What Are Ghosts?
The Winter nights are closing in and over the festive season we can expect radio and television to offer traditional, atmospheric ghost stories based on the writings of authors such as M.R. James. But what are ghosts and what is the Christian response to them? There are many theories. One is that they are the spirits of the dead come back to haunt the living. Others suggest that ghosts are the energy of deceased people stored up in the material fabric of buildings where they used to live or work and is occasionally ‘released’ as an apparition. Other theories refer to ‘time-slips.’ On certain occasions (for reasons we are not entirely sure) it may be possible for us to witness a piece of history played back to us as if on a video loop. Some people, for example, claim to have seen Roman soldiers or figures in clothing reminiscent of the Tudor or Victorian eras. But ghostly sightings are not just of individuals (who are usually solid in form, but occasionally misty or transparent to look at). Some claim to have seen ghostly animals, ships or airplanes or even country houses that were there one day and gone the next. Some researchers however think that ghosts are not ‘out there,’ at all, but originate ‘inside’ our head. So, for example, when we think we have seen a deceased friend or relative we may simply be compensating for their absence by ‘conjuring up’ their presence. According to some then a vivid or overheated imagination would explain many would be sightings of ghosts—as of course would hoaxes or simple misidentification of natural phenomena. Ghostly experiences are also attributed to sleep paralysis, whilst Swiss scientists have recently claimed that they can reproduce ‘spooky sensations’ in the laboratory through carefully controlled neurological experiments. Some theorize that ghostly experiences are caused by fluctuations of the earth’s magnetic waves. Still others suggest that ghosts belong to our cultural imagination and have to do with our communal sense of memory, history and loss—with how we internalize the past. Some even view ghosts as projections of our fears as a society, or our personal hopes for life after death. These theories however are only a sample of some of the better-known explanations for ghosts.
Ghosts have been with us throughout history. They are known in every continent, culture and civilization known to man. They are referred to in Ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Graeco-Roman sources (most famously in the writings of the Roman lawyer, Pliny the Younger, who writes at length about a haunted house in Athens that had to be abandoned by its terror-stricken occupants). The bible for its part doesn’t have very much to say about ghosts. In 1 Samuel 28 the ghost of Samuel is said to have appeared to Saul to rebuke him for his sins. In the New Testament the disciples mistook Jesus for a ghost when he walked on water (Mark 6:45-50). It is also reported that they thought the risen Christ a phantom until he ate a piece of broiled fish (Luke 24:36-43). Up until the time of the Reformation ghosts were understood to be the spirits of those in purgatory sent back to warn the unwary of what awaited them if they didn’t amend their ways. With the demise of purgatory in Protestant countries the idea of ghosts lost its ‘theological’ underpinning. By the mid- to late seventeenth century ghosts appeared, not to confirm church doctrine about the afterlife, but rather as independent entities that might defend the rights of the innocent who had been let down by the secular authorities, or to plead their own case for a proper burial, or in some cases to exact revenge on those guilty of heinous crimes. The move over several generations therefore is from a religious to a secular function. Ghosts, as one writer nicely puts it, ‘no longer spoke in the elevated language of the Church.’
But what is the Christian response to all of this? Are ghosts real—do we need to be concerned about them? Or should we be indifferent to the ‘paranormal’ (as it is often referred to)? I think we can say a number of things. Evidence for the experience of ‘ghosts,’ whatever they are, is overwhelming and therefore worthy of consideration. I happen to know several Christians who have seen ghosts. One saw an elderly gentleman descending the staircase of her home one bright summers’ morning only to completely vanish in the hall. Another related to me a moving encounter with her deceased husband several years after his death. Yet another told me about his experience during WWII of seeing an aircraft that had been missing for several days land on an airfield then suddenly disappear in front of multiple eyewitnesses. While living in Bradford in the 1980s I apparently ‘scared’ a ghost who was in the process of ‘manifesting’ itself at the foot of a staircase in an old building used as a café. I was unaware of this when I opened a door at the top of the stairs and apparently caused it to vanish in front of several members of staff. England, with good reason, is reputed to be one of the most haunted countries in the world. The stories of hauntings at Borley Rectory, Essex, and a council house in Brimsdown, Enfield, have travelled the globe—as has the celebrated photo of the ghost of the ‘Brown Lady of Raynham Hall’ in Norfolk. But arguably the most famous English ghost story of the twentieth century involved former police officer, Harry Martindale, who relates how he had to take two weeks sick leave as a plumber in the 1953 after seeing a Roman legion marching through the basement walls of the Treasure House in York. In 2007 a billionaire and his family in Nottingham made press headlines when they had to leave their mansion after repeated paranormal experiences, including ghostly apparitions. In the UK the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England take the reality of ghosts and other paranormal phenomena seriously. Both have appointed exorcists to assist those affected by such experiences.
I don’t pretend to know what ghosts are—there are too many facets to the phenomenon to consider. What I know is that they have had a profound impact on the lives of those who have seen them—and to this extent they most certainly exist. A Christian response to ghosts should include the following elements, I feel: firstly, a recognition that the bible bears witness to the complex nature of reality. The scriptures presuppose a universe in which there are invisible hierarchies of angelic beings both good and evil who seek to influence and shape human history. The New Testament in particular has a lot to say about ‘demons’ or ‘evil spirits’ whose goal is to destroy people’s lives through illness, disease or possession. We must expect therefore that aspects of reality will be mysterious to us or transcend our ability to fully comprehend them. This is true of the physical universe how much more of the spiritual realm? Ghostly experiences (whatever they might be) belong to a dimension of experience that as yet we do not understand. They may not even be a single phenomenon. Ghosts maybe a product of different or multiple causes that may be physical and/or psychological in origin. So, for instance, the woman who saw her deceased husband years after his death may owe the encounter to a profound sense of grief and loss, which somehow expressed itself as an audio-visual experience. Likewise the sight of Roman soldiers passing through the walls of a cellar in York might be ‘imprints’ of an event that took place many centuries before. When we talk about ‘ghostly phenomena’ therefore we are not necessarily talking about the same thing—ghostly encounters or experiences might have different roots and causes. We should be slow therefore to cover paranormal experiences under the one umbrella. Like the bible Quantum physics reminds us that reality is complex, paradoxical, and anomalous. A mahogany table, for instance, is largely made up of empty space. Matter therefore is every bit a mystery to scientists as time and space. Thus ghosts may be no stranger than black holes or the phenomenon of quantum entanglement (i.e. the way particles in different parts or even opposite ends of the universe might influence each other).
Any Christian response to the paranormal however should distinguish evil spirits and poltergeists from ghosts. They are not the same thing, strictly speaking, although occasionally they might overlap. In ninety nine per cent of cases ghosts do not interact with people—they are glimpsed for a moment then vanish. (This is in marked contrast with novels and films where they do nothing but meddle and interfere with people, creep up behind or hold forth in conversation with them—this is not true to life however, although it makes exciting reading or viewing.) It is evil spirits or demons rather that communicate with or physically harm individuals. Poltergeists focus on moving things about the house and making a lot of noise that usually disturbs or sometimes threatens the inhabitants of a house. Ghosts tend to mind their own business! Thus if you were to see a gathering of ghostly monks strolling through a monastic ruin by moonlight or the figure of Henry VIII posing in a corridor in Hampton Court Palace it need not imply demonic activity. You may simply be witnessing a hitherto unknown and little understood but perfectly natural phenomenon.
It should also be stressed that whilst as Christians we do not deny the reality of ghosts (in all the multifaceted dimensions sketched above) we may authoritatively declare that they are not the spirits of the dead returned to haunt the living. Scripture teaches that the dead await God’s judgment. They are not free therefore to return to old haunts (no pun intended) or reacquaint themselves with friends or relatives still living. Saint Paul says ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23). Physical death is the termination of life on account of human rebellion against God. This is why Jesus came to save the world and rescue it from the consequences of its sin. It is only at the last judgment that people will be raised either to receive everlasting life or be separated eternally from God’s presence. Therefore the dead have no rights, powers or influence over the living. They are dead. Christians should never imagine or fear that ghosts can do them harm. They are incapable of this. If ever you should find yourself under mental or physical assault from ‘outside’ forces these will invariably be demonic. The good news however is that Jesus has disempowered Satan and triumphed over demonic forces and powers through the cross (Mark 1:34; Colossians 2:15; 1 John 3:8). Christians moreover have been commissioned in Jesus’ name to cast out and expel demons whenever or wherever they seek to assert their control or influence in people’s lives (Matthew 10:8). In 2 Corinthians 10:4 Paul says that Christians have been authorized to destroy the spiritual strongholds of the enemy. Jesus refers to this as ‘binding the strongman’ (Mark 3:27).
But to come back to ghosts specifically: Jesus acknowledged their reality but told his disciples not to be afraid. Mark 6:45-50 (referred to earlier) has all the hallmarks of a classic ghost story. It is the dead of night. A gale is blowing. A group of fishermen are floundering in choppy waters as they seek to reach land. Out of the darkness a billowing white sheet flits across the surface of the lake. Only it is not a sheet. It is the garment worn by a figure that is rapidly approaching their boat on foot. Mark tells us that the disciples cried out in terror because they thought they had seen a ghost. But immediately Jesus’ voice came to them on the wind: ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ This story reminds us that there is a greater, more ultimate reality than ghosts (whatever they may be). Many scholars think that the expression used by Jesus, ‘It is I,’ echoes the passage in Exodus 3:14 where God reveals himself to Moses as ‘I Am.’ Therefore strange or mysterious phenomena need not cripple or paralyze us with fear. Jesus is Lord of all (Philippians 2:9-11). Everything is under his control and serves God’s higher, sovereign purposes even though for now we might not be sure how, or in what way, mysterious phenomena or the darker sides of reality serve his supreme and majestic will.
Finally, though, I think that a Christian response to ghosts would be incomplete without the issuing of a warning. Although ghosts per se might have nothing to do with the demonic they may become a channel through which you might be drawn into the sphere and influence of the evil one. I must admit it would be fascinating to witness a ghostly Roman legion crossing the fields of Hertfordshire in the dead of winter! But the danger is of my becoming too intrigued or obsessed by this prospect. Investigators, for instance, who are not having much success at experiencing paranormal phenomena, often turn to mediums in order to bolster their chances of tracking down ghosts. The bible warns against this because it puts us in touch with evil spirits, makes us unclean, and in Old Testament times warranted the death penalty (Leviticus 19:31; 20:6, 27; Deuteronomy 18:11; Isaiah 8:19). We must curb our fascination with ghosts and the paranormal therefore because it will lead us further away from God. Rather we should be concerned to be filled with the Spirit and ‘seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.’ (Colossians 3:1). It is only here that our craving for spiritual reality will be met. Seeing the ghost of Anne Boleyn might send a tingle down our spine, but it is nothing compared to knowing Christ Jesus and the power of his resurrection in our lives, right now (Philippians 3:10).
[Anybody affected by the paranormal may wish to contact us for spiritual advice and support.]