“There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” – Hamlet (William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5)

It’s a phenomenon at least as old as written history. You’re alone in a house, and yet you don’t feel alone. You see a shadow, or perhaps a strange reflection in a mirror, but you know you are without company. You hear footsteps, voices, or perhaps music, but there is no apparent source. Objects may move seemingly by themselves. Perhaps you even see a figure that quickly fades into thin air. A ghost? Impossible, you say. You grew up being told they don’t exist. People die, and then they go to heaven or hell. That’s the end of it, right? Ghosts are just subjects for stories told around a campfire, fodder for an atmospheric movie or play, or something to dress as on Halloween. Yet for millions around the world, the phenomenon known as a haunting has been a very real experience. Even devoutly confessed Christians have remarkable stories of these chilling encounters. I, myself, have had numerous experiences that defy simple explanation except to say, in the most simple of terms, “I saw a ghost.” But what does the phrase mean and how should we, as Christians, approach the worldwide, multi-cultural experience known as the paranormal? While there are no simple answers to the above question, I have come to accept the following considerations when dealing with these situations:

  • The paranormal is not abnormal. While there may be perfectly logical scientific explanations for much of the experienced phenomenon (see my next point), it is important to recognize that we live in a divinely created, spiritually vibrant world. Spiritual occurrences happen around us whether we see them or not. Remember, as Paul said, “We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens” (Eph. 6:12). If the powers of good and evil should become visible from time to time, why should we be surprised? We live in a truly magical world.
  • There may be reasonable explanations. While the above is most certainly true, it would be utterly illogical to simply accept that what is seen and heard is definitely a spiritual manifestation. There are three phenomena, in particular, that we should be aware of when investigating a possible paranormal episode: 1) Electromagnetic hallucinations, in which faulty or old wiring in a house, sometimes in conjunction with things like water currents underneath, can cause certain sensitive people to experience both visual and auditory hallucinations. Often, rewiring a house or changing certain power usage can reduce or eliminate the “haunting” experience. 2) Waking dreams, in which the subconscious still projects images as a person is waking up from a period of sleep (or, conversely, is in the process of falling asleep).  3) Sleep paralysis, in which the body does not fully wake at the same time as the mind, which results in the feeling of a weight on the chest and an inability to move. This can feel like someone, or something, is holding the individual down on the bed.
  • Locations seem to hold memories. A lot of hauntings seemingly amount to the repetition of a certain event, like repeating a recorded episode on DVR, which has been coined a “residual haunt” by some paranormal investigators. This is true of events in places from the Octagon House in Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg Battlefield and Louisville’s own Waverly Hills Sanatorium, as well as numerous other places in the world. There is no evidence in many of these cases of what has been termed an “intelligent haunt,” or an actual, conscious spirit present. Can this be backed up scripturally? I don’t think there is an open and shut case for it, but I think passages talking about a destructed city that has fallen under God’s wrath, such as Edom in Isaiah 34, make it seem like those places carry a certain foreboding aura about them that will never fully go away. Perhaps the embedding of events in a place’s very atmosphere is not too farfetched an idea when considering the implications of this.
  • The Bible neither fully endorses nor fully denies the existence of ghosts. The issue is more ambiguous that we often make it. One certainly has to reckon with Samuel appearing posthumously in spirit form to Saul (1 Sam. 28). We also have to deal with the fact that the apostles obviously had some sort of belief in ghosts, as they initially thought Jesus was one on the Sea of Galilee (Matt. 14:26, Mk. 6:49). While the intermediate state between death in the present world and the New Creation’s coming is alluded to in passages like the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus  (Luke 16:19-31), how descriptive this is and how much of it could be perceived by the physical world is not entirely clear.
  • Satan and his legions appear in many forms. What many may see and think of as “ghosts” may be more diabolical spiritual beings in disguise. We know that “Satan masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14), and so what other deceptive facades might demons assume to lure us astray?
  • We should not initiate contact with ghosts. Especially because of the previous statement, it is all the more important not to seek out contact with spirits of the dead. Both the Old and New Testaments forbid means of divination such as witchcraft, sorcery, astrology, and necromancy (communication with the dead) (Deut. 18:10-12, Rev. 21:8). The ghost of Samuel even rebukes Saul for bringing up his spirit through the medium at Endor (1 Sam. 28:15). Consulting a psychic, using Tarot cards, or playing with a Ouija Board may seem fun or intriguing, but opening a door to the spiritual world may allow malevolent spirits through that door that we never meant to invite.
  • Be prepared and in prayer, no matter what. Paul, warning us of the battle we are in, tells us to “put on the full armor of God” that is made up of truth, righteousness, readiness, faith, and salvation, and that we remain in prayer on all occasions (Eph. 6:10-20).

There is a wide variety of opinion amongst Christians about whether ghosts exist and what they are if they do. I have wrestled with these issues for years and, while the above are my current observations, I still revisit these thoughts from time to time. It is a subject that we, as Christians, while carefully not obsessing over it, should be aware of it and the fact that it is a phenomenon that has affected a large number of people in the world, including some of our brothers and sisters. By acknowledging the fact that these things happen, we can speak light into the darkness, combat evil with good, and chase away the shadows of the night. (Cover image: a still from The Haunting [1963])