Ghosts and Jesus

When I was a kid, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. It was the gateway to my favorite time of year, meaning that Thanksgiving and Christmas were not that far away. But, in all honesty, I loved Halloween on its own. Of course little kids like to dress up, but when I got closer to my teenage years, I also started to like the darker side of things. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t any kind of weirdo (apologies to the weirdos out there, we love you!), but I had a fascination for what we would now call the more classic, Victorian type of stuff. You know the stuff: Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Scooby Doo… you know, the classics. I never really got into really gory stuff, the hack-and-slash bloodbath stuff that is around these days. And, while I was a rocker for sure, I never went for any of the really heavy stuff in music either. A passing appreciation for White Zombie was about as far as I went.

The difficulty with all of this is that this mild fascination with all things gently spooky coincided with my conversion to evangelical Christianity. Suddenly there was a whole bunch of stuff I wasn’t supposed to be interested in because it was “dark.” So, in my youth group, we would go to the scare-the-literal-Hell-out-of-you evangelism play/event thing at a church across town and we, with the rest of our well-meaning church brethren, would dress up and celebrate a decidedly non-Halloween “Fall Festival” with the neighborhood ghouls on the 31st. What no one really talked about was that we would generally leave Fall Fest and go watch something scary that we wouldn’t tell the church folk about. There was also the tenuous attempt to justify the dark stuff, like saying that Dracula was actually some sort of Catholic (Stoker was apparently a devout Catholic) metaphor regarding the power of the blood of Christ. Look it up, it’s a thing.

If one were to, say, ask a question in Sunday School about ghosts, the usual answer was that they either didn’t exist or that it was demons trying to cause confusion in people and lead them away from the truth. Wouldn’t it have been handy if, maybe, God Himself used His very own book to clarify what His people should think about this? Turns out, there was a perfect opportunity to do so, but there is very little help to found.

In three out of the four Gospels, we have a very similar story that most of us are familiar with: Jesus walking on the water. Just to refresh all of our memories, here is how the story plays out in Matthew, Mark, and John.

“Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.  And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” –Matthew 14:22-33, ESV

“Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” –Mark 6:45-50, ESV

“When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.” –John 6:16-20, ESV

There is so much I could unpack here but I will try to limit myself to the task at hand. First, did anyone else notice that John punked-out here and refused to say the word “ghost?” He made the point that they were afraid, so the story harmonizes with the other two, but, when taken together, this seems like a conscious decision to leave out a contentious point. Second, Jesus tells them not to be afraid. I don’t know about you, but if I saw someone walking on water, in the middle of a storm, in the dead of night, a couple of calming words would have been ZERO help. To be fair to the text, the disciples seemed to have been on my side with all that.

Just to show you I can actually do this type of research, let’s look at the word “ghost” used here. In both Matthew and Mark the word translated as “ghost” is phantasma and, according to Strong’s online concordance, means just what you would imagine: an appearance, apparition, ghost, spirit, or phantom. I make this point for the simple reason that I don’t want anyone to think that maybe our modern word or idea of a ghost is not what they had in mind. To be sure, a ghost as we understand it is exactly what they had in mind.

So here is my issue, and it is an issue I had with this story throughout my believing days: why didn’t Jesus set them straight? For sure, he dealt with the immediate issues of fear and lack of faith, but this would have been an excellent chance for him to give us the truth about an issue that has dogged humanity for millennia. Are ghosts real? What are they? How do they function? Should we fear them? Are they demons in disguise went to confuse us? Are they some energy imprint of a dead human with unfinished business? Are they a restless spirit from some alternate dimension? The resounding answer is: silence. Surely, if Jesus was the all-knowing, loving, wise God in a skin-suit, he would have know this would cause confusion and difficulty. He should have known this was his chance to set things straight. He simply didn’t. Even a well-meaning parent will tell a frightened child that, say it with me now, “Don’t be scared, there’s no such thing as ghosts.” The inclusion of the first part with the exclusion of the second leads me to a conclusion: the Bible says, indirectly, that ghosts are real.

But this leads to a new problem, or perhaps, redefines the problem. I thought the Bible said that “to absent from the body (dead) is to be present with the Lord.” I looked up the verse to include it here and it opened a new can of worms. In 2 Corinthians 5:8 (ESV), Paul, speaking of his persecution and being under threat of death, said, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Unhelpful. Wait, I have another one! Hebrews 9:27 (ESV) says, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Ooh, another swing and miss.

What we actually have here is another example of how the Bible breaks down as a reliable source of knowledge regarding the biggest issues of life. It is possible that Jesus didn’t answer the ghost issue because he simply didn’t have the answer. He could have missed the opportunity to enlighten future generations but didn’t simply because he didn’t know his story would be written down and scrutinized 2,000 years later (and all the years in between). He, perhaps, didn’t have the relevant information because he wasn’t as attached to God as he claimed, or because God as we perceive Him doesn’t exist, or because this was all made up later and there is nothing to learn here. All I can say is that I am part of a long history of people who don’t understand the working of the world in which I find myself, but I am happy to say there are things that have no easy explanation. So be it ghosts, bigfoot, aliens, or a yet-undefined God that has a much looser grip on things than the one I thought I knew, I am happy to continue my search for truth… and maybe enjoy a good ghost story along the way.

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