to the end of the world. As you probably know, however, the Greek word αποκαλύπτω actually means “to reveal.” Just what is “the apocalypse” and what is it “revealing”?
In a succinct little online article, Richard Bauckham explains how Paul and the early Christians re-worked the apocalyptic genre to tell the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Instead of the apocalypse being the end of the world marked by mayhem and death, the apocalypse took place at the Cross where human sin put God to death (Matthew 27:25). On Easter morning, though, a new future, a new age, a new day after the “night of the living dead,” dawns. Matthew 27:51-53 explains that at the Crucifixion and Resurrection, instead of zombies coming out of tombs cursed to walk around as dead people, quite the opposite happens. The holy ones of God who had fallen asleep were raised. Christ is risen! So are His saints who died in Him! Though this new age is still hidden and often marked by suffering and even death, Christ who is our life will return some day soon and bring the new age to fulfillment. (Colossians 3:3-4) In other words, the Christian story of the apocalypse is one that ends in life not death, resurrected bodies not zombie corpses. The apocalyptic revealing is that Christ is risen and comes to each of us to share His new life with those who trust in Him.
A homiletics scholar has noted that “preaching models the use of Christian language and thereby plays a role in nurturing believers in that language usage. Sermons become a means through which the Christian community enters more deeply into its own distinctive speech, so that Christian ideas, beliefs, and experience become possible. Preaching seeks to recreate a universe of discourse and put the community in the middle of that world…” Preaching the crucifixion and resurrection in the way I’m laying out re-tells the apocalyptic story in a whole new way, using a whole different “universe of discourse.”
Surprisingly, the zombie show The Walking Dead may actually also be trying to re-tell the apocalyptic story along the lines of Christ’s resurrection. Season three’s finale (Ep. 16) is called “Welcome to the Tombs.” The villainous Governor says at the beginning of the episode “In this life, you kill or you die or you die and you kill.” Later in the episode as one of the heroines, Andrea, is dying she says, “I just don’t want anyone to die.” In other words, she rejected the culture of death and the resignation to zombie-ism. At one point in the episode, an open Bible is discovered. John 5:29 is highlighted and appears on screen where Jesus says, “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28-29, ESV) At the end of the episode, we see a tomb or grave marked with a cross. (The protagonists of the show always bury members of their community after they die, but they simply burn bodies of zombies.) For a mainstream, primetime show it is pretty surprising to see the Scriptures open and a clear hope of the resurrection of the dead.
Disclaimer: Though I think there is plenty of material here to preach an apocalyptic Easter message, the preacher must be aware of his audience. The Walking Dead is not exactly G-Rated material because of the gore, violence, and disturbing scenes. This is probably not material for the Easter children’s sermon! Explicit references to zombies and The Walking Dead might even be too much for many adults. However, the 18-35 crowd is sure to at least know about the show and many are quite possibly rave fans. Regardless, the theme of the apocalyptic and its re-telling based on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ could be preached in a more general way that could work for most Sunday sermons. Know your congregation!
Other references to the apocalypse in pop culture are the apocalyptic movies like The Road, I Am Legend, It Could Happen Tomorrow, and even the brand new Noah movie, among many others. Pop songs like “Babel” by Mumford & Sons, “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons, the old “It’s the End of the World” by R.E.M., or plenty of other tunes address the theme of apocalypse in a way that could get the congregation involved in the apocalyptic world before you re-tell the apocalyptic story according to the “apocalypse” of Easter.
As Christians, we look forward to the final day when it will be “revealed” that we believers in Christ are being raised to a resurrection of life. Even now, though it may not be plain for all to see, it has been revealed that Christ has been raised from the dead and that we as believers have life in Him.
 Erica Phillipps, “Zombie Studies Gain Ground on College Campuses,” Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2014. http://on.wsj.com/MK8wQR (accessed March 12, 2014).
 Paul Cantor, “The Apocalyptic Strain in Popular Culture: The American Nightmare Becomes the American Dream,” The Hedgehog Review, vol. 15, no. 2 (SUMMER 2013). http://www.iasc-culture.org/THR/THR_article_2013_Summer_Cantor.php (accessed March 12, 2014). Thanks to Dr. David Schmitt for referring me to this excellent journal.
 Richard J. Bauckham, “Colossians 1:24 Again: The Apocalyptic Motif,” The Evangelical Quarterly 47.3 (July-Sept. 1975): 168-170. http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/colossians_bauckham.pdf (accessed March 12, 2014).
 Charles Campbell, Preaching Jesus: New Directions for Homiletics in Hans Frei’s Postliberal Theology (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1997), 233-34.