‘The Walking Dead,’ the Living Lord

November 24th, 2014

“Hey, you look just like that guy from “The Walking Dead”! So said a young man at the door of Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School who had just come through the line to shake my hand after the sermon I delivered there early in 2011.

Although I'd never watched it, I knew enough about the show to know that it’s about a zombie apocalypse. So I didn’t know whether to take his observation as a compliment or an insult. I wasn’t having a particularly bad hair day, but I asked, “Are you saying I look like a zombie, dude?”

“Oh, no! Not at all,” he said laughing, “You look just like the sheriff, Rick Grimes.”

Last summer at Lake Junaluska, a couple of days before Annual Conference and right after a pick-up basketball game, a couple of young guys from Mississippi who were there for a youth retreat asked if they could take my picture. Puzzled, I asked why. They said that I looked so much like the sheriff from “The Walking Dead” that they just had to show their friends back home.

Later that summer while exercising my thumb with the remote, I noticed that there was a weekend marathon of “The Walking Dead.” I couldn’t resist. I took the plunge and just started watching and watching. By the end of the year I'd caught up on the first few seasons (thanks to Netflix) and have been watching it ever since.

If you’re not one of the 14 million or so viewers (I just heard today that the show was beating out Sunday Night Football in the ratings), the show is about a zombie apocalypse that breaks out due to some mysterious virus that causes people to turn into flesh-eating “walkers,” as they’re called. The walkers can only be stopped by puncturing their brains. Because the zombie virus becomes so widespread so fast there's a complete societal breakdown and survivors among the living must fend for themselves the best they can without the everyday amenities and securities that we all take for granted, like police, hospitals, electricity, etc.

In this context there is much to be feared, not only from the dead but also the living who prey on the weak, naïve and unprepared. The world of “The Walking Dead” is a fallen world that brings challenges to the morality, ethics and “common sense” of the world that was. What’s right and wrong in the fallen world of the zombie apocalypse isn’t all that clear, and that is a frequent topic of conversation in the show-that-follows-the show called “Talking Dead,” which functions as somewhat of a commentary on the practical and moral dilemmas that the characters face.

In an episode last season two adults, Carol and Tyreese, with three children not their own, Lizzie, Mika and Judith, were taking shelter in an abandoned farm house after having been separated from the larger group that they were with during a time of crisis. Two of the children were little girls, one around 10 and the other around 11 or 12. The other child, Judith, was a baby girl a little less than a year old and also the daughter of the sheriff, Rick Grimes. She had been born to his wife, who died in childbirth, in an abandoned prison after the apocalypse was already in full swing.

One of the older girls, Lizzie, had become somewhat mentally unhinged. She became overly fascinated with walkers and endeavored to play with them and feed them like they were playmates and pets. By this point in the series virtually all of the characters had given up hope of finding any humanity left in the zombies, but Lizzie was hanging on to some very dangerous sentimentalism. Scolding her and reasoning with her just didn’t seem to work, but after a major scare things seemed to change.

A herd of walkers stumbled upon the farm and began to attack Lizzie and Mika. Finally it seemed that Lizzie had snapped out of the deadly spell of zombie sympathy and saw them for what they were and the only merciful thing at the time that could be done: stopping them by puncturing their brains by whatever means necessary. Feeling comfortable that Lizzie had come to her senses, Carol and Tyreese ventured out to find some food, leaving the girls behind at the farm house.

They returned to find that Lizzie had fallen back into her delusion once again, this time having killed her sister Mika, her murderous eyes and her deadly weapon being set next on baby Judith. She murdered Mika and was about to murder Judith under the delusion that it would be good to have them come back as zombie playmates. It was a horrible and gut-wrenching scene, but worse was still to come.

In the old country home Carol and Tyreese agonized over what to do at the kitchen table in a world with Sheriff Rick but no police force as before, a world with no prisons, juvenile detention centers or mental health care facilities. They could no longer trust Lizzie at all. She might kill them or Judith at any unguarded moment. Should they just lock her in the barn and abandon her?

They finally made a decision. In excruciating anguish Carol took Lizzie out into a field of wild flowers and shot her in the back of the head. It was horrible. It was horrific. It was incredibly, incredibly sad. Millions of viewers were left in shock as were the host and guests on the commentary after-show, “Talking Dead,” which included the actress who plays Carol.

"Talking Dead"

On “Talking Dead” everyone, including viewers who called, tweeted or sent in answers to a survey, agreed that the execution of Lizzie was horrible, but they also virtually all agreed that it was the right thing to do.

Wow! They agreed it was the right thing to do in such world as that, the fallen world of the zombie apocalypse.

As I watched, I wondered what those same people might say about the morality of Deuteronomy 21:18-21, and the other cruel and violent stories of the Bible in general.

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (ESV)

AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart, but the truth is, neither is the Bible. Yet while “The Walking Dead” is a cultural sensation, the Bible is quite often maligned, mocked and dismissed by both cultural elites and the average person. The new atheists, as they're called, are quick to point out passages like the one above or other violent stories such Israel’s conquest of the Canaanites to dismiss the Bible and the one true God that it describes as a moral monstrosity that should be given little to no ethical credibility. But atheists aren’t the only ones who point to the “problems” of the Bible in order to dismiss certain portions of it. Docetists and Gnostic Christians of antiquity did it and many modern-day Christians do it too.

Marcion in the second century dismissed the Old Testament and its so-called cruel “demi-god” in favor of the supposedly more loving and forgiving supreme God revealed in Jesus in the New Testament, but not before also excluding some specific New Testament texts too.

Saint Irenaeus

Saint Irenaeus wrote about how his Gnostic opponents would resort to attacking the validity of Scripture itself after they were unable to win their arguments from Scripture. His exact words were, “when they are refuted from the Scriptures they turn around and attack the Scriptures themselves, saying they are not correct, or authoritative, that they are mutually inconsistent and that the truth cannot be found from them …” (Against the Heresies III).

Much has changed since the days of Irenaeus, but much has stayed the same!

A not uncommon ploy among some liberal Christians is to point out the other so-called morally objectionable commands of the Bible (such as the one from Deuteronomy above) in an attempt to undermine its authority on other issues, especially sexual ethics. In a conversation with a progressive pastor several months ago, and not even on the subject of sexuality, but simply on the moral authority of the Bible generally, he objected that the Bible may not always be the best guide since it even commands the stoning of disobedient children. At least he didn’t resort to the shrimp argument!

It is often argued that since the Bible contains many ethical standards that we find objectionable today then maybe we shouldn’t be too concerned with some of its other prohibitions, especially the ones regarding sex. What should we make of these objections? Here, by way of analogy (which always has its limitations), I believe “The Walking Dead” may help.

The Bible is not a simple collection of moral instructions to be applied indiscriminately in any and every situation in every time. Indeed, there are timeless truths and moral laws, but that is not the sum total of what the Bible is. First and foremost the Bible conveys a grand narrative or story. It is a true story of creation, fall and redemption. After Chapter 3 the story mainly deals with God the Creator’s continuing relationship with a fallen world in rebellion and filled with violence and evil. Humanity, God’s crowning creation, as God’s image bearers, was meant to be God’s representative stewards over creation and the praise and worship leaders of all of God’s creatures. Temptation led to rebellion and rebellion led to the virus of sin that infected the whole human race and threw the entire creation out of whack.

Humanity was left in a state of spiritual death, “dead in trespasses and sins” in which even all Christians “once walked” as do all the children of disobedience (Eph 2:1-2). We were the walking dead.

The first several chapters of Genesis spell out just how badly and how quickly the world spiraled into chaos as a result of sin, and how God went to work mysteriously through the election of Abraham and his descendants, Israel, the ultimate of whom was Jesus, to rescue the fallen world. The world had drastically changed. It became increasingly volatile and dangerous with a tremendous amount of moral ambiguity due to the mysterious relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom.

In this fallen world God gave the clear command to his chosen people Israel “Thou shalt not kill,” but also allowed for and even commanded killing in cases of national defense and social offense such as murder and other forms of high-handed rebellion that jeopardized family, tribal and societal stability. This is not because killing is ideal, but because in this fallen world it's sometimes necessary as a check against unmitigated violence and evil. In this world (a phrase often used on “Talking Dead” when someone is explaining why such unsettling decisions had to be made in the show) God allows and even commands actions that are far from ideal. This is a world where sinful humans insist on having things their way and, for a time, God allows them to have it (which is quite often a punishment all its own.)

God allowed for divorce in the law of Moses, for example, but pointing to the story of creation Jesus revealed that this wasn’t what God had really intended (Mark 10:1-12). Here Jesus recognized and showed us — if we have ears to hear and eyes to see — how to read the Bible. God sometimes makes concessions in a fallen world that are less than ideal, but with the goal of training and preparing a people for the renewed world where perfect righteousness is completely at home (2 Peter 3:13). God allowed Israel to have a king even though it was far from ideal and not what he really wanted (see 1 Samuel 8). Yet he made provision for a king after warning them of the negative consequences.

The vast majority of future kings, beginning with Solomon, would bring many burdens to the people and eventually lead them astray into idolatry and immorality. This would eventually bring national destruction and exile. God had used Israel to bring judgment on the Canaanites, and Assyria and Babylon to bring judgment on Israel.

With the exception of Jesus the Bible doesn’t tell us a clear-cut story of unambiguous heroes and villains because not even the chosen ones were exempt from divine wrath. Nor were the unchosen ones exempt from divine blessing (e.g. Rahab in Joshua, Ruth in Judges and Naaman in 2 Kings to name a few). So we have to consider the nature of the divine interaction in and with a fallen world before we quickly pass negative judgment on and dismiss particular texts of the Bible.

We also must consider not only the difference between the world before and after Eden and before the new heaven and new earth, but also the difference between the world of 21st century Europe and North America and the ancient world that the Bible describes. Was the latter more like the world of the zombie apocalypse or modern America?

Think of the Jews coming out of Egypt, where they were enslaved and wandering in the desert before entering the land of Canaan, which biblical scholars suggest would have been filled with horrendously violent, warring tribes all vying for control. (Watch Professor Lawson Stone explain the literary and historical context of the violent texts in the Old Testament.)

To sit from the perch of our world full of amenities, luxuries, securities and institutions that the ancients could have never imagined and dismiss them as morally inept is dubious at best. It’s not like we don’t have plenty of morally questionable and vexing problems and practices of our own. So we must understand that the Bible is telling us a true story (not true in every sense of the word but in the highest sense of the word) about a fallen world not an ideal world.

The Bible describes a world filled with moral ambiguity, not because there are no absolutes values but because sin and the wicked courses of this world have blinded us to them and kept us from living into them fully. And much of the evil comes directly from our sin-infected, wicked hearts. Yes there are horrible stories of revolting atrocities in the Bible, “texts of terror” if you will. They are recorded in the pages of Scripture not because God is a moral monster, but because sinful humanity is.

No Scripture can be lightly dismissed simply because it doesn't reflect the heart of God revealed in Jesus as some are wont to propose. Scripture wasn't given only to reveal God, but also to reveal sin — the sin in us. Romans 7 says exactly that; Torah, the law, reveals humanity’s sin and rebellion in all its ugliness and gore. It was displayed most vividly and despicably when Jew and Gentile conspired together to crucify the Lord of Glory himself. In other words, the Bible reveals the problem, but, thank God it also reveals the solution; and it’s not an antiviral substance. It’s a person and his name is Jesus. “For God so loved the world, [even fallen in rebellion] that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16 KJV).

We still live in a fallen world where, even now, decisions sometimes have to be made that are horrible in the faint retrospective afterglow of Eden and the brilliant light of the present but still coming reality of the kingdom of God. This is the paradox of the horrible and right.

In the fallen world in ancient Israel a rebellious son who threatened the livelihood and lives of his family and the stability of the paradigmatic society of the chosen people had to least be warned about the horrible consequences for extreme rebellion. (The penalty in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 had to be agreed to by both parents and the tribal elders, and in later Rabbinic commentary it was highly qualified so as to provide several layers to protect the falsely accused. See the New Interpreter’s Bible.) In the fictitious world of “The Walking Dead,” horrible but necessary decisions have to be made as well.

Our own world is not immune from such horrible dilemmas. In a restaurant a while back, my family sat around a table enjoying the company of two of our children’s grandparents over some scrumptious food. A woman sitting close to us overheard our conversation and surmised that we were Christians. She walked over and asked us to pray for her family, especially her son. She said that she and her family had to lock their bedroom door at night out of fear for their lives. Their son was menacing and dangerous, not to the point of institutionalization per se, but enough to cause his parents a great deal of fear.

We still live in a fallen world, a dangerous world of the walking dead. This is the world that God so loved that he gave his only Son. This is the fallen world of the walking dead from which Jesus, the Living Lord, came to rescue us, and to heal and renew for the meek. As Christians we live in this world but we also live as citizens of the kingdom of love and light even in the here-and-now. We trust in the living Lord who through death conquered sin and death and delivered us from the fear of death (Heb 2:14-15) so that we may live forever with him in the world “set free from its bondage to corruption” (Rom 8:21).

This is a world with no more horror because there will be nothing horrible — a world where righteousness and righteousness alone is fully at home (2 Peter 3:13), world without end.


Cliff Wall blogs at UMC Holiness.

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