by Jimmy Akin

in Theology

A reader writes:

Gallup reports today that 42% of liberals believe in ghosts – but only 25% of conservatives.

As G. K. Chesterton said, "When people stop believing in God, they do not believe in nothing. They believe everything."



Second, I’m not so sure that one should so quickly dismiss this subject. While there are, no doubt, many liberals who are attracted to the ghost hypothesis on account of New Age beliefs, consider the following:

  • "Ghost" is simply the German-derived equivalent of the Latin-derived word "Spirit." That’s why the Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to as the Holy Ghost. Originally in English "ghost" and "spirit" referred to the same thing. Indeed, in German the word for "spirit" is still "geist." Rather than get hung up on semantics, we may wish to analyze claims about ghosts in terms of what we know about spirits.
  • First, spirits exist. This is a truth of the faith.
  • Second, spirits can sometimes manifest themselves to those in this life, as in the apparitions of the saints.
  • Third, there are even reports in Catholic history that spirits in purgatory have–by God’s will–occasionally manifested themselves to those on earth. In these cases, those on earth may see the spirits experiencing their purgation in some way.
  • Therefore, if these reports are true, God may at times allow spirits to manifest to those on earth in a way that might lead folks to describe them as "ghosts."

Now, I’m not saying that this actually happens. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t quickly scoff at the idea. It certainly has a place in Catholic tradition (lower "t" tradition). I know that folks today often repeat the mantra "There’s no such things as ghosts," but it seems to me that this may have more with the influence of a secular/scientistic worldview than anything else. I see no theological reason to say that God doesn’t allow this to happen on occasion. (On the other hand, I see no theological reason that compels us to the conclusion that he does, either.)

One note on the possibility of ghosts: Sometimes folks think of ghosts (or some ghosts) as malevolent. I don’t see how that would be possible on the above account. Souls experiencing purgatory might seem strage or disquieting to individuals in this life and might appear malevolent, but they would not be. I don’t see any evidence, though, that genuinely malevolent souls–i.e., the souls of the damned–could manifest on earth. Thus any genuinely malevolent ghosts would more likely represent demonic activity as far as I can tell.

These two phenomena–the "purgatory ghosts" and demons–also might explain so-called haunted houses and poltergeists ("noisy ghosts" in German).

If you liked this post, you should join Jimmy's Secret Information Club to get more great info!

What is the Secret Information Club?I value your email privacy


LawfulGood July 13, 2005 at 1:37 am

Great… I couldn’t sleep so I pulled up the laptop and checked out Jimmy’s blog. I thought that reading a quick post or two will settle my mind down and let me sleep.
Um… This didn’t help. 8^>

Ray from Minn July 13, 2005 at 7:05 am

I somewhat recently asked the question as to the existence of ghosts of Colin Donovan on EWTN’s Q&A forum.
I almost fell over in shock when he pretty much gave the same answer as Jimmy does here.
That totally changed my previous attitude towards the existence and manifestations of spirits.
Haven’t seen any yet, though.
Although I did wake up one morning and out of the blue became startlingly aware that for sure my saintly mother was in Heaven. I guess I hadn’t doubted that, but since it was a few years after her death, I immediately had to add quite a few “zero’s” to my estimated Purgatory time.

Randolph Carter July 13, 2005 at 7:44 am

I seem to remember reading somewhere about the possibility of demons taking on the appearance of dead people in order to deceive the living. I think they were called “familiar spirits” or some such things. This would supposedly explain “spiritual encounters” that are not obvious hoaxes and that do not have a definitely divine source (e.g. the ghost of Frank Sinatra heard singing at night; the spectral form of Marlon Brando wandering about the foodcourts; et cetera).
Hey Jimmy, would such an explanation be theologically valid?

Shane Coombs July 13, 2005 at 8:09 am

This reminds me of a question I have been thinking about a lot lately: There is a radio interview with Fr. James. J. LeBar availible from the radio archives in which he discusses exorcism. In it he makes two claims (spread over a number of statements), the first being that the devil actually lives in hell, the second being that he sends damned souls (or perhaps they act autonomously) of the deceased to torment and/or possess people. He claims to have exorcised many such spirits. Both of these claims seem very, very, very theologically wrong, however upon research he is by no means the only exorcist to make such claims. What is going on? If this is true, how is it so? If it is not, what does this say of the authenticity of the field of exorcism as a whole?

Nick July 13, 2005 at 8:47 am

The figures may represent Protestantism’s traditional view that the Saints do not communicate with the living and therefore all such communication is demonic. Since it is demonic it does not qualify as a ghost. Hence ghosts don’t exist to a large portion of conservatives. Though the haunted house numbers would seem to point in the opposite direction…
The other explanation is that Bible Thumping Conservatives are far fewer in number than the Left would like us to believe. I’ve notice more and more socially conservative commentary from individuals that are at best agnostic. There is also a strong tendancy for very devout Christians to take a very “Leftist” stance on many socio-economic issues.

Tim J. July 13, 2005 at 9:17 am

There is no reason not to believe in ghosts, but there are often a lot of reasons not to believe a ghost story.

Veronica July 13, 2005 at 11:46 am

While I have never (thank God a million times) seen or experience the presence of an actual ghost (and I hope it never happens, as it’s one of the very few things that I’m actually afraid of even if there’s no reason for it) I know a few people, good friends of mine, that have lived in ‘haunted houses’. One of them, a girl from my church group, even went to my diocese’s exorcist, who told her that the spirits that lived in her house were indeed not demonic, but simply souls that needed prayers, and adviced her family to pray for them. Another person I know, said there was a ghost in one of the houses he lived in, but that the noises it made slowly stopped the more he prayed for him, until they ceased altogether.
Creepy… *shudder*

Ryan July 13, 2005 at 1:53 pm

“Souls experiencing purgatory might seem strage or disquieting to individuals in this life and might appear malevolent, but they would not be. I don’t see any evidence, though, that genuinely malevolent souls–i.e., the souls of the damned–could manifest on earth. Thus any genuinely malevolent ghosts would more likely represent demonic activity as far as I can tell.”
Hamlet’s dilemma!

Mary July 13, 2005 at 6:13 pm

“Familiar spirits” would be a valid explanation of a given situation. Whether it is a correct explanation is another matter.

Rhys July 13, 2005 at 7:08 pm

What I find surprising from these sorts of statistics is the amount of people who believe in ghosts and a heaven-type afterlife but who don’t believe in God.
We can probably thank postmodern-new-age-mish-mash thinking for that. As well as people just not thinking things through properly.

kelly August 27, 2005 at 11:53 am

great use of language,and intergration of the german background of usage.hope i get an A with the help of this site! thanks…and i gave credit btw :)

Josh November 17, 2006 at 5:30 am

I’m new to your site so I’m not sure if you respond to these comments or not, but I’m giving it a go anyway. Wouldn’t you think that the modern account of what a ghost is is quite clearly false? For example, on Halloween at work people were telling about their ghost stories. People mentioned some ideas of ghosts running along side their car, or old civil war ghosts who were looking for their lost wives, or children ghosts who got toys out of the closet and played with them when people weren’t at home. I find these conceptions and stories to be something that must be false. In the first sense that it doesn’t seem possible that a soul that has stood before the judgment seat of Christ, and who could fully witness to the glories of heaven and therefore possess an understanding about the sufferings of hell would have any desire to return to Earth to play with toys, or wait on a porch for his long dead wife to return home. Secondly, if such events were true, it would not be ghosts in the sense that it actually was innocent children ghosts playing with toys, or an innocent civil war solider ghost waiting for his wife to return, but rather a demon seeking to cause mischief which would lead persons to sin. But even so, with our understanding that the devil and demons seek to hide themselves to draw people away from the concept of the afterlife, wouldn’t it seem that the existence of ghosts would undermine the devils attempt to show the world as being materialistic? Anyway, maybe I’ve got it wrong, but I still cling to the fact that it seems very hard for a soul to have seen God, the creator of all things, and still have the “desire” to come back to dwell on this earth. Or more simply, why would they not wish to dwell with the saints and perform greater works (as St. Paul would say) in heaven by their prayers, or do the same for others in Purgatory and accept the punishment that any soul who had stood before the judgment seat would rightly feel for the sins they had committed against God? And to take it a little step further, it does not seem likely that God would do the same, though I do not pretend to understand God, but it does seem more likely that He would rather have His Church be the ulimate authority on the afterlife and not allow beliefs in ghosts to dictate such matters. Keep up the good work and I’d love to hear your thoughts back!

Br. Francis November 17, 2006 at 7:04 am

Jimmy has stated that he cannot because of the number of comments keep track to answer questions from the comment boxes. It’s best if you would just e-mail him.

glimmer November 17, 2006 at 2:43 pm

In my family, we have no theology to cover ghosts other than as “demonic”. However, my no-nonsense retired aeronautical engineer uncle (read that as “thinks in equations”) was about to write a letter to his sister who was dying and fell asleep in his chair. He did not know she had already died.
He heard a voice call his name and it sounded like his sister. He awoke and thought it was his imagination. He started to doze off again. The voice called him again, only louder and announced itself as his sister. She said, “You were right. I’m going now.”
And it was one of those things understood between them because he had pestered her for so many years to raise her children in the Lord by taking them to church. Instead, she neglected them and chased after the world herself. She lost her children to New Age, drugs, and some other things. Apparently, she wanted to signal him before she left.
But I know of another story, too. One of the academic scholars with whom I work was involved in the historic home of an author who used to hold seances. (Recipe for demonic activity.) He told me he saw her ghost on two occasions. Later he told the new landlord who happened to be Orthodox. The man was alarmed, called a priest and had the place exorcised. No one has seen the ghost since.
The first incident I think was a real passing spirit. The second, I think, was demonic. Demons are very good at impersonating the dead and possibly know all sorts of genuine information since they have been around for so long. The same scholar I mentioned also attended a seance in which one of the dead foretold that he would find a certain document, which he did. So, yes, I think demons are quite clever and we should not believe them just because they give us accurate information.

Timothy October 15, 2007 at 12:36 pm
Anonymous March 4, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Of course, anything is possible with God. God has the ability (omnipotence) to use anyone as he wishes. But the real question is, “Does God do these things or not?” There have been visions in dreams in the form of angels, the Holy Spirit in His various forms, i.e. dove, light, etc. But as far as these paranormal “ghostly” beings? We have no reason to believe that he does and therefore, despite human curiousity, we should not be concerned with these things. Demonic possession does exist but that is Satan and not ghosts. We may hear, smell, or see something that is unexplainable and it may indeed be God communicating to us in a special way. But I do not believe in malevalent “ghosts” or “haunted houses” as creapy as they may still be (due to television and film influences). Josh made a good point when he said that people have a stronger belief in ghosts than they do God. Similarly, those who believe in aliens from outer space feel there is more “evidence” for that than for God and the Catholic Church, with the Church’s billions of believers over thousands of years, the Bible, historical and archeological facts, the many Marian miracles that have occurred all over the planet. Again, even with respect for aliens from other planets, anything is possible with God, but God has given us no reason to believe so or to be concerned with it. A coworker last week said that she believes in ghosts because after her grandmother died, she smelled her grandmother’s perfume in her bedroom. Though I am always a skeptic about stories like these, and we should be, I don’t want to be rude and say that these people are “nuts”. I do believe that anything is possible with God and any paranormal sightings, if valid, are from God and therefore peaceful and for our benefit. Haunted houses are bunk and so are the many colorful characters from the “Seventh Sign.” 😉

Previous post:

Next post: