Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ghosts, part 3

Journalist GK Chesterton once said that when people stop believing in God, it isn't that they then believe in nothing, but they'll believe in anything. This is often the case when it comes to ghosts. Having forgotten or discarded or simply not knowing what has been clearly revealed in the Scriptures, people turn to all sorts of notions that suit their personal tastes, or they turn to any person who affirms their notions. This is one reason why people turn to mediums to communicate with the dead.

It is natural, I realize, for a person to want the comfort of knowing a departed loved one is somehow all right, and most people are curious about death and life-after-death. Many people with a superficial upbringing in a church (too often a superficial Catholic upbringing) are easily led to believe that God is somehow working through these mediums - as they themselves claim - to contact the dead. What does the Bible really say about all this?

You may not accept the authority of the Scriptures, but at least you should know what they say - and the Bible clearly and consistently says consulting mediums and spiritists is dangerous.

The danger described in the Older Testament is that people will turn away from God Himself into all manners of superstition and idolatry (since such practices were done for the purpose of divination and seeking the advice of pagan deities), thereby forfeiting their place in the Covenant community. It is a violation of the first commandment to have no other gods.

The danger in the New Testament is similar, but instead of saying what people are turning away from, the description is about what people involved in such practices are turning toward - the great Deceiver and Father of Lies who easily counterfeits spiritual experience and appears as "an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14) and his fellow fallen angels and demons. Celebrity mediums usually talk about encountering such a 'being of light'. So trying to contact the dead usually turns into contacting a real spiritual entity, but not the dead.

No wonder this activity - called necromancy - is so strongly rejected in places like Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, 27; Deuteronomy 18:10-11; I Chronicles 10:13-14 and Isaiah 8:19-20, for example. It is - nearly literally - playing with fire.

Moreover, Jesus' parable of the rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 suggests that the dead cannot contact the living. If anyone can contact the dead, it is Jesus himself, who calls the other Lazarus out of the tomb in John 11 and who says that, one day, "the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear shall come to life" (John 5:25).

What, then, are we to make of the Medium of Endor, whom King Saul of
Israel consulted, according to I Samuel 28:3-23? Saul had properly banned mediums, but feeling desperate in his war against the Philistines, he visited a medium and asked her to call up the prophet Samuel's spirit to give him God's advice for the war. Samuel appears, and tells him that because Saul had disobeyed God by not destroying the nasty Amelekites in an earlier battle, Israel would lose the next battle and Saul and his sons would die in it. There is disagreement over whether or not the spirit the medium called up was actually Samuel or a demonic impersonator. The Bible says Samuel appeared, and his truthful prediction indicates that it is really him, as Deuteronomy 18:22 says that only a real prophet will be 100 percent accurate in pronouncements. And the fact that the medium herself is shocked to see Samuel suggests that God brought up Samuel for this special and specific purpose of rebuking Saul. This appearance of a departed saint of God is no problem for Christians, really, since Moses and Elijah appear in the earthly plane on the mount of Transfiguration to consult with Jesus as he faces the cross (Mark 9). Still, this passage in I Samuel cannot be taken to endorse communication with the dead, since I Chronicles 10:13 declares, "So Saul died for his unfaithfulness which he had committed against the Lord, because he did not keep the word of the Lord and because he consulted a medium for guidance."

There is a difference between this and the Catholic practice of requesting the prayer support of the saints, which is, in fact, a healthy corrective to occult practices. Mediums like John Edward and Sylvia Browne may claim to be faithful Catholics, but their views of humans as "divine sparks" who are part of God and whose destiny is to become perfected through many re-incarnated lives or by passing through ever-higher astral levels is not Christian in the least, but a tempting blend of the Gnostic and neo-pagan.

Finally, what are we to make of their often-correct predictions/pronouncements? Some of it is good generalized guessing, a skilled reading of people's responses to questions, and the eagerness of seekers who interpret readings in the ways they want to. But, as mentioned above, the Deceiver and his minions can disguise themselves as an angel of light (2 Corinthians
11:14) and thereby act as a "spirit guide" to relay information that is correct and therefore convincing to the hearers.

Enough about people turning to mediums here. The one we ought to turn to is Christ himself, who says, "I was dead, and behold I am alive forever, and I hold the keys of Death and Hades." So, for those who depart this earthly life in His friendship, there is a glorious future, and for those left behind, Paul says: "We grieve, but not as those who have no hope".

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ghosts, part 2

Not all ghosts are dead who haunt the living after a tragic or violent death. Most are not whispy, white vapors, nor disfigured, but look like normal people, fully dressed, who walk around furniture, not through it. And no one is quite sure what to make of the many reports – even if they claim to know for sure. Some ghosts are of the living, seen in one place though you know the person is elsewhere. A few people have seen themselves (in literature, it is called “the fetch” or the “doppelganger,” a living person’s spirit that leaves the body and appears to the person as an omen of their impending death).

What are we to make of all this?

First things first. There are some Biblical premises about human personhood I’m starting with and accept, so you might as well know them.

The first thing is that humans are fully integrated beings of body, mind, and spirit created in the image of God, a theological expression meaning that we share the Creator’s attributes of intelligence, creativity, will, and the capacity for love and relationships. Every human, sharing these qualities, has inherent worth and dignity. Moreover, every mortal is – well, immortal, with a God-given potential to attain glory in a relationship with Christ – or not. As CS Lewis once wrote, “It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours” (from “The Weight of Glory”). The Son of God became the Son of Man that we all might become the sons and daughters of God through Him. So he tells the crucified thief who believes in Him, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” and Paul exults, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” and John tells us, “What we shall be has not yet been disclosed, but we know that when Christ appears we shall be like him.” Thus, Christians affirm the survival of a person after death and furthermore in the resurrection of the body, and the eventual re-uniting of the spirit with the body, raised incorruptible – a scandalous thought to the Greeks, who considered the body to be a filthy nuisance and best discarded so that the “soul” could ascend to higher planes. This is not a biblical view. The resurrection of the body is plainly anticipated in I Corinthians 15, Revelation 20 and elsewhere. Christ himself was raised physically, though in a body glorified and changed. His frightened and astonished followers thought they saw a ghost – but he assured them he was not, and asked for a meal which he ate in front of them all to demonstrate he was for real (see Luke 24:36ff).

OK, the reason for this “Introduction to Eschatology (Last Things)” lesson is so say that Christians believe firmly in an afterlife filled with inexpressible wonder – and anything regarding “ghosts” is to be understood in this perspective. Biblical theology doesn’t exclude ghost phenomena – but any explanation for ghost phenomena that excludes the affirmation of biblical basics regarding the afterlife is suspect.

Researchers say there are 6 kinds of ghosts: 1. the dead, seen repeatedly; 2. the dead, seen once or twice then gone; 3. spirits of the dying but not yet dead; 4. spirits of the dead who talk to the living; 5. spirits of the living; 6. poltergeists. Ghosthunters look for 1, 2, and 6. The others find you, according to some. Most people, when they think of ghosts, think of 1 and 2. These are (allegedly) the departed who have some unfinished business who will disappear once their mission is fulfilled. #3, the ghost of the dying, is a ghost that appears at the time a person dies, and the ones who see it learn later the person has died. #4 often needs help to finish a mission, and so is like #1 or #2. Mediums like John Edward and Sylvia Browne claim to act as intermediaries for such messages – ie, as “mediums,” telling clients in effect, “I hear dead people.” More on mediums next time (and the medium of Endor who called the 'ghost' of Samuel to appear before King Saul). Ghost #5 is a kind of bi-location, sometimes as an indication that the person will die soon, as I described above. And #6, poltergeists, are not ghosts at all but the excess energy of a teenager’s angst and anger that causes objects to move and there is nothing “supernatural” about it. It's just a bit creepy and noisy, that's all, and that's what "poltergeist" means: "noisy ghost" - though, as I've said, it's not a ghost at all.

Furthermore, there are two general categories of explanation for #1, 2, and 4: The “Natural” explanation group and the “Spiritists.”

The Natural group holds to a kind of “tape-recording theory” of ghosts, whereby the departed leave a kind of psychic “fingerprint” in a place of strong emotions, a holographic imprint of sorts left over in a space (they call it a “vortex”) that is picked up later by people who are sensitive to such force fields. It is a kind of “energy residue” which can be seen and heard, which is why it is likened to a tape recording that is played over and over in a place, though it sometimes fades out quickly (this, as you can tell, has implications for my mystery novel).

Spiritists, on the other hand, who clearly deny any biblical description of the afterlife, believe ghosts are the spirits of the dead coming back to communicate with the living or to complete an unfinished mission so they can “let go” of the Earth in peace and move on to a higher plane of existence – AND that ALL departed spirits do so, regardless of their behavior on Earth. This is where they differ from Christians, of course, who insist that our earthly choices have eternal consequences (thereby affirming human dignity, free will and justice). As it turns out, the full explanation may involve a little of both views, and neither are completely right. I’ll explain in my next posting.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ghosts, part 1

Do you believe in ghosts? A mystery novel I'm working on has a ghost element in it, and my amateur sleuth works alongside a “Ghost Detective” (sometimes called a “ghosthunter”) to solve a murder and missing person mystery. As with my first two mystery novels, I’m interested in dealing with “mysteries” on a number of levels.

And since my college is sponsoring an event featuring real 'ghost hunters' later this month to coincide with Halloween, this is a good time to opine. Another good reason to offer a comment is that I've observed so many Catholics who do not know what the Scriptures really say about this subject and the afterlife in general, but seem to drift - like their secular peers - into talk-show superstitions about the unseen.

It should be noted from the get-go that we are right to be healthily uncertain one way or the other on this matter, as there are mysteries we cannot fully know this side of heaven. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” we hear in Hamlet – a famous ghost story. Christians in particular are right to exercise caution, reason and skepticism here, since so many people wander easily into occult practices and psychic hooey on this matter and it is easy to be deceived by what we know are unseen, malevolent personalities out there who are intent on fooling whoever they can in order to lure them away from the truth.

It’s quite understandable, isn’t it, that everyone would like to be assured that there is something else after death - especially for lost loved ones. This explains the popularity of certain TV Shows where mediums claim they can speak to the departed who survive in a spirit form on “the other side.” Moreover, popular films have shaped public perception about the subject, especially “The Sixth Sense” and its TV-spinoff, “The Ghost Whisperer.” But we need not be afraid to seek the truth of the matter, either, as there may be a natural explanation (that is, it is a phenomenon that is part of nature, part of Creation).

For example, poltergeist phenomena, in which objects are thrown around the house, are understood mainly as a kind of electrical disturbance peculiar to households where there are teenagers experiencing anger, angst, or trauma. I've observed this firsthand. It's weird, but not technically "supernatural."

As for "ghosts," there are 6 different categories which I will discuss another day. Suffice it to say in this brief introduction that while most uninformed people suppose them to be surviving spirits who cannot leave the earthly plane quite yet due to some unfinished business, and many Christians are too quick to think they are demons in disguise, the most common occurrences have a more "natural" explanation. My story will revolve around this sort of mystery while at the same time remaining Biblical in its understanding of the afterlife, which contains far more hope and wonder than any popularized idea about “ghosts” and a netherworldly “other side.”