“I’m burnin’, I’m burnin’, I’m burnin’ for you!” The acclaimed rock group Blue Oyster Cult once expressed these sentiments of passion in their 1981 mega-hit. Of course, this was intended in a metaphorical sense. An entirely different type of “burnin’” has occurred to a number of unfortunate souls in a hideously literal way. I am speaking here of “spontaneous human combustion” (SHC, for short), and it is a very real phenomenon.
Like most of you who are reading this, I spent most of my life believing that the idea of someone spontaneously catching on fire should rank up there with claims about the Lochness Monster and Bigfoot. Upon closer inspection, I no longer feel this way. I firmly believe that it happens.
But let’s start with the basics.
What is spontaneous human combustion? Essentially, SHC is an event in which a human being initiates a fire on his or her person without the application of heat from an external source; nothing can be pinpointed as the cause, so the fire appears to have originated with the individual. Throughout the centuries, there have been literally hundreds of reported cases of SHC. Victims are typically found at their private residences, burned to ash, with little-to-no evidence that anything else had happened within the home. The evidence of intruders or fire damage to objects around them is basically nonexistent. Stranger still is the nature of their corpses; the victims are not simply burned to death, but are literally reduced to dust. To put this in perspective, the cremation of a deceased human body at your local crematorium does not even achieve such complete incineration. Though the bodies are typically burned for hours at heats in excess of 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, there are remaining bones that still need to be ground-up afterwards. Morbid, I know.
It was an episode of the Science Channel’s The Unexplained Files that really got me thinking about the issue of SHC. On one particular episode, a man named Frank Baker was the subject du jour. Frank seemed like a perfectly normal person, but he had an extraordinarily abnormal problem—every once in a while, he would burst into flames. This happened on two separate occasions, and both events were witnessed by Frank’s friend, Pete Willey. It’s a good thing Pete was there, too. On the first occasion, Frank caught on fire while sitting on his couch and Pete was able to extinguish the flames. On the second, the two were actually out in a boat fishing. Both times, Frank caught on fire in the complete absence of some external heat source, and both times Pete was able to help “put him out”. The most incredible aspect about all of this is that the doctor who saw Frank after his first case of SHC supposedly told him that, by all appearances, it seemed as though the fire had actually originated from within his person. There was no known naturalistic explanation for what had happened to Frank. There still isn’t.
There are many other cases of SHC of course, most of them much better known than Frank Baker’s. In July of 1951, Mary Hardy Reeser—known to some as the “The Cinder Lady”— is believed by many to have burst into flames in her apartment. As is often the case (for some reason), one foot remained intact, as well as her shrunken skull (odd). Both John Irving Bentley (1966) and Henry Thomas (1980) were also both found incinerated, though both also retained at least one leg. Oddly, the slipper covering Bentley’s remaining foot was completely untouched. One of the most famous cases of SHC, and one of the most recent, was the strange case of Michael Faherty. Faherty was discovered on December 22, 2010, in his home in Ballybane, Ireland. According to reports, only Faherty’s body and the areas directly above and below him were affected by the flames, and the coroner on the case—like the doctor who saw Frank Baker—actually felt as though human spontaneous combustion was the most reasonable explanation for the event.
This is just a sampling of various cases of SHC. So yes, I do believe that it happens . . . crazy as it may seem to be.
The obvious question with these incidents of SHC is—to follow with our tune above—who did they burn for? Who, or what, did this to the victims of SHC? As previously mentioned, despite our 2017 technology, we cannot even intentionally destroy a corpse as thoroughly as we see in these cases. No human being murdered these victims, unless they possessed a technology that we are not aware of and they were able to leave absolutely no trace of their presence on all of these occasions. Is there some naturally occurring reason for SHC? There may well be, but we do not presently know of one. Perhaps the most famous naturalistic suggestions on the issue have been the so-called “wick theories”, which generally posit that the human body is something like a candle-wick that slowly burns as subcutaneous fat is released from the body. But these notions have been D.O.A. from the beginning. If a body slowly burned at such an extreme heat for the amount of time generally posited within the various wick theories, it is almost impossible to imagine that everything else around the individuals would not have caught on fire as well. Besides, a wick needs to be lit, and the whole mystery surrounding cases of SHC is that there was no external heat source found near the victims. The dagger is that, even if we grant all the factors involved in the wick theories, that still would not generate the kind of heat needed to turn a human body to ash. Like I said, the wick theories are dead on arrival.
But I suppose we could still do what many people in the natural sciences do with issues like abiogenesis (how life began) or the origin of the universe, and simply wish on the future. Yeah, we don’t have a natural explanation now . . . but we will someday! But as one who is unwilling to tow-the-line of philosophical naturalism—which suggests that the only explanations that can possibly exist are purely naturalistic ones—I have to be willing to entertain the idea that there are metaphysical reasons for this. More than simply entertaining the idea, I have to think that a metaphysical answer is the best explanation for the cases of SHC.
We have to account for a few major things when considering the topic of SHC. First, we have to account for a source of extreme heat. We are talking about a heat that can turn a body—bones and all—to ash. Second, we have to explain how there is literally no evidence of breaking-and-entering or that anyone was involved in the event. With all of our advances in forensic science, we would be able to at least tell if there had been an intruder at a murder scene. Lastly, we need to explain why the entire dwelling doesn’t burn to the ground when an object (the burning body) laying in direct proximity to furniture, walls, appliances, etc., is radiating unimaginable heat. For the most part, only the individual is affected.
None of this adds up. Natural causes cannot explain cases of SHC and neither can human interference. But perhaps there is yet another type intelligence behind it all . . .
For millennia, people from various backgrounds and ideologies have explained such types of phenomena by invoking beings of higher power and intelligence. Buried in what some may call “superstition”, an answer may well have always been with us. The most famous ancient text of all time is the Bible, and there is not a remotely close second. It would surprise most people, particularly those who share my belief in Jesus Christ, to learn that the Bible certainly explains a number of events that correspond quite closely with the phenomenon of SHC. For starters, both testaments of the Bible discuss the reality that divine beings can cause the sudden death of human beings without being seen. An ark-bearer named Uzzah found this out the hard way when he reached down to grab the ark of the covenant, in order to keep the holy relic from falling to the ground. The result—as God had forewarned the Jewish people—was horrific, and Uzzah was stricken dead on the spot (2 Sam. 6:6-7). A very similar event was recorded in Acts 5:1-11, where we read about two frauds, named Ananias and Sapphira, who were struck down in an instant for lying to God and withholding money from the church. It is even recorded that an angel destroyed 185,000 Assyrians in a single night (2 Ki. 19:35, Is. 37:36)! These examples don’t directly match cases of SHC, but they certainly exhibit the type of power on display within them.
Then we have the rather unfortunate case of Lot’s wife. Prior to God’s act of pouring fire and brimstone down on the rebellious cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot—who just happened to be the nephew of the great biblical patriarch, Abraham—and his family were told to flee to the town of Zoar, in order to escape the coming destruction (Gen. 19:21-22). For undisclosed reasons, Lot’s wife did not heed the angels’ warning and was turned into a “pillar of salt” (Gen. 19:26). Perhaps she was covered by the explosions of surrounding salt deposits or ultimately petrified (becoming “salt”) under piles of ash. Whatever the case, it is important to consider the context of the situation. God—a non-human, metaphysical being—caused a fire and a heat of such magnitude that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (and their inhabitants) were absolutely obliterated. So was Lot’s wife. This is precisely the same type of power that must be at work in cases of SHC. And again, the being responsible remained unseen.
Now we are getting warmer.
A few more quick examples should be enough to illustrate the point. First, take the descriptions of God’s fiery power in the sacrifices of the Old Testament. The book of Leviticus records that after Moses’ brother, Aaron, and the Levites had been inaugurated as the priests of Israel, God ordered that a series of sacrifices be made. One of those sacrifices was to be a “burnt offering”, which consisted of both a calf and a lamb (9:3). After making all of the appropriate sacrifices and placing the burnt offering and fat portions on the altar, something astonishing happened: “Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell face down (9:24).”
Later on in the Old Testament, we see an eerily similar event take place when the prophet Elijah takes on the prophets of the god Baal, in a sort of “my God is better than your god” competition. The rules of the skirmish were pretty simple: two bulls were sacrificed and set on altars to test the competing deities, and whichever alleged deity sent fire to burn the sacrifices was the real God. Where the 450 prophets of Baal had failed, Elijah succeeded. It is said that Yahweh sent fire to swallow up the bull that had been sacrificed: a fire so intense that it destroyed the entire altar, and even “. . . licked up the water in the trench” that surrounded the altar (1 Ki. 18:38). Just think—a fire so intense that it even caused the surrounding water to immediately dissipate.
Finally, we cannot forget the way that Satan is described within the Bible. The book of Job is the first place we really encounter Satan (at least his supernatural abilities) within the entire Bible. On route to destroying just about everything and everyone that Job held dear, the Bible records that Satan was able to conjure one truly hellacious fire-storm. In true Sodom and Gomorrah fashion, Satan poured fire from the heavens, completely eradicating all of Job’s sheep and his servants (1:16). Even in the New Testament, Satan is given aliases like the “god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4) and the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). Clearly, producing fiery death and destruction is not outside the realm his abilities, or his desires.
The question of which type of heavenly being is to blame for these events, or whether or not all of these examples are “fair” acts, is beyond the scope of this particular blog. But there are two points that should emerge from this. The first is that something like SHC—as “kooky” as it may sound to many of us—seems to be a reality we must accept. There are many real-life examples of this phenomenon, and even the Bible records events that are extraordinarily similar in nature. That leads us to the second major thrust of this blog. The Bible doesn’t just describe similar events; I believe that it gives us the only logical solution to the enigma.
I have already discussed the fact that science has found no reasonable explanation for spontaneous human combustion. At best, one may scientifically assert that we will one day uncover that there is a perfectly good “natural” explanation for SHC. But we can all wish on the future until the cows come home.
It is only fair to say that we need to deal with what we do know rather than what we do not.
What we have in the cases of SHC is the destruction of individuals through an incredibly rapid and exceedingly hot process: a process that outdoes our human capabilities, and most definitely surpasses anything rational in nature. The two most peculiar and haunting items we must explain is why there is just so little evidence of intrusion, and why so little else is disturbed within the rooms in which the victims of SHC breathed their final breaths.
There are no natural explanations. There aren’t even any human explanations. So where exactly does that leave us? Maybe we should go back and read a little more from the “superstitious” texts of old. They spoke of beings that surpass our levels of power and understanding. They even spoke of beings that are not confined within our realm of existence, and would therefore not need to be seen in ours.
Maybe they pegged the culprits of SHC long ago.
At the very least, their explanations are no more absurd than having no explanation at all.
Hill, Bryan. “Spontaneous Human Combustion: A Burning Mystery”. 24 August, 2015. http://www.ancient-origins.net/unexplained-phenomena/spontaneous-human-combustion-burning-mystery-003665
“Human Combustion Victim”. The Unexplained Files. http://www.sciencechannel.com/tv-shows/the-unexplained-files/videos/spontaneous-combustion-victim/
Kim, Michelle. “How Cremation Works”. How Stuff Works. http://science.howstuffworks.com/cremation1.htm
Morris, Henry M. The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings. Baker Book House. Grand Rapids, MI. 1976.