Ghosts – a Christian response

  • Question 154, from Paul, United Kingdom

    What is the Christian view of ghosts? Are they just demons trying to trick us and take our eyes off of God?

    As inferred in previous articles on freelance theology, the general Christian view is that human beings are holistic and so body and spirit are interdependent – one cannot exist without the other. This is why there has always been an emphasis within Christian teaching on physical resurrection. The New Testament view on the afterlife seems to imply that there is no time-lag between death and resurrection/judgement day, from the point of view of the person who has died.

    Strictly speaking, then, there is no room for ‘ghosts’ in the Christian view of life after death. However, there are a couple of interesting Biblical references to ghosts. Also within Christian-based folklore that has been historically plenty of room for ‘ghost stories’, with a popular belief that ‘ghosts’ are spirits who have somehow gone astray in the process and have not ended up where they were supposed to be.

    Biblical ghosts
    In the Old Testament, there is a story that King Saul paid a witch to summon up the spirit of the prophet Samuel, so that the king could seek the prophet’s guidance. During this story (found in 1 Samuel chapter 28), it seems that Saul believed the encounter with Samuel’s spirit to be genuine. Samuel asks Saul why he has been disturbed and “brought up” (verse 15) and then gives Saul some bad news, which destroys the king’s confidence. There is no hint in the narrative that another supernatural agent was deceiving Saul.

    It’s worth noting, though, that this story occurs in the Old Testament, when there was a widespread belief that ‘souls’ of the departed went to a place called ‘sheol’ (often translated as ‘the pit’ or ‘the grave’). Later, in Christian theology, ‘sheol’ was identified with ‘hell’, although it appears more like a cosmic holding place, similar to ‘limbo’ in medieval Catholic theology. The ancient Christian tradition that Jesus descended into hell and liberated the righteous who had died during the time of the old covenant (occasionally referred to as ‘the harrowing of hell’) meant that spirits of departed heroes of the faith were no longer available to be summoned.

    In the New Testament there are two particular incidents where Jesus is misidentified as a ghost. The story of Jesus walking on water includes a reference – his disciples thought he was a ghost and “cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified” (Mark chapter 6, verses 49-50). Later, after Jesus resurrection, Luke’s gospel records his first appearance to all the disciples, when apparently the disciples thought he was a ghost. Jesus allays their fears by inviting them to touch him and affirm his physicality (Luke chapter 24, verses 37-39).

    It would appear from both those stories that, like many people at the time, the disciples believed in ghosts. They are not reprimanded for their belief, but their initial reaction is proved to be a mistake. Of course, just because the disciples believed in ghosts is no indicator of whether ghosts exist, and all it really shows is that the disciples were as superstitious as anyone else living at that time.

    A lack of evidence
    The likelihood is that, ghosts simply do not exist, despite several attempts by paranormal investigators to prove the existence of ghosts, and several popular television programmes that claim to uncover evidence of haunted houses and spirit apparitions. There is no conclusive proof and many ‘sightings’ can be explained by visual hallucinations, suggestion, and the subconscious ‘wiring’ in human brains that seeks to ascribe a cause to random events and looks for identifiable patterns, for example, seeing the outline of a ‘person’ in a random shape.

    Human brains are both very complex and quite easy to fool, and so there is often no need to ascribe ‘ghosts’ to ‘demonic activity’ or any other supernatural agent. A more prosaic explanation is that people who go looking for ghosts because they believe in ghosts are more likely to have an experience of a ‘ghostly’ nature, simply because their brain tells them they have seen a ghost. Those experiences – including feelings of fear, dread, or even wellbeing and peace – may well be real, but the ghosts probably are not.

    (For more information about how human brains are structured to interpret and imbue meaning to random patterns, see Supersense: The Brain Science of Belief, by Porfessor Bruce Hood. Please note, this is not a Christian book.)

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