Monday, September 19, 2005

A theology of ghosts

My posts on Gettysburg ghosts have raised some interest and questions. So, here I'll revisit the subject a little bit, encouraging theological dialogue. Do you have some thoughts or stories to add? If so, please do so in the comments section. If you don't want to put your name to them, that's fine...because some of these may be sensitive, surely. At any rate, enjoy!

Biblical ghost stories

Scripture treats at least one ghost sighting as objective, where Saul evidently talked with the spirit of Samuel. There are some troubling aspects to this story, as the spirit of Samuel was beckoned by a medium…so was this truly Samuel, or an entity posing as Samuel? God outlawed the practice of witchcraft in Israel -- so is this an instance where a prophet of God was contacted by a medium, against the law of God?

In spite of these issues, I think the larger point still stands: Scripture treats this spirit sighting in objective terms, as if it really happened. Secondly, it treats medium usage seriously, as if there is something really being contacted, against the will and law of God.

In considering the biblical texts, there is also the oblique reference to ghosts when the disciples sighted Jesus walking on the water of Galilee, at night. “It’s a ghost!” they cried, in mortal fear. Of course, Jesus calmly answered, “It is I,” or “I am.” Jesus did not correct their ‘ghost theology’ though, interestingly.

Also, the passage of the Transfiguration is powerful: the shining link between worlds, where the presence of Christ called forth Moses and Elijah, and they sat talking on the Mountain, to the awe of the disciples…so overwhelmed they wanted to build shrines to the event.

The hermeneutic of revelation

The church fathers treat ghost issues seriously, but not univocally [as on most theological issues, there is variance of opinion]. One thing mentioned, however, was the treatment of ghosts as malevolent, interested in possessing or controlling [live] human subjects. This is interesting…and should be a word of caution to those dabbling in ghost seeking.

I found a corollary story from Gettysburg, related to this. There are a lot of ‘spiritual junkies’ that go to Gettysburg seeking ghosts, seeking contact, both visual and auditory, with the other side. Some of these people, very unwisely, call out to things they cannot see, asking these things to reveal themselves, or to ‘come home’ with them. Very unwise. As this person found out: you have to be careful what you call on…you never know what you are opening up.

I think perhaps the wisest stance, dealing with this whole subject, is to treat it from a standpoint of a close relationship to God through Jesus Christ, the Son, and also from a standpoint of revelation, where God’s revelation informs the phenomenon, and not the phenomena informing one’s spiritual life or beliefs.

The freedom of God

We must also allow for the freedom of God to use people, places and events, both living and dead, for His good purposes. And, ever realize that the veil between worlds is limited, for our good. There is a connection, though…which we would be foolish to deny. The Book of Hebrews presents the saints of the ages, filling the cosmic grandstands, cheering us on as we run the circle track of life.

In this freedom of God, is there ever a ‘good’ ghost encounter?

I would say a potential yes, but only if it is not sought against God’s law, and only if it reflects back into the relation with God, through Christ.

J.B. Phillips and the ghost of Lewis

C.S. Lewis had some fascinating thoughts on this, and he himself appeared in one of the most celebrated and redemptive recorded ghost sightings ever: Moments after his death at Cambridge, he appeared in the bedroom of J.B. Phillips at Oxford [a dear friend of his, the one who translated the Bible in the Phillips translation. Phillips also wrote the fabulous little book, Your God is Too Small].

At the time, J. B. Phillips was in a deep depression that threatened his life. He refused to leave his chambers, refused proper food or exercise, and seriously questioned the love and election of God [in his life]. It was in this state of detachment and depression, leading to his early death…that suddenly, a ruddy and glowing Lewis stood before him, entering his room through closed doors -- a “healthy Lewis, hearty and glowing” as Phillips was later to record.

In this vision, Lewis only spoke only one sentence to Phillips: ‘J.B., it’s not as hard as you think.’ One solitary sentence, the meaning of which is debated! But what is not debated is the effect of that sentence. It snapped Phillips out of his depression, and set him again following God. After Lewis spoke that cryptic sentence, he disappeared.

Phillips came out of his chambers only to find that Lewis had died moments before the appearance, miles away. He pondered this in his heart, with wonder, and never returned to his depression. Now, was this a case of God giving a detour of a soul on the way to heaven to a special friend, to save him? Who knows? But again, it is recorded evidence of the highest order, by persons of the highest order: Lewis and Phillips. It is a ghost story, a benevolent one, to all appearances – actually, not only benevolent, but redemptive [which I would take as an element of authenticity].

Again, we must allow for the freedom of God. This is His world, after all. He set up the physical and moral laws, and yet rules over these sovereignly, in love. What is needed for His children, He spares no expense.

He granted David the very showbread of the Tabernacle, to sustain his body and soul.

Will He grant us less, according to His laws and love?

I think not!


Anonymous said...

I believe that ghosts are either demons or angels and nothing else. I do believe that spirits can take the form of our loved ones and if we feel a scared, or terrified feeling, then that is actually a demon trying to make us question God and his ways. If we see something and it calms us, in the case of Lewis and Phillips, I believe that God sent an angel for comfort. However, angels are supposed to be quite terrifying themselves. The first thing they always say when they appear in scripture is "Do not be afraid." As far as residual ghosts or "haunted houses," I do not believe in such things, rather if someone is looking for a ghost, I believe they may open themselves to a demonic entity.

Loy said...

You could be right. One thing is sure: If a person is LOOKING for a ghost, he or she can easily open up themselves to darkness. People shouldn't play around. Even someone seeking personal gifts other than what God intends can lead to spiritual bondage [end result of idolatry].

As far as "ghosts" being either angels or demons, lots of people believe that. However, Johann Christoph Blumhardt, in his victorious struggle against darkness in the Black Forest of Germany, encountered many entities that he sincerely believed were ghosts. He also encountered other things that he knew for certain to be demonic in nature. You can read the short version here:

And a long version here:

Thanks for your comment!