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).