(Do you believe in ghosts? A couple of weeks ago I preached about a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. I talked about how the disciples were afraid Jesus was a ghost. I made an offhand comment that “We know of course from the Bible that there are no ghosts, so we don’t have to be afraid of them.” Since then, a couple of folks have asked, “What does the Bible say about ghosts?” Another e-mailed me a similar question. As also often happens, I got carried away in my response. Because it’s long, I’m going to share it here in two parts, today and Wednesday. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts, whether you agree or not . . .)
There has been renewed interest in the existence of ghosts lately. Here’s a partial list of the ghost-related shows currently running on cable television:
People are fascinated with ghosts. Certainly that has to do with our fear of being “haunted,” but it also reflects our confusion and apprehension about what happens after we die. Christians are understandably confused about the reality of ghosts; after all, there seems to be so much “evidence” of their existence.
What does our authority on spiritual matters, the Bible, say about ghosts? And what about the “ghosts” in the Bible?
First, we can be certain that there are no ghostly deceased Christians. Scripture is clear that once someone dies in Christ, they immediately are in the Lord’s presence. In I Corinthains 5:6-8, Paul makes it clear that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (not a direct quote from the verses, but rather a summary of their meaning). In Philippians 1:23, he writes, “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” To depart – in other words to die – is to be with Christ.
We also have the words of Christ Himself. On the cross, He speaks to the repentant thief: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (italics added). Whatever our state (conscious, “asleep,” etc.) in paradise until the Final Judgment, Christians are most assuredly not wandering the earth in a ghostly form.
What about those who die without Christ as their savior? There are two places we can point to in the Bible that will disabuse us of the notion of ghosts. First, there is Hebrews 9:27: “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment . . .” There is just no indication of an intermediate conscious state between death and judgment.
We can also look at the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Although this is a parable, it is the only time that Jesus used a specific name in the telling of a story. Scholars believe this means He was teaching a lesson in reality beyond the moral(s) of the parable. The reality here that is germane to the discussion of ghosts is that the rich man in Hades is totally separated from both heaven and earth; there is an unbridgeable chasm. To return to earth (or to move to “Abraham’s bosom” i.e. heaven) after death is not allowed.
What about ghosts in the Bible, though? Most of the time, “ghost” is a misinterpretation of what is really happening, particularly in the disciples’ fear that the post-resurrection Jesus is a ghost.
But there are two occasions in which dead folks at least appear to return from “beyond.”
The first is when Samuel is “summoned” by the Witch of Endor. I Samuel 28 is the story of a strange encounter between Saul and this necromancer. Saul is desperate in the face of an invasion by the powerful Philistines and his previous loss of God’s Spirit because of his disobedience. He turns for reassurance to the very thing that as king he had previously outlawed: the occult. In disguise, he visits the Witch of Endor and convinces her to summon the spirit of the prophet Samuel. When Samuel appears, the Witch is surprised. Saul lays out his troubles. Samuel condemns Saul and predicts his death. Saul will indeed die the next day.
Scholars disagree about what actually happened at Endor. Some say it was a demonic trick; Satan convinced Saul that Samuel had appeared to him. Others believe it was a hallucination of either the Witch or Saul, but that seems unlikely because both of them seem to experience Samuel’s presence (the Witch sees him, Saul at least hears him – it’s not clear he sees Samuel because Saul’s face is on the ground). The third possibility is that it was indeed an actual appearance by Samuel.
This is certainly something about which Christians in good faith can disagree. If pressed, I would say that the third option is most likely for three reasons. First, the reaction of the witch to Samuel’s appearance – she is used to dealing either with trickery or demonic appearances, and is shocked when a real spirit appears. Second, the Bible refers to the apparition as “Samuel” and nothing else. And finally, the “prophecy” spoken by Samuel comes to pass.
If it was actually Samuel there in Endor, does that support the “normal” existence of ghosts? Certainly not! Samuel has not been roaming around haunting people – he was somewhere. The first thing he says to Saul is “Why have you disturbed me . . .?”
This is clearly a special – some scholars say “strange” – act of God for God’s purposes. From the witch’s reaction, it is clear that she had no power over this situation. Samuel appeared not because she summoned him, but because God made it happen.
(On Wednesday, the other “ghostly” incident in the Bible, as well as some possible explanations for spectral sightings.)