Are All Ghosts Demons?

By Ryan Pfautz

I am the Associate Director for Paranormal Studies with Paraex, Ohio. I am an ordained clergyman (Lutheran), and currently pursuing full-time a Ph.D. in theology. Most of my work in the paranormal field has been, accordingly, from the perspective of philosophy and theology. Unlike some, I do not see this discipline as at all in conflict with scientific research into the same. Science provides the hard "data," but that data must be interpreted. Philosophy and theology inevitably plays a role in this interpretation (along with other disciplines such as the behavioral sciences, history, etc.). One thing I find quite fascinating about this field is that it engages so many disciplines, bringing them together in concert to serve a common goal: gleaning a better understanding (and, to some extent proving) the paranormal. I hope my discussion may prove fruitful for you all.

The question posed here is precisely that which initially engaged me in the study of the paranormal -- ghosts/spirits in particular. While at Seminary, a classmate of mine was writing his master's thesis on exorcism. In it he asserted the common claim among many Christians that "all ghosts are demons." It was argued, by my classmate, that these "demons" impersonated our loved ones and other human spirits in order to deceive people into thinking heaven does not exist. While I'm certainly willing to say that demons might be willing to make such deceptions -- the assertion seemed to rely on very little grounds (from a theological perspective) other than that it was the most convenient answer to a question that would otherwise force difficult questions. The "all ghosts are demons" theory certainly couldn't be proven from Scripture. In fact, the existence of ghosts seems to be granted in Scripture (such as the Witch of Endor who conjures up the spirit of Saul in 1 Samuel 28). The scripture texts he cited, in fact, to reject the existence of ghosts were all texts that he had to take of context, and read into them concerns that were not being addressed. In short -- I found that explanation to be an easy cop-out. A handy way to avoid the challenges that the existence of ghosts presents to classical Christian theology.

It wasn't until later when I learned how common this view was among Christians. It also struck me that the "all ghosts are demons" argument just didn't seem to harmonize with common experience, nor was it necessarily supported by the evidence. In short, though, it doesn't take a theologian to see that this "dismissal" of ghosts into the realm of the demonic is an attempt (an poor one, at that) to avoid the question. As a clergyman (with some members of my congregation having had some experiences of their own) I became convinced that it was time to get my hands a little dirty and do some more work. Can a Christian, who is consistent with the Christian worldview and assertions of the historic Christian faith, still believe in ghosts? Even more important, should a "paranormal experience" necessarily call into question the faith and beliefs of someone who subscribes to the historic Christian confession of faith? Need the existence of "ghosts" become a crisis of faith?

The "all ghosts are demons" theory is nothing new in Christian theology. It is my contention that this view has its origins in the Reformed churches, emerging from a single confession of faith written in the 16th Century. From this time on, particularly in the Reformed churches (the non-Lutheran churches that emerged from the Reformation period), the "all ghosts are demons" assertion has been maintained. It comes from the 2nd Helvetic Confession (1566), written by Heinrich Bullinger. Still today, beside the Heidelberg Catechism, the 2nd Helvetic Confession is highly regarded in Reformed Churches. In chapter XXVI:

APPARITION OF SPIRITS. Now what is related
of the spirits or souls of the dead
sometimes appearing to those who are
alive, and begging certain duties of them
whereby they may be set free, we count
those apparitions among the laughingstocks,
crafts, and deceptions of the devil, who, as
he can transform himself into an angel of
light, so he strives either to overthrow the
true faith or to call it into doubt. In the Old
Testament the Lord forbade the seeking of
the truth from the dead, and any sort of
commerce with spirits Deut. 18:11). Indeed,
as evangelical truth declares, the glutton,
being in torment, is denied a return to his
brethren, as the divine oracle declared in
the words: "They have Moses and the
prophets; let them hear them. If they hear
not Moses and the prophets, neither will
they be convinced if some one should rise
from the dead" (Luke 16:29 ff.).

Being that the confessions of the 16th Century is, in fact, one of my primary foci in my Ph.D. studies, I found it odd that this confession alone would include such a statement. None of the Lutheran confessions included any such statement, and among the Reformed confessions this is the only instance. Why? Apparently, some years earlier, Bullinger and the more famous Ulrich Zwingli (whom Bullinger would later succeed in Zurich) were approaching the city gates when an apparition was spotted by the city guards causing them to flee in terror. Apparently, this caused quite a stir in Zurich, even amounting to such accusations that Zwingli and Bullinger were involved in necromancy, being accompanied by the spirits of the dead. In short, the response was that these were not the spirits of the dead, but demons who were trying to dissuade and compromise their work and message. It was a sign of their faithfulness, some argued, that demons would see them enough of a threat to bother with appearing, rather than a sign that they were at all involved in questionable practices.

That's, in part, the historical basis for this assertion. That said, there are other issues that come into play. For example, the neo-Platonizing of Christianity as it spread throughout the Greek world and Roman empire during the first few centuries. The "platonic" influence can be seen within many of the writings of the Church fathers. For Plato, ultimate reality could not be discerned from the things perceived by the senses. What we perceive, Plato affirmed, were merely the "shadows" of a higher world of "forms" upon which all reality is based. Most relevant to these purposes, as Christians began to appropriate neo-platonic thought, is the disdain for the physical world. By the medieval period, it was the predominant view that the "physical" world was evil, and that the goal of the Christian was to focus his "passions" entirely upon the heavenly world. This is exemplified, for example, by their attitudes toward sex. Sex was not inherently sinful within the confined of marriage, but it was considered sinful (even for married couples) to enjoy it. Why? Because that involved a tying of one's "passions" to the carnal world. Sex, in the medieval period, was solely for the purpose of procreation. Similar things could be seen with regard to eating (hence strict dietary laws in the monasteries). Eating is okay (even necessary), but you shouldn't enjoy it too much.

The implications of this in Christian thought were even more pervasive. As a consequence of these views, the historic Christian hope of the resurrection of the body, took the back-seat to a desire to "get to heaven." The classical Creeds of Christendom all affirmed the "resurrection of the body" as the ultimate hope for Christians, and didn't even mention "going to heaven." This notion, however, seemed just too "physical" and "earthly" to many, and while not explicitly denied, was largely replaced by "souls going to heaven" in Christian preaching and theology.

The consequences of this are profound -- for classical Christianity had affirmed that to be "fully human" is not to be a disembodied soul (this is, in fact, less than being fully human), but to be fully restored to our original righteousness in BOTH body and soul. The "real you" in classical Christianity was not the "soul," but the whole person who was created both body and soul.

To put it another way, human souls were created in order to dwell within bodies. The human soul is native to the body, and the physical world. Consequentially, while Christians may affirm that being apart from the body is to be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), this is still not the consummation of Christian hope within the creedal faith. There is more -- to become "fully human" again, with a perfected and resurrected body.

Accordingly, the existence of ghosts begins to make more sense. If the human soul was essentially created to exist physically, it makes sense that a disembodied human soul would naturally desire to somehow manifest itself in physical ways -- most often, though the use of energy. This also seems to explain why spirits often (though not always) seem to be connected to physical things that were of special significance to them during their lives -- be it a home, the location where their body died, their graves, particular objects, or even people.

But this still doesn't answer the toughest question: how can a Christian affirm that their loved ones are "with the Lord," in "heaven," while at the same time acknowledging that even Christian spirits might appear as apparitions, or other paranormal phenomena?

In answering this question, I find Thomas Aquinas to be quite helpful. Aquinas discerned between three types of language: univocal, equivocal, and analogical. Aquinas concern was how humans can properly speak about God, who is a transcendent being. Univocal language involves an exact correspondence between a subject and predicate. To say "God is love" univocally would mean that God as love exactly corresponds to the meaning of what we mean by "love" from a human perspective. Equivocal language means that there is absolutely no correspondence between a subject and its predicate. If you were to say "God is love" equivocally you would basically be saying nothing at all of any meaning. Aquinas rejected both of these -- we can not predicate things about God univocally because, by definition, God transcends our definitions. On the other hand, equivocal language meant that we cannot say anything about God at all, thus even his revelation would be meaningless. What we can do is speak about God with "analogical" language. When we say "God is love" by analogy we recognize that there is a certain correspondence between the subject (God) and our human understanding of what is predicated of him (love). Nonetheless, our predicate does not fully grasp what it means for God to be "love." Thus, all language about God is essentially analogical.

It is my contention that the language of "heaven" and "hell" must also be said to be analogical. To say that "heaven" and "hell" can only be spoken of analogically does not mean that they don't exist -- it simply means that human language and epistemology is incapable of fully grasping the ontology of "heaven" or of "hell." Being sensory-based creatures, we simply cannot perceive a spiritual plane of existence in a way conducive to univocal ways of speaking. When Jesus "ascends" into heaven, even if his witnesses saw him go up, does that follow that "heaven is up" univocally, or is his action (and the statement "heaven is up") in an analogical way to resonate with his witnesses? When the Biblical texts speak of hell as involving both "fire" and "darkness," it this language were literal, or univocal, it would be contradictory (where there is fire, there isn't darkness), but the use of this language is analogical -- meaning, hell is really really bad and you don't want to go there. Obviously, it must be by way of analogy that such language can be employed regarding "heaven."

Thus -- the reluctance of Christians to believe that their loved ones could be a "ghost" in their home, for example, is often tied to their desire to believe that their loved on is "in a better place." But how do we speak of heaven as a "place," if not by analogy? A "place" is a physical referent and cannot be applied univocally to a spiritual realm. To speak of one's loved ones being in a "better place," if such language is understood analogically, does not preclude that they could in some way engage and exist in parallel with the physical world. Neither does it preclude that the who are "apart from the Body" are nonetheless "with the Lord," for though he "ascends into Heaven," in Christian theology, he is nonetheless present in the world in a spiritual, albeit real way. And being that human spirits are essentially "native" to the physical world in creedal Christian thought, it should be no surprise that in some sense they would manifest - in some instances - through physical means. In fact, it can almost be expected that such would occur. This may, in some instances, be a conscious effort by a spirit, and in other instances be a nearly instinctual or habitual sort of behavior (as one might expect for a soul that is natively created to dwell physically).

In short, Christians (and I know many, if not the majority, of our Paraex clients are Christians) needn't have a crisis of faith if they are to find that their house is haunted, or have other experiences with human spirits. In fact, in the final estimation of it all, their Christian faith could potentially play an important role in helping them to understand and come to terms with their experience.