GHOSTS & EVIL SPIRITS – According to the Ontario Catholic Paranormal Research Society

Posted on January 27, 2011

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By: Marcio & Demetrius (Co-Founders of the OCPRS Toronto Canada)

Most people are inclined to believe that ghosts are strictly the souls of the departed. This has become the most popular view. Surprisingly this view is accepted by many Christians. While not all ghosts are reported as malevolent, some are regarded as “evil spirits.” What will be explored here in this article is whether or not evil spirits are actually departed souls or something else. Both biblical and Patristic sources will help contextualize what it is that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church believe. In turn, what this article will help expose is that perhaps ghosts, evil or not, may simply be demonic manifestations.

Following death, do the souls of sinful people become “evil spirits” in the afterlife? Do souls become ghosts? Apparently, the biblical evidence suggests that the answer may be, no. In the biblical context an evil spirit is typically associated to the demonic, and in most cases, to the devil himself. However, the biblical examples do not always explicitly identify demons or the devil, but make use of expression such as “unclean spirit(s)” or “evil spirit(s).” In the Bible, demon, is derived from the Greek word, Daimon. English translations of the Bible obviously do not universally translate every example of the demonic explicitly. In many ways, the diversity of terms found in the Bible gives the impression that evil spirits are not necessarily demons in all cases. Of course, this often occurs when examining the biblical text in a literal way. Such literalism leads to many misconceptions.

The words used in some books of the Bible frustrate the reader even further, whereby the expressions used to identify demonic entities can become confusing. In the Book of Tobit the confusion between spiritual entities occurs where one can read: “…a demon or evil spirit…” (Tobit 6:7). In some English translations, the word devil is used rather than demon. Presented alongside “evil spirits” it is not difficult to understand why some may believe that evil spirits may be entities apart from the Devil or his demons. Although some people may conclude – and wrongly so – that “evil spirits” does not refer to demonic entities, there is no description of what an evil spirit is in the Book of Tobit. What is evident is that “devil” or “demon” is presented alongside “evil spirits” because they are of the same kind to one another in regards to the treatment prescribed by the angel Raphael (the fumigation using a fish liver and heart burned together). Demonic entities are fallen angels, and are therefore different from the human spirit. Since there is a lack of any description that could explain that an evil spirit is the malevolent ghost of a dead person, what is much more probable is that evil spirits are demonic in nature. The language used in the Book of Tobit reflects other beliefs and expressions elsewhere in the Bible. These other references hold to an understanding that “evil spirit(s)” is a reference to fallen angels (not departed souls). What is reasonable and acceptable is that the language used in the Book of Tobit does not introduce anything foreign to what is expressed elsewhere in the Bible concerning the identification of demonic entities. What is described alongside “devil” or “demon” is not a malevolent ghost of a dead person, but an expression of the multitudes of fallen angels.

Why this issue concerning ghosts and demons is important is because people tend to make assumptions about what a ghost or demon is. Unfortunately, in both cases, people are not capable of easily discerning between a departed soul and a demon concerning paranormal incidents.

The descriptions of heaven, hell, and the human soul can be found in the Bible. Angelic and demonic descriptions may also be found. These descriptions provide insights into the nature of the spiritual world and its relationship to humanity. In the Old Testament there is little in regards to descriptions of what we can consider or equate to ghosts. One of the more popular incidents found in the Old Testament is the calling-up of the soul of Samuel by the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:7-20). It would seem that the soul of Samuel was indeed summoned by the witch, and thereby could be compared to mediums and spiritualists who believe themselves capable of communicating with the dead. Not explicitly defined as a “ghost,” there is still an implication that the soul of Samuel was summoned and appeared before the witch as a ghost. This is a common notion amongst mediums, spiritualists, and many paranormal investigators in our present day. Although this notion is commonly accepted, the Church Fathers have had mixed opinions about such a view, and with good reason. The majority of the Church Fathers believe that the entity summoned by the witch was a demon (Tertullian, Hippolytus, Ephraim of Syria, Evagreus, Basil, Jerome, Ambrosiaster, and Gregory of Nyssa). Other Church Fathers were inclined to believe that the entity was most likely a demon, but did not exclude the possibility that the witch may have summoned Samuel’s soul (John Chrysostom, Theodoret). However, a small portion of the Church Fathers did believe that the witch of Endor summoned Samuel (Justin Martyr, Origen, and Augustine). Despite the varying opinions, it is the general consensus among the Church Fathers that the entity was demonic in nature. It is for this reason that the Church adheres to the belief that any such “ghosts” are demonic manifestations rather than disembodied spirits. As for the minority view held by some of the Church Fathers, the possibility of a disembodied soul, or ghost, is not necessarily dismissed, but neither is it the mainstream view of the Church.

Whether or not the witch summoned Samuel’s spirit is not the only issue. The spirit of Samuel is said to rise up from the earth since his soul has been consigned to that region of the afterlife known in Hebrew as Sheol (the resting place or abyss of all souls before the victory of Christ over death). In the Gospel of Luke, there is a reference made to the region of hell and the “great gulf” which separates any such unfortunate souls from heaven and the world of the living. The reference mentioned here is about the rich man and Lazarus the beggar (Luke 16:19-31). The “great gulf” identified in verse twenty-six seems to prevent any soul consigned to hell from entering heaven or returning to the world of the living. The rich man who finds himself in hell is not necessarily evil, but is remorseful and wishes to warn the living, where he says, “but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.” In this biblical example it becomes apparent that even sinful souls who are consigned to hell are not evil, but demonstrate a desire to help others avoid their fate. What can be understood from this reference in the Gospel of Luke is that even if we could call the souls of the damned – who wish to warn the living – “ghosts,” they are not necessarily evil spirits.

There is a  biblical text that seems to support the view that the souls of the departed can be equated to ghosts. This book is known as the Apocalypse of Ezra; the Prophet Esdras; or more commonly by biblical scholars as the Fourth Book of Esdras (4 Esdras). In the seventh chapter of this text there is an explanation of what happens to sinful souls following death. Verse eighty describes what happens to sinful souls: “There is no place where their souls can go for rest; they must wander around forever in torment, grief, and sorrow.” From this description it is easy to associate the fate of such souls with ghosts. As a biblical text, strangely, it stands outside of the mainstream teachings of the Church. It does, however, allow for the possibility that ghosts may be departed souls rather than demons. While the possibilities cannot be dismissed, the overwhelming biblical and patristic evidence makes this view unlikely.

The present day belief that ghosts are departed souls is nothing new. In fact, such a belief is implied in the Gospel of Luke among Christ’s disciples (Luke 24:37). In their fear and lack of understanding the disciples believed that they were confronted by a ghost. The reference does not explain what a ghost is, but it is obvious that the words “spirit,” “evil spirit,” and “unclean spirit” are not used. These terms are exclusive to demons. During Christ’s appearance to His disciples, Jesus puts their concerns to rest where he invites them to touch him: “for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones, as you can see I [Jesus] have.” The reaction of the disciples does not necessarily provide any clear biblical evidence that a ghost is a departed soul, and once again the possibility remains open to interpretation. Or does it?

According to the Church, when a person dies they are said to experience a foretaste of either heaven or hell. Judgement is experienced following death: “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). In the teachings of the Church, this is a partial judgement. In Revelation there is a reference that implies that the souls of the damned are consigned to hell before the final judgement. In the twentieth chapter of Revelation, verse thirteen, the souls of the damned are raised for the final judgement: “and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them.” The same is said of the sea where souls who perished at sea are thereby consigned. The previous example of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) also suggests that the souls of the damned are consigned to hell until the final judgement. On this matter St. John Chrysostom writes: “Nor, indeed, is it possible for a soul, once separated from its body, to wander here anymore. For, the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God […] and the souls, also of sinners, are straightaway led away hence and it cannot be that a soul, when it has gone-out of the body can wander here.” Without the foretaste of either Heaven or Hell, the belief that a ghost is all that remains of the human spirit conflicts with the teachings of the Church. Such a belief can become heretical, as is the case with Modern Spiritualism. It isn’t difficult to see how the majority of examples outweigh the few examples that seem to suggest that departed souls could be equated to ghosts.

The more likely explanation is that demonic influences are the source of ghost phenomenon. This view is difficult for many to accept. Paranormal “evidence” attempts to give the impression that ghosts are departed souls. Ghosts captured on film often resemble people. In 2 Corinthians the devil even has the ability to present himself as an “angel of light.” Demonic manifestations have even been known to appear in various forms in order to distract or deceive people through the senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and even taste. So-called mediums and psychics claim to speak with, or sense, departed souls. They convince themselves and others that they can discern between departed souls and demons. The deceptive nature of demonic entities makes discernment very difficult and many demonic manifestations occur through such people in order to deceive the living of many false teachings about the afterlife. In 1 John chapter four, verse one, there is a reference made concerning discernment: “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits.” Through the teachings of the Church people can begin to grasp a sense of discernment, but this alone is not enough. Faith is an important element for anyone who wishes to recognize the truth from falsehood. The biblical and Patristic evidence suggests that ghosts may be nothing more than demonic manifestations. The possibility of departed souls manifesting themselves as ghosts truly seems unlikely. If such a thing were at all possible, it is not explicit in the Bible or the teachings of the Church. Much more can and should be explored in regards to the teachings of the Church. If anything can be gained from this brief article, it is to have people ask themselves to re-think what they think they know about the supernatural world.

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