Monday, July 23, 2018

Why Study The Paranormal?

On Facebook, in a thread about my recent post on the Enfield Poltergeist, Steve Hays made a comment about how discussing the paranormal is useful in responding to naturalism. Here's something I wrote in response:

There are a lot of reasons to study the paranormal. Responding to naturalism is part of what's involved. A lot of people who aren't naturalists raise issues relevant to the paranormal as well (agnostics who say that they're open to the supernatural, but that there isn't enough evidence for it; people who believe in the paranormal, but significantly underestimate how much evidence there is for it; etc.).

The second group I just mentioned is important and frequently overlooked or underestimated. The fact that a person believes in X doesn't prove that he believes in X sufficiently. The level of confidence that people have about their beliefs is important. That's one of the roles of apologetics. You don't just persuade people who have no belief, but you also increase the confidence of those who already hold the belief in question. That has major ramifications throughout life (whether people will be confident enough to speak up in certain situations, whether they'll take other risks that are related to confidence, etc.).

With something like a poltergeist, there's also the issue of the nature of the paranormal. Many people hold an overly positive view of paranormal phenomena: everybody or almost everybody goes to heaven after death, there's nothing dangerous about communicating with the deceased, demons don't exist, etc. Because of the nature of a poltergeist, and because of the nature of the Enfield case in particular, a lot of false beliefs about the supernatural, especially overly positive views of it, can be corrected.

It's also important to study the paranormal for reasons similar to why we study other aspects of life (other cultures, nature, human psychology, etc.). It's part of God's creation, and we ought to learn from it. Since it overlaps with other areas of study, how can people accept the study of those other areas, yet reject any research into the paranormal? If poltergeists are paranormal manifestations of the subconscious of a living human, for example, as some people believe, how do you maintain that we should study human psychology and other such fields, yet claim that we should avoid studying poltergeists? There are dangers and potential dangers in studying the paranormal, as there are in other areas of study, but it doesn't follow that you should avoid the field altogether. What are we supposed to do when we encounter people who have experienced or are experiencing something like a poltergeist (such as the Hodgsons)? Abandon them? Just make some vague comments about demons and pray for the family? Uncritically assume that whatever we've heard about poltergeists from movies, fictional literature, etc. is true and refuse to do any further research? If you experienced something like a poltergeist, what would you think of people who took an approach like the ones I just mentioned? Wouldn't you want people to have been more honest and careful about these matters, so that they would be in a better position to help you? What if you're a missionary on the mission field, and you encounter the paranormal? What do you do? Just stay away, since you prefer to avoid such things? Try to avoid contact with the paranormal, since you have a superstitious fear that the phenomena are contagious, even though you haven't thought about the subject or researched it much? What do you do when you get to passages in the Bible that discuss the paranormal? Stop reading?

The same Moses who wrote against consulting mediums and other such practices also confronted the magicians of Pharaoh and interacted with them. In Mark 9, when a man's son was possessed by a demon, he didn't abandon his son or try to avoid any contact with him. Instead, he tried to get assistance from other people and eventually sought help from Jesus (verses 14-29). A "large crowd" gathered around (verse 14), apparently unaware that they were supposed to avoid all contact with the paranormal or demons in particular. Jesus' disciples apparently were unaware, as well, that they were supposed to avoid all such matters, since they also tried to help the boy (verse 18). Jesus doesn't rebuke these people for involving themselves in such situations, but instead casts the demon out himself (verses 25-26). The father comments that the boy has been affected by the demon since childhood (verse 21). Apparently, the boy's condition wasn't contagious. (It doesn't follow that paranormal phenomena are never contagious, but it does follow that we shouldn't begin with an assumption that they always are. They do seem to be contagious, so to speak, in some situations, but not others. More research ought to be done. One sure way of remaining in ignorance is to refuse to do any research.) After all of this, Jesus' disciples apparently still didn't realize that they were supposed to avoid the paranormal and avoid doing any research into it. Instead, they ask Jesus for more information (verse 28), and Jesus provides them with it (verse 29). By the way, the father in this account is the one who delivers the famous line "I do believe; help my unbelief." (verse 24) That underscores what I said above about the importance of increasing people's confidence. And much the same can be said of other passages about the paranormal in the Bible (in the gospels, Acts, etc.).

Part of the problem seems to be that so many people confuse categories. They act as if reading a book about mediums is equivalent to consulting a medium. Researching a paranormal case is equivalent to inviting demons into your life (and the assumption that the paranormal case in question involves demons is often poorly grounded).

Given how prevalent the paranormal is, how many people experience it, the major implications it has, etc., Christians ought to be doing far more work on these issues than they have been doing. I've explained in the past why the Enfield case in particular is so important (the quantity and quality of events, the quantity and quality of witnesses, the large amount of evidence, the public interest in the case, etc.). The fact that so many Evangelicals don't realize how important these matters are, and even have so much apathy and contempt toward them, is a major problem.


  1. I've never quite understood the reasons behind condemning any attempt to contact dead loved ones through mediums (besides the obvious fact that most are frauds). I don't think there's any law against praying for the deceased, but we are told to not attempt to engage in actual discourse with the dead. That's all well and good, but I'm unclear on the morality behind the mandate.

    I absolutely believe that some individuals have supernatural gifts, some more than others. I've experienced it myself on several rare occasions, mostly in regards to supernatural "knowledge" as it relates to numbers or events. The only way I can describe it is that it cannot be sought after. There's a sense that it's coming from above (or outside one's efforts).

    1. James

      "I've never quite understood the reasons behind condemning any attempt to contact dead loved ones through mediums"

      I would think one reason is because if someone attempts to contact a deceased loved one through mediums, then you may or may not be in contact with the deceased loved one. Rather you could be in contact with something far more nefarious or sinister!

    2. In addition, if a deceased loved one wasn't heavenbound, then the person contacting them may be in store for an unpleasant surprise. Presumably contact with a hellion is fraught with dangers both physical and spiritual. Imagine what some ghosts can do to humans.

    3. More than likely, given God forbids contacting the deceased through mediums in Scripture, even if a deceased loved one is in heaven, then they would not go against God's command (unless God permitted it like in the case of the prophet Samuel but that's presumably an exception). Generally speaking, though, I would think one wouldn't be likely to contact a deceased loved one in heaven.

    4. More likely you'd get an imposter (e.g. demon, hellion).

    5. James,

      Keep in mind that something doesn't have to always be harmful in order to usually be harmful or be harmful a significant minority of the time. Just as human laws often forbid something that's usually harmful or sometimes harmful (it's usually unsafe to drive at a particular speed, a certain drug is usually unsafe to take, etc.), the same can be the case with divine laws.

      Even if a certain percentage of mediums were able to contact the dead, God could decide that forbidding any attempt to contact the deceased is the most efficient way to handle the situation. That could be preferable to forbidding some ways of contacting the dead while allowing others and accompanying that permission with a lot of explanations and qualifications. We often take the same sort of approach toward children. When a child is 5 years old, we tell him "no" without much or any explanation. When he's 10, we allow him to do more and we explain more.

      Both scripture and what we know about extrabiblical paranormal phenomena suggest that most of the deceased don't remain on or near the earth for long after dying. And even those who remain on or near the earth can't necessarily be contacted by anybody who wants to contact them. If most of the deceased can't be contacted, then forbidding any attempt to contact them would be a way of preventing people from wasting their time and effort attempting to do what they can't do. Given how desperate, emotional, etc. people often are in contexts involving the deceased, it's useful accordingly to have laws that forbid unwise practices in those contexts.

      And it's not just a matter of what we're capable of, such as whether we're capable of contacting the dead. It's also a matter of what the deceased are capable of and what's in their interests. If millions of people were to try to contact Abraham on a given day, could he process all of those efforts (some of them simultaneous, in a variety of languages, some of them unspoken, etc.)? If he could, would it make sense to expect him to or to burden him with it? There are reasons why scripture often refers to heaven in categories like rest and reward. People often suggest that the dead may have the ability to hear prayers or receive communication from us in some other manner, but a possibility isn't a probability. And if the dead can hear us, it doesn't follow that we should try to contact them.

      Epistle of Dude has mentioned some other relevant issues. The deceased are more knowledgeable and powerful than we are in some ways. There's a danger that some of the deceased would harm us in some manner if contacted. And they can harm us unintentionally. If you were to successfully contact a dead relative shortly after his death, why think that all of his perceptions of the afterlife at that point would be accurate? He could give you a combination of true and false information, even if he didn't intend to deceive you. The same is true of living people we interact with, but people tend to have different expectations for the dead than they have for the living. Notice how often people conclude without much scrutiny that whatever they were told in an apparition, a near-death experience, etc. is true. People seem to generally be much less critical of the dead (and angels and other beings) than they are of the living. That's dangerous.

      I wrote more about some of these issues in a post earlier this year that discusses a Christian view of the afterlife and the paranormal.

    6. To add to what Epistle of Dude said, I think our inability to determine and distinguish when we're really in contact with a deceased human and a demonic imposter is one of the reasons God forbids our contacting the dead. Imposters can manipulate our trust of our deceased loved ones to do their bidding or believe damnable lies.