How the Summa Theologica Might Address a Zombie Uprising

Filippino Lippi, Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas over the Heretics (detail) (1490)

If you’ve ever skimmed through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, a few thoughts have probably crossed your mind. First, “this is a masterpiece!” followed quickly by, “…but why is there no section dealing with a zombie uprising?”

Don’t get me wrong. The Summa is absolutely breathtaking: in its breadth (2,669 articles, each one carefully considered, covering 512 theological and philosophical questions), in its depth (St. Thomas was the most brilliant of the scholastics, one of the brightest minds the Church ever produced, with a genius almost unparalleled in human history), and in its great heights (St. Thomas was also, of course, a great Saint, and a Doctor of the Church).  But the Summa remains unfinished: he died before completing the Third Part, which covers the subject of the end of the world.  Perhaps for that reason, Thomas never got around to addressing the moral implications of a Zombie Uprising.

Because the matter is too important not to complete, I humbly submit what I think St. Thomas would (or, perhaps, should) have said on the subject:

Article 1. Whether the souls of those who become zombies are in hell?

Objection 1. It would seem that just as the incorruptibility of the bodies of certain Saints evidences their sanctity and election, the reanimation of the corpses of certain individuals as zombies evidences of their corruption and reprobation.

Objection 2. Further, David proclaims in Psalm 16:9-11, “my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” Yet even bodily decay is to be preferred to reanimiation as a zombie. Therfore, those who become zombies would appear to have been wholly forsaken by God at their death, and reprobate.

6th Century Mosaic of Lazarus’ Resurrection,
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

On the contrary, after Christ tells Peter how he will die (John 21:19), He says of the Beloved Disciple, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me” (John 21:22).

I answer that, the grace of bodily incorruptibility is not given to all the Saints, but to a small handful.  And just a righteous man’s body may decay, so may it be reanimated as a flesh-mongering zombie.  For we know that “[b]y faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones” (Heb. 11:22).  Thus, while he lived and died by faith, his body was reduced to bones (Ex. 13:19).  For even Martha, the sister of Lazarus, feared that his body would stink of death (John 11:39), though she did not doubt of his sanctity (John 11:24).  And just as the bodies of the righteous can be skeletonized, or decay or rot in the earth, they can likewise zombify.

Reply to Objection 1. The bodies of many of the greatest Saints were degraded in their death (Matthew 14:9-10) or after. For while Elijah was preserved from death and corruption (2 Kings 2:11), Elisha was not (2 Kings 13:21). Yet Elisha was not inferior to Elijah in sanctity, as he received a double portion of Elijah’s own spirit (2 Kings 2:9-12). Therefore, the body of a man who dies in the state of grace may be preserved inviolate, may decay in the earth, or may be reanimated as a zombie.

Reply to Objection 2. Peter tells us that the prophetic Psalm 16 was not fulfilled in the life of David, but only in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:25-32). Yet David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14). Therefore, the corruption of the grave, including zombification, is not proof of reprobation.

Article 2. Whether zombies will experience the bodily resurrection?

What is going on in this picture?

Objection 1.  It would seem that since zombies have already risen from the dead, they shall not experience the resurrection of the body at the end of time.  For Paul, drawing on the image of a harvest, says of the resurrection of the dead that the “body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:42).  Just as one plant cannot be harvested twice, it would see that zombies, who have already risen as the ravenous undead, shall not rise again in imperishable glory.

Furthermore, for zombies to experience the resurrection of the dead, they would have to die a second time, yet Scripture says that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27).  Therefore, it would seem that zombies cannot die twice, and thus, cannot be resurrected twice.

Objection 2. The Nicene Creed declares, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”  Yet, the bodies of zombies are a sight of ghastly horror, and an eternity with, or as, such creatures would not be something to look forward to. Thus, it would seem that zombies shall not participate in this glorious resurrection of the dead.

On the contrary, “a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29).

I answer that, Scripture provides that everyone will be restored in the resurrection of the body: the elect to eternal glory, and the reprobate to eternal shame.  For the LORD said to Daniel, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:3).  Thus, all, whether saved or damned, zombie or otherwise, will stand before the Throne of God in their mortal body at the Judgment.

Last Judgment, Notre-Dame Amiens

Reply to Objection 1.  The Theologian says that the miracles of Christ were not intended to last for eternity, but for this life only, saying that “the eyes of the blind, that were opened by those acts of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, were again closed in death; and limbs of the paralytics that received strength were loosened again in death; and whatever was for a time made whole in mortal limbs came to nought in the end” (Tractates on John, 17).  Thus, we know that Lazarus, raised once from the dead (John 11:44), fell asleep in death again.  When Scripture speaks of man’s destiny to die once, then, it is man’s natural destiny being spoken of, not the power of God.  For just as Lazarus had to die twice, as did the man who touched Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:21), the prophet Elijah never tasted death at all (2 Kings 2:11).  Likewise, while a plant does not natural grow to harvest twice, “out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Mt. 3:9).

Reply to Objection 2.  The resurrection will be glorious for the elect, but not for the damned.  Yet we look forward to this resurrection because we hope in God, for as Paul says: “I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked” (Acts 24:15).

Furthermore, while the bodies of zombies are ghastly now, they shall not be so at the resurrection.  For Tertullian tells us that as “life is bestowed by God, so is it restored by Him. As we are when we receive it, so are we when we recover it. To nature, not to injury, are we restored; to our state by birth, not to our condition by accident, do we rise again” (De Resurrectione Carnis, 59).  Thus, he promises the healing and glorification of the body from “when it is dead, when it is cold, when it is ghastly, when it is stiff, when it is a corpse” (Id.).  That the bodies of zombies are ghastly in this life does not mean that they shall not be restored and glorified in the next.  As Paul says, the body “is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.” (1 Cor. 15:43).

Update: Other posts you might enjoy:

… and here’s David explaining our Catholic April Fool’s Day conspiracy.


    1. It isn’t in Latin…

      The question of zombie is interesting. The idea is basically about the moral implications of human bodies not under the control of a rational mind.

      It is probably clear that pleasure in violence, even lawful violence, is not good. But using necessary violence to protect oneself or others is lawful to the extent it is necessary.

      On the contrary, It is written (Exodus 22:18): “Wizards thou shalt not suffer to live”; and (Psalm 100:8): “In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land.”

      I answer that, As stated above (Article 1), it is lawful to kill dumb animals, in so far as they are naturally directed to man’s use, as the imperfect is directed to the perfect. Now every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part is naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we observe that if the health of the whole body demands the excision of a member, through its being decayed or infectious to the other members, it will be both praiseworthy and advantageous to have it cut away. Now every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6).

      On the contrary, It is written (Exodus 22:2): “If a thief be found breaking into a house or undermining it, and be wounded so as to die; he that slew him shall not be guilty of blood.” Now it is much more lawful to defend one’s life than one’s house. Therefore neither is a man guilty of murder if he kill another in defense of his own life.

      I answer that, Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above (43, 3; I-II, 12, 1). Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in “being,” as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful, because according to the jurists [Cap. Significasti, De Homicid. volunt. vel casual.], “it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defense.” Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.

  1. How do you kill zombies, then?

    Perhaps brain them with a Bible. Cause there’s nothing like allegory 😛

    Speaking of which, does Dante’s living-dead Pope-o-simony count as a demon possession, zombie, or both? I mean, he is dead, but not physically…

    1. Father,

      Thanks! I must confess, I am sort of shocked that you haven’t already written on this subject. It seems up your alley, as a “priest at the end of the world.”



    1. Ah yes… the zombie problem. What Oakes doesn’t get into, but what is next, is the question of why we should believe our thinking to be rational at all if materialism is right. The answer (of course): evolution naturally selecting for better thinking. But as David Chalmers puts it “[t]he process of natural selection cannot distinguish between me and my zombie twin.” Evolution is blind to our subjective experience and, thus, this answer won’t work. Conclusion: we can’t trust our thinking. Troubling.

    1. Cole,

      Good question. Let’s start with what he does say. First:

      “The appetitive and intellectual powers are different genera of powers in the soul, by reason of the different formalities of their objects. But the appetitive power agrees partly with the intellectual power and partly with the sensitive in its mode of operation either through a corporeal organ or without it: for appetite follows apprehension. And in this way Augustine puts the will in the mind; and the Philosopher, in the reason (De Anima iii, 9).”

      And second:

      “Because in proportion to other animals man has naturally a larger brain. Wherefore it is natural, on account of the considerable humidity of the brain in children, that the nerves which are instruments of movement, should not be apt for moving the limbs. On the other hand, no Catholic doubts it possible for a child to have, by Divine power, the use of its limbs immediately after birth.”

      So, from this, we can see that (1) the brain is naturally connected to our appetites, and (2) the brain is moist. Take that as you will.  (Yes, I’m taking those wildly out of context).



  2. A friend asked whether zombies could be saved, and asked about:
    a) zombies arising from a living body (perhaps by a normal, living person being bitten by a zombie?) [28 Days Later zombies]; and
    b) cadavers that become zombies. [Romero zombies]

    The short answer is that those who become zombies are not without hope for salvation. Let’s consider each species in turn.

    For 28 Days Later zombies, I think we have plenty of real-life parallels to look to. All sorts of things, from demonic possession to mental illness to rabies, can cause a righteous man to do all manners of evil deeds. Horrible crimes have been committed while sleepwalking, for example.

    Yet the doer of these deeds is neither legally nor morally guilty of actions over which they had no control (in the same way that St. Augustine tells the raped virgins of Rome that they preserved their virginity by not consenting). Under civil law, no one is culpable for an act done involuntarily. A British House of Lords decision captures the principle well:

    “No act is punishable if it is done involuntarily: and an involuntary act in this context – some people nowadays prefer to speak of it as ‘automatism’ – means an act which is done by the muscles without any control by the mind, such as a spasm, a reflex action or a convulsion; or an act done by a person who is not conscious of what he is doing, such as an act done whilst suffering from a concussion or whilst sleepwalking.”

    Bratty v Attorney-General for Northern Ireland (1963) AC 386, at 409. Something similar applies to the law of God, as well: e.g., “Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent” (CCC 1859).

    So in these cases, if the poor soul still inhabits the zombified body, but is not in control of the actions his body is taken (or has his mental state so reduced that he cannot will or resist), there is no moral culpability for any of his actions undertaken in this state.

    For Romero zombies, the question is even simpler. Remember that death is the point at which the soul leaves the body. That a body should continue to operate as if alive is immaterial. There are plenty of lifelike things corpses do, often as a result of whatever gross thing has taken up occupancy in their body. So the undead are, from a Catholic p.o.v., dead. The Romero zombie’s soul is departed, and is either in Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell.

    To use another real-life example, no organ donor is morally accountable for the things done with his body after death. (After all, organ donation is about the closest thing we have to reanimation right now, right?). So in neither case are the actions of the zombies sinful, as we understand sin.

    Thought I’d just toss this out there to see what people thought. Thanks, all, for having so much fun with this!


    P.S. To those who have asked about the morality of enjoying the killing of zombies, the gravity of it would probably depend on which species of zombie. But in either case, CCC 2300 says that: “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection.” I assume that this applies to the bodies of the undead, as well.

  3. Absolutely love this. I shared it with one of my philosophy professors (whose specialty is actually St. Thomas Aquinas), and she immensely enjoyed your Thomistic argument on zombies, adding the following:

    “This is hilarious!! Thanks so much for sending it my way.

    “Actually, St. Thomas does come close to addressing the topic of zombies. See Summa Contra Gentiles IV, Ch. 90: How Incorporeal Substances May Suffer From Bodily Fire: “For spirits are able to be bound by bodies: this can be by way of form, as the soul is bound to the human body to give it life; or it can be without being the form of a something, as the necromancers by the power of devils bind spirits by images or that sort of thing.” Now, if what he’s talking about here is a demonic spirit being bound to the body of a deceased person by necromancy, then that comes very close to a zombie. Note: Necromancers sometimes attempt to raise the dead.”

    I hope you are having a blessed Easter, and thank you so much for writing; while I rarely leave comments (this is my first time, in fact), I always look forward to reading what you post. Grace and peace!


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