Thursday, June 26, 2014

Apparitions and deadbed visions

In this post I'm going to discuss the question of apparitions and deathbed visions. One response to these claims is to bury your head in the sand. The problem with the ostrich posture is that it doesn't protect Christians. If a Christian, or someone he knows and trusts, has the kind of experience you told him can't happen, then you shot your only bullet, and it missed. It's better to provide an explanatory framework, consistent with Christian orthodoxy.

There are roughly two kinds of (alleged) apparitions: 

1) Induced apparitions

In this situation (i.e. seance), a medium tries to conjure the dead. 

i) I expect most mediums (and psychics) are outright frauds, although a handful are deeply invested in the occult, and may be the real deal. 

ii) Since necromancy is, at best, forbidden knowledge, I think such "communications" are inherently suspect. I say "at best" because, in many cases, I doubt it even counts as knowledge. 

iii) Assuming for the sake of argument that necromancy is sometimes successful, who among the dead would we expect to be accessible via a seance? Since this is a forbidden, occultic activity, I figure that would normally be the damned.

A counterexample is 1 Sam 28. But that's arguably exceptional. The scene is deliberately ironic. Saul regards Samuel as his last best hope, but it backfires. Samuel denounces Saul. 

I'd also like to comment on an exchange between Michael Sudduth and Michael Prescott. I think Sudduth and Prescott are both wrong in different ways. This is unintentionally comical. On the one hand, Prescott regards necromancy as a reliable source of information about the afterlife. On the other hand, Sudduth assumes the role of skeptic in this exchange. But considering the fact that Sudduth is a Jungian Zen Hare Krishna, hasn't he disqualified himself from playing the skeptic? Sudduth's outlook is more septic than skeptic.  

Here are some specific examples. At least as far back as Richard Hodgson's investigations of Leonora Piper, it has been noted that newly deceased communicators speaking through mediums often exhibit feebleness and confusion; their messages are brief and muddled. But with the passage of time (usually just a few days) the communicators improve noticeably; the confusion is largely dispelled, and the messages become clearer and more lengthy. Moreover, with continued practice, some communicators seem to hone their skills, and some just seem better at it than others; certain individuals come through a variety of mediums with consistently good results, while others never seem to get the hang of it.
Hodgson and other survivalists argue that these developments are just what we would expect if the communications are genuinely coming from discarnate individuals. The trauma of the dying process leaves these persons fatigued and befuddled for a short time, but with the opportunity to rest and orient themselves to their new environment, they grow stronger and shake off their lethargy. Furthermore, practice improves their abilities in some cases; and just as some incarnate individuals have a gift for mediumship and others don't, some discarnates are better able to communicate through mediums than others.

I can think of an alternative explanation. Prescott is clearly referring to repeated visits to a medium. Clients who keep returning to the medium to contact their departed loved ones.

An obvious reason why the "communicators" improve is not because the decedent has recovered from the trauma of death and adjusted to his/her new condition. Rather, the more often a medium meets with a client, the better acquainted the medium becomes with the client. That familiarity enables the medium to better impersonate the client's departed loved ones. 

For his part, Stephen Braude explains these "communications" by appeal to "living agent psi." He thinks the medium has telepathic access to the client's memories of the decedent. 

I suspect Braude favors this explanation because he's an atheist who's hostile to theological explanations. Hence, he prefers a a naturalistic, this-worldly explanation to one about souls passing into the next world. So there may be a secular bias. 

2) Spontaneous apparitions

In this situation, the dead (allegedly) appear to the living of their own accord. No one summoned them into the presence of the living. 

This is a widely reported, well-attested phenomenon. (On a related note are deathbed visions.) For instance:

D. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus (T&T Clark 2005, 273-77.

Reported spontaneous apparitions are theologically problematic if they suggest that unbelievers go to heaven. So what are we to make of this evidence?

i) One needs to distinguish between evidence that there is an afterlife, and evidence for what the afterlife is like. 

ii) Apparitions of the dead aren't direct evidence for their eternal fate, inasmuch as the final judgment lies in the future. Christian eschatology distinguished between the intermediate state and the final state. 

iii) Accounts about spontaneous apparitions may lack information regarding the religious beliefs of the decedent. 

William Lane Craig was critical of Allison:

Allison’s familiarity with the literature is daunting. Pages 279-82 of his essay contain only 16 lines of text and nearly 200 fine lines of references! But his very strength as a bibliographer becomes a weakness, since he tends to accept all reports uncritically, lumping together serious studies in journals of psychology with New Age popular books and publications in parapsychology. Most of the so-called veridical visions of deceased persons are gathered from parapsychological literature of the late nineteenth century. What is wanting is a careful sifting of the evidence and a differentiated discussion of the same.

I) I agree with Craig's specific contention that apparitions are not a plausible alternative explanation for the post-Resurrection appearances of Christ. 

ii) It's true that Allison needs to be more discriminating in his sources.

iii) I don't see anything inherently unreliable about 19C sources.

iv) Allison also cites more up-to-date evidence, viz. widows/widowers.

v) Craig draws an invidious comparison between serious studies in journals of psychology and publications in parapsychology. But that begs the question.

vi) Because evangelical scholars don't generally bother to investigate certain paranormal phenomena (e.g. apparitions of the dead), they vacate the field, thereby leaving that to often less reliable investigators. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Finally, I think this is one reason why secularism will never succeed. Atheists assume that belief in the supernatural is the result of ignorant superstition and religious indoctrination. Humans don't actually experience the supernatural. That's an extrinsic narrative. 

But because uncanny experiences are so widespread, secularism en masse is doomed to fail. The secular elites may win political battles by muscling their way into public policy. Atheists may succeed in imposing a degree of outward conformity on the general public. But it won't be convincing. There will be many closet supernaturalists.  

Like the way people used to pay lip-service to communism long after most of them no longer believed in it (and some of them never espoused it in the first place). They didn't dare publicly dissent, but just under the surface was massive disaffection, which is why communism fell so hard and so fast.

If you have an experience like this, then secularism just isn't very persuasive. Of course, a fanatical atheist will explain away his own experience. But most folks aren't that dogmatic.  


  1. A quote from from one of the links above that Steve gave:

    One of my favorite grad school professors at Yale once confided to me something that, he said, as an atheist, really bothered him. "Get enough really smart people in a room together, give them enough to drink, and eventually you'll hear stories that don't make sense in an atheistic, materialist universe." He looked perplexed. And he was right. It's interesting how many families tell stories like the one my mother told me, and Mona told the world, that just don't make sense on the current naturalistic view of the world that seems to dominate our universities and be assumed by our mavens of high culture.

  2. I remember in 2008 going for a 2-3 hour bicycle ride. Among the people I prayed for during the ride was an uncle I was close to and his wife. They had to move away to Las Vegas because of financial difficulties. It's cheaper to live there as a retirees. As I prayed for my uncle I got an unusual strong cheerful sense that God was going to take care of him. When I got home past noon someone called my cell phone and told me he had passed away. He must have died approximately the same time I was praying for him. It may have been during, right before, or right after I prayed for him. He was only 68 and very active. Just a year before we went jogging together for 17 miles one day. So, I had every reason to think he would live a few years longer. I wonder if the Holy Spirit was in some sense indicating he had died and was in heaven. Or whether the Holy Spirit was indicating he was going to answer my prayer by taking him to heaven that day. Or whether my uncle himself was with me saying goodbye as I rode my bike.

    In 2012 I visited some relatives I hadn't seen in a while. As I spent time with one of my younger 2nd cousins I got a strange sense that he wasn't going to live much longer. As the thought persisted, I tried to assure myself that it was just a case of an overactive imagination. The thought was ridiculous since he was perfectly healthy and only 23 years old or so. A year later he was dead. I wonder if the Holy Spirit was preparing me for that, or an "angel of death" or even a demon was indicating that he had plans to take him away from the land of the living.