Ghosts, Haunted Houses, Prayer to the Dead, and Pastoral Care
I’ve noticed a strange thing in the time I’ve been in the ministry that I didn’t notice before. Maybe you’ve noticed it too.
Kids believe in ghosts and spirits much more than they did when I was a kid. People pretended to believe in ghosts when I was a kid, but I don’t think that many people really believed in them. Certainly not that you could communicate with them. We believed in demons—at least, Christian kids did—but it was kind of an esoteric thing. I played with a Ouija board once, but I was just messing around. And there was also this superstition that if you went into a dark room and looked at a mirror and said, “Bloody Mary” a certain number of times you would see a demon or a spirit.
Times have changed. I’ve met a lot of kids who not only believe in ghosts but claim to have seen them, or communicated with them.
And demons are much less esoteric. A few months ago a bunch of pastors were up in Wisconsin listening to Dr. John Kleinig talk about the ministry of deliverance from demons, about the increase in overt demonic oppression encountered by pastors in Australia (and the United States).
But what seems to me the strangest of all is the prayer to the dead engaged in by lifelong American Lutherans who are sixty or seventy or eighty years old.
The reason this is so strange is because, typically, Lutherans who are above age 50 or so hate everything that smacks of Catholicism. Yet I frequently hear parishioners speak of dead loved ones as if they continue to communicate with each other. The loved one is spoken to in prayer, and sometimes speaks back by phenomena in the physical world—lights flickering, changes in the weather.
This less rationalistic take on the souls of the dead is I think quite different from what pastors a generation ago encountered. In his Church Postil sermon for Epiphany, Luther has an eye-opening digression where he talks about the souls of the dead and what to make of spirits claiming to be the souls of dead loved ones, as well as spirits that haunt houses or cause strange noises. This would probably have been a section of the postil where in previous generations we would have simply assumed that Luther lived in a more superstitious age, and these things just don’t apply to us. But if you have experienced your parishioners praying to dead relatives or communicating, supposedly, with ghosts, then this section of the sermon will be enlightening.
This openness toward communication with the dead has some positive implications. It means that the rationalism that controlled so much of our thinking is mostly dead. People are able to conceptualize the ongoing existence of souls whose body has died. They are able to think of invisible spirits continuing to exist without being utterly divorced from us. This is positive. It means that when we speak of the communion of saints we will not meet the same wall of resistance. If people think dead loved ones can be spoken to, it means that they are not closed to the idea that the angels and the holy, departed souls are present with us together with Jesus. And it also means that the Calvinist notion that Jesus and the saints are somehow locked away in another plane of existence called heaven no longer has a death grip on people.
But unfortunately the superstition about the dead that I keep encountering has a lot of negative ramifications as well.
First of all, prayer to one’s dead relatives that ignores Christ the mediator between earth and heaven is communication with the dead, a form of witchcraft specifically forbidden by the 2nd commandment. If we knew our catechisms, we wouldn’t be having this issue. And if I knew my catechism as well as I should I would have pointed this out a long time ago.
What is the second commandment? You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts (witchcraft), lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.
God has not given us permission to speak to the dead. He has given us His name so that we can go to Him for comfort in all grief, for comfort at the death of a loved one, so that we can call on Him to give us all that we need. As Luther points out in the sermon, He has specifically forbidden us to consult with the dead:
Again, another word of God is spoken by Moses in Deut. 18, 11: ”When thou art come into the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found with thee any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through fire, one that useth divination, one that practiceth augury, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a consulter with a familiar spirit, or a wizard, or a necromancer.” Here, you are told that it is an abomination in the sight of God to consult the dead or the spirits, and it is strictly forbidden. To this word of Moses Abraham looked when he did not permit Lazarus to come back to the earth. You can also use this passage against these spirits, saying: ”Thou shalt not consult the dead, saith the Lord.”
Secondly, this opens the door to the idolatry practiced by Rome toward the saints, and to the various efforts made in Rome to make satisfaction for the sins of the dead and get them out of purgatory. Whether we are praying to Mary to ask her intercession, or praying to our dead grandparents and telling them we love them, we have no command to do so from God and no promise that they will hear us. Thus in talking to dead loved ones, however innocently, or in talking to saints, however piously, we open the door to being deceived by evil spirits pretending to be the saints or our loved ones. We also risk opening the door to trusting the intercession of the saints more than Christ’s intercession, which has a promise from God.
In Zambia, where my dad grew up, the Lunda people prior to converting to Christianity honored and revered dead ancestors and came to believe that if they didn’t do this, the ancestors would punish them, harming their crops or otherwise cursing them. It wasn’t because they were stupid and believed stupid things. It was because, not understanding that the dead do not come back and communicate with us, they were prey to the demons who did appear to people, pretending to be their ancestors, and who did curse those who failed to worship them.
In fact, according to Wikipedia: “The people of the Lunda Kingdom believed in Nzambi as a supreme creator of the world who created everything of existence on earth. Their religion did not address Nzambi directly, but through the spirits of their ancestors.” According to another encyclopedia, they practiced divination to find out which ancestors needed to be appeased in order to secure blessings from Nzambi.
Luther deals quite matter of factly with the possibility (or reality) of spirits that make noise in people’s houses, or who appear and claim to be the souls of a departed loved one seeking that the living person do this or that to free them from suffering. In Luther’s day, ghosts wanted to get out of purgatory. Today, the kids tell me that the ghosts stay stuck in their house or elsewhere where some traumatic event happened, and it’s like they are stuck repeating this traumatic event of their life over and over. Luther’s advice is this: if God hasn’t revealed anything to us about these things, we should honor Him by not trying to figure out what He has determined is not good or necessary for us to know. It’s not that we know everything about what happens to people when they die. We do, however, know some things. One is that, according to Luke 16, the souls of the dead cannot cross from hell to heaven or from heaven to hell. And Luther concludes that they are not permitted to come back either from heaven or hell to visit the living. Abraham tells the rich man in hell that his living relatives are not going to have Lazarus come back and speak to them because, “they have the law and the prophets…” and if they won’t listen to the Scripture, they won’t believe even if they see a departed soul visit them, contrary to Charles Dickens’ account of Scrooge’s repentance after being visited by the ghost of his dead business partner.
But you say: Should we then deny that wandering spirits go astray and seek for help? Answer: Let wander who will, you listen to what God commands. If you hold all these spirits in suspicion, you are not sinning; but if you hold some of them to be genuine and honest, you are already in danger of erring. And why? Because God does not want you to seek and learn the truth from the dead. He himself wants to be your living and all sufficient teacher. To his Word you should cling. He knows best what to tell you about the living and the dead, for he knows all things. But whatever he does not want to tell you, you should not desire to know, and give him the honor to believe that he knows what is not necessary, profitable nor good for you to know.
54. Therefore you should freely and unhesitatingly cast all such ghostly apparitions to the winds and not be afraid of them; they will then leave you in peace. And should it seem, that perhaps in your house you hear a hobgoblin or rumbling spirit, then make no ado about it, but be assured that it can not be a good spirit come from God. Make the sign of the cross and firmly hold to your faith. Has he been sent by God to chastise you, like Job, then be ready to endure it willingly, but should it be the spirit’s own sport, then defy him by strong faith and joyfully depend on God’s Word. Depend upon it he will not attack that. However, I hold that none of these hobgoblins are ordained of God to molest us, but it is their own mischief to terrify the people, because they have no longer any power to harm. If they had any power to harm, they would surely not engage in much racketing, but do their evil work before you could be aware who had done it. But if a good spirit were to visit you, it would not occur with such noise and frivolity. Do this and manifest strong faith and you will find that such a spirit is not of God, and will cease its work. If you have not such faith, then he will have easy work, for then God’s Word which alone he fears is not with you.
Luther’s advice is—don’t be afraid of ghosts and the spirits of the dead if they seem to appear to you. But don’t believe them, either. Make the sign of the cross, believe God’s word, and quote it to them—resist them, and don’t listen to them. If they have been sent to afflict you, but you hold fast to God’s Word—His promise to forgive your sins for Jesus’ sake, to turn all events in your life to your everlasting good, and to deliver you in His time from every evil—they will not be able to stay with you.
Luther also has some strange but interesting things to say regarding the occult, commenting on Isaiah’s critique of mediums:
59. Our faith must have a sure foundation, God’s Word, and not the sand or bog of human custom and inventions. With this Isaiah also agrees when be says, ‘And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits and unto the wizards, that chirp and that mutter. Should not a people seek unto their God? On behalf of the living should they seek unto the dead? To the law and the testimony! If they speak not according to this word, surely there is no morning for them etc.” Is. 8, 19-20. This is certainly a clear passage that urges and compels us to seek in God’s law and testimony all that we want to know. And he who will not do this, shall be deprived of the morning light which no doubt means Christ and the truth itself. Note also that after Isaiah said we should seek unto God, so that no one might stare at the heavens and expect something extraordinary from God, he shows where and whence we should seek unto God, saying: To the law and to the testimony. He will not permit any seeking unto God in himself outside of the Scriptures, much less will he permit it in others.
60. Moses mentions many ways by which men seek knowledge. Deut. 18, 10-11 There are eight classes as follows. 1. The users of divination. They are those who reveal the future, like the astrologers and false prophets by inspiration of the devil. 2. Those that practice augury. They designate some days as lucky for making a journey, for building, for marrying, for wearing fine clothes, for battle and for all kinds of transactions. 3. The enchanters or rather diviners – I know no better name to call these, who conjure the devil by means of mirrors, pictures, sticks, words, glass, crystals, fingers, nails, circles, rods, etc., and expect in this way to discover hidden treasures, history and other things. 4. The sorcerers, or witches, the devil mongers who steal milk, make the weather, ride on goats, brooms and sails (mantles) shoot the people, cripple and torture and wither, slay infants in the cradle, bewitch certain members of the body, etc. 5. The charmers, who bless people and animals, bewitch snakes, bespeak steel and iron, bluster and see much, and can do wonders. 6. The consulters of familiar spirits, who have the devil in their ears and tell the people what they have lost, what they are doing or what they will do in the future, just as the gypsies do. 7. The wizards, who can change things into different forms so that something may look like a cow or an ox, which in reality is a human being, that can drive people to illicit love and intercourse, and more such works of the devil. 8. The necromancers, who are walking spirits.
61. Behold, Moses did not forget anything, stopping up every avenue where men seek to learn, outside of the Word of God. Thus he has often denounced self-conceit and human reason, especially Deut. 12, 8: Ye shall not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes. And Prov. 3, 5: Trust in Jehovah with all thy heart and lean not upon thine own understanding. He does this that we might know that God wants us to follow neither our own reason nor that which is above reason, but only his Word, as Isaiah said above, not to seek unto the living nor the dead, but to seek unto God only in the law and testimony.
I don’t know what to make of all that Luther says here about the various forms of witchcraft. I know a guy in the church who came from down in southern Illinois near Kentucky, and he told me that one of his wife’s relatives charmed a wart off his hand. I asked him how he did that. He said, “Well, I had been trying to get rid of this wart for a long time, but it wouldn’t go away. And I told him about it, and he just kind of rubbed his hand over the wart a couple of times and said, ‘There you go, it’ll go away now.’ And it did. I don’t know how.”
I don’t know what to make of that, but I have heard from Lutheran pastors in Haiti and Madagascar that the sorts of things Luther describes are regular occurrences there—i.e. people apparently shapeshifting to look like a cow.
Anyway, the risk of people praying to dead relatives and communicating with ghosts is more baneful than I would have thought. So this is something that we have to address directly, I think, when dealing with grieving people and in teaching in catechesis.
Also, approaching Epiphany, which is the traditional liturgical season for house-blessing, this might be something to keep in mind. I would venture to guess that many people in many congregations have experienced things like “rumbling spirits in their house” much more than their pastors would believe.
Interestingly enough, in the old Missouri Synod prayer book I’ve been translating, there is a prayer “Against the fear of eerie/unearthly rumbling” (“wider die Furcht bei unheimlichem Gepolter”). I’ll have to translate that soon.
The whole section from Luther’s Church Postil Epiphany Sermon follows in the next post.