Do you believe in ghosts?
You may be surprised to find out which Church Fathers and doctors did and which didn’t.
What’s clear is that, whether or not many Americans believe in ghosts, many clearly want to. Television and film are crowded with stories about ghosts and the supernatural. “Ghost hunter” reality-TV shows proliferate, producing no evidence to prove the reality of ghosts beyond a lot of grainy, green night-vision footage of people acting scared of the dark. Almost everyone has heard someone tell of an encounter that he or she cannot explain.
People want to believe in ghosts for a simple reason: It provides proof of the immortality of the human soul and the possibility of life after death.
The Christian doesn’t require this kind of anecdotal proof, but from the very earliest days of the faith, the Church has wrestled with the idea that the souls of the dead can make themselves known to the living.
Both the Old and New Testaments witness to a belief in ghosts. In 1 Samuel 28, of course, we are told of Saul’s encounter with the Witch of Endor, who summons Samuel to predict Saul’s fate. The Church Fathers were largely unanimous in calling this a demonic apparition, not a true vision of the risen soul of Samuel.
In the New Testament, the apostles mistake Jesus for a ghost when he is seen walking on water (Matthew 14:26). After the Resurrection, they must be reassured that he’s not a ghost and are told to touch him to see that he is substantial (Luke 24:37-40).
This tells us that ghosts were known to the people of ancient Israel, but also that that people were uncomfortable with the idea.
Some of this has to do with a natural reaction to any strange phenomena. But Jewish perceptions of the dead, the ritual impurity from contact with the dead and the association with paganism also made it sit uneasily in Jewish and Christian cultures.
Pagans were known for ancestor worship, lavish funeral customs (including meals for and with the dead) and other excesses all aimed at propitiating restless spirits and signaling social status. The Church Fathers were eager to reject this, and they had an airtight case right from the lips of Jesus himself.
Dives and Lazarus
The story of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) informed all early Christian belief about the fate of the dead. In the parable, Dives (Latin for “rich man”) passes by the poor man Lazarus without helping him. When they both die, Dives goes to Hades, and Lazarus goes to heaven.
From his place of torment, Dives sees Lazarus resting in the bosom of Abraham and begs him for comfort, or that he at least send a message to his family warning them to change their ways.
Abraham denies the first request, saying,
Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us (Luke 16:27).
Although Abraham rejects the idea of people passing between heaven and hell, he doesn’t directly reject the possibility that Lazarus can return to earth as a spirit. The passage suggests that he won’t, because:
If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.
The Church Fathers read this as a denial of the ability of the spirits of the dead to pass to the world of the living.
The problem, however, was one of eyewitness testimony, which was taken far more seriously than it is now. Some Church Fathers were unwilling to call the widespread accounts of ghosts nothing but lies, so they found other explanations.
In De Anima (On the Soul), Tertullian acknowledges the extensive literature about ghosts but rejects it as a “fraud.” He has specific pagan lore in mind: the idea that some could “call back from Hades the souls of those who are sleeping out their destined time, those who died through violence and those deprived of burial.”
His explanation reveals just what the early Church made of these encounters — they were demonic:
Thus do we deal with that universal pollution of the human mind, the inventor of all falsehood, that plunderer of the soul’s salvation. By magic, a second form of idolatry, the demons pretend to be dead men [come to life], just as in ordinary idolatry they pass themselves off as gods.
Like other Church Fathers, Tertullian grants the devil one great power: the power to deceive. It’s the same power wielded by the Witch of Endor, but it is only the power of lies.
“God forbid we should believe that any soul, much less a prophet, could be called forth by a demon,” he writes in De Anima. What Saul saw, therefore, was a demon in disguise, not Samuel.
St. Augustine Rejects Ghosts
It was up to St. Augustine to address the issue of ghosts in all its complexity, as he does in Letter 159 to Evodius, “On Genesis Literally Interpreted (De Genesi ad Litteram)” and “On the Care to Be Given to the Dead.”
In his letter to Evodius, Augustine flatly rejects the idea that the dead can return for the simple reason that the soul carries with it no material body that can “return” and be perceived by the living.
He attributes visions of the dead (both waking and sleeping) to “spiritual” vision. This kind of vision is between the vision of the senses and the inner vision of the intellect and in fact mediates between the two. People are thus not seeing concrete bodies of the dead, but, rather, semblances of bodies. He likens it to dreaming of a living friend, who is not aware of the dream but nonetheless appears in it as an image.
As for visions that are accompanied by concrete facts — such as reports of ghosts who indicated the location of their missing bodies so they can be given a proper burial or the story of a young man who is visited by the ghost of his father and directed to an important hidden document — he frankly admits that he has no explanation for them.
Augustine does, however, make exceptions. The ordinary unquiet dead may not appear to the living, but angels and demons may create semblances of the dead to either help or injure the living, and the saints can return to do the work of God.
Yet even this troubles him, and for a very personal reason. As he explains in “On the Care to Be Taken for the Dead”: If the sainted dead return to comfort and aid the living, why has his beloved mother, St. Monica, never appeared to him?
After Augustine: The Rise of Ghosts
Although Augustine’s perspective was influential and taken up by others in subsequent years, the body of literature concerning ghosts did not diminish.
Indeed, it hardly could, since it was part of the Church from the earliest days. The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity and the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla both include appearances of ghosts. The Life of St. Martin depicts the saint banishing the evil ghost of a thief. The Dialogues of Pope St. Gregory the Great include several ghost stories. The literature is significant.
A theme emerges from these stories that will grow in the late Middle Ages: The dead return from purgatory to beg prayers for the release of their souls to heaven. We see this as early as Perpetua and Felicity in the third century, when Perpetua is visited by the ghost of her brother, who requests prayers to help him get to heaven.
The theme repeats itself throughout the centuries, blossoming into a full-blown literature of purgatory in the 12th century. This includes a secondary literature of fable-like exempla and miracula tales using stories of ghosts to encourage piety, prayer and the power of the Mass to help the dead.
By the time we get to St. Thomas Aquinas, Augustine’s nuanced consideration of ghostly visions are replaced by this flat statement: “Therefore it is absurd to say that the souls of the departed do not leave their abode.” (Summa Theologiae Supplement, Question 69, Article 3. This was compiled after the death of St. Thomas and does not qualify as an extensive consideration of the issue.)
Thomas is reflecting a more developed medieval sense of ghosts who may indeed have an active role in the world, as permitted by God for his glory or the betterment of man. This includes saints appearing to the living, demons appearing in the guise of the living and the souls in purgatory requesting prayers and Masses for their release.
If we are to believe the Vita of Thomas by his fellow Dominican Bernard Gui (and there’s no reason not to), Thomas himself had ghostly encounters. One was with his sister, requesting prayers for her soul in purgatory, and then again when she had been freed from purgatory. The other was with Brother Romanus, who visited Thomas to announce his own death, sojourn in purgatory and subsequent passage to eternal life.
Do Not Try to Contact the Dead
Naturally, the Church condemns any attempt of the living to contact the dead, as well as the use of any dark arts to summon a spirit. This is clearly forbidden. The mediums who “contact” the dead are not merely frauds preying on the weak: They’re dabbling in things that can unleash an evil they cannot comprehend. A TV psychic may pretend to use some kind of “natural” gift to commune with the dead, but if she is in fact communing with the dead, she may only do so through diabolical means. The same applies to a Ouija board, which may seem like a harmless diversion but has been at the root of many cases of demonic attack and possession.
The main question in the Middle Ages was not “Is a ghost real or not?” but, rather, “Is it a good ghost or a bad ghost?” Discerning spirits is not a common charism, so anyone who does have some kind of uncanny experience should seek spiritual counseling from a priest.
Despite an extensive body of literature concerning the unquiet dead, the Church has never pronounced definitively on the subject. There is, of course, the acknowledgment that the saints may visit the living for their betterment, that God may allow angels and saints and even the souls of the dead to appear to the living if he so wills it and that in the communion of saints we are all united in a single Church, both visible and invisible.
Ghost stories are very primal and thus will always be popular. They both frighten and comfort: frighten, because of their uncanny nature; and comfort, because of the suggestion of survival beyond death.
In the Church, unless they are the result of dark arts or demonic tricks, they almost always provide hope by pointing to the power of the sacraments, the permanence of the soul and the glory that awaits us.
Thomas L. McDonald blogs at GodandtheMachine.com,
which includes an extensive archive of his writings
on ghosts, demons and ancient burial customs.