How Open Should Christians Be to the “Paranormal?”
American popular culture loves the paranormal and almost anything can be lumped into that category and depicted for entertainment. But as much as Americans love to imagine ghosts, clairvoyance, and supernatural powers, most do not really believe in them. We are the opposite of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his fictional character Sherlock Holmes. Holmes did not believe in anything beyond reason and sensory evidence. He was, to all appearances, anyway, the ultimate modern man—a true naturalist who sneered at the paranormal. On the other hand, Doyle, Holmes’s creator, was a man of science (a medical doctor) who believed passionately in the paranormal. He attended séances and funded investigations into “garden fairies.” Holmes and Doyle, inseparably linked in history and literature, were the ultimate odd couple.
Americans are, by and large, the opposite of Doyle and Holmes. We love to read books, watch television shows, and view movies soaked in the paranormal, but, for the most part, we don’t really believe in any of that.
Today’s local newspaper carried an advice column that struck a nerve with me. The mother of a five year old boy asked the two women who write the column for help. She described her son’s belief that he was seeing and communicating with ghosts. In one case, he seemed to know a lot about a cousin who had died before he was born and about whom he had no natural knowledge. The advice columnists simply suggested the mother take the boy to a doctor for a medical examination. Clearly they think he is “touched” mentally. Exactly what good a family physician would be I don’t know. I assume what they really meant was to take the boy to a child psychologist.
Now, those two advice columnist are not visibly (i.e., by any of their own publicity) Christians. They might be, but there’s no reason to think so based on their advice. (And I have perused their web site and not found evidence of any religious belief or affiliation there.)
My question today, however, is not about them but about “us”—Christians—people who claim to believe in God and the Bible (whether we believe in its inerrancy or not).
This is one area where we are torn between the biblical worldview and scripture’s numerous reports of what we now call paranormal experiences and our modern culture. Modernity rejects the paranormal; the Bible everywhere assumes it.
Can a person be a Bible-believing Christian and reject all paranormal experiences—like those of the five year old boy? Or must a Christian who takes the biblical worldview seriously be open to the paranormal?
First let me say that suggesting a Christian should be open to the paranormal does not mean he or she should be gullible and swallow all paranormal stories. Discernment would still be called for.
Second, a Christian open to the paranormal would not necessarily be open to all types of experiences and events that are lumped into that category. For example, a Christian might be open to some experiences of demon possession but not to UFOs.
Third, being open to the paranormal does not require one to go in search of paranormal phenomena or experiences. One very well might believe “there’s something to” such stories without wanting to have anything to do with the phenomena.
Having set forth those caveats, let me now say that I think a biblically grounded Christian, one who takes the Bible’s worldview seriously, ought to be open to the reality of the paranormal.
Shakespeare probably wasn’t intending to express a Christian sentiment, but what he wrote was true—for any Christian who takes the Bible and its narrative-shaped worldview seriously: “There are more thing in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Indeed. The Christian’s rejection of naturalism does not stop at affirming the reality of God. Or it shouldn’t. If we take the Bible seriously (to say nothing of pre-modern Christian tradition and experience) we must at least be open to the paranormal.
Christians who come to America to study from the Global South, especially Africa and Asia, gently scoff at American Christians’ near total lack of belief in the reality of the invisible spiritual world. That world is part of their daily lives. It might be part of ours, too, but we have closed our metaphysical eyes to it—except in fantasy movies and television shows about ghosts that titillate our imaginations but don’t convince us.
I think it’s a very good idea to exercise a healthy skepticism in this realm. On the other hand, I am open to the reality of more things than are dreamt of by the sciences and naturalistic philosophies.
Is it possible for a five year old boy to “see dead people?” Well, I don’t know for sure, but I have no good reason to assume he’s suffering delusions. Dead people did appear to the living in “biblical times.” Jesus, for one. Also Moses and Elija. And Samuel.
I can imagine that the two advice columnists might be Christians because I know many Christians who would give exactly the same advice they gave the boy’s mother. (Interestingly the boy’s mother said she spoke with several ministers who scoffed at the paranormal and said “we” don’t believe in such things.) But I think it’s very possible the boy will be forever damaged by parents, doctors, ministers and others telling him his paranormal experiences are nothing more than delusions and he needs medical treatment.
Over the years I have developed an impression that children may be more sensitive to the paranormal than adults. Over time they learn from adults that it’s not appropriate or acceptable to have these experiences and so they shut them down and refuse to have them.
Years ago I knew very well a little boy who had paranormal experiences. At around age six or seven they stopped.
So what advice would I give that mother? I would say first, find a church and minister who does believe in the possibility of paranormal experiences and talk to him or her. Second, I would say listen to the boy and take what he says seriously. Third, if he’s frightened by these experiences, pray with him in those places and at times when they tend to happen. Ask God to reveal his will and truth and take away anything that is cause for fear. If the beings the boy thinks he sees are sinister, threatening, find a church and minister who will come to the house and hold a prayer vigil to exorcise them.
I have known families who went through all of the above and came out of the process free from fear and harassment. But they could not share their experiences with most people because of the ridicule—even from fellow Christians. I find that sad and disconcerting.