Do Christians Believe in Ghosts?
In late June 2013 I went on my first ever (official) “ghost hunt” with a friend at Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville, KY – a location famed for ghost sightings. I learned a lot about the techniques and equipment involved (examples), and while we did not encounter anything too out of the ordinary, it was a cool old building and I enjoyed the Urban Exploration aspect.
On the way there we got into a discussion of what we would think if we did encounter anything, and I discovered that I was really not sure what I would think. I have found that most Christians default to disbelief in ghosts, and so will either write off ghost stories as natural phenomenon mistaken for something paranormal, or, failing an adequate natural explanation, blame the encounter on demonic activity. But are these the only two options for Christians?
As I reflected on the nature of ghosts (which I basically defined as immaterial human persons residing on Earth), I had a more difficult time accepting the “default” position than I expected. Christians certainly believe in non-material persons (God, angels, and bare human souls would all qualify), so the mere existence of disembodied persons should not be a problem. The issue, I decided, was that these persons should not be roaming around among the living. This is because the Christian view of the afterlife is that upon death the immaterial soul separates from the material body and either comes to be in the presence of God (in Heaven), or is consigned to to some non-Heavenly state (in Hades, Hell, or Purgatory) until the Final Judgment.
Is there a biblical reason to believe that souls could not remain on Earth even if their existence is not an actual impossibility?
Ghosts in The Bible
Disembodied souls appearing on Earth is not biblically impossible. In fact, there are disembodied persons who come [back] to Earth in the Bible itself. In the Old Testament, the witch (necromancer / medium) at Endor called up the ghost of the prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 28:3–25). The fact that the witch was shocked by the event implies that her previous claims of raising spirits were probably false – but the Bible presents this as an actual event without qualification. In the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, the disciples saw Jesus walking on the sea and they were frightened because they thought he was “a ghost” (Mt. 14:26). So the disciples at least had an idea of ghosts. This idea seems to have been confirmed later when Moses and Elijah (who had not yet resurrected) were seen with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt. 17:1–9). At least twice, then, deceased persons manifested immaterially on earth.
Moreover, note the exchange that took place when Jesus began appearing to his disciples after his resurrection – rather than correct the very idea of ghosts, Jesus simply says he isn’t one:
But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” (Lk. 24:37-39).
The issue, then, seems to be not one of impossibility – but of likelihood. Given the normal course of events for deceased persons, there seems to be little reason to suspect that God would allow / cause immaterial human persons to appear on Earth. So what if a ghost does manifest? I think that part of the Christian discomfort with ghosts is that the Bible forbids the practice of necromancy. But necromancy is not simply communication with the dead – it is usually considered communication with the dead in order to illicitly gain knowledge (such as that of the future – Dt. 18:10, 11; 1 Sam. 28:8). This would represent an attempt to usurp God’s position (e.g., Isa. 41:22-23; 44:7; 46:10). But in the case of Samuel and Saul, even this was allowed to take place (probably because Samuel was a prophet of God, and was acting in that role).
This understanding of necromancy might be contested, but the more interesting point to me is that the Bible presents communication with the dead as a possibility in the first place.
Thomas Aquinas on Ghosts
Now I have studied theology long enough to know that right about the time I think I have figured something out, I usually discover that I am about 800 years too late. I was surprised to discover that other Christian theologians and Church Fathers seem to have held that ghosts can / do exist as well. I then consulted St. Thomas Aquinas, and was happily shocked to discover that we had reached the same conclusion.
Not only did Aquinas believe in the possibility of ghosts, he seems to have encountered them himself. Br. John Maria Devaney notes that there were “two occasions where souls reportedly visited the saint: The first soul was that of Brother Romanus, the Master of Theology who succeeded Thomas. . . . The second was that of his deceased sister.” One really interesting detail of these visits is that Aquinas did not yet know that Romanus had died when he saw him! While speaking with Aquinas, Romanus told him, “I am, in fact, dead: but I have permission to visit you because of your merits.” This account, if accurate, would seem to lend support to the idea that souls are not simply free to come and go from their post-mortem state to Earth at will. But Aquinas, at least, did not come to that conclusion.
In his supplement to Summa Theologiae (69, 3), Aquinas asks: “Whether the Souls who are in Heaven or Hell Are Able to Go from Thence?” Thomas answered that,
“according to the disposition of Divine providence, separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men . . . It is also credible that this may occur sometimes to the damned, and that for man’s instruction and intimidation they be permitted to appear to the living”
Aquinas believes that this ability varies between souls in different post-mortem states, and that saved souls in Heaven “are able to appear wondrously to the living when they will.” But if they could, why wouldn’t they do it all the time? As with most questions, Aquinas had already thought of an answer:
“It does not follow, although the dead be able to appear to the living as they will, that they appear as often as when living in the flesh: because when they are separated from the flesh, they are either wholly conformed to the divine will, so that they may do nothing but what they see to be agreeable with the Divine disposition, or else they are so overwhelmed by their punishments that their grief for their unhappiness surpasses their desire to appear to others.”
Note on Demons
The mere possibility that a ghost is the lingering soul of a human being does not, of course, guarantee that this is all any spiritual encounter is. I would suspect that violent or evil “hauntings” may very well be demonic activity. I am not aware of any example in the Bible of demons making a spiritual appearance – they always locate inside of a living being. God, angels, and deceased humans are the only examples of “spiritual appearances” in the Bible, but because demons are of the same order of being as angels, it seems unwise to limit their activity to those few examples.
Assuming all spiritual encounters are demonic may not be wise, but it is far less dangerous than assuming none are.
When asked if Christians believe in ghosts, care should be taken when answering. If a ghost is simply understood to be an immaterial human person appearing on Earth, then we cannot simply write them off as impossible and therefore unreal (or demonic). Belief in any particular ghost is, of course, another story. A given spirit manifestation could, according to the Bible, be caused by God (who has appeared to people in the past), an angel / demon, or a human ghost. We therefore need to be careful not to judge too swiftly – for our reactions to these various beings ought to differ widely.