Monday, January 08, 2018

A Christian View Of The Afterlife And The Paranormal

I want to make several points that I hope will be helpful to people in thinking through issues pertaining to the afterlife and the paranormal. These subjects are important, and they often come up on television programs, in books, on the radio, on web sites, and in other contexts. It's important that we know how to address the issues.

This post isn't meant to be exhaustive. I'm just making several points among others that could be brought up.

- For most people, the afterlife has multiple phases. Think of Lazarus in Luke 16, for example. He was carried into Abraham's presence, in a sort of transitional phase between earth and heaven (Luke 16:22). Then he resided in Abraham's presence (Luke 16:23). Later, he'll be resurrected. So, Lazarus will have gone through at least a few different phases within the afterlife. The same can be said of unbelievers. For example, unbelievers haven't yet experienced resurrection, but will go through that phase of the afterlife in the future (John 5:28-29). The Bible also refers to different places in the afterlife that will exist in different contexts, like the new earth and the new Jerusalem. Genesis 35:18 refers to Rachel giving Benjamin a name as her soul departed. That's reminiscent of near-death experiences in which people report a somewhat lengthy process of leaving their bodies, sometimes going back and forth, in and out of the body. Sometimes the soul is even described as being attached to the body in some way, such as with a cord (The Handbook Of Near-Death Experiences [Santa Barbara, California: Praeger Publishers, 2009], 18). They didn't just instantaneously appear in heaven or hell. If there is such a process involved in the soul's departure from the body, with some people or with everybody, then that's another phase to take into account. The multiphased nature of the afterlife is important to keep in mind. People often take a simplistic approach toward the afterlife, or a Christian view of the subject in particular, as if those who have died are either in heaven or hell, and there's nothing more to it. Actually, there is more to it. We'll be able to better explain both the Biblical evidence and paranormal phenomena if we keep these distinctions in mind. For example, objecting that a person in hell wouldn't be able to come back to earth to make an appearance doesn't address whether the person could make an appearance during a phase when his soul is departing from his body, during a transitional phase between earth and hell, in a phase of hell that involves being a wandering spirit on earth, in a vision, etc.

- Passages like 2 Corinthians 5:8 and Hebrews 9:27 can assume some qualifiers or exceptions without spelling them out. General principles aren't always meant to be applied universally. The prophet Samuel could have been with the Lord after he died (2 Corinthians 5:8, as far as that would be applicable in Samuel's context) while still being able to make an appearance on earth (1 Samuel 28:14). The fact that Samuel was generally in heaven, with God, etc. didn't prevent him from appearing on earth on the occasion in question. Similarly, Hebrews 9:27 isn't meant to deny that some people haven't died (Enoch, Elijah), will have died more than once (the son of the widow of Nain, the Lazarus of John 11), and so on. Hebrews 9:27 is intended as a general principle that allows exceptions. We need to keep such factors in mind when people make simplistic appeals to certain Biblical passages to address paranormal phenomena and in other contexts.

- Scripture suggests that there are ghosts. Translations like the New King James and the New American Standard render Matthew 14:26 and Mark 6:49 with the term "ghost". I think they're right. The Greek term in question isn't used elsewhere in the New Testament. Different terminology is used to describe demons in both gospels. And when somebody sees a spirit who looks like a human, the most likely interpretation is that a ghost is being seen. It could be a demon making itself look like a human, but that's a more complicated and, thus, inferior interpretation. The most straightforward interpretation of Matthew 14:26, Mark 6:49, and Luke 24:37-39 is that ghosts are in mind. The same is true of Acts 12:15. On that passage, see here and here. Notice how widespread and persistent the early Christians' belief in ghosts is in these passages. Apparently, Jesus never corrected that belief in any of the contexts in question or in any other context. In the Luke 24 passage, he even seems to go along with the belief, focusing on proving that he isn't a ghost without attempting to disprove the disciples' belief in ghosts.

- Paranormal events like apparitions of the dead and near-death experiences only involve a minority of the population, sometimes just a very small minority. Of the billions of people who have died throughout human history, it seems that only a minority have appeared as ghosts, allegedly communicated through séances, and so forth. Even if we think something is generally true of the dead, based on a Biblical principle or based on some other factor, we could allow exceptions. The paranormal phenomena in question don't have to be normative in order to be genuine.

- The Biblical passages that tell us to not attempt to contact the dead never single out the danger of coming into contact with demons as the only reason for the prohibition. It's common in modern Christian circles to attribute paranormal activity to demons and to act as though the danger of coming into contact with demons is the only reason why trying to contact the dead is forbidden. But scripture never suggests that. Demons are dangerous, but so are some dead humans, and there may also be other reasons for the prohibition in question.

- While we don't want to underestimate the dead, we also don't want to overestimate them. People often treat apparitions of the dead, communication with the dead through séances, and such as if the dead are equivalent to angels sent by God to deliver infallible revelation. But the dead can be ignorant or mistaken to some extent (Matthew 25:37-39, 25:44, Luke 16:24, 16:27-28, 16:30). That's especially important to keep in mind the closer we are in time to the point when the deceased person died. The less familiar he is with the afterlife, the more potential there is for him to be ignorant, to misinterpret something, etc. We shouldn't begin with a default assumption that the deceased are wrong in what they say, but we also shouldn't treat them as if they're infallible. And it's not just a matter of taking into account their potential for ignorance and mistakes. There are other factors as well, like their moral character and the reliability of their faculties. I think some poltergeist cases, like Enfield, are best explained as manifestations of a deceased person (or group of people) with a deranged mind. Some of the deceased may grow increasingly deranged over time, as a punishment or as the trajectory of their soul without any intervening punishment. I suspect one of the reasons why scripture tells us to not attempt to contact the dead is that some of the dead are ignorant of their condition (and therefore could provide us with false information), deranged (analogous to mental illness), or dishonest. In addition to the example of a poltergeist, think of the danger involved in trusting an apparition of a dead person who's in a phase of hell that involves being a wandering spirit on earth. He's lost, but may not realize it or want to admit it. There is potential for demons to impersonate the dead, but there's also a lot of potential for the dead to mislead people (including under the influence of demons).

- The concept of an unredeemed person only being punished to a relatively small extent in the afterlife, perhaps even being initially unaware that he's in hell, isn't just a speculation or an attempt by modern Christians to redefine hell. Rather, the Bible itself refers to degrees of punishment in hell, just as there are degrees of reward in heaven. Jesus himself refers to the punishment of some, under the analogy of being beaten with lashes, as something that involves only "few" lashes (Luke 12:48). The future punishment of demons will be substantial, as we see in the book of Revelation. But in some ways, their current state of condemnation doesn't seem to involve as much punishment as they'll receive in the future, and demons are sometimes active on or near the earth and occasionally make appearances on earth in some manner. Something similar could occur with some deceased humans who are unredeemed.

- We can't base our view of the afterlife on paranormal phenomena alone. Any view of the afterlife and related issues has to address the totality of the evidence. That includes, for example, philosophical arguments and the evidence for organized religion, especially Christianity (Biblical prophecy, Jesus' resurrection, the miracles of the apostles, Christian miracles more broadly, etc.).

- For more about a Christian view of the paranormal, see here.


  1. Very interesting and revealing. Thanks for the distinction you made concerning Heb 9:27 and Lazarus, E.g. Do you recommend a good book that deals with the topic?

    1. Scot,

      I appreciate the encouragement.

      I don't know of a book to recommend that's good at addressing all of these topics. There are some books that are helpful on one or more issues among the many I've mentioned above. But each of those books should be supplemented by a lot of other resources. The book I cited on near-death experiences (NDEs) in my original post, for example, provides a lot of information on NDEs, but is written from a non-Christian perspective and has some other problems. Michael Sabom has written about NDEs from a Christian perspective, and he's written a book that makes some good points about NDEs and has a chapter on how NDEs relate to the Bible (Light & Death [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998]). But that chapter doesn't go into much depth, and there are some other problems with the book. Stephen Braude's The Gold Leaf Lady (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2007) is a good introduction to some paranormal topics, such as the quality of evidence we have for some modern paranormal phenomena, but he writes from a non-Christian point of view. I'm only citing a few examples here. You can find many others in my collection of posts on paranormal issues that I linked earlier. But I would make similar comments about those other books (and articles, podcasts, etc.).