When it comes to the veridical value of ghost appearances, among the most intriguing are so-called “crisis apparitions”. Lisa J. Schwebel writes:
“A crisis apparition is the recognized apparition figure of a friend or relative appearing around the same time that he or she is undergoing some great crisis: at the time of an accident, injury, or death.” (Apparitions, Healings and Weeping Madonnas: Christianity and the Paranormal (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004), 55.)
Here is a typical example of a crisis apparition. Dave is sitting on his couch when he suddenly sees his brother Steve looking at him from the kitchen. “Steve?” Dave calls out, “Is that you?” Immediately the visage disappears. As Dave puzzles over this experience the phone rings. It is his mother, distraught, calling to tell him that Steve just died in a car accident.
What do we learn from crisis apparitions?
Needless to say, it is important that we do not read more into the phenomenon than is warranted. Consider, for example, Tom Ogden’s definition of the phenomenon:
“A crisis apparition is a specific type of astral projection in which the astral body is released or sent by the agent at the time of illness, trauma, or impending death to warn or inform another person, usually a loved one.” (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ghosts and Hauntings (USA: Penguin, 1999), 32.
The problem here is that Ogden conflates a theory of the phenomenon with a definition of the phenomenon. Ogden may believe that “astral projection” is a warranted explanation for the phenomenon, but one should not conflate the theory with the phenomenon itself.
That brings us back to the veridical force of crisis apparitions. That force is found in those cases like Dave’s vision of Steve, in which the appearance of a loved one closely anticipates discovery of a crisis experienced by the person. The closer in proximity the appearance to the crisis, the higher the veridical force. For example, if Dave saw a vision of Steve at 4:52 pm and later discovered that Steve was killed at 4:51 pm, that would be a tight correlation with a relatively high veridical force.
However, one should be careful about not extrapolating beyond what the evidence warrants. Dave’s experience would not, in itself, allow us to conclude that Steve had an “astral body” which visited Dave. While this would be consistent with the facts, there are other possibilities. For example, one might also conclude that Dave has some sort of clairvoyant ability to detect when loved ones are in crisis. Minimally, crisis apparitions do provide evidence that one’s worldview needs to be open to the possibility of clairvoyant abilities and/or disembodied existence. If a person has additional evidence for ghosts/OBEs and/or clairvoyant ability, that would support a similar interpretation of crisis apparitions.
Resistance to crisis apparitions
Now let’s talk about the apologetic significance of such cases. In his book Will Storr Vs. the Supernatural, journalist Will Storr undertakes an investigation of the paranormal. From the outset he notes the potential that the discovery of paranormal evidence would present for his current naturalistic commitments:
“This is my problem: if I accept that ghosts do exist, then the hard walls of my straightforward and rational world fall down like colossal reality dominos. Because if we don’t die when we die, then nothing is as it seems and everything is up for questioning.” (Will Storr Vs. the Supernatural, 20).
Consequently, crisis apparitions, particularly those that have high veridical force, provide evidence which is of interest to the Christian apologist since it fits poorly with a reductive, naturalistic worldview. These cases are of value even if one is not clear whether the evidence supports the possibility of temporary disembodiment or clairvoyant ability.
At the same time, Storr’s candid comment suggests that we can expect a high degree of resistance to crisis apparitions from those who find such phenomenon as presenting a challenge to their worldview. Consequently, at best well documented crisis apparition cases might serve as part of a cumulative case challenging the adequacy of a reductive, naturalistic worldview.
The Pat Ferguson Case
Recently my friend Michael Licona (one of the world’s leading apologists of the resurrection; you can visit him online at http://www.risenjesus.com/) recounted a crisis apparition experienced by one of his friends some years ago. Intrigued by the case, I asked him if he would type it up and send the account to me. He kindly obliged and so here it is:
“Pat Ferguson is one of my close friends. On Saturday, April 6, 1974, Pat began having feelings of concern for a girl she had only met once several years prior. We’ll call her Suzie.
“Later that night Pat was awakened. The room was completely dark, whereas streetlights normally provided some light. When she closed her eyes to return to sleep, an eerie feeling led her to reopen them. When she did, she saw Suzie’s face. The face was about 1.5 feet from her own and had an appearance that was somber and eerie. Pat closed her eyes. When she reopened them, she saw Suzie’s face even more vividly. Once again, she closed her eyes and pinched herself, thinking she was experiencing a dream or a hallucination. When she reopened them, she saw over the girl’s right shoulder the face of a man whose skin was completely red, except for where lines in his face around the nose and mouth were inset with black. She thought it was Satan and it paralyzed her with fear. She closed her eyes and reopened them once again and still saw both faces. She closed her eyes and began to say the Lord’s Prayer, the only thing she could think of. She closed her prayer in Jesus’s name and when she opened her eyes the faces were gone and the streetlights were on. She looked at her clock and it read 2:30.
“Pat then fell into a deep sleep until around 6:30 when she woke up. It was Palm Sunday, April 7. She walked downstairs and into the dining room where her dad was reading the newspaper. When he saw Pat, he took the section of the newspaper he was reading, tossed it over to her and said, “Do you know this girl?” Pat looked at the article and saw the heading, “Girl falls from Scope,” which was the name of the local arena. The girl who had fallen was Suzie. There had been a Kenny Loggins & Messina concert that evening at the Scope. At the end of the concert, she and her friends were sitting on a short wall behind the seats at the very top. She had fallen backward, off the wall and down to the floor about two stories below. The article said she was declared dead around 2:30am in the hospital.”