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Why do so many Americans believe in ghosts?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Why do so many Americans believe in ghosts?
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“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).

As Halloween approaches this Sunday, I found these facts about Americans to be relevant:

  • 70 percent of us will celebrate the upcoming holiday; the figure rises to 91 percent for parents with children in their home.
  • 88 percent of parents say they eat their children’s candy.
  • 32 percent say there is no age limit for trick-or-treating.
  • 46 percent believe ghosts are real.

As to why so many Americans believe in ghosts, the New York Times cites the rise of Americans claiming no religious preference and quotes sociologist Thomas Mowen in response: “People are looking to other things or nontraditional things to answer life’s big questions that don’t necessarily include religion.” Interestingly, Mowen says he is finding that “atheists tend to report higher belief in the paranormal than religious folk.”

In other words, many do not believe in the supernatural when it refers to God, but they do when it does not.

For example, the Washington Post is carrying a feature-length portrait of a “teenage witch” who lives in Austin, Texas. The article reports that the hashtag #witchtok on TikTok has 19.4 billion views. The teenager profiled by the Post says, “I’ve never felt more peace than when I’m with my gods. Reading a prayer or doing a ritual. It’s like the earth is alive, a way of stepping into my power as a person.”

An illusion that illustrates a cultural fact

The “Delboeuf Illusion” is an optical illusion of relative size perception. The best-known version of the illusion is below. The two dark-circled discs are the same size, though the one on the left seems smaller than the one on the right.

The Delboeuf Illusion (Image credit: Public Domain)

This illusion illustrates a cultural fact: the more chaos we see in the world around us, the smaller our individual challenges can seem.

There was a day, for instance, when concerns about witchcraft and the occult in the Harry Potter series were front-page stories. Now the enormous escalation of interest in witchcraft raises few eyebrows. So many people are fascinated with astrology and occult practices that the phenomenon is being called an “occult revival.” In a day dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, political divisions, and natural disasters, this “revival” can seem innocuous. But this is far from true.

My purpose is not to disparage all Halloween activities. We took our boys trick-or-treating in the neighborhood, and they will do the same with their children this Sunday. Halloween can be a fun holiday and even a way of building relational bridges for the gospel with our neighbors and community.

It is estimated that Americans will spend $10.1 billion on Halloween this year, including $3.3 billion on costumes and $3 billion on candy. Such a popular event can be a great opportunity to reach out to those around us with Christian truth and love (Ephesians 4:15).

“Do not turn to mediums or necromancers”

Rather, I’d like to use what the teenage witch said in the Washington Post article to contrast Halloween and the day it precedes. She claimed that communing with her occult “gods” is “a way of a way of stepping into my power as a person.” By contrast, God’s word consistently forbids engagement with the occult:

  • “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them” (Leviticus 19:31).
  • Scripture says of King Manasseh that he “used fortune-telling and omens and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with necromancers.” As a result, “He did much evil in the sight of the Lᴏʀᴅ, provoking him to anger” (2 Chronicles 33:6).
  • “The household gods utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; they tell false dreams and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd” (Zechariah 10:2).

Satan’s first strategy is always to claim that we will “step into our power as a person” by being our own god (Genesis 3:5). This is because the “will to power,” as Nietzsche described it, is basic to our fallen human nature.

As a result, we don’t have to engage in witchcraft and other occult practices to be tempted by the self-sufficiency our secular culture applauds and reinforces. I can refuse the occult but still write this article in my own ability for my own glory. You can read it in the same way.

If we do, neither of us will experience the omnipotent power available to everyone who refuses self-reliance for Spirit-dependence by yielding our minds and lives to the Holy Spirit.

Why we should “keep in step with the Spirit”

In contrast to Halloween, the following day is All Saints Day. (Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve,” referring to the day it precedes.) The day celebrates all the saints from Christian history.

But know this: all Christians qualify. We are all God’s “saints” (cf. Acts 9:13; 9:32; Romans 1:7; 8:27; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 4:12; Philippians 4:21). However, to live out our identity requires power beyond ourselves.

By his Spirit who dwells in every Christian (1 Corinthians 3:16), God will enable us to defeat temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13), guide us into “all the truth” (John 16:13), and empower our global witness and ministry (Acts 1:8). But if we turn to any other source—be it occult, secular, or self-reliant—we forfeit what our omnipotent Father wants to do with and through us.

I’ll close with an illustration: I walked early yesterday morning in our neighborhood in the midst of a windstorm blowing twenty miles per hour, with gusts twice that strong. When I walked against the wind, I had no help from its strength. To the contrary, I had to work much harder than if there were no wind.

But when I went with the wind, its force at my back enabled me to walk with power beyond myself. (For more, see my blog on my personal website, where you’ll find other blogs, videos, and a way to ask me questions about faith and life.)

Jesus likened the Holy Spirit to the “wind [that] blows where it wishes” (John 3:8). Scripture calls us to submit to this “wind” every day (Ephesians 5:18), refusing to quench (1 Thessalonians 5:19) or grieve (Ephesians 4:30) his power through sin.

If we will “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25), we will have his omniscient wisdom to guide us and his omnipotent power to strengthen us.

Would the Spirit say you are “in step” with him today?

If not, why not?

NOTE: I wanted to remind you one last time this month about our new resource that gives you the “rules of the game” for a life well lived. It’s the tenth and latest volume of my Biblical Insight to Tough Questions books — and you can request your copy for a gift of any amount through October 31. Please respond* before time runs out.

*You can also request the entire 10-volume set of Biblical Insight to Tough Questions. In it you’ll find dozens of our culture’s toughest questions — all answered, without apology, with Scripture.