The Ethical Ramifications of the Wholesale Annihilation of the Undead

Or: Can we kill zombies?

By Jeff Laird

What's the chance of a zombie apocalypse? "Unlikely" would be one way to put it; "impossible" would be more accurate. Any version of a "zombie" worth the name is more or less physically impossible. That being said, there's no reason to waste an opportunity for a thought exercise. Playing "what if" is good practice for when there's a legitimate moral dilemma.

The ethics behind killing is always a matter of context. Predatory killing of a human being is the kind of "murder" God was referring to in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13). Part of the discussion, then is whether or not the zombies are still considered human. Another part is whether the killing can be considered self-defense, or "just war," or something similar. If the context is right, one could argue it would be immoral not to kill them.

In most zombie apocalypse contexts, the monsters are not — or are no longer — considered human beings. Through whatever means, the physical bodies are animated, but the soul and spirit are gone. This is the "Romero Zombie," as seen in the Night of the Living Dead franchise or The Walking Dead. They're no more human than a corpse is. We bury or burn dead bodies to prevent disease and so forth. From a Christian perspective, you are not a body which "has" a soul, you are a soul which "has" a body. So the destruction of a soul-less cadaver is not necessarily sinful. Since God can, and will, re-create the physical body but does not do so with the soul, this makes classic zombies non-human; killing them is therefore not in the same category as homicide.

The fact that, traditionally, these monsters seek to kill any human they can find makes the self-defense angle pretty strong. Christians aren't actually required to adhere to total pacifism (Luke 22:35-38). Even if we were, some would argue, such a prohibition only applies to other human beings. As defined above, the classic zombie is not human; it's more like an animal.

As a result, there'd be no biblical moral constraint against killing the typical soul-less, re-animated-dead-body type of zombie. The man-versus-undead dynamic in books such as World War Z, then, is a broad outline of the ethics of a classic zombie apocalypse. In short, we not only can kill "inhuman" zombies, but we probably should, as a matter of survival.

More complex ethics arise regarding when we consider the pseudo-zombies found in other fictional universes. Settings such as those seen in 28 Days Later or I Am Legend present creatures which are still alive, but under the control of some virus or other disease. The major point in favor of killing undead zombies is just that: biblical prohibitions on murder only apply to living people. But what about a person whose mind and body are warped by some disease? Are they no longer human? Does it matter?

This is where the ethics of a zombie apocalypse would start bleeding over into discussions on eugenics. That's not a stretch: if the "zombie" is actually just a virus-infected living person, we'd have to be very careful about justifying their death. This is where pro-abortion logic gets itself in trouble. If a person's right to live is based on their health, or their mental ability, or their convenience, we're not far from expanding the list of "death-worthy" diseases. The core Christian contention is that people derive value from being image-bearers of God (Genesis 1:26), which means "living humans" are in a different category than "formerly living human bodies."
The ethics of killing zombies depends on if they're undead or merely sick. And how badly they try to kill us. tweet
Of course, in most of these "living but infected" scenarios, the zombies are still actively seeking to kill any human they can find (e.g.28 Days Later). That makes the self-defense angle appropriate justification for violence. However, it might not justify the kind of wholesale, take-the-fight-to-them approach (e.g. World War Z). If the zombies are inhuman, we're morally justified in focusing on their annihilation. If they're sick people, then we're morally obligated to focus on their restoration, even if we have to kill some in self-defense in the meantime.

Lastly, we should also remember where the term "apocalypse" comes from, as used in western culture. The last book of the New Testament is Revelation, which is Apokalypsis in Greek. The word literally means "a revealing," or "a disclosure." This book, which reveals or discloses the end of the world, so impacted culture that it defined how we use a word. Consider, then, that Revelation does not describe anything reasonably similar to a zombie epidemic. As obscure as the imagery in Revelation can be, there's nothing in there which gives any weight to the idea of dead bodies rising to attack the living.

Then again, one could argue that the only possible way for a zombie apocalypse to occur would be as an act of God. The classic zombie is, biologically and physically, impossible. As in, it defies both the laws of biology and the laws of physics. For such creatures to actually exist, they'd have to have a preternatural source. In which case, we might find that Revelation was even more obscure than we thought, and the end times will feature a lot of shuffling and moaning. But that's not actually going to happen...

...I hope.

Image Credit: Glamazon; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life  | Controversial-Issues  | Sin-Evil

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Published 6-28-17