Sunday, October 13, 2019

Evangelical Neglect Of The Paranormal

Steve linked to a video by Jon Topping about paranormal issues. I've addressed these subjects many times before. You can find an overview here. That overview discusses some Biblical evidence for ghosts that Topping doesn't interact with, among other subjects.

What I want to focus on here is some comments Topping made about paranormal research. Start watching (here) at the point where there's about 6:30 left in the video. He makes the broad comment that "anything to do with the occult" is prohibited. He goes on to say that "we should have nothing to do with that" in reference to practices like speaking to a ghost or using a Ouija board. He then cites academics who have come out of the occult, people who do a lot of research in other contexts, saying that we shouldn't even do research on matters pertaining to the occult. We shouldn't even "touch" them. We shouldn't allow them to have "a place" in our lives.

I've already addressed why we should study the paranormal, including what's often labeled as "the occult". (The ambiguity of so much of the terminology involved in these contexts is problematic.) I think the article I just linked is largely sufficient to answer Topping's comments, but I want to supplement it.

Earlier in the video, Topping cited a statistic on how many people experience apparitions of the dead. How would you get such a statistic without doing research? And isn't that research a form of research on the occult (or whatever you want to call it)? When Topping gathers paranormal accounts he received from his relatives and other sources and thinks about those accounts, prepares to discuss them with other people, etc., aren't those activities forms of research on the paranormal? How do you do research on what the Bible says about such matters without thereby doing research on such matters? How do you know what activities occur in these contexts without studying them? How do you know that what happens in the relevant contexts is caused by demons? How many Christians who claim that these things are demonic are even aware of the other explanatory options, and how much to they know about how to determine which explanatory option is the best one in a given case? We know that Luke did research in order to compose his gospel and Acts (Luke 1:1-4). That includes material he wrote about paranormal matters, such as demonic activity. Some of what he wrote about demons isn't found elsewhere in scripture, so he wasn't just repeating what he found in one or more of the other gospels. Even if he had just repeated what he found in such sources, that would still be a form of research, and it would raise the question of where the other author(s) got the information in question. What about other religions? Should we avoid doing any research on them as well? Many people think that Islam had demonic origins, and people often associate Hinduism with the demonic. Should we try to avoid doing any research into such religions, not do any missions work among people who follow such religions, and not interact with Muslims and Hindus in our neighborhoods and workplaces, for example? And so on.

I've been discussing the problem of Evangelical negligence on paranormal issues for many years. It seems that the large majority of Evangelicals study the subject much less than Topping has.

We don't have to know why people are wrong in order to know that they're wrong. But I'll mention some of the factors that seem to be involved in Evangelical mishandling of the paranormal. Most people don't want to give much of their lives to religious matters to begin with, and they especially don't want to give much time, attention, and such to a field as large and complicated as the paranormal. They also find the paranormal repulsive for other reasons (superstitions they have about it, fear of the unknown, the social cost of being associated with it too much, etc.). It's simple (to the point of being simplistic) to dismiss all of these matters you don't want to be involved with, or a large percentage of them, as demonic and to claim that you therefore shouldn't think about them, shouldn't research them, shouldn't have any close association with them, etc. For the large majority of Americans, including most Evangelicals, dismissing something like the paranormal that way or in some other way helps free you to spend your life where you want to spend it, on things like movies, sports, sex, food, your career, trivial activities with your relatives and friends, etc. You can sprinkle a little Christianity on top, like occasionally praying and attending church, but it's mostly an American Dream lifestyle, highly secular and highly trivial. Different people live like that to different degrees. Not everybody is equally guilty of it. But it's a major problem and a big part of why the paranormal and some other subjects are so neglected in our culture. They view the paranormal in a simplistic way because they want it to be so simple, partly for reasons like the ones mentioned above.

And willfully ignorant agnosticism isn't much of an alternative. Shrugging your shoulders and walking away is different than dismissing everything (or almost everything) as demonic before you walk away, but both approaches are wrong. When you have the vast amount of data we have on the paranormal, you had better do more than shrug your shoulders. When there's so much at stake, you had better love God and love people enough to do more than shrug your shoulders and walk away. Even if you have good reasons for not studying the paranormal much, such as being occupied with other work of an important nature - and those reasons need to be genuinely good, not just feigned excuses - you should be respectful enough to acknowledge that the work other people are doing in the field is not only acceptable, but also important. It's not something to be dismissed as occultic or to be dismissed with a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders.

Several months after my father's death in 2012, my mother saw an apparition of him, one that was significantly evidential, including evidence I had firsthand access to. I wrote about it in a previous thread here. I've known a lot of other people, including Christians, who have had paranormal experiences. To get more of an idea of what's at stake for the people involved in paranormal events, see my post here on dreams and trances in the Enfield case. If you don't want to read the whole thing, at least read the first two and last four paragraphs. See, also, my posts on the death of Guy Playfair and the digitizing of his Enfield tapes.


  1. Yes, that was the major weakness in his presentation. On Facebook, he and I discussed that.

  2. Jason,

    I have enjoyed your posts on this issue, including the Enfield series.

    It seems to me that in many cases, much of the data to be explained could be explained by a demonic or a ghost hypothesis. You have, at times, suggested that a ghost hypothesis is better for certain instances of the paranormal.

    Whereas, in a given instance, there might be aspects of the phenomenon that nudge towards a ghost hypothesis, in a totally different context I was recently reading that postulated explanations should, all things being equal, not themselves give rise to further puzzlement.

    I wonder whether a ghost hypothesis could be more puzzling in this sense than a demonic hypothesis. This is what I mean: if ghosts exists, and are rare, then this seems to give rise to something a bit puzzling. How the post-death 'destination' of these deceased humans seems to be out of line with other deceased humans. What would explain these deceased humans' ability to 'haunt' the living on earth, whereas that is not the expected general trajectory of deceased humans? Either these deceased humans have some innate special abilities that allows this, or God has brought it about for some purpose that relates to these particular deceased humans. It's hard to think what the explanation of the ghost's abilities or unique presence on earth would be.

    1. AMC,

      Thanks for the encouragement. The Blogger word limit will force me to break my response up into two posts.

      Even if we thought of the point you've made in your last paragraph as an advantage for a demonic hypothesis, that advantage would have to be weighed against the disadvantages of that hypothesis in other contexts. If an entity behaves differently than we'd expect a demon to behave, for example, that factor would have to be taken into account as well, not just the factor you've highlighted.

      And what you're focused on doesn't carry much weight. We don't have a lack of potential explanations for why some deceased humans would remain on earth or return to earth. Rather, it's a matter of having many potential reasons without knowing which of them, or others, apply in a given context. Some angels appear on earth, but I see no reason to conclude that all of them do. The same can be said of demons. Just as angels and demons don't have to all remain away from earth or all remain on earth, the same could be true of deceased humans. As I mention in a post I linked above, what we see occurring with demons gives us some precedent for thinking that the same can occur with deceased humans who are unredeemed. A potential reason for why some of the unredeemed would remain on earth or return there, as I mention in the post linked above, is that there are different degrees of punishment in hell. For some people, remaining on or returning to earth may involve some lesser degree of punishment. For others, it may involve more. Whether it involves less or more punishment would vary depending on the circumstances. Or God could have purposes in the lives of the living that are being fulfilled by means of interaction with the dead. And so on.

    2. Scripture refers to some appearances of the dead on earth (Samuel, Moses, Elijah), and it refers to a widespread early Christian belief that other deceased individuals could appear on earth. That belief was expressed in the presence of Jesus on multiple occasions, and he not only never corrected it, but even seemed to accommodate it. See my post here for further details. In the Bible, when a being resembling the dead appeared on earth, there's not a single instance I'm aware of in which anybody reacted by thinking that a demon was impersonating a human. To the contrary, every person involved (Saul, Jesus' disciples, etc.) concluded that a deceased human had appeared. The notion that's popular in Evangelical circles today, that demons are impersonating humans, isn't part of any of these narratives in scripture, as far as I know. And these appearances occurred in a wide variety of circumstances (Saul's visit to the medium in Endor, when the disciples were traveling in a boat in Matthew 14, Peter's visit to a house in Acts 12, etc.). Nobody involved seems to think they need some precedent for the dead appearing in that particular type of context in order to conclude that a dead person has appeared in that setting. Rather, they seem to have thought that the appearance of the dead in a wide variety of contexts was so plausible that seeing what seemed to be a dead person in such a context provided sufficient initial justification for the conclusion that a dead person had appeared.

      The Old Testament passages prohibiting attempting to contact the dead say nothing about demons impersonating humans as the reasoning behind the prohibition.

      We need to keep the landscape of the afterlife in mind. I discussed some of the relevant issues in my earlier post linked above. If there's a transitional phase between death and arriving in heaven or hell, as Luke 16:22 implies and Genesis 35:18 may involve, then appearances of the dead could occur in that context.

      We also need to keep in mind that a term like "ghost" is multifaceted. It can refer to a spirit of a deceased human appearing on earth. But it can also refer to a vision of a deceased person, with the vision being seen on earth without the spirit being there, so to speak. Or the term can be applied to what's sometimes referred to as a stone tape phenomenon. Incidents in which the dead seem to be repeating activities they were involved in prior to death, especially activities of a trivial nature, may be best explained as traces that were left by their pre-death activities. Sort of like a paranormal recording of an event that can be replayed when a replay mechanism is triggered in some manner. When the alleged dead individuals seem to be unaware of their surroundings and fail to interact with those surroundings, then something like the stone tape hypothesis is especially relevant. Partial apparitions (e.g., a leg appearing without the remainder of the body) are good candidates for such an explanation as well. I'm just giving some examples here without addressing every option. We have to allow for more than one type of phenomenon under the label of "ghost".

  3. Good stuff! Thanks, Jason.

  4. Jason and Steve,

    "A potential reason for why some of the unredeemed would remain on earth or return there, as I mention in the post linked above, is that there are different degrees of punishment in hell."

    Although this is a comment made by Jason, I am interested in knowing what Steve thinks...

    When you say "hell" here, what are you referring to? Do you draw a distinction made by N T Wright about the intermediate state and the resurrection state?

    Is your idea that ghosts on earth are possible for the damned during the intermediate state? In other words that there would be some proportion of the dead outside of Christ who, during the intermediate state, can 'roam the earth' as ghosts?

    Or you think that ghosts are deceased humans outside of Christ in their final state?