Just in time for Halloween, I’ve dug up an obscure Bible passage. It describes a “Night of the Living Dead” long before George A. Romero’s 1968 black-and-white zombie film.
It’s a passage from Matthew 27:52-53 following the crucifixion of Jesus and seems randomly injected into the Passion narrative.
“The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and . . . appeared to many people.”
You say you’ve not heard that one before?
That’s not surprising. It goes largely unmentioned by us clergy because most of us would rather put a stick in our eye than try to explain it.
It won’t help to try another translation. I’ve tried. The verses are too problematic. Some people are confounded by the verses because they seem to encourage what other passages discourage, i.e. hangin’ out with the dead and whatnot.
Despite problematic verses like these, there exist enough plainly spoken passages to cause 97 percent of regular churchgoers to believe in an afterlife. Eighty percent of Americans overall believe.
Those who study near-death experiences offer their version of proof. There even exists a Near Death Experience Research Foundation, which works to catalogue the almost 800 daily near-death experiences in the United States.
NDE commonly describes the phenomenon people report after being resuscitated from something like a heart attack. People often report seeing a bright light, a tunnel, a circle of loved ones and a heavenly presence telling them to return to Earth.
But there remain plenty of doubters. According to a recent CNN story, Dr. Kevin Nelson, a neurologist in Lexington, Ky., says NDEs offer no proof of an afterlife.
He says people who report NDE stories are likely dreaming due to rapid eye movement, which can cause vivid and intense dreaming. He says the REM state also causes the bright lights.
Nelson says the tunnel effect people describe probably is caused by the lack of blood flow to the eye, and you can get much the same results from fainting.
If that’s not enough to cause some doubt, most scholars believe Matthew’s Halloween passage concerning the Night of the Living Dead was added by a group of overambitious translators.
Could be, I suppose. I don’t know. But I don’t put all my faith coins in one basket either.
“Pay your money, take your choice,” said my Baylor theology teacher Bob Patterson about such conundrums. At the end of the day, I think that’s why it’s called faith. It’s a faith that something about our belief is right. It’s not because our faith proves us right.
Proving there is or isn’t a heavenly afterlife seems to me like a fool’s errand. Jesus concurred in Luke 16, when he asserted that if people don’t believe in the afterlife, “. . . they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.”
So, my guess is that somewhere along the search for such proof, we will find a huge chasm where we will be required to make a jump, a jump the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard described as a leap of faith.
But let me assure you, the lack of empirical evidence doesn’t make this a crazy leap into the dark or even a zombie walk. On the contrary, faith will always be a joyous leap out of the darkness and into the marvelous light.
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thechaplain.net. You also can follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.