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Are ghosts among us? Many believe in spirits, but churches offer stern warnings

Illustration by John Clark, Deseret News

Ghosts — They are highly popular entertainment fare in the world these days, given shows like "Ghost Hunters," "Ghost Whisperer," "Ghost Story," "Celebrity Ghost Story" and "Paranormal State," as well as various movies over the years.

Trying to find or contact "ghosts" is the core of all these programs.

Forget Halloween season. This flurry of new ghost programming is popular year-round and seems to be at an all-time high.

However, are ghosts real?

A 2005 Gallup poll found that 32 percent of all adult Americans believe in ghosts. Nineteen percent weren't sure, while 48 percent dismissed the idea.

Earlier, a Harris Poll in 2003 had found that 51 percent of 2,201 adults

surveyed — including 58 percent of women — believed in ghosts.

Spirits are a real aspect of Christianity.

Indeed, a "ghost" in the Biblical sense can be the spirit of the dead, as in Jesus Christ "gave up the ghost" when he died on the cross (John 19:30).

They can also be devils, demons or unclean spirits.

Matthew 8:28-34 states: "And when he (Jesus) was come to the other side into the country of the Gergesenes, there met him two possessed with devils, coming out of the tombs, exceeding fierce."

Matthew 10:1 says: "And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease."

So, to believe the Bible — according to some interpretations — is to believe in ghosts as spirits of the dead, or of the devil.

The Bible offers this counsel on seeking after the dead:

"And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead?" (Isaiah 8:19).

What do various churches teach about ghosts and spirits of the dead? Here's a sampling of beliefs from six Christian churches:

Catholic

The Catholic Church has some strong words against seeking after the spirits of dead people.

According to Peggy Frye, Catholic Answers apologist on Catholic.com:

"First, the Church forbids members to conjure up the dead (Catechism 2116-2117).

"Peter Kreeft in his book 'Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven' (pages 34-35) says the reason for 'this stricture is probably protection against the danger of deception by evil spirits. We are out of our depth, our knowledge, and our control once we open the doors to the supernatural. The only openings that are safe for us are the ones God has approved: revelation, prayer, His own miracles, sacraments, and primarily Christ Himself. … The danger is not physical but spiritual, and spiritual danger always centers on deception.'

"Kreeft continues:

" 'Nevertheless, without our action or invitation, the dead often do appear to the living. There is enormous evidence of 'ghosts' in all cultures.'

"Kreeft said there are three types of ghosts:

" 'First, the most familiar kind: the sad ones, the wispy ones. They seem to be working out some unfinished earthly business, or suffering some purgatorial purification until released from their earthly business.

" 'Second, there are malicious and deceptive spirits—and since they are deceptive, they hardly ever appear malicious. These are probably the ones who respond to conjurings at seances. They probably come from Hell. Even the chance of that happening should be sufficient to terrify away all temptations to necromancy.

" 'Third, there are bright, happy spirits of dead friends and family, especially spouses, who appear unbidden, at God's will, not ours, with messages of hope and love. They seem to come from Heaven. Unlike the purgatorial ghosts who come back primarily for their own sakes, these bright spirits come back for the sake of us the living, to tell us all is well."

Jehovah's Witnesses

Witnesses are also against attempts to contact the dead.

Watchtower.org — the official Jehovah's Witnesses website — states that demons or unclean spirits "deceive humans by posing as the spirits of the dead. Why? To keep people from worshipping Jehovah in a way that pleases him and or confuse them regarding the read condition of the dead."

Witnesses believe all of the dead are powerless — in a state of no consciousness — and thus unable to interact with the world as ghosts or spirits.

Methodists

It also frowns on attempts to contact the dead, as stated on www.umc.org. While acknowledging that ghosts exist, the church's official website refers to scriptures, like Deuteronomy 18:10-12, that calls it an abomination to seek to contact dead spirits.

Lutherans

According to The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (www.lcms.org:)

"Q. What is the church's position on ghosts and whether they appear today? Are the spirits caught in between heaven and hell trying to communicate with loved ones or are they manifested by the powers of darkness?

"A. The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod understands the Scriptures to mean that there are realms in which spiritual powers and beings exist (e.g., Eph. 6:12; Col. 1:16). However, our church — in the absence of specific biblical evidence — has not speculated on such questions as whether, to what extent, or in what form "spirits" or "ghosts" may manifest themselves today. Nor have we ventured opinions on questions such as you have raised. Rather, our theologians and writings (including our catechism) have pointed to the biblical warnings concerning occultic activities (e.g., Deut. 18:9-14), and at the same time to God's promises to assist Christians in their struggle against the devil, the world, and their sinful flesh (Eph. 6:10-20)."

Seventh-day Adventist

Its members strongly believe that no spirits of the dead or ghosts exist in the world today. Like Jehovah's Witnesses, they believe death is a universal, unconscious sleep period.

"The wages of sin is death. But God, who alone is immortal, will grant eternal life to His redeemed. Until that day death is an unconscious state for all people," www.adventist.org, the church's official Web site states.

Mormons

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no firm doctrine on ghosts.

However Elder Bruce R. McConkie in "Mormon Doctrine" speculated:

"It is true that some mediums do make contact with spirits during séances. In most instances, however, such spirits as manifest themselves are probably the demons or devils who were cast out of heaven for rebellion. … Righteous spirits have nothing but contempt and pity for the attempts of mediums to make contact with them" (Page 759).

According to lds.org: "In a funeral sermon, the Prophet Joseph Smith declared that the spirits of righteous people who have died 'are not far from us, and know and understand our thoughts, feelings, and motions, and are often pained therewith' (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 326).

"Other latter-day prophets have made similar statements. President Ezra Taft Benson said: 'Sometimes the veil between this life and the life beyond becomes very thin. Our loved ones who have passed on are not far from us' (in Conference Report, Apr. 1971, p. 18; or Ensign, June 1971, p. 33). President Brigham Young said: 'Where is the spirit world? It is right here' (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 376)," the LDS Church's official Web site states.

Furthermore, the LDS Church teaches in its "Aaronic Priesthood Manual 2" that Ouija boards, séances and spiritualism are tools of Satan and that members have been counseled to avoid them completely.

e-mail: lynn@desnews.com