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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Do You Believe in Ghosts? The Christian View of the Supernatural

Below is a copy of a post I thought I'd share with you. I've been going back and forth with this subject for a long time and I thought it would interest some of you.

by C Michael Patton

I have a confession to make. Not sure if this is to you or to God, but here is goes: I love Ghost Hunters. We even planned a watch party for the first show of the new season!

Maybe you are not familiar with the show, but it is a weekly program that airs on the SCIFI Channel. Here is a synopsis: Investigators from The North Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) began to broadcast their investigations. They take calls from around the country from those who believe that their place of residence is “haunted.” Each show consists of the investigation crew traveling to the “haunted” location and listening to stories from the witnesses. After this they set up their cameras, night vision and thermal imaging, and begin to walk around in the dark looking for some type of communication from the dead or paranormal experience. What I like most about the show is that they don’t seem to be looking to claim any place as haunted. In fact, for the most part they “debunk” people’s claims, finding plausible alternative explanations to the their experience. But every once in a while (maybe every third show) they find something that leaves you scratching your head asking “How do I fit that into my theology?”

Since Ghost Hunters began a few years ago, there has been a massive surgence of television shows about paranormal activity. From Ghost Hunters spin-offs to reenactments of “actual” hauntings, the entertainment business has found a niche to peak and feed peoples’ insatiable curiosity in the spiritual world. Its popularity cannot be ignored.

The most popular understanding of the word “ghost” is in reference to disembodied spirits of humans who have died yet still walk the earth. It is believed by many that these disembodied spirits “haunt” certain locations. Trapped between this world and the next, these ghosts, it is claimed, often reach out to the land of the living.

Do ghosts fit into the Christian worldview?

This is an odd question. In one sense the answer is absolutely yes. Christianity denies physicalism (the belief that the physical comprises the sum total of reality). We believe that once a person dies, their spirit leaves their body. Therefore, there are disembodied spirits. The problem comes when the claims are made that these disembodied spirits remain on earth in some form and “haunt” or communicate with others.

There are three primary views or perspectives that Christians take concerning this issue:

1. No there are no ghosts. Any supposed paranormal experience, if authentic, should be labeled as demonic activity.

This view would argue that the Christian worldview does not allow for disembodied spirits to roam the earth. When people die, their spirit enters into an intermediate state of existence, either going to the presence of God (heaven) or a waiting place to be judged (hell; see the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus—Lk. 16:19-31). In other words, there is no intermediate state of the intermediate state. Demons, however, do roam the earth as does Satan. Demons will often manifest themselves in ways that will confuse people’s worldview and undermines the Christian message. If a person were to believe in ghosts, this is, at the very least, a compromise with regards to proper Christian eschatology (beliefs in the here-after). Demons may appear as those who have previously died—even animals—in order to disenchant people about the afterlife, making the Christian worldview conflict with personal experience. These demons may communicate with a knowledge of the lives of those whom they are impersonating, giving the definite impression that they must be identified with that person.

Therefore, according to this view, it is unbiblical and destructive to believe in ghosts in the popular sense.

Strengths:

It would seem the Bible teaches, both explicitly and implicitly, that upon death people either go to the presence of God or await judgment.
Demonic activity does present a plausible and biblical explanation for paranormal activity (Job 2:2; Eph. 6:12; 2 Cor. 4:4).
The Bible has very little about the existence of disembodied spirits, but much about demonic activity.
The Bible warns against any communication with the dead—necromancing (cf. Lev 19:31; 20:6; 1 Sam 28:8, 9; Isa 8:19; 19:3; 29:4).

Weaknesses:

Many of the “hauntings” are hard to explain simply through demonic activity. Often those places that are claimed to be haunted are abandoned hospitals, ghost towns, and the like. These places are uninhabited and therefore do not seem suitable for a malicious demon to inhabit.
Most of the time communication with these “ghosts” is very limited. Shadows, moving objects, and faint voices does not seem effective toward the demonic agenda of confusion.
It is not necessary that disembodied spirits of humans roaming the earth would confuse the Christian worldview. While the Bible does speak about the intermediate state, much of it remains a mystery. We just can’t be definitive about this issue, even if the Bible does suggest that it is normative for people to be situated in one place or the other upon death.
We don’t know where the intermediate state is. It could be a parallel plane to our own dimension.

2. Ghosts may be spirits of disembodied people who are left on the earth without explanation.

While not discounting the possibility that many of these events can be attributed to demons, this view believes that paranormal encounters may be legitimate encounters of disembodied spirits of people. We don’t have an explanation as to why these people would be on earth, but a lack of explanation does not mean that it is impossible.

There are four primary biblical arguments that this view uses to justify its openness to ghosts.

When Saul sought a medium the witch of En-dor was apparently able to bring Samuel back from the dead in a disembodied state (1 Sam. 28:7-19). It is interesting that Saul was able to determine it was Samuel by his age and dress. This suggests that even in a disembodied state, spirits retain their physical characteristics that they possessed at death—even their clothes! This parallels with what many people describe when they encounter spirits whose characteristics, language, and dress remain the same as when they died.
When Christ was transformed on the “mount of transfiguration” Moses and Elijah appeared in a pre-resurrected disembodied form (Lk. 9:29-33). While it is difficult to know how Peter recognized them, it seems evident that they were recognizable. Again, this parallels modern ghost tales.
When Christ was walking on the water, the disciples thought he was a ghost (Matt. 14:26). This suggests that even the disciples’ worldview allowed for ghosts. Christ never corrected this.
In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the rich man requests that someone be sent back from the dead (i.e. a ghost) to warn his brothers about their impending doom (Lk. 16:31). While this request was denied, it was not denied based upon its impossibility, but its inefficiency to bring about belief.

In addition to the arguments above is the evidence provided by near-death experiences (NDEs). Often people will describe a post-death experience where they remained in a conscious disembodied state of existence without going to either heaven or hell. Often they will describe how they remained near their lifeless body observing the activity around them as attempts were made to revive their life.

Based upon these arguments, this view would tentatively believe that some paranormal activity can be legitimately attributed to disembodied human spirits (ghosts), believing that the intermediate state is too much of a mystery about which to make definitive pronouncements. They would be agnostic as to the purpose of this ghostly activity and this view would caution people about pursuing such activity.

Strengths:

The intermediate state of existence (the state between death and resurrection) is a mystery that God has seen fit to leave in relative obscurity.
The appearance of Samuel in his disembodied form does seem to give credence to the belief that 1) disembodied spirits—even of believers—can manifest themselves and 2) they do retain the physical characteristics at death.
The nuances of certain “hauntings” seem to favor something other than a demonic spirit (i.e. residuals—where the manifestation is non-personal having an entity that expresses itself the same way over and over again without any personal engagement—i.e. the same sound of a child’s laughter).

Weaknesses:

The “why?” question does not have many plausible explanations.
It is problematic when people tell of dead Christians who continually contact them. It seems that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8) would preclude any manifestation here on earth.
Necromancing (communicating with the dead) is a sin that the Lord prohibits (cf. Lev 19:31; 20:6; 1 Sam 28:8, 9; Isa 8:19; 19:3; 29:4). Therefore, it would seem odd that God would allow such activity from people who have died—especially dead believers.
Near-death experiences are often problematic varying from culture to culture as well as being contradictory to the Biblical witness.
This seems to concede to and draw from cultural folk-theology about ghosts.

3. All “paranormal” activity has a naturalistic explanation.

As in Ghost Hunters where most of the supposed activity is “debunked,” this view believes that all activity, if all the information were available, would be debunked, having a purely naturalistic explanation. It is illegitimate to suppose a “ghost of the gaps” mentality that explains all the “unexplainable” with paranormal explanations. God neither allows ghosts nor demons to manifest themselves in such a way today.

Strengths

Most activity does seem to have an alternative naturalistic explanation.
Fits better within an advanced worldview that is able to understand most things naturally.
Does not resort to a “ghost of the gaps” mentality which can be and often is abused.
Less sensational and usually will allow you to keep respect of your colleagues.

Weaknesses

Fails to recognize the continued reality of demonic activity due to a borderline naturalistic worldview.
Fits better within a deistic worldview than a Christian worldview.
Too easily discounts people’s experience.
Is often abandoned when there is a subjective experience, leaving the impression that people hold to this simply because they have not experienced activity personally, not because it is right.

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