Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Real Night of The Living Dead

Years ago, I saw the black-and-white movie "Night of the Living Dead" by George Romero. In spite of its low budget and occasional continuity errors, it was a pretty scary movie, featuring hordes of half-decomposed "zombies" who were obsessed with their goal of eating the brains of the living in order to survive. Throughout the movie, there were scenes of gore in which various zombies were seen feasting on various human body parts. Subsequent to the making of that movie, a number of sequels were also made.

Years later, I was walking through a cemetery, not to pay my respects but merely because it was the shortest path between me and my destination at a nearby shopping mall. As I walked through that peaceful place, I began meditating on the fact that many people, even adults, have been afraid of cemeteries, especially at night, presumably because they feared that such places might be haunted. Perhaps they even feared that they might encounter reanimated dead people comparable to the ones depicted in George Romero's film.

It occurred to me as I was walking through that cemetery that the George Romero film was based on the assumption that if indeed the dead were to rise from their graves, they would be malevolent, mindless beings who posed a great threat to humankind. But what if that isn't actually the case?

This is not mere idle speculation, because Christians believe that the Bible is the true Word of God --- and the Bible actually records an incident in which the dead did rise out of their graves and walk the earth! Strangely, even though the incident is recorded at the end of the very first book of the New Testament, it seems to receive scant attention from the pulpit of most churches. Here's the relevant passage, in Matthew 27:50-53...
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
When was the last time you gave any serious thought to those last two sentences?

First of all, take note of the fact that there's nothing to indicate that the resurrected dead looked frightening or disgusting. In fact, it seems highly likely (in the absence of any evidence to the contrary) that their resurrected bodies looked pretty much like their bodies had looked before they died. There's also no mention of any incidents in which they ran around killing people and eating people's brains. Now isn't that a big relief!

Second, take note of the fact that they appeared to "many" people. I don't know how many Matthew meant when he wrote "many," but I'd guess that it was more than just one or two people. And the people who were raised to life must have been people who had died fairly recently, because they had no photos back in those days, so the only way to know that they weren't just ordinary people would be if they appeared to people who had known them when they were still alive, and who could vouch for the fact that they had died.

There's a lot that's left unsaid in the passage. Did they just "appear," or did they have conversations with the living people they met during their little excursions through Jerusalem? It's hard to tell. But it must have caused quite a buzz in the city, especially combined with the concurrent earthquake, and with the fact that the curtain (or veil) in the temple was supernaturally ripped in two.

Imagine how spooked Pontius Pilate must have been when news reports about all of these strange occurrences started coming into his office. In view of such things, it's no wonder that he made a special effort to secure the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66). The advice he got from the chief priests and Pharisees probably wasn't the only thing on his mind when he did so.

In my Bible, the commentary which accompanies Matthew 27:50-53 says, "This event is a prophetic sign that Jesus' death and resurrection guarantee our glorious resurrection at his return. His resurrection marked the defeat of death. (see 1 Co 15:50-58; 1 Th 4:14)." I'll buy that.

Here's the part I find fascinating: If the followers of Jesus were the kind of unsophisticated rubes who were prone to worship anyone who appeared to have been the recipient of a miracle, then why didn't they worship those other resurrected "holy people" as well, instead of just worshipping Jesus? For that matter, why didn't they worship the people Jesus raised from the dead prior to the crucifixion? What was so special about Jesus' resurrection, if in fact other people had already been raised from the dead prior to Easter Sunday?

I think that the answer is simple: It wasn't merely the resurrection which caused the disciples to conclude that there was something special about Jesus, even though that would have been very unusual in and of itself. It was the fact that all of the other resurrections seemed to be connected in some way with Jesus' extraordinary ministry, which had been characterized for the past three years by miracle after miracle after miracle. Moreover, Jesus' prediction of his own death and resurrection (Matthew 16:21-23) showed that he was firmly in control of the situation all of the time, in spite of temporary illusions to the contrary!

St. Paul wrote that if Christ had not been raised from the dead, then the faith of all Christians would have been in vain. We Christians have been celebrating the resurrection for so many years that we sometimes tend to take it for granted, but it is the very heart of the gospel. Jesus holds the key to eternal life --- and thanks to his redemptive work on the cross, so do all of those who call upon his name and ask for forgiveness of their sins. But if indeed resurrection power is available to us, we need to remember the source of that power. We have no more control over such things than did the "holy people" who were raised from the dead temporarily right after Jesus was crucified. If it were up to us, death would indeed be the end of everything. Thanks be to God that Jesus came in order to conquer death and open the doors of heaven to us, in spite of our utter unworthiness to receive such a magnanimous gift.