THE SPIRITS OF THE DEAD – From the Ontario Catholic Paranormal Research Society

Posted on October 27, 2011


By: Demetrius (Co-founder of the OCPRS)

            The Ontario Catholic Paranormal Research Society has always been inclined to describe ghosts as demonic manifestations. Having explored many Patristic and Biblical examples, the Christian perspective does suggest that demons are indeed responsible. However, as noted in one of the OCPRS’s earliest articles – Ghosts & Evil Spirits – there are some examples which suggest that the spirits of the dead may indeed be responsible for some ghost phenomena. The purpose of this article is not intended to shift from one perspective to another, but to provide some degree of objectivity. What must be understood is that the Christian perspective is not a divisive one. Instead, it will become apparent that the Church does acknowledge a broad range of interpretations concerning the afterlife.

            Within the Old Testament the prohibitions against necromancy – a method of divination through the dead – do imply some things worth considering to ghosts. For instance, in the book of Deuteronomy 18:11 it states: “or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead.” Here, in this prohibition against various beliefs and practices, the spirits of the dead are identified. There are a few ways to interpret this example. First, the prohibition does not necessarily validate these other practices and beliefs as capable of producing anything supernatural. Certainly the descriptions themselves represent various practices belonging to occultism, but they are only described for the sake of being forbidden. In other words, the practice of “one who calls up the dead” may not be at all real. However, there are a handful of Church Fathers who have acknowledged such practices and beliefs. The most famous example explored by the Church Fathers is the Witch of Endor, who raises the spirit of Samuel. The description of events can be found in 1 Samuel 28:7-20. St. Justin Martyr is one such early Church Father who acknowledged the validity of the practice of “one who calls up the dead,” where he writes: “And that the souls survive, I have shown to you from the fact that the soul of Samuel was called up by the witch, as Saul demanded” (Dialogue with Trypho). Here,St. Justin Martyr uses the example of the Witch of Endor calling up the soul of Samuel. Although he does so in order to support the belief of an afterlife, the practice of calling up the spirits of the dead is accepted in the literal sense. Other early Church Fathers like Origin andSt. Augustine have also acknowledged – in the literal sense –the spirit of Samuel having been raised by the Witch of Endor.

            Other considerations from the Roman Catholic Church may support the perspective that ghosts are the spirits of the dead. St.Thomas Aquinas also mentions the Witch of Endor, but in doing so, he provides considerations to the operation of summoning the dead. From his Summa Theologica, he writes:

“Further, the dead often appear to the living, asleep or awake, and tell them of what takes place there; as Samuel appeared to Saul [1 Kings 28:11]. But this could not be unless they knew what takes place here. Therefore they know what takes place on earth.”

Here, St. Thomas Aquinas acknowledges that the spirits of the dead do appear to the living in various ways. Furthermore, he believes that the dead are aware of events and of people in the living world. Although not mentioned here, it should be noted that St. Thomas Aquinas does associate a “divining spirit” – a demon – to the Witch of Endor’s calling up the dead. In doing so, he associates both demons and the spirits of the dead as belonging to the same phenomenon. This is not an isolated idea about the spirits of the dead and demons. St.John Chrysostom’s homily on Lazarus the beggar provides a detail which lends itself to St. Thomas Aquinas’ opinion, where he writes:

“…it is the soul of those who live in sin that become demons! Not because the soul’s substance is altered, but because their disposition and will is the same as those of demons’ wickedness…”

If the exegesis of St. Thomas Aquinas and those of St. John Chrysostom are compared to one another, there are a few possible considerations which can be made. One such consideration is that the spirits of the dead – especially damned souls – may be difficult to discern from demons. Another important consideration is that souls which become like demons may appear to the living. In fact, according to a Greek Orthodox example, there is a particular story which reflects this idea about the spirits of the dead who are condemned. Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965), who was an artist and writer, provided a tale in his book Mystical Flowers which describes a visitation from the spirit of a condemned soul. The tale is called The Great Wager Between Believers and Unbelievers.

During the encounter between Photios and the spirit of a dead man, the spirit goes on to describe his torments in hell. Typically, such a story conflicts with what is known in the Holy Bible. For instance, according to the Gospel of Luke 16:26, there exists a “great gulf” preventing the souls of the damned from traversing to heaven. However, the “great gulf” does not explicitly represent a condition whereby those in hell cannot visit the world of the living. In Photios’ story the spirit even tells him, “I have not come; I have been sent.” The spirit says it was “sent.” But what does this mean? According to St. Augustine’s Care of the Dead, the belief that the spirits of the dead may visit the living is possible, but only with the permission of God.St. Augustine writes: “The dead of themselves have no power to intervene in the affairs of the living.” The same belief applied to demons also applies to the spirits of the dead, whereby spirits require the permission of God. What must be understood about the permission of God is that it does not occur except to serve God’s purpose. In the story by Photios Kontoglou, the purpose is to show the living that the fate of unbelievers – hell – is real. There is no explicit detail which could otherwise restrict interpretations concerning the afterlife and ghosts.

            One particular book found in the Vulgate offers yet another example supporting the argument for ghosts. From the book of 2 Esdras 7:80 it states: “There is no place where their souls can go for rest; they must wander around forever in torment, grief, and sorrow.” The fate of sinful souls described here in this verse can be easily compared to ghost phenomena.  The verse itself does not describe precisely where the souls of the damned wander, but it does describe the condition in which the soul suffers. Many reports of ghost phenomena, have also described tormented or grief stricken spirits. There are a few problems which arise with 2 Esdras and comparing it to ghost phenomena. One problem is that not all ghostly encounters describe the offending spirit as being tormented, grief stricken, or sorrowful. Another problem is that the description of the afterlife found in 2 Esdras does not reflect the broader examples found throughout the Holy Bible

            What all these examples suggest is that according to various perspectives from the Holy Bible and the Church Fathers, the spirits of the dead may indeed be the ghosts recognized to various paranormal phenomena. Most certainly the ghosts in the majority of cases are demonic manifestations, who imitate the dead in order to deceive the living. Despite this aspect concerning ghost phenomena, the spirits of the dead may also be responsible for haunted locations involving poltergeist activity and apparitions. St.John Chrysostom described sinful souls as being like demons. Therefore, like the demons themselves the spirits of the dead may transgress the world of the living. Collectively these examples express a Christian perspective, which support the belief that the spirits of the dead can be ghosts. If these descriptions – provided here – are compared to the OCPRS’s article Ghosts & Evil Spirits, it becomes clear that there does exist an objective perception about the spirit world. The affairs of the living are not limited to angels and demons, but do include the spirits of the dead. Regardless of how ghosts are defined in non-Christian terms, the Church does recognize the possibilities as they are represented through the Holy Traditions.

            If these interpretations belonging to the Church were to be compared to those perspectives belonging to spiritualism and other forms of occultism, there remains a great difference between the two. The similarities are obvious and concern various beliefs about the afterlife, but they do not represent any major relationships between Christianity and occultism. Most certainly, those beliefs stemming from spiritualism, mediums, psychics, and even paranormal societies tend to define ghosts as the spirits of the dead. However, most fail to acknowledge the other perspectives of the Church which define such ghosts phenomena as demonic. In the vast majority of interpretations, both heaven and hell are excluded from most beliefs regarding ghosts. Perhaps the line that divides Christianity apart from the views falling under occultism is difficult to understand? Or could it be that the Christian perspectives are just difficult to accept? A Romanian Orthodox Hieromonk, Elder Cleopa (1912-1998), offers some words of wisdom concerning deceiving spirits and practices falling under the umbrella of occultism. The good Elder Cleopa was once quoted as saying:

“The prowling demons, however, instruct certain men not to be satisfied with the teaching of the Saviour and of His Apostle – to walk with trust in the faith of Christ – but rather to seek by every means to view with their sensible eyes that which is accessible only to the eyes of faith.”

In consideration to Elder Cleopa’s words, the warning he provides is alarming and helps to explain why the OCPRS needed to include additional perspectives about ghosts. The OCPRS believes that the popular belief in ghosts serves to undermine the Christian perspectives concerning the afterlife. Most certainly, all popular beliefs concerning ghosts do not reflect those of the Church. The Church is not as limiting as most spiritualists, mediums, psychics, and paranormal societies may believe. The belief in ghosts most often provokes interests in alternate forms of non-Christian spirituality, leading people away from the perspectives of the Church. Many spiritualists, and other occultists are even hostile to the teachings of the Church, and use ghosts as a means to promote their alternate views about the afterlife. Strangely, many paranormal societies and investigators have become equally hostile to Christian views. Many attempts are made regularly, by spiritualists and others, to diminish the beliefs of the Church. What is most often promoted is a view that the Church is limited regarding the afterlife. What are seen to be a limitation within the Church are really misrepresentations through alternate forms of spirituality. As expressed here in this article, the perspectives on ghosts can and do include the spirits of the dead. However, the Church also believes that the majority of ghost phenomena are owed to demonic manifestations. The degree of objectivity does not require the Church to hold one perspective on equal terms with another. Although such perspectives concerning the spirits of the dead are not held in a prominent place they do provide some answers to the unknown. These answers are rejected by all forms of occultism and the New Age.

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