In The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia , Samuel Johnson has the philosopher Imlac say: ‘That the dead are seen no more I will not undertake to maintain against the concurrent and unvaried testimony of all ages and of all nations. There is no people, rude or learned, among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed’. Johnson suggests universal experience alone has made belief in ghosts credible, and for every hoax there may be cited an instance not so easily dismissed.
The occult, the supernatural and the paranormal are as prevalent as ever, with people from all walks of life prepared to pay to consult with mediums, seers, astrologers, psychics, spiritualists and other self-proclaimed visionaries. Literally millions of pounds are also spent on magazines, films, books, tarot cards and other paraphernalia that deal with subjects that range “from astrology to witchcraft.” Millions of readers regularly consult newspaper horoscopes, with wide interest shown in conventions, lectures and fairs that deal with psychic matters. Why such interest in the supernatural? Among the reasons given are: “Fear of death, personal experience with premonitions and widespread treatment of the topic in books and films.” Many people are also drawn in by the “entertainment value” of the occult, often from childhood, or are “sincere people for whom the paranormal amounts to a religion or a body of knowledge that to them is or will prove to be scientifically valid.”
The Bible, however, takes a very definite stand against any involvement in occult practices. It is the only reliable source for information on the spirit world. For example, Ecclesiastes 9:5, ‘For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all’. But who or what is behind so called ghost sightings or visitations? 2 Corinthians 4:4 and 11:14 answers: ‘The god of this system of things has blinded the minds of the unbelievers… and no wonder, for Satan himself keeps transforming himself into an angel of light’.
Of interest here is Shakespeare’s use of the Ghost in Hamlet . Shakespeare is making use of a very prevalent Elizabethan belief:
“The spirit that I have seen/ may be the devil: and the devil hath power/ to assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps/ out of my weakness and my melancholy/ as he is very potent with such spirits/ abuses me to damn me.”
In the play, Hamlet is struggling with his conscience. As a man, he has free will; he can revenge the death of his father. The Ghost is urging him to do so. Whether this is good or evil later becomes apparent. Scripturally, however, we cannot simply be faced with an inward tendency to evil, otherwise the temptation by the Devil of the sinless Jesus in Matthew 4: 1-11 would make no sense. The remarkable passage in Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2) quoted above, harmonises with the contemporary explanation in Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici (1643): “I believe that these apparitions and ghosts of departed persons are not the souls of men, but the unquiet walks of devils, prompting and suggesting unto us murder, blood and villainy, instilling and stealing into our hearts, that the blessed spirits are not at rest in their graves, but wander solicitous of the affairs of the world”.
In like fashion, the Commentary on the Old Testament , by C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, in a footnote on 1 Samuel 28: 11, 12 : “Luther says . . . ‘The raising of Samuel by a soothsayer or witch, was certainly merely a spectre of the devil; not only because the Scriptures state that it was effected by a woman who was full of Devils (for who could believe that the souls of believers, who are in the hand of God, . . . were under the power of the Devil, and of simple men?), but also because it was evidently in opposition to the command of God that Saul and the woman inquired of the dead.’ Calvin also regards the apparition as only a spectre. . . ‘It is certain,’ he says, ‘that it was not really Samuel, for God would never have allowed His prophets to be subjected to such diabolical conjuring. For here is a sorceress calling up the dead from the grave. Does anyone imagine that God wished His prophet to be exposed to such ignominy; as if the devil had power over the bodies and souls of the saints which are in His keeping? The souls of the saints are said to rest. . . in God, waiting for their happy resurrection. Besides, are we to believe that Samuel took his cloak with him into the grave? For all these reasons, it appears evident that the apparition was nothing more than a spectre, and that the senses of the woman herself were so deceived, that she thought she saw Samuel, whereas it really was not he.’
The real question is clearly not whether we personally choose to believe in ghosts, but whether we will have the moral courage and good sense to shun any contact with or interest in the occult.