Theology Of The Living Dead

by Jimmy Akin

in Theology

A reader writes:

I watched ‘Land of the Dead’ on Friday night, and on the way home had some thoughts about zombies.

Do zombies have souls? The most obvious theological position for us to take with zombies seems to be that they are the bodies of humans reanimated by some principle other than the [separated at death] soul. Of course, we can’t prove this conclusively, but it’s convenient for us to assume they lack souls because it makes it easy, ethically, for us to kill them.

The problem we have is figuring out what a zombie actually is. There may be some real-life basis to the zombie legend. There are claims that certain psychoactive compounds or mental illnesses may be at the basis of it.


On the other hand, zombies are extensively treated in fiction, where numerous causes are used to explain them.


Basically, though, it seems that the possible natures of zombies can be grouped into just a few categories:

  1. Zombies are human beings who have ordinary human souls (either under the influence of drugs, illness, or reanimation following death),
  2. Zombies are living bodies being animated by non-human rational souls (like I don’t know what),
  3. Zombies are living bodies being animated by non-human, non-rational souls (like non-human animals),
  4. Zombies are non-living bodies being animated in a way other than the way souls normally animate bodies some kind (e.g., long distance electrodes shot into the pineal and pituitary gland of the recently dead).

Which of these explanations is the correct one in the case of a particular zombie or zombie invasion that you may be facing is crucial for making the correct moral response. The basic divide is between options 1 & 2 on the one hand and optiosn 3 & 4 on the other.

If (1) is the case then they are humans and so have to be treated as such (see below).

If (2) is the case then their status is ambiguous enough that one should err on the side of treating them as humans. They may not have a human soul, but they do have a rational soul and until we learn otherwise we must treat rational souls (e.g., the kind aliens have) as having rights equivalent to ours. (Note well: For this option to occur it isn’t sufficient that a rational soul animate the body in a merely temporary or qualified fashion. It would have to have to animate the body the same way souls normally animate bodies. If it is a spirit merely telekinetically controlling the body without becoming its animating force so that it becomes a living body then option (4) is triggered.)

If (3) is the case then zombies can be treated as animals (see below).

If (4) is the case then zombies can be treated as robots (see below).

Given the assumption that they don’t have souls, then there’d be no problem with "killing" them.

True. Meaning: if options (4) is the case then we can kill them with no problem. Lock and load.

If, on the other hand, we assumed charitably that they did have souls, we’d be obliged to at least attempt to find other means to deal with them.

Not necessarily. They might have non-rational souls (option 3), in which case they could be treated as animals. While one would not want to be unnecessarily cruel to a zombie any more than one would want to be unnecessarily cruel to an animal, this would not preclude killing them. When faced with an animal attack or a zombie attack, use of lethal force would clearly be warranted.

Unless, of course, we take into account a seemingly implacable hostility to living humans. It could be argued that our legitimate concerns for self-defence as individuals or as a society could justify killing zombies.

Bingo! Their implacable hostility toward our race makes the filmland version of the zombie a legitimate subject of self-defense killing, even if options (1) or (2) are the case in a particular instance.

The problem would be to house zombies in such a way as to ensure the safety of the general population. Something like a maximum security prison.

I’m thinking that this proposal is ill-advised and would be likely to result in future zombie attacks. If there were some hope of curing the zombie–as might be the case in option (1)–then we would want to do all we could for them, including humanely housing (institutionalizing) the zombie population, but if we are talking a typical, incurable brain-munching zombie then, well, sticking them in prison is the stuff that sequels are made of.

It’d be more merciful to them and safer for us to simply exterminate them if zombie movies are any indication.

There are other problems than physical restraint to consider, given that their sustenance seems to be human flesh. Obviously we couldn’t provide that … or could we? If organ donation is allowable, would people be able to "donate" their bodies to feeding zombies, if all other attempts to find alternated food sources failed? There are practical problems with this: if there are a lot of zombies, it would be hard to find sufficient donors (if you can find any donors at all).

Well, if zombies were able only to eat human flesh (why this would be, I couldn’t say, but let’s go with it per suppositum) then it would be theoretically possible to donate non-vital human flesh (i.e., organs that you don’t require to live or the flesh of recently deceased humans) but this would seem to be ill-advised for several reasons, not least among them allowing zombies to survive. It would be analogous using human material to deliberately culture a virus that might one day burst forth to kill again.

What if someone is bitten by a zombie? People who are bitten die and become zombies themselves.

In some zombie stories, yes.

In Land of the Dead this frequently meant that they either committed suicide [to avoid becoming a zombie] or were killed by their friends. Obviously in Catholic theology we couldn’t allow this,

Correct. You can’t kill a person (or yourself) to keep them from becoming a zombie. There is another solution, however . . .

and we would be obliged to provide palliative care for bitten individuals to the best of our ability up to the point of death, and then immediately take measures to prevent zombification, i.e. destroy the brain.

Bingo. Wait until the person is either no longer alive and prevent their transformation or, failing that, kill them as soon as they have become a zombie and are now an enemy of mankind.

Incidentally, the same reasoning as above applies to vampires and other forms of undead.

If you’re interested in learning more about the real-world implications of a zombie attack, you might want to


though I haven’t read it myself.

You might also want to


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Steve August 9, 2005 at 4:37 am

I disagree about vampires … I wouldn’t characterise them as being implacably hostile in the way zombies are. They’re more parasitic/predatory, and tend to try and fit into society.
Besides which they are usually quite rational, and thus we have more evidence for believing they have souls than not.
The argument for exterminating zombies – that it is necessary for our protection – has less strength, because society could more easily be protected from vampires.
In fact, it could be argued that it is only our prejudice against vampires that leads them to antisocial behaviour.
If their blood hunger is treated as a debilitating illness then we can presumably integrate them into society, and allow them to live their lives with dignity – provided they do not turn to assaulting people or creating more vampires.

Matthew August 9, 2005 at 5:22 am

Could the non-human, rational soul of #2 be an angel or demon? How would that affect the moral reasoning? Would we be obligated to kill a zombie being animated by a demon? What if it was an angel? Would we be obligated to leave it be, despite the fact that it might be eating brains?

Joshua Wilson August 9, 2005 at 5:42 am

What, no “20” at the bottom of this post????

scooter August 9, 2005 at 5:42 am

Can’t believe I just read this.

Zombie Shakespeare August 9, 2005 at 6:34 am

Is this the end of Zombie Shakespeare?

Benedict August 9, 2005 at 7:17 am

This, and the related post further up, are two of my favorite posts ever on this blog. I love thinking about what ifs that involve undead.
Could the non-human, rational soul of #2 be an angel or demon?
To the best of my knowledge, angels (since demons are fallen angels) are spirits but not souls. Now, demons have possessed people but they have always been, again to the best of my knowledge, alive. I think that possession controls the body but relies on the soul to animate it. But this is not my area of expertise.
What if it was an angel? Would we be obligated to leave it be, despite the fact that it might be eating brains?
If it was killing peope and devouring their brains, I think I would grab my shotgun (assuming I was not a victim).
Ever since I was a kid, I have always figured the undead were Satan’s perverted attempt at resurrection (as he tries to twist and pervert God’s truth). God can bring people back to life, the devil can only fake it.

Mary August 9, 2005 at 7:28 am

Vampires cover an entire range of human possibilities from ruthless predator to human beings who are a little odd.
Though the spectrum leans heavily toward the poor, misunderstood side at the moment, still Robin McKinley’s Sunshine uses the horrible creature side (with a few twists ;).

Jerry August 9, 2005 at 7:52 am

The Zombie Survival Guide is hilarious! I highly recommend it. You get bonus points if you can get someone to take it seriously–it’s written in a “serious” way, so if you have a gullible friend, loved one, or enemy, you may be able to take ’em for a ride. 😉

Vince C August 9, 2005 at 8:30 am

I’ll never look at Rod Zombie or listen to “Time of The Season” by the Zombies in quite the same way again.

Noah Nehm August 9, 2005 at 8:59 am

Fun Fact: Max Brooks, the writer of the Zombie Survival Guide is none other than Mel Brooks’ son.

Maureen August 9, 2005 at 10:23 am

Re: Steve on vampires —
I thought you folks might like a short excerpt from Sergey Lukyanenko’s novel Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor). Especially since it’s starting to look like we’ll never get an official translation into English. *grumble grumble*
Anton’s the POV guy. He works for the good guy magical police/peacekeepers. Kostya’s the college-age member of the vampire family who lives in his apartment building. Anton just finished a stint going undercover to find a psychotic vampire, and Kostya’s not happy about it.
“Wait.” I stepped over to the refrigerator. “Take this. They gave me this, but I don’t need it.”
I brought out, from among the bottles of Borzoi vodka, a two hundred gram bag of donor blood.
“Don’t bother.”
“Kostya, I know that this will always be our problem. I don’t need it. You keep it.”
“You want to buy me?”
I started to get angry. “Really, and why would I need to bribe you! Throw it out? That’s stupid;
you’re all right here! This is blood. People donated it to be of some help!”
And then Kostya suddenly began to smirk. held out one hand, took one of the little bags, got his cigarette lit — he easily tore off the tin
cap, and it was ready. He held the little flask toward his lips. Again he smiled, and took a swig.
I’d never seen how they drank. Yeah, and I hadn’t tried to.
“Stop,” I said. “Don’t clown around.”
Kostya’s lips were in the blood; a thin streak ran down his cheek. Not just ran, but soaked into his skin.
“Our way of drinking isn’t nice for you?”
“Don’t you know it’s not nice to me, either? To any of us?”
I shook my head. We never seemed to ask that question. It was easier that way.
“Kostya…you need blood to live. Even though it may sometimes be — human.”
“We aren’t really alive.”
“I mean that more general idea. In order to move, think, talk, dream….”
“What are a vampire’s dreams to you?”
“Kid, many people who live in the light are constantly calling for a blood transfusion. It’s not any less important to them than to you. But that’s just another special case. Because donation exists, because it also is encouraged and honored… I’m not smiling. I know your
service to the development of medicine and to donorship propaganda.
“Kostya, if someone for his life… for existence…needs blood — this is still not any problem. And wherever it goes, whether it’s into a vein or a stomach — that doesn’t matter a tenth. The problem is how you get hold of it.”
“Words,” Kostya snorted.

Brian Emmick August 9, 2005 at 10:38 am

Some Real World issues that have more than a speculative existences regarding zombies and souls can be said to be what is called Mori’s Uncanny Valley in artificial intelligence research. Essentially it says:
A)Keep making anthropomorphic robots more and more human-like.
B) You get to a point where the human-like is not conducive to human interaction but rather resembles a “zombie” who like human but “kind of off”, and a human being gets kind of a “feeling” about it.
So the curve goes up as robotic and human interaction abilities increase and then suddenly “drops”, ie. “The Valley”. When this is overcome the curve rapidly goes back up.
There is a “zombie-reaction” zone so to speak in human nature. Maybe this reaction in human nature is good evidence as to why early man did not mate with Neanderthals, and this reaction and love-hate relationship we have with movie zombies is actually from a wellspring deep within the mysterious history of Mankind.
Movie Zombie = Potential Deep Metaphysical Truth.

Steve August 9, 2005 at 3:02 pm

Although this subject might have an element of ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ to it, I think it still has value in that it:
a) helps us clarify our beliefs
b) keeps us mentally agile
c) speaks to the secular world in a, hopefully, interesting way; and
Which is why I set up a blog devoted to such speculations …

Ry August 10, 2005 at 12:12 am

Steve claims: In fact, it could be argued that it is only our prejudice against vampires that leads them to antisocial behaviour.
No, Steve, we humans are far more prejudiced against zombies than we are against vampires. Vampires are “kinda cool,” according to modern culture. Some “Goth” types even want to be vampires, and would be “turned” if they ever got the chance–thanks to Ann Rice and her ilk.
Zombies, on the other hand, are something no one, even “Goths,” want to be. If you don’t recognize this, Steve, then you must be one of them!
Matthew asks: Could the non-human, rational soul of #2 be an angel or demon? Would we be obligated to kill a zombie being animated by a demon? What if it was an angel? Would we be obligated to leave it be, despite the fact that it might be eating brains?
Umm . . . Matt? If it’s eating human brains, grab your gun and shoot the hell out of it. Just a general rule of thumb.
Any corpse animated by a spiritual force, whether angelic or demonic, would still be a corpse. The corpse, in this instance, would be like a marionette, while the angel or demon would be analogous to a puppeteer. Blowing away the corpse would not be destroying intelligent life any more than stabbing a puppet would somehow injure the puppet-master.
Maureen: You have posted an exceedingly long post that I have neither the time nor the inclination to read. I hereby classify you as one of them.
Beware of Maureen, everyone. I think she’s one of them.

Maureen August 10, 2005 at 6:42 am

Ya got me. I once was a Marvel Zombie, sworn enemy of DC Comics and possessor of endless mindless loyalty to The House That Stan Built.
But I’m better now…just the sick kind of person who translates Russian fantasy novels and forces them upon others, hence spreading depression and vodka overindulgence throughout the world. Sort of a meme voudounsi. :)

Not Yet Catholic August 10, 2005 at 9:12 am

Please be careful with this discussion! I can see the new argument raging in Congress even now! “Cultured stem cells show promise in providing zombie sustenance. Zombie prisons strike billion-dollar deal with abortion clinics…”

Mary August 10, 2005 at 12:07 pm

Indeed, I have read a vampire RPG (role-playing game) where exceptionally pious vampires manage to survive by receiving Communion.

Anonymous August 10, 2005 at 12:08 pm


Matthew L. Martin August 10, 2005 at 3:48 pm

What about the Stoker model of vampires? The body is biologically dead, the animating/controlling entity appears to be irredeemably evil and malign . . . but there are hints that the human soul is still in there somewhere.

Chris Durnell August 12, 2005 at 9:13 am

I believe according to the old Hammer movies, while the body is vampirized, the person’s soul is in hell. Only by destroying the vampire can the soul be released. While vampirized, the person is absolutely evil, but often once the innocent-victim-turned-vampire gets staked and destroyed, he manages to thank his destroyer as his life ends. I think Stoker does refer to this type of scenario in the novel. The same sort of interpretation was found elsewhere such as Marvel Comics old Tomb Of Dracula series in the seventies.
This interpretation seemed to die off in the wake of Anne Rice’s vampire novels because she was more concerned with how a society of vampires interacted with each other than depicting mortal hunters kill a monster feasting on them.

Sheherazahde August 14, 2005 at 8:03 am

According to Wade Davis in Voudoun (known by its slang name of voodoo or hoodoo) there is more to a person than just a soul and a body. There are 5 parts: the star (or fate), the big good angel (bigger soul), the small good angel (smaller soul), the life force, and the body. When someone dies their small soul hangs around for a few day and a houngan can capture it and enslave it. If he is lucky he can reanimate the body. But he could just have a spirit zombie.
On the more “scientific” side Wade Davis’ conclusion was that zombies are not created by spells or drugs, they are a social phenomenon. Blow fish toxin creates the illusion of death. In Japan if someone dies of Fugu they keep the body for several days in case they person wakes up. In the west we have no stigma against people who have been temporarily dead but recovered. But Zombies are socially dead, even though they are physically healthy their community rejects them. Wade Davis made a compelling argument that Zombification was a form of capital punishment administered by secret societies for crimes against the community.
1) What do we mean by “soul” (More particularly why did you link “rational” and “irrational” the soul and not to the “spirit”, the mind or the body?)
2) What do we mean by dead? (when Wade Davis was shopping for Zombie poison people kept asking him how dead he wanted his victim, very dead or just a little dead)

nonya beeswax August 18, 2005 at 7:46 pm

Here is my train of thought, I have been curious about zombies for a long while and decided to do my own research to see if at all possible it could happen in real life…. I have found a website a while ago that confirmed humans could in fact become the”living dead”. However not in the way we all expected. In this article I read it stated that they had been conducting research on dogs where the dog is dead, and immediately after death they remove all of their blood and freeze it at very low temps. for three hours, after this they replace the blood back into the body,and the dogs were perfectly normal again. They even said that testing on humans was to be done soon, how soon this was I have no idea… anyways nice article and good luck with future articles!!!

The Black Madonna September 6, 2005 at 11:25 am

Conspiracy theory

I’ve got good news about John Roberts, and bad news. And that’s not counting the fact that he’s a cylon.

The Black Madonna September 6, 2005 at 11:32 am

Conspiracy theory

I’ve got good news about John Roberts, and bad news. And that’s not counting the fact that he’s a cylon.

The Black Madonna September 6, 2005 at 11:34 am

Conspiracy theory

I’ve got good news about John Roberts, and bad news. And that’s not counting the fact that he’s a cylon.

Jimmy L. October 22, 2005 at 10:35 pm

I was just watching Dawn of the Dead, and I was wondering if one can become a zombia by having sex with one? Thanks, from Jimmy L.

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