J..B Phillips was a well known Bible translator of the highly regarded Phillips Translation as well as the author of the popular 1962 book Your God is too Small. In his 1967 book Ring of Truth: A Translator’s Testimony (London: Hodder and Stoughton) Phillips recounts a stunning experience he had with a ghost … and not just any ghost.
The section starts with Phillips emphasizing that he is generally skeptical of paranormal claims: “Let me say at once that I am incredulous by nature, and as unsuperstitious as they come.” (88) He then illustrates the point by noting his general disdain for clairvoyants in particular. At the same time, Phillips recognizes that a good skeptic should keep his or her mind open, ever wary that reality might be quite different from one’s current beliefs:
“But from time to time in life strange things occur which convince me that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. I have had first-hand incontrovertible experience of extra-sensory perception, and a little of precognition. But the experience I want to mention here is relevant to the matter of the resurrection.” (89)
At this point Phillips proceeds to recount his strange experience:
“Many of us who believe in what is technically known as the Communion of Saints, must have experienced the sense of nearness, for a fairly short time, of those whom we love soon after they have died. This has certainly happened to me several times. But the late C.S. Lewis, whom I did not know very well, and had only seen in the flesh once, but with whom I had corresponded a fair amount, gave me an unusual experience. A few days after his death, while I was watching television, he ‘appeared’ sitting in a chair within a few feet of me, and spoke a few words which were particularly relevant to the difficult circumstances through which I was passing. He was ruddier in complexion than ever, grinning all over his face and, as the old-fashioned saying has it, positively glowing with health. The interesting thing to me was that I had not been thinking about him at all. I was neither alarmed nor surprised…. He was just there — ‘large as life and twice as natural’! A week later, this time when I was in bed reading before going to sleep, he appeared again, even more rosily radiant than before, and repeated the same message, which was very important to me at the time. I was a little puzzled by this, and I mentioned it to a certain saintly Bishop who was then living in retirement here in Dorset. His reply was, ‘My dear J…., this sort of thing is happening all the time’.” (89-90)
A couple details remain unaddressed. What were the “difficult circumstances” that Phillips was experiencing? And what did Lewis say to him? Both of these are addressed in Marie A. Conn’s book C.S. Lewis and Human Suffering: Light Among the Shadows. Conn states that Phillips was struggling with clinical depression at the time and that Lewis’ twice repeated phrase, “It’s not as hard as you think, you know”, served as a source of comfort through this time. (See (Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2008, 1)
The Bishop’s words to Phillips are especially intriguing: “this sort of thing is happening all the time“. Granted, that may be hyperbolic, but the Bishop is correct that paranormal experiences of this type are more common than you might realize.
What is the veridical value of Phillips’ testimony? He does note at least three important details in his testimony which suggest it is worth granting it at least some veridical value.
First, he notes that he maintains a healthy skepticism in general about paranormal claims. I think it is wise to take the testimony of people at face value unless we have reason not to, and so it is reasonable to consider seriously the testimony of this respected English academic rather that dismissing him as a huckster or a dupe.
The second point is that Phillips was not close to Lewis and “had not been thinking about him at all” when he had his experiences. This makes it highly unlikely that his experience can be explained as a grief hallucination since the emotional investment was absent. In addition, there was no prior climate of expectation. For example, if you watch a horror movie late at night you are more likely to think you are seeing and/or hearing paranormal phenomena, and this can be attributed to the suggestibility that comes with the heightened expectation. Given that Phillips had no heightened suggestibility the anomalous and intrusive nature of his experience is even stranger.
Finally, there is a concreteness to Phillips’ experience — “He was just there” — which makes it implausible to explain the experience away as a quirk of illusion. Of course, this doesn’t preclude the experience being a hallucination of some sort, and those so inclined can always appeal to some wholly psychological basis for the ghostly apparition. But for those open to the fact that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy’, these kinds of experiences can provide at least some degree of evidence (even if it falls short of compelling) for the existence of life after death.