I was scrolling through my phone’s app store one day when I saw something that left me bemused. It was an exercise monitor for runners to track their progress, but this one had a gimmick. You put your headphones on and as you run, you hear the sound of zombies chasing you! How’s that for a little extra motivation?
As I write this, the number-one streaming show in the world is The Last of Us. It tells the story of Joel and Ellie, an odd couple forced to traverse the United States in a post-apocalyptic landscape littered with zombies.
Zombies (that is, the fictional idea of them) have been around for a while in pop culture, with their first recorded mention being all the way back in 1819. The term originates from West Africa, where zombies were supposedly created through mysterious voodoo magic. These slow-moving, ghoulish creatures materialised from the recently deceased, or perhaps even the living, to be servants of whoever summoned them. The term gradually became more popular, and then, following the popularity of films such as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and others in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a flood of zombie-themed movies. Over time, the zombies themselves changed. They got faster and more aggressive. Shaking their somewhat-racist origins, they were also no longer under the control of a voodoo practitioner but had an inner compulsion to devour the living. The method of zombification has also evolved from being the result of a spell to being caused by a biological infection, and now, in The Last of Us, a fungal infestation.
In 2010, the zombie genre made a move to regular TV episodes of The Walking Dead and took the world by storm. Based on the comic book series of the same name, there have now been 11 seasons of this immensely popular show. It has also spawned several television and movie spinoffs and furthered the careers of dozens of actors. The Last of Us seems to be following suit in its popularity.
This all begs the question: why are zombies so popular? What is it about them that has made them so appealing? Is it just that some people enjoy being frightened? Is it a reflection of our mindless overworked culture that often turns us into zombies staring into space in exhaustion? Or is there something deeper about death that scares us?
This strange half-alive, half-dead creature seems to embody all we fear about death and life thereafter. The heroes in these stories struggle to overcome the zombies, whose sole purpose is to make them into new zombies. The struggle seems to be against death itself, and those who fight and survive are rewarded with the one thing everyone wants—another day of life.
How bad is death?
In these stories, death is more than just the end of life. It’s a hellish half-life that is often worse than death itself. It is something that is always coming for you, chasing you, that is meant to be feared and run from. In Western culture at least, death is something to be feared and shunned. We don’t like talking about death—it makes us uncomfortable. But maybe we should ask the question, is death something to be feared?
It sounds like a strange question. We spend so much of our lives avoiding death. We care for our health to extend our lives, we take safety precautions in every aspect of life and we instinctively recognise that life is unimaginably precious. What is not to fear about death? I suppose it depends on what happens afterward.
When my daughter was born and had jaundice, an entire medical system swung into action to care for her and provide the special equipment required to heal her. Doctors and nurses who had given years of their lives to medical training helped my daughter recover so she would have the best chance at life. Preserving life is among the highest of callings, and in our hearts, we all know how important it is.
One of the most common metrics we use to evaluate a person’s life once they have passed away is how long they lived. We tend to view a longer life as a better one. Life is everything, and death is the enemy.
However, I’ve noticed that’s not always true, either. When my appendix decided to quit, I was admitted to the hospital and soon found myself recovering in a hospital ward. Due to the number of patients at the hospital, they had to put me in an oncology ward for the day. My own medical emergency paled in comparison with the others in the room. Surprisingly, as I listened to their stories, I was astonished at what I heard. I didn’t hear about fear of death, but acceptance. There wasn’t anger. There was peace and gratitude for what life remained, but no fear of death.
For those who have incredibly painful illnesses or who are born unable to sustain life on their own—those whose every day on earth is agony—death is often anticipated as a release from the pain. In those cases, we see death as something more compassionate, as a process that can ease suffering and not be feared.
What is death really like?
The Bible equates death to an experience we are already familiar with—sleep. The book of Daniel describes people who have died as sleeping “in the dust of the earth” (Daniel 12:2), and the apostle Paul says the dead who await Jesus’ return “have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Even the Greek origin of the word cemetery means “sleeping place”. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, He told His disciples He was going to go and wake up Lazarus (John 11:11–14). When you’re in the sleep of death, just as with daily sleep, you don’t have any idea what is going on (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Love, hate, jealousy, everything is on hold while you are sleeping. This still may not sound that desirable. When those whom we love enter the sleep of death, they are still gone from our lives, and the pain for us is still real. How is realising that death is sleeping any consolation?
Jesus overcame death
The good news is that when someone sleeps, it also means they will wake up. The Bible records a few cases of prophets or Jesus raising people from the dead. Most of the risen ones would eventually “fall asleep” again. But something different happened when Jesus died. He was in the tomb from Friday till Sunday and then was raised from the dead through the power of God. Jesus overcame death completely. The Bible puts it this way: “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him” (Romans 6:9).
When Jesus rose from the dead, He took away death’s power over us. That means we don’t have to fear anymore that when we go to sleep, we will stay in the dust of the earth forever. It means now that Jesus has been resurrected, He is in charge of death. In fact, the power that was on full display at His resurrection was so remarkable that many people who were asleep in their tombs woke up, left their graves and went into Jerusalem! (Matthew 27:50–54). Can you imagine the happy reactions of their friends and families?
The good news is that because Jesus has done this, we don’t have to fear death. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5). That means if we accept the death of Jesus on our behalf, He will gladly share His resurrection life with us.
The reality of Jesus’ resurrection hit home for the disciples when they saw the resurrected Jesus. He appeared to them and told them to go to the whole world, and the disciples who had been frightened because Jesus had died now grew bold. They had no more fear of death—they had seen the resurrected Jesus and knew for certain that one day Jesus would return from heaven and wake up everyone with a trumpet blast loud enough to wake the dead! So, as they spread the good news about Jesus around the world, they were completely unafraid of death. They knew what it really was—just a short sleep before the resurrection and eternal life. God has promised that eventually, death will be completely destroyed. God Himself will wipe every tear from our eyes, ushering us into a place with no more crying, pain or death (Revelation 21:4). The last enemy destroyed will be death itself and we will never fear losing our loved ones again.
When we die, we will sleep until the day we are awakened by Jesus, after which death will no longer exist. So, should we fear death? One answer is offered by the 17th-century English poet John Donne in one of his famous poems: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”
I can’t wait to see you there when that happens.
Justin Bone supports and trains pastors and congregations around Victoria, Australia. He is passionate about helping people understand the Bible better.