This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 5 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Ghost stories, haunted house tours, Ouija board games, and the like are classic forms of entertainment in American culture. Experiences of the paranormal have been a historical constant for as long as humans have wondered what happens after death. It has even become normal to seek out these experiences intentionally. Frightening ourselves spices up life, and there are few better ways to do this than to seek out experiences with a realm seemingly more powerful, mysterious, and ominous than our own. There is something about flirting with the paranormal — defined as any phenomena that cannot be explained by current science — that tantalizes the human imagination. Are these beings good? Evil? Human? We simply do not always know, and that uncertainty keeps us intrigued.
Belief in the dead interacting with the living is far from uncommon. A Pew Forum poll from 2009 showed that 19 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, while 29 percent believe that they are in contact with someone who has died.1 This is a significant percentage. To put it into perspective, a 2014 Pew study showed that 3.4 percent of Americans claim to be atheists. There are far more people who believe in ghosts than people who admit to being atheists, yet we give belief in atheism far more official attention. Christians focus more on atheism through avenues such as debates, articles, and TED Talks than they do the topic of ghosts. And those Pew Forum numbers deal only with people who actually believe in the paranormal. Based on the success of relatively recent ghost-hunting television shows, it would appear that the number of those with merely a passing interest in the topic is even higher still. It seems that whether or not viewers believe what they see on these television shows, they certainly are interested enough to keep the ratings high.
In a culture where our attention is difficult to capture, Christians especially need to become students of what interests society. Only then can we become masters of using popular areas of interest to encourage interest in ultimate truth. In other words, we need to understand the culture in order to help the culture understand God. In this article, I will argue that understanding this cultural phenomenon better can teach us more about navigating spiritual warfare in the world, and can inform and strengthen our mission as the people of God.
Ghost Hunting: Fact or Fiction?
It used to be that visiting a haunted building or attending a séance were the ways to witness ghost experiences. Recently, however, cable television executives sniffed out an opportunity for profit: ghost hunters and mediums incorporated into reality television. Viewers could now have vicarious experiences with the underworld from the comfort of their couch. While some of these shows are on channels we might expect, such as the Science Fiction channel, most are on channels previously reserved for more scientific, mainstream content. Unfortunately, the channels airing these shows are typically categorized as nonfiction, educational resources, so viewers easily could be left with the impression that ghost hunting and communicating with the dead are in that same category. But are these really reality shows? Are viewers witnessing ghost encounters or something else?
In order to be able to speak convincingly about elements of the supernatural world that may be legitimate, we need to be discerning about those elements that may not be as trustworthy. Additionally, our worldview does support the existence of the supernatural. If we fail to evaluate these types of paranormal reports fairly and critically in light of our Christian worldview, we may lose a degree of trustworthiness in the eyes of our conversation partners when we discuss our own belief in things such as God and the demonic realm. Bluntly speaking, without critical thinking here, we show ourselves to be simply gullible dupes not worth listening to. Still further, it is therefore wise to test the spirits to see if they are of God, as we are instructed in 1 John 4:1.
Therefore, it is well worth taking a closer look at popular shows in the paranormal genre. While it is clear that ghost-hunting and similar shows are interested in contacting ghosts, what a ghost actually is seems significantly less clear. Many ghost believers assume that ghosts are the souls of humans who have something they need to accomplish on Earth before going on to a final resting place. Another view is that ghosts come and go, sometimes sent here by a higher being, and sometimes conjured up by mediums. Still other individuals believe that ghosts are actually demonic, and therefore not human at all.
An entire industry revolves around creating ways to find these “ghosts.” As Aristotle said, “All men [and women] by nature desire to know.” On the flip side of this statement, we cannot stand not knowing. Therefore, many will capitalize on this desire to investigate the unexplained, by marketing technology that can help us in the process. One can even find a ghost-hunting starter kit on Amazon, which includes electromagnetic pulse sensors, tools to detect odd radio frequencies, and the like. But these technologies are considered by many to be highly suspect. In a 2016 article by Colin Dickey published in The Atlantic, the author disparagingly states that “ghost hunting was born out of a love of technological failure.”2 He singles out an especially popular ghost-hunting staple as a one of many examples: the electromagnetic field (EMF) meter. This device has an LED light that changes color according to the EMF strength detected. But as Dickey points out, a simple survey of Amazon reviews shows that at least one commonly used model, the Safe Range EMF meter, is so hypersensitive that even a cell phone in range can set it off. That hardly gives the ghost hunter any good reason to suspect ghosts in the area. Why conclude ghosts did it when a cell phone will suffice as an explanation?
This is not the only example of shady technology in the field. Many ghost hunters seek out abnormal sounds and patterns being transmitted over radio waves. These sorts of devices are meant to pick up the more subtle transmissions — the parts of the radio no one else listens to. That means pulling some sort of meaning out of static and random blips, which is best detected by cheap, insensitive radio transmitters that turn otherwise often clear signals into a mess of indecipherable blurs.
But what of the personal, physical experiences many people report when they are in the presence of a ghost? It is common for people who experience ghosts to report feeling effects such as extreme temperature fluctuations. Unfortunately for those seeking evidence of ghosts, these are also commonly reported symptoms of spiked anxiety, as would be the case when one is feeling suspenseful and nervous. This commonly happens when wandering through dark places hunting for disembodied spirits. The chill or hot flash does not mean a ghost is near but only that your physiology is ready to react should there be one. This heightened sense of exhilaration also explains much of what ghost hunters see or hear during the investigation. When we are unusually alert in such situations, we notice far more than we otherwise would. Our heart rate surges, and adrenaline supercharges our perceptions. We are then ready to fight or flee at a moment’s notice, and our senses actively search for any reason to do so.3
Between the physiological effects of nervousness and the dubious technological devices, it seems that there is not much — if any — good scientific evidence to support the existence of ghosts. The best these ghost-hunting shows can typically do is to make a sort of “ghost of the gaps” argument, which amounts to “If we can’t explain it, a ghost did it.” That reasoning is uncompelling, particularly because we don’t even know what ghosts are, much less how we ought to expect one to interact with the material universe. There is simply no reason to believe that we should expect disembodied, nonphysical spirits to be detectable through physical science.
We need to keep in mind that shows like these (even haunted house tours) are primarily entertainment. However, just because ghost-hunting television shows and their kin are likely little more than ratings factories, we need not assume that all reports of ghost experiences are false.
Ghosts and the People of God
The Bible seems to acknowledge that people believe in the existence of ghosts, so it is not just a contemporary phenomenon (e.g., Matt. 14:26). There is a strange little passage in 2 Samuel 28 where King Saul, after consulting a medium, sees the ghost of the prophet Samuel. This passage is commonly overlooked by Christians, perhaps because it is taboo to believe in ghosts, mediums, and the like. But this story is invaluable for those thinking through paranormal encounters.
The story in 2 Samuel begins with the Philistine army about to attack Israel. All victories up until this point have been explicitly because God led the Israelite army to that victory, through the mouthpiece of a chosen prophet. Samuel, the most recent prophet, had just died. Moreover, Saul, a king marred by poor choices and a lack of faithfulness to God, had been rejected by God after habitual, unrepentant disobedience. When a worried Saul sought out God for help, previously the deceased prophet Samuel’s role, he unsurprisingly received no answer (v. 6). In a panic, he set out to consult with the ghost of Samuel. After going to great lengths to disguise himself and find a medium (all of whom he had banished from the kingdom in a public display of piety), Samuel is conjured up. But interestingly, Samuel is not happy to see Saul. After berating Saul for disturbing him, he adds insult to injury. He declares that Saul and his entire dynasty will end up dead at the hands of the Philistines. This indeed happens the very next day.
Readers are left to wonder a couple of major things. First, was that really the ghost of Samuel? The medium is convinced that it is. Her reaction to seeing Samuel suggests that she is rather terrified, which fits, given the late Samuel’s high-profile position as God’s prophet. The text gives us no indication that this is a demonic ruse, a magic trick, or a hallucination. We are left to assume that, yes, the spirit of Samuel was truly before them. (It is also worth noting that Samuel is frustrated at being disturbed, which leaves us to assume that he was not roaming the Earth, as many assume ghosts to be.) The second thing readers are left wondering is why this story is here in the first place. Saul had developed a disposition of disobedience throughout his reign, but still expected God to protect him. Saul wanted results without responsibility. This is shown by how willing Saul was to consult the darkness, attempting to tap into forces other than God to get help. And here, the message of the story emerges. Even in the darkness, God’s plan will not be thwarted, so there is no point in even trying. The dead are still under the ultimate control of Yahweh. God is sovereign; the underworld is not. It is a waste of time to seek results by going behind God’s back, but additionally, it might backfire, such as with Samuel’s prophecy that Saul was to be killed the next day by the very army he was seeking to defeat.
So if God is in control of even the underworld, why are the people of God told that consulting ghosts, mediums, demons, and the like is forbidden (as in passages such as Deuteronomy 18:10–12a)? It is because doing so misses the point. When we seek out the dead (whether it is actually the dead we end up finding), we take our eyes off God. When we obsess over reconnecting with a deceased loved one, we forget the One who has called us to minister to the living. The dead cannot tell us anything God does not already know. We avoid such séances not because God is afraid of them but because He knows they hold the power to distract us. Let us return to the example of Saul and Samuel. Another reason to believe that the ghost of Saul’s dark experience was actually Samuel is precisely because he redirected the focus back to God’s plan, regardless of how it made Saul feel. A demonic force would have run with the distraction, perhaps even adding comfort and intrigue. The greatest battle waged by the forces of darkness is against focused, single-minded believers carrying out the mission of God.
Sarah C. Geis teaches apologetics and ethics at Denver Seminary, where she is also the director of the Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. She is currently a PhD student in philosophy of religion at the University of Birmingham, UK.
- Pew Forum. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/10/30/18-of-americans-saytheyve-seen-a-ghost/.
- Colin Dickey, “The Broken Technology of Ghost Hunting,” The Atlantic, November 14, 2016.
- You can read more about the symptoms of anxiety at www.healthline.com/health/anxietysymptoms.