October 31, 2007

Do Ghosts Exist?

This seems an appropriate topic for Halloween. (I'm going to blithely ignore the various origins and implications of Halloween; perhaps those will turn up in a later post.) I've found that its rather hard to be a Christian and utterly deny the existance of ghosts. I haven't seen one, personally, and I may never, but I cannot say they don't exist.

Aside from modern anecdotal evidence, there are plenty of Biblical references to ghosts. When Saul visited a medium to conjure the spirit of Samuel (1 Samuel 28), Scripture states that it was Samuel speaking - not something that took Samuel's appearance. If this was a demon speaking in the guise of Samuel, it seems like the Bible would include that important fact.

Several passages of the Old Testament warn against summoning spirits or using mediums (Leviticus 19:31, Deuteronomy 18:10-11, 2 Kings 21:6, etc.). Why tell us not to do something that isn't possible?

When Jesus walks on water (Matt 14:23-26), one of the apostles in the boat believe he's seeing a ghost. This, at least, demonstrates a belief in ghosts at that time. And similarly, when Jesus appears to them in the locked room (Luke 24:36-39), they, at first, believe He is a ghost. Jesus reassures them with the words, "a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have." The catechism of the Catholic Church seems to support this interpretation, noting that "so impossible did the thing seem: they thought they were seeing a ghost."

My favorite piece of Biblical evidence - and the one that takes us from 'maybe' to 'must' on the subject of ghosts - occurs at the Transfiguration (Matt 17 and Mark 9). The apostles offer to set up tents for Moses and Elijah; clearly, they are seeing these two long-dead figures. If they weren't alive, and they weren't bodily resurrected (which occurs at the end), then what else can we call them but ghosts? (And don't say "angels"; people don't become angels... but that's another post.)

We have a rich, interesting, sometimes surprising legacy as Catholics. Somehow, our beliefs - not just about ghosts, but also marriage, abortion, politics, and so on - have been watered down over the years. Remember, Jesus is "not a tame lion"; don't be afraid to belief in "weird things".

I'll end with a quote from G. K. Chesterton that seems particularly relevent:

"Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly... The plain... course is to trust... [a] peasant’s word about... [a] ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord... If you reject it, you... mean one of two things. You reject [it]... because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism – the abstract impossibility of miracle... in that case you are the dogmatist... constrained to do so by your creed. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence."

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