Should Christians believe in ghosts?

Posted on 06/21/11 24 Comments

The question was recently posed to me by one of my readers. Stuart did not share my assumption that the world may contain ghosts who, among other things, might engage in hauntings: 

“I think you’ll need to provide some more scritural backing to convince me that people can die (or be killed) and then their spirit can continue to inhabit/haunt a house. Ghosts sound far more demonic than human in nataure.”

“For someone to continue in spirit form after they had be killed and to inhabit a house suggessts they continue to have some control over their choice of actions/location rather than that being dictated by God. Heb 9:27 tells us people die then face judgement, no mention is made of the option for them to go and be a ghost and haunt a house Randal might purchase.”

So should a Christian believe in ghosts? Well let’s look at the evidence (or at least some of it).

Ghosts in the Bible

The ancient Israelites, like other ancient peoples, held a belief that human persons continue to exist after the death of their bodies. This existence is in a shadowy spectral bodiy form in a place called sheol which, on some accounts, was in a vast cavern beneath the surface of the earth. This is the worldview backdrop against which we should read the story of the Witch of Endor calling up the ghost of Samuel (1 Samuel 28). Note how this background worldview and the details of the story both fit comfortably within the contemporary concept of ghosts as people who have survived the demise of their physical bodies and continue to exist with a spectral body.

This basic picture was shared by the ancient Greeks and Romans and can be seen operative in the background worldview of the disciples of Jesus. Consider Mark 6:48-50:

He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.

Since ghosts were a part of the background worldview of the disciples it is understandable that when they first saw Jesus they thought he was a ghost.

A rich understanding of the world of ghosts is also behind Luke 24:36-37:

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.

At this point Luke shows a real awareness of the popular first century views on ghosts among Greeks, Romans and Hebrews for he carefully distinguishes the post-resurrection body of Jesus from disembodied spirits, revanants (that is, mere reanimated corpses), immortal heroes and translated mortals (see Deborah Thompson Prince, “The ‘Ghost’ of Jesus: Luke 24 in Light of Ancient Narratives of Post-Morten Apparitions“, JSNT, 29, 3 (2007), 287-301). This is the rich world of ghosts that frames the “pareschatology” of the Bible.

Ghosts in Church History

This openness to the existence of ghosts can be found throughout much of church history. It is perhaps most memorably on display in Gregory the Great’s fourth dialogue where he discusses a number of fascinating accounts of ghosts (c. AD 585).

So what do ghosts do?

Many Christians have understood ghosts, or at least some of them, as enduring a purgatorial existence. But this does not exclude other possibilities such as some “lost” ghosts who are engaged in malevolent mischief (e.g. poltergeist activity) or ghosts who are regenrated but engaged in particular missions on earth. Moreover, even the purgatory option is open to Protestants, so long as it is qualified appropriately (i.e. some views of purgatory are inconsistent with Protestantism but others are not).

All this should leave the Christian, relative to his or her background worldview assumptions, as very much open to the possiblity of ghosts and even hauntings. So remind yourself of that fact the next time your spouse asks you to go check on that strange noise in the basement.

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  • Walter

    My Christian friends and family believe that hauntings and poltergeist activities are all attributable to demonic forces. Personally, I never understood what the “demons” would hope to gain in performing acts of mischief in old houses?

    • randal

      “Personally, I never understood what the “demons” would hope to gain in performing acts of mischief in old houses?”

      Well they probably get their kicks scaring the crap out of people for one thing. In many putative cases of supernatural activity it seems that the evidence underdetermines whether the cause is a human or non-human spiritual agency. It is really unfortunate that Protestants since the Reformation have been so quick to consign everything they don’t understand to demons.

  • Cory C

    Moreover, even the purgatory option is open to Protestants, so long as it is qualified appropriately (i.e. some views of purgatory are inconsistent with Protestantism but others are not).

    Dr. Rauser, could you explain the purgatorial possibilities open to Protestants? I’ve never heard of this. It would certainly be fascinating in its interpretive potential as it applies to the paranormal.

    Thank you kindly,

    CC

  • Symptom777

    Should Christians believe in ghosts?
    Hell, why not?

    It seems to me that Christians believe that:
    a) people are not their physical bodies
    b) people have free-will
    c) God does not impose his will on people

    from (a) there are disembodied people
    from (b) and (c) disembodied paople can do what they like

    QED ghosts exist.

    • randal

      Symptom777, you can find Christians who reject (a), (b) and (c) so things are a bit more complex then you are supposing.

      One more thing, even if you accepted (a) it wouldn’t follow that there are disembodied people. Classic Aristotelian anthropology accepts (a) but denies your implication.

      • Symptom777

        “Symptom777, you can find Christians who reject (a), (b) and (c) so things are a bit more complex then you are supposing.”
        I can find christians who believe almost anything, but I’m not inclined to actually label them Christians; are you?

        “One more thing, even if you accepted (a) it wouldn’t follow that there are disembodied people.”
        Yes, you’re right, but I wouldn’t want that to stand in the way.
        It’s interesting to note that ghosts are almost the last denizens of the supernatural to still be regularly observed. Witches and goblins have become UFOs and aliens, succubi and incubi have become alien medical examinations; how long can ghosts hold out?

  • Stoo

    “the story of the Witch of Endor calling up the ghost of Samuel”

    Was that to help with disabling the Death Star’s shields?

  • Beetle

    This post very similar to the question you asked about Reincarnation and Christianity. My response there is applicable here as well.

    As a young Christian adult, I spent a fair amount of time reading about reincarnation and ghosts and ESP and the like. Most of these I felt where perfectly compatible with my beliefs about God and soul. Even as much as I wanted to believe them, I found the literature unpersuasive. I made the conscious decision that any credibility I felt for that material would be better directed towards theology. I think that was when I started reading C.S. Lewis. That strategy kind of worked as I self-identified as Christian for a good twenty years after that. Looking back, I can see that was my start as a skeptic. Eventually, I had to ask myself why I scorned tarot and astrology but not organized religion…

    I think it is easier for an introspective persons to keep believing in Bible miracles if they internalize as much other supernatural nonsense as possible. So yes Randal, you should go on believing in ghosts and demons.

    P.S. Thanks for the edit/delete widget!

    • randal

      I’m not persuaded by the evidence for reincarnation compiled by researchers like Ian Stevenson but to dismiss it as not good evidence strikes me as indefensible. Mutatis mutandis for the cumulative evidence for the Enfield poltergeist, certain instances of EVP which have been produced under controlled conditions, et cetera.

      • Beetle

        It will come as no surprise that you and I apparently have much different standards for what constitutes credible evidence!

        • randal

          Can you elaborate on that? For example, on what grounds to you dismiss multiple eye witness testimony from credible sources (e.g. police officers) over an extended period of time?

        • Beetle

          I will confess that having spent some time investigating other stories I am now jaded and perhaps unduly skeptical. That said, ten years hence even the original proponents have their doubts! Yes, sometimes police officers make mistakes as eye witnesses. Each of the singular testimonies has its problems, and it would be a fundamental error to sum them to a whole. Some combination of fraud and hysteria is a straightforward explanation. This is the same impression most people have of the Hindu milk miracle and I fail to understand why it is not sufficient for Enfield.

          • Cory C

            The problem is that while some of the phenomena were considered to be fraudulent, not all of it was explained in those terms either.

            There’s a good interview here with a researcher who witnessed first-hand some of the eerie happenings at Enfield:

            http://www.skeptiko.com/139-are-ghosts-real-guy-lyon-playfair/

            • randal

              Exactly right. Storr has a balanced discussion of this. It completely strains credulity to suggest that the kids were behind everything (or most everything).

            • Symptom777

              You have to dismiss any notion of credibility for thes guys the moment they start on Uri Geller. Geller is a magician (and I mean in the srtistic sense) and has admitted this on several occasions himself, even being suprised that people refuse to believe that!

              And EVP? C’mon! Are you sure that there isn’t a supernatural explanation for how images of people appear in mirrors? I’m sure we can think one up.

          • randal

            Will Storr has an excellent discussion of the Enfield poltergeist in his book Will Storr vs. the Supernatural. He is a non-theist and a self-described skeptic and yet he comes to the conclusion, and argues for it persuasively, that natural factors (e.g. childhood mischief) alone cannot account for the phenomena. I would suggest you take a look at his discussion.

          • Beetle

            It is a fine story, but just because a tale is told well, why should I assume it to be true?

            As Symptom777 pointed out, Playfair is credulous when it comes to Geller.

            Randal points out Storr claims skeptic creds, but I think that may be in the same vein that fundies like to assert they are ex-atheists.

            My first impression is that I cannot square the girls faking some of it, without assuming they might be responsible for most of it. My second impression is that I bet one could find Hindu scholars to speak very sincerely and convincingly about their Milk Miracle.

            • Symptom777

              “As Symptom777 pointed out, Playfair is credulous when it comes to Geller.”
              In a sense, he’s incredulous because he doesn’t believe Geller’s own claims!! (let alone those of everyone with more than two active brain cells who have ever tested him for non-trickery)

  • Stuart

    The disciples (and others) “thinking they had seen a ghost” is not evidence that they had. Many have thought they have “seen Elvis” (long after he was dead). In fact on several occasions they had actually seen Jesus.

    Even if someone had seen what they considered a ‘ghost’, they are in no position to verify if it was angelic, demonic or human in nature. I’m sure some ‘ghosts’ are perhaps angelic beings.

    The scriptures you quote concerting the disciples would, as you mention, confirm an existing belief system of the day involving the supernatural.

    You claim:

    “It is really unfortunate that Protestants since the Reformation have been so quick to consign everything they don’t understand to demons.”

    One certainly has to find a point of balance, but the opposite error must surely be that of being too willing to attribute demonic activity to human based ghosts and hold that such activity is completley natural.

    I’m am still unaware of any scriptural support indicating people having free will to do as they please after death which would surely give further weight to the view that ‘ghosts’ are not human in origin.

    • randal

      “One certainly has to find a point of balance, but the opposite error must surely be that of being too willing to attribute demonic activity to human based ghosts and hold that such activity is completley natural.”

      For sure. And if you are going to err on one side, probably better on the Protestant side of caution.

      By the way, Protestants aren’t the only ones who do this. Way back in the third century Tertullian was attributing all ghostly phenomena to demonic activity.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “having free will to do as they please after death….” I didn’t say there are such people. If ghosts are people in purgatory they are not simply as you describe. Nor if they are redeemed and restored people sent on divine missions. Perhaps malevolent ghostly poltergeists would be that kind of free wheeling ghost but I don’t see scripture’s failure to mention such beings an argument against their existence. That, it seems to me, would be an empirical matter. Let’s look and see if there are such beings. The Enfield Poltergeist suggests there may be (though I suspect many of those manifestations were in fact demonic.)

  • Stuart

    Randal, you write:

    “Perhaps malevolent ghostly poltergeists would be that kind of free wheeling ghost but I don’t see scripture’s failure to mention such beings an argument against their existence”

    It strikes me as odd however that God would make mulitple reference to angels and evil spirits and give guidelines on dealing with them if encountered, but make no mention of human ghosts and poltergeists.

    If they are real, why has God not provided biblical guidelines for our interactions with them?

    A poltergeist starts throwing things around you bedroom, what do you do? Can you rebuke it in the name of Jesus or would you be acting against God because the poltergeist is actually a human spirit doing God appointed penance in purgatroy?

    • randal

      But scripture does mention ghosts. As I noted, Samuel returns in a spectral form as a ghost. And twice the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost when they saw Jesus.And the Bible does provide guidelines. Don’t try to contact the dead.

      “A poltergeist starts throwing things around you bedroom, what do you do? Can you rebuke it in the name of Jesus or would you be acting against God because the poltergeist is actually a human spirit doing God appointed penance in purgatroy?”

      Here is the point: I can’t immediately assume the intelligence is demonic or angelic. It could be human as well. With that starting point we’d need to launch an investigation to find out more information. Then once you know it is demonic go crazy with the holy water, but not before.

  • nick

    A quick comment about Walters posting. I agree with Randal’s first comment this is why. My very much unbelieving sister lived in a house where she and her husband experienced some seriously disturbing events. One was when they were in one particular room and the wall would visibly move. This wall would move enough that something should of broken i.e the plaster board but it did not, and it returned to where it was as if nothing ever happened.
    Yes, that sounds very odd I agree. But, it scared her like no other event in her life. Enough for her to record it in her autobiography. Didn’t frighten her toward Christ. She certainly believes in a spiritual realm, but hasn’t joined all the dots yet.

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