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The Ghost Myth

Major Barry Corbitt relies on personal experience and his knowledge of science and scripture to argue against the existence of ghosts.

We all took our turns sitting around the bed, watching our dear father slip away. He had scarcely stirred for three days, and we knew the time of his passing was imminent. The conversation was casual and fearless, as we were certain we would all be together again somewhere down the road. We were raised to believe in eternity, and while my father had his carnal moments, we understood that true grace holds few grudges. Wherever Heaven is, we knew one day there would be no death, no tears and no sting.

As the hour grew late, my sister asked if I believed in the spirits of the dead roaming among us in disembodied form? I turned the question in my mind and responded in measured words. “I believe in biology…I don’t believe in ghosts.” I based my answer on science and experience. I’m afraid the facts and processes of the life/death cycle are indisputable as witnessed by my family when Dad took his last breath. Immediately, what once was living became lifeless. From dust we came and to dust we shall return, in proper fashion by the design of our Creator. That is, until the Creator returns to take us home. What a day that will be! 

Why are we so inclined to seek after the supernatural? Is ordinary life so mundane that we should busy ourselves with the search for other-world notions? Have we, as Christians—identified with the most supernatural being in history—also fallen for the existential escapism found in the search for ghosts and spirits? A cursory scan through your television guide will clearly reveal the fascination with mystical beings. The stations are replete with programming geared toward those whose imaginations have overtaken their common sensibilities. No offense, but humanity at large will fall for most anything if the language is fancy and the production slick. 

We are meant to walk this earth as children of light. All too often we choose the lesser path and race toward darkness. It’s sad that humankind, possessed of so much radiant potential, should be content to stumble along toward unilluminated ends. In her song, “Closer to Fine,” singer-songwriter Emily Saliers declares,, “…darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable and lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.” Maybe the shadow world has led us into the void and we, like blind sheep, simply close our eyes and wander off into the night. We ought not tarry in the darkness too long. That’s where the scary things reside. 

What does the Bible say about ghosts and spirits—specifically the spirits of the dead and their further participation in the activities of life? We’re tempted to look immediately to the stories of the raising of the dead—Lazarus, the daughter of Jarius, Eutychus, Tabitha and, of course, Jesus. In each of these cases, people legitimately came back to life in the flesh, bones, muscles, organs, senses and all. They did not live again as spirits but as actual human beings. The most significant of these resurrections is Jesus. The whole of salvation theology is grounded upon the reality that Jesus defeated death and lived again in fully human form just as He said He would. When Jesus first appeared to the disciples after His resurrection, they were astonished and frightened, as they thought Him to be a ghost. Jesus, noting their reaction said, “Why are you troubled and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see…a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” It is important to recognize Jesus was not acknowledging the existence of ghosts or shadowy manifestations of the dead. He simply recognized the reasonable response of imaginative humans who had, perhaps since their childhoods, believed in the phantasma alluded to in lore, literature and oral tradition. 

Many have pointed to the biblical account of the Witch of Endor as proof that ghosts are real. Saul, fearing the Philistine army encamped at Shunem, sought the services of a medium to conjure the spirit of Samuel so that he might foretell the outcome of the pending battle. The account in 1 Samuel 28 indicates Samuel’s ghost appeared to the medium and spoke to Saul. Whether it was the actual spirit of Samuel is a point of much speculation. Perhaps God allowed Samuel to appear on this isolated occasion to deliver a final, fateful message to Saul. God does as He will, but it seems somewhat illogical for God to use the supposed skills of a spiritist to do His bidding, especially since the Mosaic Law forbade the counsel of such practitioners. A second theory suggests a demonic imposter took the form of Samuel and spoke with Saul. This is a plausible explanation, as demonic forms are prevalent in scripture. A third scenario suggests the medium simply used her skills as a clever deceiver to defraud Saul. Mediums were well practiced in the tricks of the trade by which they made a living. Whichever angle one takes, the story of the Witch of Endor produces little evidence of the existence of ghosts.

What about evidence? In the latter years of his life, the legendary illusionist and escape artist, Harry Houdini, set about the task of trying to contact his dead mother. For all of his documented skill at trickery and sleight of hand, there was one supreme illusion that alluded his grasp—the ability to reach into the beyond and contact the dead. His exhaustive search only revealed what he perhaps already knew—that mediums, necromancers and spiritualists, were all frauds. He spent his last years denouncing all forms of psychic chicanery and debunking the myth that the dead could be summoned from their sleep. Houdini documented his findings in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits. I submit that while there seems to be much evidence to disprove the existence of ghosts, there seems to be very little evidence to support the notion that they wander among us.

What shall we conclude then? The wisdom literature of the Bible gives us a rather clear picture of the afterlife and the inability of the dead to have further physical influence in the living world. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes notes, “their love, hatred, and jealousy have long since vanished; never again willthey have a part in anything that happens under the sun.” Not surprisingly, Job offers a rather straightforward take on death and afterlife when he writes, “As water disappears from the sea or a riverbed becomes parched and dry, so man lies down and does not rise till the heavens are no more, men will not awake or be roused from their sleep.”

Earlier, I mentioned my father. We miss him—those of us who watched him slip away into his rest on that warm summer evening a few years ago. We’d like to talk with him again and bring him up to speed on the happenings in our living world. He rests beneath an old oak tree that shades the cool green sod that shelters his earthly form. Sometimes, we visit the grave and hold one-way conversations—hearing Dad’s reply only in the memory of his voice. One day, we’ll embrace in eternity. Until then, I don’t believe in ghosts. 

Major Barry Corbitt is a Salvation Army officer in Lakeland, FL.

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