We Want to Believe in Ghosts

ghost_stairsBy Joe LaGuardia

In a rare one-season return, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) are back to their old shananigans in The X Files.  The show presents audiences with mysteries old (the cigarette man is back) and new (technology has caught up with the times), all while affirming the show’s foundational mantra that the truth is out there.

X Files, with episodes entirely fictional but largely based on conspiracy theories, makes us want to believe– not necessarily the truth about monsters, but in that which is unseen, namely ghosts.

Ghosts have…er…haunted us for as long as humanity could write.  Every era has its own version of ghosts, whether fictional — Hamlet’s father in the opening Shakespearean play Hamlet comes to mind — to supposed fact, like those many spirits that haunt Georgia’s historic cities from Savannah to St. Simon’s Island.  As of 2013, more people believe in ghosts–roughly 45%–than regularly attend church.

A ghost or two even makes an appearance in the Bible: In 1 Samuel 28, an anxious and dispirited (pun intended) King Saul breaks his own laws by seeking a necromancer–the “witch of Endor”–in order to seek Samuel’s ghost for advice.

Calling Samuel from the dead, the witch raises the prophet from the below the earth and provides an omen to the king: “The Lord has turned from you and…has torn the kingdom from your hand” (v. 16, 17).

This story, as a part of scripture and taken literally for years, presents a conundrum for Christians who tell their children that ghosts are not real and that eternal life is something that results only from believing in Christ (Jesus was born 1,000 years after Saul’s reign).

As a pastor, I have to keep an open mind.  When someone tells me of a personal experience that includes the Holy Spirit–say a suspicion or a inkling–I admit that the Bible (Jesus, in fact) tells us very clearly that the Spirit “blows where it pleases” and empowers God’s people to be on mission.

Yet, there are many times when I ask questions of people who wonder whether they’ve seen or heard ghosts: If an experience has nothing to do with God’s mission or godly motives, I wonder if the person is correct in their interpretation of something they experienced, saw, or heard.  I still don’t know what to do about Saul’s run-in with Samuel’s ghost.

Science is close to unlocking the neurology and psychology that explains ghost sightings and the effects of apparitions.  Researchers in Switzerland, for instance, devised a lab experiment creating the effects of ghost phenomena.  Subjects claim to have sensed none other than a “ghost” as a result of the experiment.

Other scientists have concluded that people’s experiences are due to mechanical or biological factors, such as infrasound or sleep deprivation.

Unfortunately, science has yet to explain many other things, like miracles, religious and spiritual experiences, and, in our community, the power and presence of the “Holy Ghost.”  Exorcisms are still a norm in countries where science is not as prevalent.

It stands to reason that if science cannot unlock these secrets, people still have grounds to believe in other mysteries as well.

When my children were young, I told them ghost stories so they can learn how to discern fact from fiction and objectify their fears.  “Ghosts” are everywhere!  Flip-Flop-Flappy Jack is an old pirate who lives in our backyard and haunts us when he’s in the mood for pizza, and ghosts in our church sanctuary always provide a good scare every now and then.

My children know full well, however, that these apparitions are but fictitious “games” that help us get in touch with our deepest fears.  The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is someone very real–and they’ve learned to tell the difference between the two.  No matter how much fun they have, my kids, like the rest of us, will always want to believe.

Ghosts will always haunt us with questions about their existence in this world and in the next, so if you want to play it safe: Believe in the Holy Ghost, and be suspicious of all others.

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