Thursday, July 25, 2013

Be Prepared To Address Paranormal Phenomena

Alex Tsakiris' recent interview of Victor and Wendy Zammit is worth listening to, for more than one reason. They summarize their case for an afterlife based on a wide variety of paranormal phenomena. We've discussed a lot of the evidence in the past. That's not what I'm primarily interested in here. What I want to highlight at this point is their discussion of Christianity. How would you respond? I've outlined my response in previous posts. Are you prepared to address objections like the ones Tsakiris and the Zammits have raised?

They're supernaturalists, but they reject a Christian worldview. They're citing paranormal phenomena, including a lot that's supported by good evidence, against Christianity. Dismissing much or all of the phenomena as demonic wouldn't be convincing to them if the dismissal is based on beliefs they don't accept. How would you argue for a Christian perspective in that sort of context? Even within a Christian worldview, an appeal to a demonic explanation would have to be justified rather than just asserted. Why should we think these phenomena are demonic? Are you aware of the factors involved in making such a case? Or if you're going to claim, for example, that near-death experiences (NDEs) are evidence of an afterlife, but don't tell us much or anything about the nature of that afterlife, why should we believe that? You'll need to present an argument. Does that argument hold up to scrutiny? For example, Christians sometimes claim that people who have had an NDE might have been mistaken about what happened during the experience. But how reasonable is it to argue that so many people were mistaken about so many aspects of their NDEs? If a particular aspect of thousands of NDEs seems inconsistent with Christianity, how reasonable is it to argue that all of those thousands of people misinterpreted or misremembered the same aspect of the NDE and in the same way, especially if the aspect in question is one that seems easy to interpret and remember? You ought to be prepared to address such issues. Are you?

Individuals and organizations involved in Christian apologetics often give a lot of attention to belief systems like Islam and atheism. To some extent, that makes sense. There are a lot of Muslims in the world. Atheists are only a tiny percentage of the population, but they have a disproportionately high influence on society. It makes sense to give a lot of attention to such groups. But does it make sense to give them as much attention as we do, relative to other apologetic concerns? No. I suspect that a lot of people who are highly knowledgeable about, say, philosophical arguments for God's existence, a scientific case for creation over evolution, or historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection would do poorly in a discussion with somebody like Tsakiris or the Zammits.

How significant is that? Well, what's Christianity's foremost competitor in the United States and other societies of a similar nature? Theism. People will acknowledge the existence of God, but define him significantly differently than Christianity does. They believe in a God of their imagination. It may be a somewhat Christianized theism, retaining some elements of Christianity, but on balance it's a form of non-Christian theism. In other parts of the world, something similar will occur with Islamicized theism, for instance.

And what effect do NDEs, séances, and other paranormal phenomena have in such a context? They can be perceived as evidence for that sort of theism. If theism is already popular on other grounds, such as not having Christianity's ethical restrictions and not being as exclusivistic as Christianity, how much more popular will it be if NDEs are thought to support its view of the afterlife, for example?

Think of the many books on NDEs that have been on best-seller lists in recent years. How often have NDEs been discussed on television programs, web sites, etc.? When polls show so many people in allegedly Christian societies thinking they're going to Heaven for no good reason, rejecting Christian exclusivism, and so forth, isn't it likely that NDEs (and similar phenomena) have played a role in that? They're not the only factor, but they are one factor among others.

For these and other reasons, Christians ought to be more prepared than we have been to address these issues. I'm not saying that every Christian should specialize in the study of paranormal phenomena. But we need a lot who do, far more than we have now.

Shortly before he announced his apostasy, I had an email exchange with Michael Sudduth (who's highly knowledgeable about paranormal issues), and I asked him for resources he'd recommend that address NDEs from a Christian perspective. He only came up with Gary Habermas, and he seemed hesitant even about that recommendation. Habermas does know a lot about NDEs, but primarily in the context of arguing for the supernatural in general and Jesus' resurrection in particular. You wouldn't be able to say much in response to somebody like Tsakiris or the Zammits if all you had were Habermas' material.

I hope a lot of Christians, maybe some of you reading this post, will specialize in the study of the paranormal. Even if you don't specialize in it, at least give it much more attention than Christians have typically given it so far. The issue is likely to grow in significance with the passing of time. Paranormal phenomena are being documented more and more. Advances in technology, among other factors, should keep that trajectory going.

The distinction made between Protestants and Catholics during the interview is worth noting. Once again, we see Catholics largely contributing to a problem and failing to take the lead in addressing it. As with so many other apologetic issues, if there's going to be significant progress made in addressing paranormal phenomena from a Christian perspective, it's likely that the work will be done primarily by Evangelicals.

The concept of laboring where there's been neglect is a common Biblical theme (Nehemiah 2:17, Matthew 9:36-38, Romans 15:20-21). We often apply that principle to missions and other ministry contexts. It ought to be applied to apologetics as well. We need people to continue to labor in responding to atheism, Roman Catholicism, and other subjects commonly addressed. But we also need more ground to be broken and more laborers where there are far too few.


  1. Interesting. Worth some study and thought, and maybe some work as well.

    1. It sounds like this would be an interesting area of study and apologetics. Thanks for this post.

  2. Ed, I don't think that Jason thinks that our arguments "must be justified according to their standards", but it does seem prudent to think about phenomena in the world. It is pretty clear that there are paranormal phenomena that need to be thought about by Christians, and a biblical response may need to be developed. It won't due to simply bang the hardcore presupper pulpit, and call people "God-haters". People are God-haters and some times God uses means to get to those God haters. Sometimes the means may be through reason and proclamation.

    I will let Jason speak for himself, but as far as I understand most everyone at Triablogue would hold to some form of "presuppositionalism, which holds the authority of God's word as the final arbiter of what is to be believed. This doesn't mean that we do not give a reasoned defense to everyone.

    I would also add one more thing, and that is the value of guarding the flock. There is plenty of New Age wackiness floating around in our culture, and people in churches have questions about these things, and it won't due to call fellow believers "God-haters" if they come to you with a question, and sometimes our explanations must extend scriptural principles to explain phenomena. You may disagree with that, but if you do you are pretty obscurantist.

    1. Pseudo-Augustine is responding to some posts by Ed Dingess that have been deleted. We've warned Ed about his misbehavior in the past. He still doesn't seem to be making much of an effort to understand what other people are saying or to support his objections.

    2. Uh, Ed there wasn't any argument just a bunch of, "Well, they are a bunch of God-haters, and who cares about giving an account of the faith." Where were the premises and the conclusion in any thing you said.

  3. Jason I'm really glad you're dealing with these types of issues and the paranormal because I suspect that in the next generation or so the paranormal and the occult will be a serious issue that the Church will have to deal with once again. As Steve once wrote:

    This tends to go in cycles. The reason, I suppose, is that what is new to the younger generation is old hat for the older generation.

    But with the coming explosion of evidence for design in the universe that the Intelligent Design movement will produce in the near future, along with it's attendant information explosion, future generations will have EVEN GREATER greater reason to question the standard naturalism and materialism that's currently en vogue in academia. College students are already starting to question it.

    More and more people will begin to see the emptiness and error both philosophically and metaphysically (not just existentially) of methodological and metaphysical naturalism. They will be hungry for some form of spirituality. But instead of Christianity, which even now is considered old-fashioned and hateful, they will more naturally (due to sin) accept forms of Paganism, the occult and the paranormal. Even now many scientific minded folk interpret and apply quantum mechanics in a way to acquire a sense of the mystical and transcendent. Even now, due to the internet the paranormal, the occult, Paganism, UFOs (etc.) is getting wide circulation and acceptance. How much more in 30 years.

    The church has got to start addressing these things once again as it did in the 1960s and 1970s.

    Personally, as a charismatic myself, I think God is already preparing the next generation of charismatics to be able to address these alternative worldviews through power encounters, signs and wonders, miracles and healings, words of knowledge and wisdom etc. There's an explosion of these things going on in the charismatic world and in the Church in general.

    But that won't be enough. There will also be the need for intellectual responses and answers from Christian apologists to the the challenges the Church will face then. Without apologetical answers, people will tend to view Christianity as just one of many paranormal or supernatural alternatives. Either that or what will become common is a syncretism of Christianity and those alternatives similar to what happened in many 3rd world countries with Catholicism and the natives religions (e.g. Central and South America, the Caribbean, the Philippines etc.).

    I'm no longer a die-hard Pre-Millenialist (I lean more toward Amil. or Postmil) so I'm not predicting the end of the world any time soon. Nevertheless, things seem like they are coming to a head financially, spiritually, scientifically, nationally, culturally, population wise (there's now 7 billion in the world) etc. There are more people in the world living at this present moment than have lived in all previous generations combined. It seems that either there's a great global revival coming up or another great Christian decline.

    1. Annoyed, I think you are right that there is a "coming explosion of evidence for design" that will bring people to see "the emptiness and error both philosophically and metaphysically of methodological and metaphysical naturalism".

      On top of that, there's the opportunity for global communications, instantly.

      In that regard, I think that Christians have a tremendous opportunity to share the Gospel. We're already seeing explosive growth in Christianity in "the Global South". I don't think you need to worry about "a great Christian decline" at this point. The Word of God does not return void. And it won't take too many people spreading the Gospel, for the Gospel to do its thing.

    2. John, everything I'm about to say you've pretty much said yourself.

      John, I agree that there have been awakenings and revivals in recent times around the world. For example, the growth of Christianity in China, of more Evangelical and/or Pentecostal Christianity in Central and South America, and revivals in Africa etc. China may even become the bastion of Christianity 100 years from now. I praise God for these type of things. There are also many Muslim's converting to Christianity (despite Islam [still?] being the fastest growing religion). I think for example about the strange global phenomenon of Muslims having dreams and visions of Jesus and/or angels indicating they should become Christians. I don't know if some of these instances are truly from God or not. But maybe some (most?) are. For these and other reasons that's why I also said above that a great global revival might be around the corner. So much so that I wouldn't be surprised if Post-Millennialism turned out to be true.

      This is the first time since the Tower of Babel that all of humanity has been potentially united and cooperating for it's lasting greater good or calamity. I just hope the Church realizes the the situation she's in and the opportunity she has. It's a pivotal time we live in. As you've also noted, it's no accident that "in the fulness of time" Christ came during the Pax Romana with Roman roads in place connecting much of the world physically, and Koine Greek connecting the world linguistically, culturally and financially. The internet, various modern modes of transportation (e.g. planes, ships, cars) and the inter-dependent economies of the world are having a similar effect.

      It's just that global communication can work for or against the advancement of the Kingdom. For example, American movies are a greatly influential export of American values (both the good and the bad) that affects other countries globally.

      Secondly, the population is growing so fast that Christianity's percentages aren't keeping up. In European countries and the Americas, Christians are barely replacing themselves biologically (with children) and spiritually (with converts). And the culture is more and more anti-Christian. Whereas Muslims are having many multiple children and even getting historically Christian areas to respect or enact Sharia laws.

      I guess I'm saying it's an exciting time we live in and I'm curious what God will be doing in the near future by His providence. Things are changing so fast. For example, it seems like it was just yesterday that we were living under the gloomy cloud of the Cold War.

      John said...

      The Word of God does not return void. And it won't take too many people spreading the Gospel, for the Gospel to do its thing.

      Amen! So let it be!

  4. Jason said...

    Dismissing much or all of the phenomena as demonic wouldn't be convincing to them if the dismissal is based on beliefs they don't accept. How would you argue for a Christian perspective in that sort of context? Even within a Christian worldview, an appeal to a demonic explanation would have to be justified rather than just asserted. Why should we think these phenomena are demonic? Are you aware of the factors involved in making such a case?

    Continued in next post:
    I totally agree. But I also think that in discussing such topics we should also do so in light of the demonic. That is, we shouldn't allow the non-Christian to speak only on the issues they are interested in. For example, instead of talking only about the evidence for NDEs we should also discuss Out of Body Experiences, Remote Viewing, Lucid Dreaming, Astral Projection, Spirit Guides along with discussing the possibility of malevolent beings and of the demonic. People who dabble with OBE, RV, LD, AP, SG (etc.) often encounter what appear to be personal beings. Some of them are described as being seemingly benevolent while others are clearly malevolent. Sometimes they claim to bring wisdom, other times they will be aggressive and will harass or argue (even attack). Often the encounters with these beings are interpreted in such a way that denies the reality of these entities. For example, sometimes they are interpreted to be the projection of one's own conflicting thoughts and feelings in one's own personality. In some cases that might be true.

    However, when speaking with the non-Christian I think we should get them to consider the possibility that these beings are real personal entities that are really malevolent and deceptive/deceitful. NDEs are a sanitized form of spirituality. Even in comparison to these other paranormal areas I mentioned. Especially since NDE researchers have the sense (illusion?) that NDE are more scientifically investigatable. Because NDEs are less threatening than other paranormal activities they are more appealing to focus on. Especially since most of us have a natural desire to survive our certain deaths.

    But the fact remains that there are many avenues into the paranormal and supernatural and in many of them there is a dark and dangerous aspect to them.

    1. I think our method should be to try to show how Christianity (abductively) as a theory can explain all these various phenomena and evidences. That Christianity is an over-arching theory for them to consider as possibly true. I think we should also show some of the seeming parallels with these dark entities with Christian examples of demonic encounters and possession.

      Non-Christian NDEs advocates will argue that the majority of the evidence would argue against Christianity. That Christians are being selective with the evidence (i.e. sampling bias and confirmation bias) when they support some NDEs, but ignore, neglect, or downplay NDEs that seem to disconfirm Christianity. In my opinion, it's often the reverse. They are the ones who often want to narrow the investigation to 1. exclude other paranormal activities besides the ones they are interested in, and 2. exclude seriously dealing with apparent malevolent and deceptive entities in those other paranormal areas.

      I think since they are open to the paranormal (unlike naturalistic skeptics) we should encourage them to be really open minded. It's consistent with Christianity for Christians to interpret these things consistent with Christianity. But it's INCONSISTENT with their claimed open-mindedness to exclude the darker side of the paranormal.

      By forcing people to address these malevolent beings (even additionally presenting the case for the demonic), they will have to take into serious consideration 1. the possibility of deception, 2. deal with issues of good and bad, and 3. the foundation of morality. The idea that everyone survives death is appealing until you have to consider hellish NDEs and demonic-like (or really demonic) entities in the non-material and immaterial realm(s). They need to take seriously the possibility that it is NOT SAFE to die.

    2. Another example:

      Well known researcher Graham Hancock and Joe Rogan have been popularizing the use of Ayahuasca for consciousness expansion. Many people know Hancock as a maverick researcher into lost civilizations. Rogan has been really into Hancock's research. And many people know Rogan because he's one of the top broadcasters in Mixed Martial Arts. Yet both of them warn people about taking Ayahuasca improperly. Hancock refers to Ayahuasca as a goddess and one who gives wisdom, but says that if a person isn't careful, that person can encounter malevolent entities. Now, he doesn't really think they are evil entities. But that's the problem, he doesn't really know if they are or not. Because of his bias, he doesn't want to consider the possibility that they are real. Similar things could be said about people who think they are contacting UFOs. For example Stephen Greer. Openly he's been able to gather many (generally) credible ex-military personnel to testify to their own encounters with UFOs. But then in other forums he's been advocating a sort UFO New Age spirituality.

    3. This link to Skeptiko has two interesting audio interviews that deal with Out of Body Experiences. In the interviews they mention seeming malevolent entities.

      I suspect I won't be adding more comments on this blog, so I'd like to post a link to one of my blogs:

      Evidence and Testimonies of Demonic and Angelic Encounters

  5. Jason, are there any resources on NDEs and the paranormal that you would recommend? Is there a good introduction to the subject available?

    1. David,

      On NDEs, the best overview I'm aware of is The Handbook Of Near-Death Experiences (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger Publishers, 2009). I refer to other resources throughout my series on NDEs found here. Some of the researchers in the field, like Penny Sartori and Nancy Evans Bush, have web sites. There's a lot of material, including introductory articles, at the IANDS site.

      On the paranormal in general, a lot of the principles I lay out in my series on NDEs linked above are applicable to other paranormal phenomena as well. Here's an index of Triablogue posts on the subject. That index is more than two years old now, however. For a general overview of the paranormal, read Steve's post here. See, too, Michael Sudduth's recommended resources here, especially in the comments section of the thread. My series of posts on Craig Keener's book on miracles, a series I wrote last year, is focused on Christian miracles, but to some extent also addresses non-Christian miracles and how the two compare.

      If you want a book, start with Stephen Braude's The Gold Leaf Lady (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2007). It's a good introduction to the subject, written by one of the leading paranormal researchers of our day, though he's not a Christian. A couple of other non-Christian sources worth looking into are Alex Tsakiris' Skeptiko podcast and Michael Prescott's blog.

      There are a lot of videos available to view for free online. Do a YouTube search on Stephen Braude, for example. Here's a brief interview with him that's good as an introduction to the subject. And here's a longer one in which he goes into more depth about some modern paranormal cases.

      As Christians research these issues, it's important that they be focused on developing a Christian response. Learning about the phenomena is important. Thinking of what to make of an individual phenomenon, such as telepathy or NDEs, is valuable. But what's needed more, partly because it's been so neglected, is a larger Christian response to the phenomena in totality. That can be done by critiquing the weaknesses of non-Christian phenomena and by developing arguments for the superiority of Christianity's system of miracles as a whole.

    2. If anyone is interested, there are interviews of Stephen Braude and Rupert Sheldrake at the Closer to Truth website (a PBS show with Robert Lawrence Kuhn).

      There are many more interviews that are also interesting. Including ones of:

      Alvin Plantinga
      J.P. Moreland
      David Hunt (the Christian philosopher)
      Richard Swinburne
      Peter van Inwagen
      Robin Collins
      Thomas Flint
      William Dembski
      William Lane Craig
      Oliver Crisp
      Alister McGrath
      Robert Saucy
      Gregory Boyd
      Quentin Smith
      Leonard Susskind
      Nick Bostrom

  6. I think Christians will also be open to various levels of syncretism as they attempt to assimilate their Christian convictions to paranormal phenomena without a grounding in Scriptural revelation. A few years ago I read the book "Soul Survivor:The Reincarnation of a World War 2 Fighter Pilot". One of the authors claimed to be an evangelical. I wrote to him personally and we corresponded a bit. I tried to explain the phenomena he had experienced from within the confines of biblical revelation. Part of my potential explanation was to invoke the demonic. I then published a shortened review of the book on Amazon which generated some interesting conversation.