GHOSTS, APPARITIONS, AND POLTERGEISTS
Scripture tells us in Hebrews 9:27 that “it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment.” Christians do believe in life after death, and that is in fact a cornerstone of our faith. It is our firm conviction in the Resurrection of our Lord that serves as the foundation of our entire way of life, as St. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:12-20 and 32.
But what becomes of the spirit or soul between death and judgment? Various Christian doctrines hold differing opinions on the matter. Some believe that the soul sleeps from the time of death until the resurrection, being dormant and unaware during this time. Others believe the soul goes directly to heaven or hell (or to paradise or tautorus) where it awaits the judgment. Of those who hold to the latter belief, some maintain that the dead are unaware of the happenings on earth while others (the Orthodox and Roman Catholic) go so far as to offer prayers to the departed saints, asking them to pray for us in the conviction that they are both aware of and active in the affairs of this life. Whatever the Christian’s belief, no major Christian doctrine appears to allow for a suspension of the souls of the dead to wander the earth for an indeterminate period. What then are we to make of the numerous reports of encounters with “disembodied spirits”?
Tales of ghosts and hauntings have been a part of human lore since time immemorial. Stemming apparently from a common belief in life after death, many world religions freely allow for the possibility of a spirit’s remaining on earth and interacting with the living. Christianity, however, does not. Yet many Christians report experiences that have led them to believe they have encountered spirits of the dead, and these often are experienced by people who otherwise disallow such a possibility. If one firmly maintains that the spirit passes directly from this life to another plane of existence upon death, such encounters frequently lead to a great crisis of faith, casting doubt on other beliefs as well — not to mention often being disconcerting or even terrifying in and of themselves. For these reasons alone, I believe it important to investigate such claims in order to resolve the crisis of faith these events sometimes cause and to help allay the fears and discomfort such encounters engender.
The fact is, nearly all people of whatever faith or disposition are intrigued by tales of ghosts and hauntings. As Christians, since we believe in life after death, such stories (even when they conflict with our traditional views of the state of the dead) lend credence to that belief. Even among non-Christians, there is a strong desire to believe that life goes on beyond the grave. There is a certain comfort to be found is such knowledge. Perhaps because of this, many unusual events that we experience are readily accepted as paranormal occurrences involving spirits of the dead.
In a great number of these cases, however, it seems to be a matter of believing what we want to be true. An encounter with a spirit presence is thrilling and exciting, despite also being perhaps terrifying. How many teenagers have spent time in a supposed haunted house hoping to be scared out of their wits? Most who do so come away convinced of the validity of their harrowing experience, though in point of fact the source of their fright may have been more likely a scurrying animal or the wind brushing a tree limb against the house. In many cases these youngsters have only engaged in self-perpetuating beliefs. And this same psychological phenomenon is common among adults as well. Spend any time talking with professional paranormal investigators who have been called to private residences and they will singularly affirm that many clients become angry when it is determined that their “ghost” is a rat in the attic or faulty plumbing. Many people want to believe in ghosts and will reject clearly obvious logical explanations for what they have experienced.
Yet there remain some encounters that thus far defy all logical explanations. Research them as thoroughly as you like, some events simply cannot be explained away with our present store of scientific knowledge. The number of these unexplainable events is too large to be ignored, and reconciliation of these phenomena with our Christian beliefs must be accommodated.
A number of theories abound as to what these phenomena are, and I believe it important when investigating them to consider all possibilities that do not conflict directly with our religious tenets. While not holding to any particular theory myself, I present below five possible explanations for these events:
1. It is possible that there is yet a fully natural explanation for these phenomena, but our current knowledge of science is, at this point, too limited to ascertain their exact cause. Until such time as we are able to determine what that cause is, such events must be labeled paranormal but with an anticipated normal explanation at some future date.
2. Some have proposed that these “spirits” are actually not spirits but something termed a “life force” which retains a memory of the last life they inhabited. While there is neither biblical nor scientific evidence for this life force, it has been proposed that this force is the “spark” which animates otherwise purely inanimate physical matter and gives it life. Being neither flesh nor spirit or soul, it is an otherwise “natural” part of the universe, crudely analogous to a battery used to bring an electronic device to “life.” This force is reusable and may be found providing the life energy for more than one being over the course of time. If valid, this theory may also explain why some people have memories of past lives and why some believe in reincarnation (a doctrine denied by Christianity). It also could explain why spirits of animals are sometimes reported, since most Christians believe animals do not possess souls. The theory would not, however, explain the reason why the force would not be reused for centuries, though admittedly it would not necessarily follow that it would be reused immediately upon the cessation of its current life. (Curiously, most reported “ghosts” are of people who lived only within the last few hundred years and rarely are of people from more ancient times.) This theory, while only marginally tenable, does not directly contradict any Christian beliefs, though it would require an acceptance of a significant aspect of the mystery of life not mentioned in Scripture.
3. As Christianity does teach that demons exist, some have posited that all such spirit manifestations are actually the work of demons. Demons are credited with being able to disguise themselves even as things of beauty, but always lie, and as such they are able to present themselves as the spirit of a loved one or even as an innocent child or “spirit of light.” It is understandable why those who would hold to this theory would view any attempts to investigate paranormal events involving spirit presences as forbidden activities.
4. The fourth theory is that all such “spirit manifestations” are entirely spurious and can be attributed to deliberate hoaxes or overactive imaginations. While certainly plausible (and very true in a number of cases), this theory does not account for the increased electromagnetic activity, rapid drastic changes in temperature, and a host of other measurable physical anomalies that often accompany such phenomena.
5. Finally, there is the theory that these are in fact spirits of the dead who have not “passed over” for whatever reason God has determined. While we must not rule out this possibility from a scientific viewpoint, it does appear to contradict the view of the dead as established in Scripture and maintained by the Church.
Let us then examine some of the commonly reported phenomena in this area. As we’ve done in the past, we will begin with some definitions.
Ghost, apparition, phantom, wraith, or specter. These are all synonymous terms used to describe the appearance or manifestation of what is believed by many to be a disembodied spirit.
Poltergeist. A poltergeist is not believed to be the spirit of someone who has died but is rather some sort of mischievous entity that is not yet fully understood.
Haunt or haunting. Sometimes referring to the spirit itself, these terms more commonly refer to the visitation, usually on a regular or semi-regular basis, of a disembodied spirit to a certain location (hence the term “haunted house”).
Necromancy. Necromancy is a form of magic used to attempt communication with, or in some instances the bodily resurrection of, the dead. This practice is roundly condemned in Scripture.
Séance. A séance is a spiritualistic gathering at which people attempt to communicate with the dead, usually through a medium or Ouija board. This differs from necromancy in form and method but is, for religious purposes, the same.
Medium. A medium is a person through whom disembodied spirits are believed to speak.
Ectoplasm. Ectoplasm is a supposed “physical” emanation of a spiritual substance, usually from the body of a medium. Most early reports of ectoplasm have been shown to be bogus and the “ectoplasm” typically made of cheesecloth.
Which of these would be acceptable for the Christian to utilize in his investigations of spirit phenomena? Clearly, any form of necromancy is forbidden to the Christian. King Saul was condemned in I Samuel 28:7 for employing the witch of Endor to seek advice from the spirit of the deceased Samuel. Sorcerers (with whom necromancers are associated) are to be thrown along with other evil-doers into the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8 and 22:15). It seems abundantly clear that Christians are forbidden to seek out spirits of the dead in order to communicate with or seek advice from them.
But these condemnations are directed toward those who seek to establish communication with the dead. What of a circumstance in which the dead are alleged to have begun interaction with our world against our will? Any goal of such encounters must be to cease such interaction rather than (as with many paranormal research groups) to encourage it. Encouraging communication would appear to be only another form of necromancy. Whether minimal communication with these entities in order to abolish them is permissible remains an open and serious question. I believe that any such efforts should be done carefully and prayerfully and with the constant aim in mind to end it as soon as possible. In order to ascertain what a presence might be and to determine how best to expunge it, it might be necessary to engage in some limited form of communication, but I do not believe this should be initiated by the investigator. Whenever possible, the investigator should engage only in gathering evidence which he then can analyze later rather than attempting any kind of give-and-take conversation. When dealing with the unknown, we are by definition dealing with something we do not know, and we cannot rule out the possibility that we could be interacting with an evil and lying spirit. And in no case should the investigator allow the entity to inhabit and speak through him. It is best only to listen and observe and then determine how best to eliminate whatever presence there might be.
So is there really a need for Christians to involve themselves in the study of supposed spirit events? I personally believe there is, and I further believe that Christians are best able to do this in the correct manner. Many investigative groups are non-Christian and have as their primary goal the desire to establish contact with these entities in an effort to prove preconceived notions about what they are. While some of these researchers are scientifically objective, at least up to a point, many seem to be rather quick to classify an event as paranormal when only the most obvious logical explanations fail. The Christian must remain skeptical even when the exact cause of a given phenomenon cannot be readily ascertained.
Additionally, we also believe that the incursion of the spirit world into our own (if it is really happening) is an anomaly that should be corrected. No one should have to be tormented by events that cause great distress and fear, and our ability to discover the causes of such events should be viewed as very beneficial. In most cases this means taking the time to help someone discover faulty plumbing or other physical problems with their residence. Sometimes people become so overwrought by the fear that their house is haunted they lose the ability to discover what the real source of strange events might be. But even if we are unable to discover the source of some traumatic event and must resort to classifying it as possibly paranormal, we nonetheless can offer them the services of priests or clergymen to bless their houses and put their minds more at ease. Non-Christian groups usually cannot offer such alternatives and, if indeed they are dealing with some kind of sinister force, may be opening the door to even more malevolent phenomena.
But should a Christian decide to engage in such study, I also believe he must do so for the correct reasons. Simply to investigate strange phenomena out of curiosity I believe to be selfish, immoral, and possibly dangerous. There is no need for us to “prove” there is life after death — that is an established tenet of our faith. When we engage in paranormal research, it should be for no other reason than that of helping people. That is why I believe most paranormal research in these areas should be limited to residences and workplaces. Going out to abandoned “haunted houses” and cemeteries seems unnecessary to my mind since whatever might be happening in those places will not disturb anyone. I could see perhaps investigating an abandoned house that is causing neighborhood concerns or cemeteries in which people have reported being disturbed while visiting, but as a matter of pure curiosity I believe it best to leave well enough alone. Until we know more about what we’re dealing with, it seems folly to inject ourselves into such questionable circumstances.
So how would one go about researching these types of phenomena without resorting to the occult? Clearly, some investigative techniques used by non-Christians groups would be beyond our purview. We must eschew anything that smacks of necromancy or the occult, and the use of mediums or Ouija boards and similar devices must be avoided. But there are a number of purely scientific instruments that can be used for paranormal research. Not all are reliable and perhaps not all should be used (as will be explained below). Among the types of equipment currently employed by many groups are the following:
EMF meters. EMF (electromagnetic frequency) meters are among the most commonly used scientific devices in paranormal research. These instruments measure electromagnetic activity at various frequencies and help identify problems with wiring and stray electromagnetic radiation which is believed to cause hallucinations in some people. Theoretically, spirits also emit electromagnetic radiation while materializing, but this is only a theory and the researcher’s objective must be simply to record the data rather than assuming that unusual EMF readings prove paranormal activity.
Thermometers. Highly sensitive scientific thermometers are used to measure small changes in ambient temperature. Many believe that “cold spots” are indicators of paranormal activity. They also may be the result of ventilation problems, and thermometers help track down any possible physical causes.
Motion sensors. Motion sensors tell the investigator when something is moving in an area even when he cannot see it. They also allow the investigator to monitor a room while not being physically present. It is not unusual for these sensors to help discover small rodents or other animals or insects that may be determined to be the ultimate source of some disturbance.
Infrared night-vision oculars. Since some investigations are conducted at night, these are helpful in allowing the investigator to scan an area in darkness. They also detect infrared radiation such as that produced by the heat of a living body and have allowed researchers to find rodents and other animals who quickly hide when light is present.
Cameras and video recorders. Most groups use these devices to try to capture images of ghosts and other phenomena. Images purported to be photographs of spirit forms are, however, highly suspect as many natural factors also can cause similar or even identical images on film or digital pictures. Stray light or reflections off dust particles, snowflakes, or even the breath of the investigators have been found to be the cause of many such images. In today’s era of advanced Photoshop techniques, it is possible to make almost anything appear on a photographic image through either deliberate or accidental manipulation. Cameras are best used in research to record the research session so that all experiments can be carefully documented. Should they also capture a suspected paranormal event, they allow the researcher to study the data more carefully at a later date in order to better ascertain its cause.
EVPs. Various types of audio recorders are often used to record EVPs (electronic voice phenomena). Placing a tape recorder virtually anyplace and recording for an hour or two will almost invariably result in capturing a few voices, even in otherwise quiet areas, which many believe are the voices of ghosts or other entities. However, I believe recording for the purpose of capturing EVPs should be avoided. In the first place, the results are highly unreliable as there are simply too many stray radio waves to rule out the possibility that these voices are not merely radio signals picked up by the electronic circuitry. Radio waves are highly unpredictable and often bleed through onto various electronic equipment. (As a child, I once remember hearing a local radio station come through the tap on our bathtub!) Secondly, the interpretation of any data gathered by such means has to be evaluated subjectively rather than objectively. Books have been written about such communications with the dead, and one example should suffice to demonstrate its subjectivity. In one EVP recording a voice is heard uttering the phrase “oo ekki shema.” The researcher concluded that the speaker was speaking in three different languages in one sentence: oo (Russian), ekki (Icelandic), and shema (Hebrew). To me such a conclusion appears ludicrous. In the least it is highly questionable. Thirdly, recording for the purpose of establishing communication with the dead borders on necromancy. Recording unidentified sounds is reasonable in that it allows the researcher to try to determine what the sounds are, but beyond that I believe it quite tenuous to use recording devices to communicate with whatever forces may be present.
Geiger counters. These devices measure alpha, beta, gamma, and X-ray radiation. They are used primarily for gathering data, but they provide little concrete evidence for paranormal activity.
Talcum powder. Powder is sometimes spread on floors to show footprints. This should be used only in conjunction with video recording to rule out the likelihood that someone in the household walks through the area leaving “evidence.”
Ouija boards, dowsing rods, etc. I personally do not believe these items are suitable for use by Christian researchers as they generally involve the occult. Furthermore they are scientifically unreliable, highly subjective, and lend themselves easily to fraud. Allowing an unknown entity to take control of one’s person is also very dangerous, and for that reason I believe techniques such as automatic writing too should be avoided.
Researchers also generally carry items like flashlights and two-way radios when conducting investigations and use computers to help analyze the data they have recorded. Data gathering with the object of helping someone identify the source of their discomfort is a worthwhile and benevolent activity, and when done for that purpose is not, I believe, something prohibited to the Christian researcher. One must exercise caution, however, when involved with such research since in some cases we do not in fact know exactly what the source for the disturbance may be. I believe it imperative that Christian researchers maintain genuine objectivity in their investigations and seek the counsel of knowledgeable clergy whenever the exact cause of some suspected paranormal activity cannot be ascertained.
In conclusion, what are we to say of these types of paranormal events? My own opinion is that most can be attributed to natural causes. Strange noises often can be traced to animals in the walls or attic, tree limbs brushing against the side of a house, expanding/contracting heating pipes, defective plumbing or wiring, houses settling, and a host of other mundane causes. Strange lights have been found to be car lights reflecting off sheets of ice or water puddles, distortions caused by atmospheric conditions, and other similar sources. Voices and apparitions have sometimes been heard or seen by people on certain medications or with certain medical conditions. And, sadly, in some instances there is also occasionally the element of deliberate fraud. It is my belief that the vast majority of alleged abnormal events typically attributed to the paranormal have normal explanations, though they can at times be very hard to track down. There are instances, however, when no logical explanations can be found. I do not believe this necessarily proves they have a genuine paranormal basis, but I also cannot rule out that possibility without abandoning objectivity. For the present, it is my position that we must simply say that their causes are inconclusive. Since we cannot categorically prove the paranormal (it is, after all, only a theory), we must report unexplained events only as being of a “possible paranormal origin.” Exactly what that origin might be — spirit, “life force,” or other as yet undiscovered phenomenon — we must leave for future researchers to determine.
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