#153: What Are Ghosts?

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #153, on the subject of What Are Ghosts?

I do believe in ghosts, I do believe in ghosts, I do, I do, I do….

Thus spoke the Cowardly Lion (in The Wizard of Oz, of course)–but that which caused him to believe in ghosts was not a ghost, but a meddling witch.  This came back to me as I listened to a syndicated radio host (The Wally Show) saying that he did not believe in ghosts, but if he was in the real estate market and someone told him that a particular house was haunted, he would not buy it.  We will get back to that.  He also admitted that as Christians we believe in some kind of spirit realm–but that the idea of ghosts was still not something he could accept.

I’m going to say that I believe in ghosts in the sense that I believe there are real phenomena which have not been materialistically explained which at least appear to be manifestations of spirits.

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That said, though, just because I believe in “ghosts” does not mean I have any clue as to exactly what they are.  That might be overstating it–I have many clues, but nothing sufficient to achieve certainty.  Thus in the interest of making it clear just how unclear the matter actually is, here are a few of the possibilities, as I understand them.

  • It is certainly not impossible that these are spirits of the dead, people whose inner selves have been separated from their bodies who somehow are maintaining an earthly existence.  Most Christians don’t like this, because we are told that it is appointed to men to die once, and after this comes judgment, and from this we conclude that immediately upon dying we are consigned to heaven or hell for eternity.  (There are some who believe in something called “purgatory”, a place for souls who are in the process of being saved but are not yet pure enough for heaven; it is based on texts that are controversial, not accepted as canon by Protestants because they are not so recognized by Jews.  It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the essence of it.  Besides, having one more place for the afterlife does not release spirits to be here.)  However, we debate exactly how that happens, because our heavenly afterlife is intimately connected with the resurrection of the body.  Thus some think that we go to heaven as “unclothed” spirits and there await the resurrection, and some that we experience (or do not experience) “soul sleep”, such that we know nothing until the return of Christ revives us.  Other possible solutions to this include that we immediately receive resurrection bodies which, unlike Christ’s, are not dependent upon our natural bodies, or that we leap across time to eternity such that at the moment of our death we are at the moment of the resurrection.

    Given that we are in disagreement (I won’t say uncertain, because some of us are quite certain of one position or another as the “obvious” one), it is entirely possible that spirits of at least some of the dead manifest in the mortal realm.  We have the account of Saul visiting the witch at Endor and asking to speak with the departed spirit of the prophet Samuel, in which we are given the rather clear understanding that that spirit responded (and rebuked him for calling).  Some argue that this is because it was before the resurrection of Christ, but we are never told this, and so we just simply don’t know and cannot say that this answer is impossible.

    However, neither is it certain–which is the point here.

  • Many theologians who believe that there are such spirit manifestations believe that these are manifestations of what we might call opportunistic spirits.  They would use the words “demons” and “devils”, but I find that our understandings of those words, as our understanding of “angels”, seems very narrow and simultaneously inconsistent with some of what we know from the Bible.  One would think from what is said that the God who has made more kinds of insects than most of us can imagine could only make one kind of spirit being which divided itself into two parties.  I suspect that there are more kinds of spirit beings than there are kinds of lifeforms in the world–but that’s a digression.  What matters is that it is entirely possible that these spirits have almost nothing to do with the departed, but know enough about them to masquerade as them, possibly just to frighten people, possibly to cause them to doubt their understanding of spiritual matters, possibly to deliver deceptive messages.  The problem here is that we have no way to test this.  Houdini, for example, agreed with his wife on a secret password that he would use if he were ever contacted by a medium and she was present, to prove that it was him.  Although many mediums claimed to have contacted him, none were able to produce the password–but had they done so, would it have proved that this was indeed Houdini, or merely that spirits who masquerade as people might have been privy to many of their intimate secrets in life?  My problem with distinguishing departed spirits from opportunistic spirits is similar to my problem with other gods:  we are ill-equipped to know what is really happening in the spirit realm, and cannot know the origins or motivations of any particular spirit we might encounter.

  • Some people looking for an answer that is almost naturalistic speak of psychic residue, that people suffering particularly traumatic events project mental energy into the surrounding objects which can be sensed by others.  I have elsewhere written (Faith and Gaming:  Mind Powers, at the Christian Gamers Guild) that it seems to me at least reasonably plausible that people could in the future develop mental powers we do not presently have, and indeed it is a small step from that to suggesting that we might have mental powers of which we are unaware.  There is nothing necessarily evil or Satanic about that as a concept.  It might be that stressed brains leave some kind of wave pattern in surrounding matter which can be perceived by other brains attuned to this, and it might be that those patterns manifest as replays of events causing the stress–which would explain why so many claimed ghost sightings are frightening, particularly if the emotion is included in the projection.

  • Most Christians oppose the concept of animism–the idea that there are spirits in inanimate objects.  I am less persuaded.  There is sound scriptural support for the notion that animals, at least, have spirits, and it does not take much to extend that to cover plants, since the distinctions between these two categories of life forms are more scientific than spiritual.  (That’s bad news for vegans, really.)  I do not think that rocks and planks of dead wood and other non-living objects have spirits–it is, if I understand aright, the spirit that gives life to the body, whether that of a person or an animal or plausibly even a plant.  Therefore I think objects that do not have life in any sense do not have spirits–but I can’t say that I know this.  After all, God doesn’t tell us much that we do not need to know, and so most of what He tells us is about ourselves.  It is not impossible that, contrary to my belief, stones have spirits.  If so, it is possible that the torment of one spirit–that of a person–in the vicinity of another spirit–that of the supposed inanimate object–would leave an impression on that other spirit.  We might then be encountering the spirits of non-living matter reliving the suffering of living spirits that had been there.

  • Many of the stories I have heard of supposed hauntings include the fact that someone died in a particular place, and that this was known to the person who experienced the haunting.  Nurses often believe that certain rooms in hospitals are sometimes haunted by former patients, and will sometimes tell this to incoming nurses.  Ghosts are seen in castles that are famously said to be haunted.  It could be that at least some of these are projections of the expectations of the observer–that is, an unexpected glimmer of light, a stray noise, a chill breeze, and the imagination supposes that for just a moment there was something there.  Our minds are already designed to provide details for many things we see.  If something moves in your peripheral vision and you have every reason to believe it to be a person, your mind tells you it is a person; in fact, if you believe it to be a specific person, your mind will put that person in that position.  Sometimes we are startled because the person we saw was not the person we thought we saw.  There is no particular reason why the mind could not provide the image of a ghost where we were anticipating the possibility that we might see a ghost, and the moreso if that makes us nervous.

From this it is evident that assuming the phenomena to be real there are still a great many plausible explanations for it.  None of these explanations covers every detail of every supposed encounter, but then, none of them is the only possible explanation for any reported encounter.  There might be ghosts; there might be something that tricks us, intentionally or accidentally, into believing that we have seen ghosts.  As with Unidentified Flying Objects, it might be that different explanations apply in different cases, and some of them are real departed spirits, but others are not.

I am not afraid of ghosts, but I have never had an encounter.  I don’t know that I would be uncomfortable living in a supposedly haunted house.  However, there is good reason to be reluctant to buy a house that is said to be haunted:  such rumors will impact its market value.  There are always stories attached to houses, but when the stories have a negative emotional impact–previous home of serial killer, house in which entire family died mysteriously–it makes the property less desirable.  “Haunted” is exactly such a story.  If a house is thought to be haunted, you can probably buy it for very little money, and sell it for less.  It becomes a bad financial decision.  So of course I would be hesitant to buy a house I had been told was haunted, not because I necessarily believe that, but because when the time comes to sell my potential buyers are likely to believe it.

So I do believe that there might be something like ghosts out there, but I don’t believe we either do or can know exactly what they are.  We are not equipped to deal with objects in the spirit realm, or indeed even to know with certainty whether that is what we are encountering.

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