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“How Do We Know That God is Real and Zombies Aren’t?”

What if we just made God up?

The question came not from a despairing parishioner or a reader of my blog or an inquisitive university student at a trendy coffee shop. No, the question came from my twelve-year-old son at a sushi joint last weekend while drumming on the table with his chopsticks in between green tea and California rolls.

The conversation had started, as so many seem to these days, with zombies (he has been quite eager to demonstrate to me that these creatures are real for some time now). “You know how I know that zombies are real, dad?” “How?” “Well, you know when Jesus dies and the graves open and people start walking around? There you go. Even the Bible talks about zombies!” This was followed by a bit of “um, well”-ing and “it’s not exactly the same”-ing and “there’s a difference between”-ing, but I think he knew very well that his dad had no idea how to explain this bizarre passage in the bible (Matthew 27:51-53, for those interested). Whatever lame response I was able to conjure must have been punctuated by some exasperated rebuttal to the tune of, “well of course zombies are made up!  Do you see any walking around?!”

Bad move.

“Yeah, well we don’t see God either! And there’s so much weird, unbelievable stuff in the Bible! How do we know God is real and zombies aren’t?”

I was beginning to wish that I had just yielded to my son’s exegesis of Matthew 27. Instead, I was staring morosely at my sushi desperately wondering how to rescue the situation and, more importantly, address what was a very real question in the mind of my son.

Where does one begin? More specifically, where does one begin with a twelve-year-old? I could think of all kinds of approaches to take for grown ups. We could talk about this or that version of the cosmological argument (why is there something rather than nothing?  Where did something come from?) or the argument from morality (where do our normative assumptions and imperatives originate? How do we account for their pervasiveness across time and space?). We could talk about arguments regarding the historicity of the resurrection. We could talk about biblical interpretation and the (ironic) fulfillment of prophecy. We could talk about the spectacularly unlikely rise of the church. We could talk about any of these things and more. But aside from the fact that my son’s eyes would likely glaze over about 90 seconds into such endeavours, we would still circle back to something like, “I can’t see zombies and I can’t see God. Why is God real but not zombies?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about our weekend conversation over the last two days. I don’t recall much about the answer I tried to offer over sushi aside from the fact that it was profoundly forgettable and predictably unsatisfactory. And that my son was happily munching on his chicken teriyaki and talking about other matters within seconds of me stumbling and bumbling toward a response. All that mental energy rehearsing my apologetic options and I barely had a chance to get a word out before we were on to soccer and swimming. It is remarkable how frequently God sees fit to give me opportunities to practice humility through my children.

I was talking with a friend of mine about this experience yesterday—about how unsettling it is to get up every Sunday as the “religious professional” to “explain” the Bible and yet still routinely get utterly flummoxed by the most innocent question from one of my kids. “So why don’t you just pretend you’re preaching to your kids?” my friend said. Write a sermon for a twelve-year-old. A thousand excuses instantly presented themselves to me. But what about the grown ups? What about my responsibility to speak to all different age and education levels? What about people who don’t care about zombies? But I had to admit it wasn’t a bad idea.

So what would I say in my sermon for twelve-year olds about why God is real but zombies aren’t? The more I thought about it, the more I thought that it might just be among the harder sermons I have ever written! But here’s what it might include:


I know that it’s really hard to figure out what’s real and what’s not in this crazy screwed-up world we live in. I know that everywhere we turn we are inundated with superheroes and zombies and magic and wizards and boys with burning scars and giants and unicorns and dwarves and hobbits and all kinds of other things that we never, ever see  walking down the street.

I also know that it’s even harder to figure out what’s real and what isn’t when we talk about this weird book called the Bible that has angels and demons and people who live ridiculously long lives and people rising from the dead and virgin births and arks full of animals and suns that refuse to set and talking donkeys and all kinds of other things that seem way harder to believe in than zombies.

Let me assure you that grown ups struggle with these things too, even if we’re better at  ignoring them or pretending we have things all sorted out. We don’t. Believe me.

Here’s the thing. There are very strange things in our world and in our imaginations.  And I hope you have plenty of time to begin to sort out which is which. But more importantly, I hope that you will come to see that imagination and reality are not really all that separate after all—that the one might even be a clue or a hint meant to point toward and give a fuller understanding of the other.

Most importantly of all, I hope you will do far more than listen to words upon words from people like me about imagination and reality. I hope you will actually encounter the One who gave us wild imaginations and hoped that we would use them. I hope that you will come to see that the One who made you has a far more creative imagination than you or I, and that this One loves you. I hope that you will see that our wild imaginings were meant to lead us back to the wildest Imaginer there could be.

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Larry S #

    Good post Ryan and a wonderful (scary) question your son asked.

    On the Mt. 27 zombie text I’m glad you didn’t answer with Mike Licona’s comment that the text is ‘special effects’ (isn’t that what he wrote in his Resurrection book and he ended up looking for a new place to teach? I’ve not read the book but tracked the internet chatter about the controversy). Mt. 27 does have zombie like features: Matthew has the dead coming to life upon Jesus’ death, standing around in the graveyard until the resurrection and then heading into town.

    Perhaps you could tell your son that Hollywood’s zombies are bad and make-believe. The Bible’s zombies are good (proof text: Mt 27.52) and are authorial special effects.

    Or would that be too honest?

    Larry S.

    July 8, 2013
    • farfromthetree #

      The problem of honesty is it doesn’t always imply the truth. Maybe to rectify the two an appropriate response would be something like “I have never encountered zombies but I believe I have encountered God. It is good to ask this question and ultimately you will form your own opinion and believe either zombies exist and God doesn’t, the opposite, both exist or neither exist.”

      July 8, 2013
      • “I have never encountered zombies but I believe I have encountered God. It is good to ask this question and ultimately you will form your own opinion and believe either zombies exist and God doesn’t, the opposite, both exist or neither exist.”

        I like this approach, although I think it might be a little on the open-ended side. I think the idea that the role of the parent or caregiver is to keep the field of options suitably open for as long as possible to provide a child with the space to choose for themselves, while perhaps noble, is a bit misguided. No responsible parent is going to say, “well, you just make up your own mind” about what they think is most important in life. All parents are explicitly or implicitly socializing their children into a worldview that has commitments about what matters, what is worth pursuing, which options are worth considering and which aren’t.

        Having said that, of course, everyone does ultimately choose for themselves—hopefully with good models and good information operating in the background :).

        July 8, 2013
      • Tyler #

        “All parents are explicitly or implicitly socializing their children into a worldview that has commitments about what matters, what is worth pursuing, which options are worth considering and which aren’t.”

        Of course, I totally agree. Not only does this happen but it should. Some views are very harmful to the child and others. My response was directed more towards Larry’s comment than to the original post.

        However, my interest was intrigued by the distinction your last paragraph made of itself from the second to last paragraph but I thought I’d leave that for a different day 🙂

        July 8, 2013
    • Larry, I’ve not heard anything about the controversy around Mike Licona.

      Whatever might be going on in that passage, it still plays a pretty dramatic second-fiddle, in my view, to the main event of the day :).

      July 8, 2013
      • Larry S #

        Well Ryan you missed a internet firestorm. On a winter night when you are snowed in or on a day off do a web search using: licona mohler geisler controversy. and be prepared for an interesting few hours.

        My Readers Digest version is that Licona wrote a 700 plus book called “The Resurrection of Jesus” and within the book made a comment about the Matthew 27:52-53 (now due to your son known by me as the Zombie text) were possibly “special effects” – the holy saints being raised at the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion. I’ve not read Licona but did read Wright’s massive”Resurrection of the Son of God”. He spends a few pages on the Matthew 27 52-53. After which he writes that we should “be puzzled” rather than try to argue for probable historicity or cheap and cheerful rationalistic dismissal of the possibility. I seem to remember his writing that the Mt. 27 52-53 story is mysterious. Perhaps that comment was in his “Surprised by Hope”.

        I don’t know what I would say if my 4-yr old granddaughter grows up and asks me a similar question. I’m assuming that Tyler is posting under the name: fromafartree, otherwise I have no idea what he is talking about.

        I agree with you Ryan that we socialize our children into a world-view. And also with fromafartree/tyler that my answers seems dangerous. However, I think my proposed answer may prepare a child for some of the other questions s/he may face in the future. Issues about Adam/Eve, world-wide flood, genocide, Hebrew males getting to keep the hot women they’ve captured in battle, eternal conscious torment. Questions about extra biblical sources for things like the rolling stone that is Christ (1 Cor 10:4) or the angel Michael arguing with Satan for the body of Moses (Jude 9).

        So while my answer may be unsafe, it seems similarly dangerous to leave children ill-equipped to deal with critical questions. When I think of raised holy saints standing around for three days I gotta wonder at the historicity of those two verses – so special effects seems plausible to me.

        And I get that we are dealing with the main event which I do take as historical.
        by the way, I still think Ryan’s children’s sermon is great.

        It’s been a long day …. I’ll leave things for now.

        Larry S.

        July 8, 2013
      • I think it would have to be a snowy week, not just a day, for me to perform that internet search, Larry :). I have rarely left a bible battle featuring Al Mohler feeling anything remotely like edified…

        I like Wright’s approach—mystery, rather than cheap answers and easy rationality. I had a look at his commentary on this passage this morning. Here’s what he says in his Matthew for Everyone:

        But it all begins, to our astonishment, with some of those who had died and been buried long since. It isn’t quite clear what Matthew wants us to think here [no kidding!!]. Did these ‘sleeping’ bodies wake up at Jesus’ death, but wait until Easter morning to go into the city? What did they do then? What happened to to them? These and similar questions have encouraged some to think that Matthew intends us to see the story as picture-language, a vivid way of saying ‘from that moment on, death was a defeated force.’ Or he may simply, in reporting stories told at the time and afterwards, be happy to leave this as a loose end in his own narrative, a way of saying ‘From now on, you never know what God’s lifegiving power will achieve!’

        I can live with that. Or special effects. Or, a plain old “what on earth?!”

        What I don’t like is the approach of either end of the fundamentalist spectrum (conservative or liberal), the one living and dying on the most rigidly literal interpretation of this text, the other explaining it away as unworthy of modern “enlightened” who couldn’t possibly be expected to believe such nonsense.

        Strange things are possible in our world.

        July 9, 2013
      • Larry S #

        I can see the theological msg behind the story. somehow, X’s death sparks resurrection. And I get why the holy saints wait till His resurrection before going into Jerusalem.

        BUT …. I wonder about the actual event underpinning the story. Just what did this group of people do for three days. What did they eat? Where did they go to the bathroom? Where did they sleep?

        Enquiring minds what to know. And I don’t think I’m being hopelessly rationalistic or modern. I can see why someone goes with ‘special effects’

        maybe I’ll look up what the apolegists have to say about this – time to phone the Bible Answer Man Radio Show.

        July 9, 2013
      • Yup, I wonder too. The Bible has this irritating habit of being obstinately silent on some of the things I’m most curious about…

        Good luck with the Bible Answer Man. If I were a cynic, I might suggest that whatever he comes up with, it would amount to a long-winded, bordering-on-pretentious version of “I dunno.” Good thing I’m not cynical :).

        July 9, 2013
      • Larry S #

        I wonder where your son got this – quoting your son from your post: ““Well, you know when Jesus dies and the graves open and people start walking around? There you go. Even the Bible talks about zombies!”

        I wonder if he came up with this view on his own? Or something from the culture?

        If he came up with this on his own, I’m totally impressed. I skimmed over the implications of those verses – even while reading Wright’s book – I noted it was an odd occurance. The Licona controvesy sparked my interest….

        but… think of it: what were these people wearing after their resurrection? Wrapped up in grave clothes and perfumed ? Very Very zombie like ….

        If your son came up with this alone. I bet you’ll be asked all kinds of questions. Probably make my little rant list (see earlier post) look tame.

        July 9, 2013
      • I’m not sure where he got it from. I’ll have to ask him. I do know that he is a very inquisitive kid and that even when he looks clueless and/or inattentive, the wheels are always churning :).

        A gem from yesterday. After hearing that his sister was feeling better after a mild fever, he says: “Thank Allah!” “What?” I said. “You know, Allah. It’s another name for God.” I asked him where he heard that. His response? “I don’t know, I read it somewhere.” Needless to say, another interesting conversation ensued…

        So yes, I am anticipating many more questions :).

        July 9, 2013
  2. Larry S #

    I just realized that I kind of hijacked this thread into the particulars of the Mt 25:52’53 text rather than the deeper question of “knowing” that God is real. Ryan in grappling with that question do you think a modified conversation about the nature of knowing and critical realism? Probably not, that is crazy talk.

    July 8, 2013
    • Don’t worry Larry, I very rarely consider a thread “hijacked” :). I find it interesting, the various conversations that arise, however they may or may not deviate from the main point of the original post.

      I would probably consider myself a critical realist, even if labels like these can often be constricting. The question of how we “know” God is, of course, a very large (and interesting one). At the risk of seeming pretentious, I’ve included a link below to a post from a few years back where I reflected on the question of what “knowing God” might look like.

      July 9, 2013
  3. Marie #

    Are either you absolutely sure you haven’t already seen a zombie? 😉 The thing is, most of our mythical beliefs have some kind of basis or other in the truth, but very seldom does a Hollywood depiction come anywhere near it! Anthropologists have come up with all kinds of pharmacological, psychological and sociological explanations for apparent zombie behaviour amongst voodoo practitioners in Haiti (this is where people take zombies seriously, and have long before Hollywood got a hold of the concept). Anyway, I would say, go to the source about zombies – there may be some truth there. And go to the source about God too – because just like zombies, there are also all kinds of misconceptions about God in popular culture!

    July 8, 2013
    • I saw a zombie at 8:30 this morning when I picked up my fifteen year old nephew to give him a ride into town :).

      (I like what you say about “going to the source” and being suspicious about popular [and marketable] misconceptions, Marie.)

      July 9, 2013
  4. mike #

    “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind.” (Samuel Johnson)

    Your son deserves a pat on the back for his sharp use of intellect… encourage This!, Have faith knowing that the same God who captured your heart can capture his as well.

    July 9, 2013
    • Have faith knowing that the same God who captured your heart can capture his as well.

      Thank you, Mike. Well said.

      July 9, 2013
  5. @ Tyler

    However, my interest was intrigued by the distinction your last paragraph made of itself from the second to last paragraph but I thought I’d leave that for a different day

    Today is as good a day as any :). What caught your eye?

    July 9, 2013
  6. If you want to eisegete about Zombies in the bible, other prooftexts include Lazarus, and Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones

    July 9, 2013
    • I’m not going to be too critical of a twelve year old for eisegesis :).

      July 9, 2013

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