Genesis 2:7

Anthropology of the Undead

And the LORD God formed Adam out of the soil of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.

Genesis 2:7

Some questions have been raised by previous entries on the Zombie Bible Commentary.  Is a zombie still essentially the person it was before dying (and subsequent regeneration)?  Does the soul of the person still dwell in the body of a zombie, or has it been set free?  These are good questions that all hinge on the “anthropology” of a zombie.

First, a crash course on the Biblical anthropology.  In general, the most common understanding of souls held by Americans (unless you are a materialist) include the following beliefs:
1) the soul is immortal and permanent.
2) the soul pilots the body.
3) the soul is set free from the body at death for something better.
4) the soul is what makes us human.
5) (at least some) non-human animals have souls.

These five tenets abound in film, TV, and continue to show up in polls of Americans concerning their beliefs.  The Bible has some critiques of these beliefs though.  Regarding #1, the Bible teaches the soul is only immortal insofar as that after God creates it, God chooses to sustain it.  The difference here is that the Bible does not allow for the soul existing as a self-sustaining, and permanent, entity.  Nor does it allow for the belief that the soul has always existed.  Regarding #2, the Bible takes a different approach to the whole mind-body problem.  In the Western philosophical tradition, the question of how the material and immaterial are said to interact has resulted in a wide array of opinions ranging from panpsychism (all material has some level of ‘mind’, bears some relation to pantheism and panentheism), functionalism (things that function as though they have mind/spirit, probably do)*, and a ghost in the machine view in which the soul somehow directs and guides the body.  The Biblical view, though, is to view man as a singularity, not a composite of flesh stuff and spirit stuff.  This leads to position #3.  This view actually has far more in common with Platonism/Neoplatonism than with the Bible.  In ancient Greek thought the soul was an immortal thing exists in itself and only temporarily dwells in fleshy stuff.  In the Bible, though, a Platonic view of the immortality of the soul is not supposed as already mentioned.  What is asserted in the Bible is the resurrection of the dead.  Now to #4, the unique quality of a living being in the Bible is a Hebrew word ‘nephesh‘.  This term encompasses “soul, self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, [and] passion”**  It is a kind of catch-all that could be summarized as unique aliveness.  In the verse above, notice that this unique aliveness is a product of God’s energies.  This unique aliveness also applies to issue #5, animals have ‘nephesh‘ too.

Now to the questions of zombie anthropology.  Is a zombie still the same person it was before regeneration?  The answer is quite simply no.  Where the confusion lies is in forgetting the process of becoming a zombie which always begins with having died.  Said person, having died, no longer has the “breath of life” nor ‘nephesh‘.  In the case of pseudo-zombies, AKA “the infected,” things are more complicated because having been infected implies that one can be cured.  In this case, the person has not died, but then again, it is not a true zombie.  Even so, we can suppose that something similar to what is described by Dante in which the soul leaves the body before having physically died.***  Because the person has died before becoming a zombie also takes care of the question regarding the potential indwelling of a soul in the body.  Beyond the fact that the zombie has already died and become undead, it would be near-impossible to argue that a zombie meets the requirements of personhood in the first place, so it cannot be the same ‘person’ as it once was while still alive; therefore, even for the materialist, the answers are still no.

It is because of the more recent turn in zombie literature that these confusions have arisen.  The truly horrific qualities of zombies stem from the fact that they are lifeless, soulless, automatons that relentlessly pursue the living.  Making them all the more horrifying is that in the case of a true zombie scenario, being confronted with zombies is to be confronted with your own future since it is all who die who become zombies, not just the bitten.  This is why it is important to distinguish between zombies in the true (a la Romero) sense vs. their more recent appearances in literature.

*The vast majority of science fiction is based on a functionalist view when dealing with intelligent alien species.

**see Gesenius’ Lexicon.

***See the quotation below from Canto XXXIII of Inferno:

Then he replied: “I am Friar Alberigo;
He am I of the fruit of the bad garden,
Who here a date am getting for my fig.”
“O,” said I to him, “now art thou, too, dead?”
And he to me: “How may my body fare
Up in the world, no knowledge I possess.
Such an advantage has this Ptolomaea,
That oftentimes the soul descendeth here
Sooner than Atropos in motion sets it.
And, that thou mayest more willingly remove
From off my countenance these glassy tears,
Know that as soon as any soul betrays
As I have done, his body by a demon
Is taken from him, who thereafter rules it,
Until his time has wholly been revolved.
Itself down rushes into such a cistern;
And still perchance above appears the body
Of yonder shade, that winters here behind me.
This thou shouldst know, if thou hast just come down;
It is Ser Branca d’ Oria, and many years
Have passed away since he was thus locked up.”


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