But they aren’t what you may think they are.
So on this All Hallows Eve, let me speak to one of the most common questions I used to get from people all the time while serving on a pastoral staff. Do Christians believe in ghosts?
Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy was talking about this last night on Twitter–which got me thinking about the subject.
First, a couple of stories.
1. About 10 years ago, I was having some work done on a shotgun by a gunsmith whom someone had recommended to me. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember that he was a master at his craft. We got to know each other over the course of several weeks, and I came to like him very much. He was quiet, absorbed in his work, not chatty at all. But we did talk about our backgrounds. I found out he had an M.Div. from Gettysburg Seminary, and when I asked him if he believed in ghosts–given the fact that 25,000 people suffered violent deaths there in the space of 3 days in 1863–I’ll never forget his response. He stopped what he was doing, looked at me over his glasses right in the eyes, and said, if you didn’t believe in ghosts when you got to Gettysburg Seminary, you sure did when you left. He didn’t elaborate. Then, he simply returned to his work.
2. My grandmother moved into a new house she had built shortly after her husband had died in 1969 on the outskirts of Gordonsville, Virginia. I remember visiting that house when I was little, and finding it fascinating. She died when I was only 6, but for years, I had a recurring dream of being in the pasture across the road from her house. In that pasture, I would meet my grandmother and my uncle, who died in a tragic car accident. My aunts told me that my grandmother believed the house was haunted, and they thought so, too. They lived in the house for two years after my grandmother died, and they thought there was a connection between the house and my recurring dreams.
Thirty years later, my wife and I found ourselves living in the same community as my grandmother had lived at the time of her death. I took my brother on a drive to her house one afternoon, because he hadn’t seen it during all that time. I said, why don’t we drive up the driveway and see if anyone is home–maybe they’ll invite us in when we introduce ourselves. This being rural Virginia, the people who lived in the house were very friendly and welcomed us inside. We had a great deal of fun going from room to room, and experiencing a flood of wonderful memories.
After visiting for about an hour, the owner of the house said to me, “This may sound strange, but did your grandmother ever say anything about this house being haunted?”
I was speechless.
3. My great aunt and uncle lived in the same house in Ennis, Montana for almost 60 years, but they weren’t the original owners of the house. My Aunt Joan always said that the house was haunted. She surmised that the “ghost” was the spirit of a young child, because she would find random toys on the floor of the house as if a little one had just gotten up from playing. After so many years of being in the house, Aunt Joan and Uncle Chet just got accustomed to sounds of laughter, lights coming on or off at random, and the little marbles and jacks that would show up on the floor in the night or while they were out. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the prospect of their house being haunted, but I didn’t take it all that seriously.
One evening at about 10, I was sitting in the dining room of their house writing a letter to a friend. I was all alone in the house at the time, and concentrating on my letter. Suddenly, I heard the sound of a small person running up and down the upstairs hallway.
Out the door I went, and slept in the bunkhouse that night. I never finished that letter.
So what’s the deal, at least from a theological perspective? Hebrews 9.27 states, “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” Jesus said in John 5.28-29, “an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, and those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” Jesus’ words are consistent with Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 12.2–“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.”
It would appear that Scripture teaches that, after death occurs, we are all held accountable for our lives before God, the only One to whom we are ultimately responsible, since he is our Creator. Those who put their trust in Christ arise to the newness of eternal life. We see this throughout the entire Scripture, but a couple of passages in particular serve as examples of this teaching–
“For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will you allow your Holy One to undergo decay. You will make known to me the path of life; In your presence is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Psalm 16.10-11
“Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.” Isaiah 26.19
“Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people.” Ezekiel 37.13
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11.25-26
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” I Corinthians 15.22
So, if there is no intermediate state by which spirits of the dead roam the earth, how do we explain the myriad and diverse accounts of apparitions? Many of us have had direct experiences of encountering apparitions–we’re not simply relying on History Channel episodes. Some of us have seen or heard things that have no rational explanation except that of an encounter with an apparition.
Scripture itself suggests that such encounters are possible. One of the strangest stories in all the Bible is found in I Samuel 28. Here we have Saul going to the witch of Endor, and asking her to bring the prophet Samuel up from the dead so that he might consult with him (I Samuel 28.13-25). To Saul’s utter shock and awe, Samuel appeared and sternly rebuked him, reminding him of his sins and of the fact that God had chosen David in his stead to be king of Israel. My own position (and that of St. Augustine, I might add) on the identity of the personage brought up by the witch of Endor is that it was indeed Samuel, and God brought him up to rebuke Saul for his sins (as well as the witch herself, for her spiritualism, which was, and remains, a grave sin.)
But we must remember another key passage from the New Testament, a passage that sheds light on the true identity of apparitions that the living sometimes encounter. Paul wrote in II Corinthians 11.14-15, “No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore, it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.” To be sure, Paul is talking about living false prophets and apostles, who go about spreading heretical teachings. But clearly, the Apostle Paul is warning his readers that the devil and his servants have great power to deceive we who are among the living, and draw us away from some of the most significant truths of the Scriptures, namely, that all have sinned (Romans 3.23), all stand accountable to God upon their deaths, and there are no second chances for the dead to get it right on earth after their deaths.
Jesus told the Pharisees that Satan is a liar–“Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” In that same verse, he said that Satan “was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.”
What better way to deceive and murder then to draw us away from the truth of the gospel by convincing us that there is no sin, no hell, no heaven, no accountability to God, no atonement for sin, and no eternal life united with Christ?
Ghosts are real. But they are not spirits of the departed. They are demons, attempting to deceive, and draw us away from the gospel. They can strike fear into our hearts, but there’s no cause for all that. The glorious Christ declares, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Revelation 1.17-18). He who has life in and of himself gives life to those who put their trust in him. Those who are Christ’s need have no fear of the grave, or of those who would have us believe they are among the dead.
Sarah Etter is a dear, dear friend of mine. Actually, I’ve known her all of her life. She is the daughter of one of my very best friends, Bruce Etter, who faithful readers of TBYFA will remember recently included me in some interviews for a history series. He interviewed me on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and also hosted a roundtable discussion with John Fea and me on whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation.
Sarah is thirteen years old, and finishing up her eighth grade year as a student at Wilson Hill Academy where her father serves as head of school. What is really special about Sarah is that she is a contributor to Bigger on the Inside: Christianity and Doctor Who, edited by Gregory Thornbury and Ned Bustard. She is one of the most impressive students I’ve ever seen–truly. She is the only eighth grader I’ve ever known to contribute to a work edited by such towering figures as Thornbury and Bustard. I am honored to share this essay that she wrote especially for us here at the blog.
Sarah writes about C. S. Lewis’ famous Trilemma, but she gives us a fresh and very interesting perspective on it. Here’s Sarah–read and enjoy.
The enchanted world of Narnia has brought charm to the world since 1950. It is a world of silver seas, growing lampposts, and valiant mice. C.S. Lewis’ story has impacted the world internationally, selling over 100 million copies in 47 different languages. Outside of literature, Lewis was also a world-renowned Christian philosopher, writing dozens of theology books on ultimate issues, arguing from a Christian perspective. In Mere Christianity, he explained his famous theory, the “Trilemma”, which states that when it comes to answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” we have three choices: Jesus is a Liar, a Lunatic, or Lord. Later on, the idea of “Legend” became a fourth “L” option.
The Chronicles of Narnia are well-known for their powerful Christian allegories. They are clear, fresh, evident, and enjoyable. Lewis clearly meant to communicate deep theological meanings. One example has to do with three main villains of Narnia. A closer look reveals that these notorious bad guys resemble the three views of Lewis’ Trilemma. Whether or not Lewis intended such a connection is not clear, but Jadis, Miraz, and The Emerald Witch correlate with Liar, Legend, Lunatic.
In what is likely the most famous Narnia story, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, we watch Aslan, (an allegorical figure representing Jesus), die for Edmund. This has become one of the most famous allegory to the crucifixion and substitutionary atonement in all of children’s literature. However, maybe The White Witch represents more than just Satan. In The Magician’s Nephew, we learn The White Witch’s (Jadis) back story and character. One of the most revealing scenes in this area is Narnia’s birth, where Aslan’s sacred voice creates a blooming life to an infant Narnia. As Digory and Polly look on Aslan with humbled and perplexed eyes, Jadis is repulsed. She throws her lamppost at Aslan’s head in an act of defiance, loathing the life and magic that Aslan is performing. Later on in the book at the garden, she declares that Digory has a false view of Aslan. Jadis is essentially saying that Aslan is a liar. It’s very common today to divide ourselves up into those who believe Jesus existed and those who don’t. Lewis says that is not legitimate. He says that out there, in the world, there are people who wouldn’t doubt Jesus’ existence for a second. A man named Jesus walked the earth? That’s right. But he was a liar. Son of Mary? Sure. Son of God? Certainly not. Jadis wants to plant doubts in Digory’s mind about who Aslan truly is. She seeks to plant thoughts into the back of his mind and toys with his desires. What has Aslan ever done for you? What about your mother? She is pinning deceit onto Aslan. People like Jadis want to turn us against God, and it is often difficult not to listen to them. But, as all heretics do, Jadis makes a mistake when she tries to turn Digory against Polly.
The Lady of the Green Kirtle, the Emerald Witch, the malicious Queen of the Underland, is the villain who makes all of us cringe at the sound of her name in The Silver Chair. Though she appears less often than Miraz or Jadis, her impact on Narnia is just as powerful. Sly, cunning, and gorgeous, she very much reminds us of Jadis. But just as compelling as her character is the theological meaning embedded in her character. When Eustace and Jill boldly claim their belief in Aslan, the witch shuts them down, declaring this as lunacy. Aslan is not a lion; that is insanity. Jesus was not the Son of God, that is madness. We know this is not true. But Eustace, our great hero, whose skin was torn from him by Aslan’s own paw, whose dirt and monstrosity were washed away, who treaded the Silver Sea and touched the end of the world, to this heresy he succumbs. He collapses. Not by physical force, just by a pretty face and some sweet sounding spell and he is useless. What a depressing depiction of how easily we break. The Lady of the Green Kirtle claims Aslan is essentially a lunatic, and Eustace falls right at her feet. It’s not just in Narnia that Christians are confronted with this view, and it’s just as life threatening here as it was for Eustace and Jill.
In Prince Caspian, we read of Miraz’s ancestors, the Telmarines, who invaded Narnia in year 1998, the last year of the Dark Age, the first year of the Telmarine Age. This was 983 years after the Pevensies left Narnia in 1015. In approximately 2263, Miraz killed his brother, Caspian IX and took the throne, and then in 2303 attempted murder on his nephew, Caspian X. Miraz thinks his greatest strength is rationality. Miraz mocks the fairytales of Old Narnia. This sounds strangely close to the part of the Trilemma that others added later on. “Legend” represents the people who think that Jesus never existed. This is clearly the view Miraz has of Aslan. These people are everywhere in our world today. Just look at Miraz, he, the great Telmarine king, he, who laughs in the face of legends, he, who is rational and intelligent. He cares nothing for Narnia, but forbids anyone around him to speak of it. He firmly denies the existence of the kings and queens of old, and yet is hesitant to duel Peter. He declares it all as legend, which matters not, he doesn’t care for it all, and yet the very name of Aslan makes his blood boil. In our society, and Lewis’ as well, people claim God is dead.They are skeptical of God’s existence, but God still infuriates them. Miraz is a picture of those who claim Jesus is a legend.
Lewis depicts these heretics as witches, tyrants, and snakes, each one attacking Aslan with a different weapon. It would be unwise to take that depiction for granted. In Aslan’s story, these people are villains, and line up too well with Lewis’ opposing beliefs against Jesus. Of course, there is one more category Lewis believed in that I have not spoken of. Now that we have observed the violent Jadis, the dictatorial Miraz, and the cruel-hearted Emerald Witch, there is one more. And while the first three have been constant in our time and in Lewis’ day as well, in the fictional realm and the real realm, this one is more eternal, more impenetrable, and more triumphant than any of the others. While Jadis is slain, and Miraz is killed, and the Emerald Witch is slaughtered, this one stands tall and vibrant, and remains victorious when all others fail. And when the earth shatters and the stars rain down from the heavens, when all others recoil in fear, they will not falter. These are they who believe in that Jesus is Lord and not a liar, not a lunatic, and not a legend.
In the next few posts, I would like to build on some things that Elizabeth Cannon and I wrote about here and here. Elizabeth wrote about two women—Anna Parkes and Susan Castle—who were owned by Joseph Henry Lumpkin and Thomas R. R. Cobb respectively.
Lumpkin (1799-1867) is my great-great-great-great grandfather. He was the first Chief Justice of Georgia’s Supreme Court. Cobb (1823-1862), my great-great-great grandfather, was a legal scholar who ended up serving in James Longstreet’s Corps as a brigadier general in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He led his regiment, Cobb’s Legion, at the fighting in the Seven Days’ Battles, Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg (he was killed at Fredericksburg in December 1862). Cobb was also Lumpkin’s son-in-law.
Together, Lumpkin and Cobb founded the law school at the University of Georgia. Cobb authored the Inquiry into the Laws of Negro Slavery in the USA, in which he provided one of the most comprehensive pro-slavery arguments of the late antebellum period.
Lumpkin and Cobb were well known men in their day. They were wealthy and influential; they were respected, honored, and were deferred to as authorities in the South. Their names are immortalized in two Georgia counties.
But I can’t help thinking about Anna Parkes and Susan Castle. They were small children at slavery’s death, but my grandparents owned them and their families as property. They were barely literate, while my grandparents were scholars. They were dependent on their masters, while my grandparents amassed much wealth. They lived in slave quarters, while my grandparents lived in the “big house.” Theirs was a life of toil, degradation, and bondage, while my grandparents fared sumptuously every day.
These grandparents of whom I speak—they were not my mother’s or father’s parents. They are distant grandparents. They died a century before I was born. I never knew them, except in stories and as a part of family mythology. As Elizabeth said, we are neither complicit in Anna and Susan’s servitude, nor are we complicit in the servitude of any of the other scores of men and women that my ancestors owned.
But I am, at least indirectly, an inheritor of their labors and the system that discriminated against them after emancipation. Some people don’t like the term “white privilege”—but like it or not, I cannot deny that I was born into it. Indeed, how could I?
What can I do? This is not some false dilemma, where the only options are to either 1) fully and satisfactorily atone for the sins of my people who owned slaves, or 2) nothing. I can at least admit that I am a beneficiary of white privilege. I can face my family’s history and role in the peculiar institution honestly and openly. I do not have to repudiate my ancestors, or turn my back on them. I can honor my ancestors’ memory by affirming that they were sinners. What they did was wrong. The consequences of their choices and actions were not limited to their own generation. Those consequences did not cease at the end of the war, they were not wiped out at their own deaths. What they did had consequences that have cascaded down to my generation.
As a Christian, I can live out and share the gospel of Christ, who died on the cross to atone for human sin. I can share His expansive love with every person I meet, knowing that every human being is created in the image of God, and every human being is a valuable person for whom Christ died.
One other thing I can do: I can remember Anna and Susan in particular. They left the world a record of their experiences as the slaves of my ancestors. They talked openly about what it was like to be a slave in the homes of the Lumpkins and the Cobbs.
They were interviewed as part of the Federal Writer’s Project between 1936 and 1938, and their words were recorded and archived in the Library of Congress. In the next several posts, I’d like to hear Anna and Susan’s words once again. Because they blessed us with a record of their lives, perhaps they are something like Abel, who suffered at the hands of his own brother, but “though dead, [they] still speak.”
Is it possible for someone to divest himself of his white privilege? The only way to find out is to first admit that one has benefitted from it.
Speak, Anna Parkes and Susan Castle. I want to hear what you have to tell me.
Let’s summarize our findings in this last part of the series on whether or not the gospel accounts of the resurrection are contradictory.
I am going to list all the events that are pertinent to the resurrection in chronological order. You can use the key below to reference each event as narrated in the gospel accounts.
Directions: Each event is listed in chronological order according to the gospel accounts. References are cited by the following code
f—I Corinthians 15
The appropriate citations that correspond to the specific reference are given in superscript following the event.
2-4 occur while the women were en route to the tomb.
9-11 takes place while Mary Magdalene is absent from the tomb, looking for Peter and John.
By this time, Mary Magdalene had found Peter and John and told them the tomb was empty.
We have considered the questions about what the angels were doing and saying on the morning of the resurrection. Let’s take a look at the troubling apparent contradictions found in Mary Magdalene’s activities, and also those of Jesus himself.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels. New Testament scholars call them by that name because they are very similar in their content. Anyone who has given a cursory glance at these three gospels can readily see how similar they are.
But John’s gospel is different than the others. It does not contain any parables. And it is more theological than the Synoptics. So, we would expect to see wide agreement between the Synoptics concerning the details of the resurrection—which we do, especially in the sayings of the angels to the women as they perplexedly stood in the empty tomb.
John says that “on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb” (John 20.1). That comports with what the other gospel writers say—except that John does not mention the other women. Does not that lead us to a necessary contradiction? Not at all. All the gospel writers have Mary Magdalene going to the tomb very early in the morning. Just because John does not mention the others does not necessarily mean they were not there.
But then John says that Mary ran off to go and get Peter and John. The Synoptics do not mention Mary running off. Does that mean that a necessary contradiction exists here? Again, not at all. We can reasonably infer that all the women went together to the tomb, and when they found it empty, Mary Magdalene was so stricken with grief and perplexity, that she left the others to go and fetch Peter and John. Luke does say that the women were very perplexed. Mary Magdalene must have left the women there at the tomb, before they saw and heard the angels telling them that Jesus had risen from the dead.
So while Mary Magdalene was gone, the angels declared to the other women that Jesus was resurrected. The other women left the tomb in great joy before Mary Magdalene had returned with Peter and John. By the time Mary Magdalene had returned with Peter and John, the tomb was silent and empty, just as it was when all the women had arrived there at the first.
There is an interval of time and events between John 20.1 and John 20.2. From Mary Magdalene’s perspective, the tomb was empty and Jesus’ body had been taken away, by whom she did not know. Peter and John arrived at the tomb to see it was empty. Luke has Peter at the tomb, but not John. But again, if Luke reports that Peter was there but did not mention John, that does not leave us with a necessary contradiction. Remember that Peter was the first to confess Jesus as Messiah, and thus Jesus gave Peter the pre-eminent position among the disciples (Matthew 16.17-19). It was logical for Luke to mention Peter, but not to mention John.
After Peter and John departed the tomb in confusion, John says that Mary Magdalene remained at the tomb, weeping. It is at this time that Mary looks into the tomb and sees two angels. Remember that Mary had not seen the angels yet, because she was not present with the other women when the angels appeared previously. So they ask her, “Why are you weeping?” She answers that she does not know where Jesus’ body is.
It is at this time that Jesus himself appeared to Mary, but she does not recognize him, but thinks he is the gardener. But he reveals himself to her, and tells her to and tell the disciples that he is alive.
Then Jesus appeared to the other women while they were en route from the tomb to Galilee to report back to the disciples, as the angels had instructed them from inside the tomb. How did Jesus get to them so fast, you ask? We know that Jesus had a glorified body—he could appear in unrecognizable forms; he could move through locked doors; and his body still bore the scars from the nails and the thrust of the spear as he hung on the cross three days earlier. So his speedy appearance between two places does no violence at all to the narrative. In fact, it lends it further credibility.
Thus, we see no necessary contradictions in the resurrection accounts in the gospels. As long as we can provide reasonable alternatives to resolve the apparent contradictions, we can demonstrate that no necessary contradictions are present. In fact, we can have reasonable certainty that the gospel accounts offer a coherent narrative of the events of the resurrection.
This means that when we place our faith in Jesus Christ as the resurrected Lord and God, we are making a reasonable epistemic choice. We are not taking an irrational leap of faith into the darkness. We can affirm, with the Apostle Paul as he was reflecting on whether or not Christ was raised: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep, for since by man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead” (I Cor. 15.20-21).
In Part IV, we will summarize our findings.