Interest in the paranormal is fairly pronounced in America. People like scary stories and scary movies. Supernaturally-themed movies and television shows—especially in the horror genre—are always popular.
Some people believe they’ve had paranormal experiences. According to the Pew Research Center, 18% of Americans say they’ve seen a ghost. They may recount events such as: meeting a stranger who suddenly disappeared, hearing voices or footsteps with no one in sight, or seeing inexplicable phenomena that could have only been otherworldly in origin. Interestingly enough, it seems the less religious a person is, the more likely he or she is to report seeing a ghost.
Belief in the paranormal is nothing new. People in the ancient world believed in spirits, demons, and other supernatural beings. In ancient Assyria, people thought that someone improperly buried would return to the land of the living as a demon. People in the Bible also believed that spirits could exist. When Jesus appears to his disciples late one night while on the Sea of Galilee, they declare that he must be a ghost (Mark 6:49).
Can human souls exist as disembodied spirits? They appear in great literature throughout the ages. The Greek poet Homer includes the spirits of the dead in his work, most notably that of the famed warrior Achilles. Shakespeare likewise included the spirits of the dead in his plays. The victims of Richard III come back to haunt him in a parade of the dead while he sleeps. The spirit of Banquo returns to visit his former friend Macbeth during a banquet. The ghost of Julius Caesar returns to bedevil Brutus, one of the main conspirators in Caesar’s murder.
Scripture indicates that beings can exist without a physical form. The New Testament makes it clear that God is a spirit (John 4:24). Many biblical authors refer to God anthropomorphically, speaking of his finger hand (Exodus 15:6), eye (2 Chronicles 16:9), or mouth (Isaiah 1:20). This was not meant to be taken literally, but instead symbolized something about God. For instance, biblical writers used the hand or arm of God as a symbol of God’s power.
While God is described as a spirit, other beings seem to share this quality. Demons frequently possess the bodies of the living in the New Testament (Mark 5:1-20; Acts 8:7; Acts 19:14-17). It is clear that these beings are hostile forces, however (Matthew 12:22-28).
The Bible provides evidence that would appear to be at odds with modern beliefs about ghosts:
One of the most noteworthy examples of a human spirit coming back from the grave is found in 1 Samuel 28. On the eve of battle, King Saul visits the medium at En-Dor so that he might inquire of the prophet Samuel, who has already died. The medium appears to successfully bring up the spirit of the prophet, who correctly states that Saul will die. There are a variety of interpretations of this passage. Some believe it was the genuine spirit of Samuel. Others claim it was a spirit in disguise or a malicious or demonic entity. Several facts seem to point to the spirit being that of Samuel himself.
First, the medium (some translations have “witch”) describes Samuel in such a way as Saul immediately recognizes him as the prophet (1 Samuel 28:14). His appearance seems to have been similar to that while he was still alive. We see the same idea in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:23).
Second, the woman shrieks at the appearance of Samuel (1 Samuel 28:12). Like all other mediums, necromancers, and other practitioners of the occult, she simply pretended to speak with the dead. Her occupation was nothing more than a con. The actual appearance of Samuel genuinely alarmed her, because this was a new experience for her. It is important to note that her recognizing Samuel also enabled her to see through Saul’s deception.
Third, the spirit of Samuel offers a genuinely predictive prophecy. There is no real reason for the dead to know the future, contrary to the beliefs of many throughout history. Samuel accurately states that Saul and his sons will die on the battlefield, a prophecy which indeed comes to pass.
Interest in the paranormal is rampant. Can so many people be wrong? In at least some cases, there does appear to be a natural explanation for supposed appearances of ghosts. Between 30-60% of widowed individuals have what is called a “hallucinoid experience” in which they see their deceased mate. This is a natural phenomenon that occurs while the brain processes of the grief of a recent loss.
While there are many unexplained phenomena in our world, advocates have provided no definitive proof of ghosts. While many claim to have had visual, auditory, or tactile experiences with the spirits of the deceased, there is no hard evidence for ghosts. Thousands of hours of television shows that offer engaging and frightening stories but no evidence are a testimony to this fact. Further, the variety of explanations of the paranormal are often contradictory and are as diverse as the human imagination itself. In the absence of any real evidence, we can only say that the belief in the paranormal should remain in the area of superstition.