Are There Ghosts? Dr. Ron Rhodes The line, “I see dead people,” became a popular catch-phrase in the years following the release of the block-buster movie, The Sixth Sense. Many other Hollywood movies have had ghost themes, including Ghostbusters, Poltergeist, Ghost, White Noise, The Ring, Just Like Heaven, The Grudge, Hereafter, and Paranormal Activity, just to name a few. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 38 percent of Americans believe ghosts or spirits can come back and visit people on earth. That means over one third of Americans — over 100 million Americans — believe in ghosts. As well, 28 percent of Americans think people can communicate with or “mentally” talk to the dead.[1] A Barna poll revealed that more than seven million teenagers in the U.S. claim to have personally encountered a spirit entity. Are there ghosts? Are there dead people walking the earth as spirits? Are living people today communicating with the dead? Do ghosts provide hard-core proof for life after death? In what follows, I will briefly address these and other pertinent questions related to ghost phenomena. What Is a Ghost? Our English word “ghost” comes from the German word geist, which can also mean “spirit.” Many people today believe that a ghost is a spirit of a dead person that still dwells on the earth. Let us first consider what psychics say about ghosts, and then proceed to measure this against what the Bible teaches. The Psychic View of Ghosts A ghost, according to psychics, is a nonmaterial phantom-like manifestation of a dead person — or, in some cases, an animal. It is typically thought to be the spirit, soul, specter, or “astral body” of a person (or animal) who has not passed over to the Other Side but instead has remained on earth after death. Psychic Sylvia Browne claims that upon death, the spirits of most people accept the reality of their deaths and immediately go through some kind of tunnel to enter into the spirit dimension known as the Other Side.[2] On the Other Side, these spirits can allegedly continue to progress and evolve. A ghost, however, either “sees the tunnel and turns away or refuses to acknowledge the tunnel in the first place, with the result that it gets caught, outside of its body, between our dimension and the dimension of the Other Side.”[3] Psychics claim that when these ghost-spirits deprive themselves of entrance into the tunnel which leads to the Other Side, they exist under the confusing delusion that they are still alive and have not died. Paranormal investigator Leslie Rule claims that such ghosts “have no sense of passing time. A century may be just seconds on the Other Side. Trapped souls seem to exist in a state of confusion. It may feel a little like being stuck in a dream.”[4] Psychics claim that such ghosts recognize that, for some reason, the world seems to treat them as if they no longer exist. This can allegedly add to the ghost’s confusion.[5] A situation similar to this was portrayed by Bruce Willis in the motion picture, The Sixth Sense. Willis’s character had been killed, and his spirit stayed on the earth plane, not realizing he was dead until the end of the movie. Paranormal experts suggest that there are perhaps six signs that indicate a ghost may be present: 1. Pets react to something others can’t see, such as growling at thin air or refusing to go in a particular room. 2. People in the household are having nightmares. 3. Objects are mysteriously misplaced and often returned just as mysteriously. 4. Electrical appliances turn themselves on or off or tap water turns on or toilets flush by themselves. 5. Unexplained cold drafts or cold spots are felt. 6. Footsteps, raps on the walls, or voices are heard. Psychic Sylvia Browne claims that once a spirit actually enters into the Other Side (passing through the tunnel into the great light), it becomes more difficult for psychics to see or hear them since they exist in an entirely different spirit dimension. However, since ghosts have not yet entered that dimension, it is allegedly easier to see and hear them.[6] “Because they are stubbornly clinging to this dimension after death, they are the easiest residents of the spirit world for the rest of us to hear and see.”[7] When such ghosts appear, they are claimed to be semitransparent, shadowy, and fog-like. This fog-like substance is often called ectoplasm by parapsychologists. Sometimes ghosts do not actually manifest themselves visibly but allegedly make their presence know by moving objects, making noise (like footsteps), or flipping on a light switch. The Truth About Ghosts Are “ghosts” really appearing among people? A thorough investigation into ghostly phenomena, involving years of research, leads me to suggest the following: Ghost Phenomena Is Experience-Based. One cannot help but note that much of the so-called evidence for ghost phenomena is based on experience and feelings, not objective data. It is fair to demand that if one is going to make extraordinary claims, one must back up those claims with extraordinary evidence, not mere feelings or experiences.   Many ghost reports involve a person’s peripheral vision. Experts tell us that peripheral vision is very sensitive to motion. Peripheral vision, of course, does not focus on specific shapes but rather simply detects motion. Some people, when they sense a random motion outside of their focused view, jump to the conclusion that a ghost just went by. In reality, it may be as simple to explain as a car driving by that caused a brief reflection of light to shine into the house. Experience can be deceiving. Another problem is that people’s experiences may not necessarily be accurately reported. There is an all-too-common tendency for people to embellish what they have experienced, often adding sensational details to make their stories seem more interesting and fascinating. (This tendency has been documented in relation to the UFO reports of Roswell citizens.) This tendency makes it very difficult to trust many of the accounts people have given through the years of alleged encounters with ghosts. Awakening from Sleep and Ghost Phenomena. A key factor that would seem to undermine many reports of ghost activity is that they often involve a person coming out of a deep sleep state. When a person wakes up from sleep, his cognitive and perceptual abilities may be on the weaker side, and he may think he is experiencing something which is in fact not real. It is even possible for a person to wake from a dream, and still think he hears voices in the house. Once the person completely wakes up, such strange experiences vanish. Night Fears. Some people might have a night fear and wrongly attribute it to ghostly or paranormal phenomena. During a night fear, people can experience a variety of symptoms, including shortness of breath, rapid breathing, irregular heartbeat, sweating, nausea, a sense of detachment from reality, and overall feelings of dread. A night fear involves an intense fear of something that poses no actual danger. Some people, in such a state, may wrongly interpret their experience as a ghost haunting their house. Misinterpretations Are All-Too-Easy. A number of people have claimed house hauntings when in reality they have probably just misinterpreted the data. Claiming a ghostly intrusion simply because an item seems to be missing from the refrigerator or because a painting in the living room is suddenly hanging crooked is unconvincing. The Power of Suggestion and Conditioning. An interesting psychological phenomenon is that people tend to see what they have been conditioned to see. At the height of the European witch craze that took place in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries — a situation in which people had become programmed to see witches — there were virtually thousands of reports of flying witches. “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it” seems a fitting twist on an old maxim. In like manner, because of the many movies, television shows, and books that people have been exposed to about ghostly phenomena, one could argue that people have become programmed to expect the paranormal. Hence, when a person’s peripheral vision detects movement, or perhaps a person experiences feeling a chill, or perhaps a person has sudden goose bumps, that person may jump to the conclusion that a ghost may be present. Fraudulent Claims. Researchers have uncovered a number of fraudulent claims, especially as related to ghost photography. I have personally showed alleged ghost photographs to a professional photographer, who immediately commented on how gullible people can be. He noted it would take little skill to accurately reproduce such “ghost” photographs using common photographic techniques. The Connection to Occultism. One might get the idea from reading the above that I dismiss all alleged ghost encounters as either fraudulent, a misinterpretation of the data, sheer subjectivism (“I feel like I’m being watched”), or something experienced upon awakening from deep sleep. This is not the case, however. While I believe there is good reason to suspect that many alleged ghost encounters can be explained in this way, I also believe there are cases in which people are genuinely encountering a spirit entity — though not a dead human. I believe some people are encountering demonic spirits (see 1 John 4:1; 1 Tim. 4:1-3). It is highly revealing that many who claim to have encountered such spirit entities have some prior involvement in the occult, such as spiritism, necromancy, and/or séances. I have observed over many years that such occultic involvement invariably leads to spirit contact. Dead Humans—Not Available for Earth Visits The Bible sets forth substantial evidence that dead humans are not available for earth visits as “ghosts.”[8] Death for the believer involves his or her spirit departing from the physical body and immediately going into the presence of the Lord in heaven (Phil. 1:21-23). This is why, when Stephen was being put to death by stoning, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). At the moment of death, “the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Second Corinthians 5:8 confirms that to be “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord.” The point is, Christians are not still on earth but are with the Lord in heaven, where they remain in intimate perpetual fellowship with Him (1 Thes. 4:17). For the unbeliever, death holds grim prospects. At death the unbeliever’s spirit departs from the body and goes not to heaven but to a place of great suffering, where they are involuntarily confined, and not permitted to contact the living (Luke 16:19-31). Second Peter 2:9, speaking of unbelievers who have died, tells us that the Lord knows how “to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.” The point is, the unrighteous are not still on earth, nor do they have access to earth! Hence, whatever people think they are encountering with alleged ghostly visitations is most certainly not the spirits of dead people walking around. If a person is encountering any spirit entity at all — for example, a person who is involved in the occult — it is a demonic spirit that apparently has the ability to imitate a dead human. The Great Masquerade I believe there is scriptural support for the idea that Satan and his horde of demons have the ability to impersonate dead humans, and they do so in order to give credence to the false religion of Spiritualism, thereby leading millions of people astray. We must not forget that Satan is a masterful counterfeiter. Consider the following:

  • Satan has his own church — the “synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9).
  • Satan has his own ministers — ministers of darkness that bring false sermons (2 Corinthians 11:4-5).
  • Satan has formulated his own system of theology— called “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1; Revelation 2:24).
  • Satan’s ministers proclaim a counterfeit gospel — “a gospel other than the one we preached to you” (Galatians 1:7-8).
  • Satan has his own throne (Revelation 13:2) and his own worshipers (13:4).
  • Satan inspires false Christs and self-constituted messiahs (Matthew 24:4-5).
  • Satan employs false teachers who bring in “destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1).
  • Satan sends out false prophets (Matthew 24:11).
  • Satan sponsors false apostles who imitate the true (2 Corinthians 11:13).

Likewise, there is good reason to suspect that in many cases today, Satan is counterfeiting dead humans in order to deceive the living. Occult expert Orville Swenson warns that just because a psychic engages in contact with a spirit claiming to be a human does not mean that it is really so:   This does not mean that the spirits of the dead have actually appeared or spoken to the living, but rather that Satan, using demons under his control, has been able to impersonate the departed loved ones of those who want to hear a message from them, and in that way persuade them that a real contact with the departed has been experienced.[9]   Demons are more than willing to masquerade as dead humans if the result will be that tens of millions of people will be deceived and drawn away from Jesus Christ in the process. As John Ankerberg and John Weldon note, “These spirits already know they will eventually be consigned forever to a place Jesus called hell (Matthew 8:29). The Scriptures lead us to conclude the real motive of the spirits is to take as many men to hell with them as possible by preventing their salvation (John 8:44; 2 Corinthians 11;3,4,13,14; Hebrews 2;14; 1 Peter 5:8).”[10] What About Psychic Scams? Of course, there is also evidence that many psychics are actually not in contact with any spirits, but are rather feigning such contact. Many such psychics “fish” for information during psychic readings. For example, a psychic might ask a television studio audience something like this: “Do any of you have a grandmother whose name starts with S? Or R? Or maybe D?” (They keep mentioning common letters until they get a response.) Another common fishing line might go like this: “I am sensing a female figure. It’s either a mom or a mother figure who has crossed over to the Other Side.” It does not take a rocket scientist to recognize that a huge percentage of the American public has a mom or mother figure who has died. Or the psychic medium might say, “I am sensing a male who is older than you.” (Everyone knows an older male who has died.) Such lines are bound to generate significant response in a large studio audience. Once the psychic has received a response, he can then fish for other pertinent information. For example, a psychic medium might fish for information relating to how a person died. When speaking to a client about the death of the client’s father, the psychic medium might say: “I’m sensing a pain in the chest area.” If he receives a positive nod, he may ask if the father died of a heart attack. (Obviously, many people in the United States die of a heart attack.) If the psychic is wrong about a heart attack, he may say he senses a shadow in the body, and then ask if the father died of cancer. Or he might ask about the head area — perhaps a stroke or a head injury. Because heart attacks, cancer, strokes, and head injuries are statistically the most common causes of death in our culture, the psychic stands a good chance of success in nailing a person’s cause of death in this way. Keep in mind, however, that just because there are some psychics that engage in scams, one should not conclude that all spirit-contact is fraudulent. My old colleague Walter Martin is correct in noting that “there are many Christians, unfortunately, who suffer from the illusion that all Spiritism, or spiritistic evidence, is fraudulent, and prefer to rest in the falsely secure belief that Spiritism can never be demonically empowered.”[11] Martin warns that “not all psychic or spiritistic phenomena can be exposed as fraudulent. There is a spiritual dimension that cannot be ignored. Authentic spiritists draw their power from the one the Bible calls ‘a roaring lion’ who seeks ‘whom he may devour’ (1 Peter 5:8), who is Satan.”[12] One psychic I spent several hours observing in person, Kevin Ryerson (Shirley MacLaine’s psychic), gave rather convincing evidence of genuine spirit contact — that is, contact with an evil spirit. From such spirit contact came many “revelations,” including that there is no sin, no death, no hell, and that all people of all religions are welcome in heaven. Ryerson claimed to be in contact with dead humans, but there is no doubt in my mind that he was in contact with evil demonic spirits. Conclusion What can we conclude? It primarily comes down to this: (1) Ghost phenomena is highly subjective and experience-based. (2) Many psychics claiming to be in contact with ghosts are engaged in scams. (3) Some people are engaged in genuine spirit contact — not contact with a dead human (who is unavailable for such contact), but rather a demonic spirit who is apparently mimicking a dead human. (4) People who experience such genuine spirit contact have typically had some involvement in the occult.[13] Those desirous of a full treatment of this subject matter can consult my book, The Truth Behind Ghosts, Mediums, and Psychic Phenomena. Does ghost phenomena constitute evidence for life after death? In answering that question, allow me to suggest that the very fact that Satan and demons are mimicking dead humans may provide some evidence for life after death. All the other things Satan counterfeits are genuine things of God — including the “synagogue of Satan” in place of the genuine church (Rev. 2:9), “doctrines of demons” in place of genuine Christian doctrine (1 Tim. 4:1; Rev. 2:24), false Christs in place of the genuine Christ (Mt. 24:4-5), false prophets in place of genuine prophets of God (Mt. 24:11), and false apostles in place of God’s genuine apostles (2 Cor. 11:13). Might it be possible, then, that Satan’s counterfeit “ghosts” mimic the genuine spirits of the dead in the afterlife? And if so, might this be considered a supportive evidence for the survival of the human soul or spirit following the moment of death? Many would say so. Of course, our best evidence for what lies beyond death comes from the One who came back from death — yea, even conquered death, Jesus Christ. The Word of God, which documents this victory over death, is our true compass regarding what lies beyond the grave. [1] See Pauline Chiou, “Listening to the Voices of Ghosts,” CBS News, February 3, 2006; Marcia Montenegro, “I See Dead People,” Christian Research Journal, volume 25, number 1, 2003, Internet edition. [2] Sylvia Browne, The Other Side and Back (New York: Signet, 2000), p. 160. [3] Sylvia Browne, Life on the Other Side (New York: Signet, 2000), p. 56. [4] Leslie Rule, Coast to Coast Ghosts (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001), p. 92. [5] Browne, Life on the Other Side, p. 56. [6] Browne, The Other Side and Back, p. 160. [7] Browne, The Other Side and Back, pp. 149-50. [8] The biblical record of the medium of Endor should not be take as support for psychic phenomena or ghostly contact (1 Samuel 28). In this passage, God sovereignly and miraculously allowed Samuel’s spirit to appear in order to rebuke Saul for his sin. Samuel’s spirit did not appear as a result of the medium’s powers (for indeed, no human has the power to summon dead humans—Luke 16:24–27; Hebrews 9:27), but only because God sovereignly brought it about. Notice that when Samuel appeared from the dead, the medium shrieked with fear (1 Samuel 28:12-14). The medium’s cry of astonishment indicates that this appearance of Samuel was not the result of her usual tricks. [9] Orville Swenson, The Perilous Path of Cultism (Caronport: Briercrest Books, 1987), p. 205. [10] John Ankerberg and John Weldon, Cult Watch (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1991 ), p. 176. [11] Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2003), p. 268. [12] Martin, p. 263. [13] Note that all forms of occultism are condemned by God (see Exod. 22:18; Lev. 19:26,31; 20:6,27; Deut. 18:10–11).