While they have long been a part of traditions and folkways in various cultures, in recent decades the concept of zombies has become enormously popular in comic books, films, and TV shows. From the late-night B-movies that thrilled audiences in the middle part of the twentieth century to more recent treatments like 28 Days Later, World War Z, and of course, the television series The Walking Dead, these productions, however predictable and familiar they might be, still intrigue viewers with their depictions of the slow-moving, dim-witted, yet always terrifying “undead”.
Nearly every scary movie presents a central conflict between life and death, which is obviously one of the biggest questions that human beings face. Zombies are different, however, in the way they stumble through a sort of ambiguous state between life and death. The horror rests in that ambiguity, so at the heart of every zombie movie is a person, or more likely a community of people, who are fighting with everything they have to resist this state of walking death, and to remain firmly rooted in the world of the living.
In Romans chapter 6, Paul unpacks a vision of the Christian life in which the central narrative is deliverance from sin. According to some readings of salvation, this amounts to being set free from the potential of spending eternity in hell. But Paul seems to be going beyond this. In Paul’s description here, sin is not merely about actions that lead to penalties. Sin is a state, a framework, a reality to which we are enslaved. For those familiar with the workings of addiction, the connection between sin and slavery should not be surprising. Whether we are addicted to substances or behaviors, caught in seemingly endless cycles of self-destruction, or unable to escape the degrading effects of things like bitterness, jealousy, or anxiety, we know what it is to be enslaved.
Such enslavement is a kind of walking death, an existence in which we are not truly alive, but are merely enacting the scripts that our sinful desires are writing for us. The question for Paul is not whether we can escape such enslavement. The good news of the Gospel, he will consistently assert, is that we are set free through faith in Christ. The question for Paul is why, then, would we want to return to that living death from which we have already been delivered? For the redeemed Christian, sin is not just about our individual acts of transgression. Sin is about turning our back on life in order to embrace death, stumbling back into our old cycles, enacting our old patterns, and succumbing again to those things from which God has set us free.
The story recorded in Genesis 22, of Abraham and Isaac’s journey up a mountainside in the land of Moriah, is among the most difficult passages in all of scripture. Generations of readers have found in this passage a text of terror that, to borrow Kierkegaard’s phrase, never ceases to provoke fear and trembling. This is due in part to the way that this text reckons with the awful tension between life and death. This story, relentless and harrowing as it is, unfolds in the context of the fulfillment of God’s promise, within the beautiful narrative of Abraham’s love for the son he never thought he would have. So it is the story of God’s covenantal faithfulness, the very source of life.
However, this is also the story of an awful moment in the life of Abraham when he comes face to face with an unthinkable possibility. When he is forced to dwell in a terrible uncertainty and yet choose to trust in his God. Thus, when we read this text from the perspective of Abraham or of Isaac, we see how they hover between life and death, and also between belief and doubt. Abraham’s faithfulness is tested, and so is God’s. If Abraham wondered whether his son would survive this ordeal, he undoubtedly also struggled with the question of whether he would be able to go on trusting in a God who would demand such a sacrifice. Even as he marched up that mountain, he had to reckon with the possibility that the faith he had placed in this God might also die on that altar.
The story’s resolution, the moment when deliverance comes from a God who provides, is all the more powerful because of everything that has preceded it. While I don’t pretend to understand all of God’s purposes and plans in this narrative, and while I won’t venture an explanation as to what God was up to in demanding what he demanded of Abraham, I am left, at the end of the story, with the exhilaration that comes with watching someone brought from death to life. As Abraham and Isaac traveled down that mountain, there was very little ambiguity about either of these two realities. God had brought them face to face with death; God had, in the end, set them back down among the living. There was no going back. While there would be nothing easy about the path they were on, they would continue to trust in the God who provides deliverance from death to life.
When Jesus sends his disciples out in Matthew chapter 10, he is sending them out into a world that courts death, a world that is enslaved to sin. And yet he sends them—he sends us—anyway, as those who have been delivered from the realities that bind so many. And as he sends his followers, Jesus does so in the hope that we will find signs of life, glimpses of grace, all around. These signposts remind us that a walking death, enslavement to old and tired ways, is not the existence to which we have been called. In the simple but powerful acts of hospitality we encounter, we will find impressions of God’s kingdom. In the simple but powerful acts of generosity we embrace, God’s people will evince deliverance from death and redemption from slavery. And for those of us who take hold of this new and undeniable form of life—life in Christ–there can be no going back. We are among the living.