Many people enjoy hearing a ghost story. Whether it’s listening to others tell of an encounter that they or someone else had or watching a television show or a movie, most of us, have an interest in the paranormal. I’ll admit that I even enjoy listening to ghost stories. But do ghosts really exist? Do the spirits of some people linger around on the earth after they are dead? What does the Bible teach about ghosts? In this article, we will examine the teachings of Scripture to answer one of the most popular questions many Christians (and non-Christians) have about the dead and afterlife.
Ghosts are everywhere
Ghost stories have been told for thousands of years. Different languages have given us various words such as poltergeist (German), wraith (Scottish), shade (Old English), banshee (Gaelic), phantom (French), and specter (Latin). Ghost stories have come down to us even from the ancient world. For example, in ancient Iraq, there was the story of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which had the main character, Gilgamesh, speaking with the spirit of his deceased friend Enkidu. Homer, writer of the classics the Iliad and the Odyssey, told of ghosts. Even Jesus’ disciples mistook Jesus for a ghost when he walked on the water (Mark 6:49).
Closer to our time is Shakespeare, who had ghosts make appearances in Hamlet and Macbeth. There is also the classic A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens, which tells about the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas Yet-to-Come appearing to Ebenezer Scrooge. And today, we have countless TV shows, movies, and books which portray ghosts interacting with people. The Syfy channel has probably the most popular version of ghosts in their television show Ghost Hunters. In this show, a team of paranormal investigators go in search of ghosts in various different places.
In 2006, the Barna Group published results from a nationwide study where 73% of youth were shown to have “engaged in at least one type of psychic or witchcraft-related activity, beyond mere media exposure or horoscope usage.” More than one-third of teenagers have used an Ouija board, one-tenth had actually been involved with séances, and nine percent had visited a medium or spiritual guide. In fact, teens “cut and paste supernatural experiences and perspectives from a variety of sources – from the movies and books they read, from their experiences, from the Internet, from their peers and families, from any place they’re comfortable with.” This is, of course, a problem with adults as well.
There have been many different reports of ghosts. People report seeing ghosts in cemeteries, abandoned buildings, and even in their homes. Where I live, in west central Indiana, there is a place called “Spook Light Hill” where it is said you can see the ghost of a father looking for the head of his daughter who was killed in the late 1800s. And it doesn’t stop with fathers looking for their daughter’s heads either. Sometimes people will see soldiers, government officials, police officers, prisoners, and sometimes even their own family members. Many ghost sightings include details such as ghosts wearing clothes from their time period (for example, a Civil War solider wearing his uniform), ghost ships, and even ghost trains (one appears in the movie Ghostbusters 2). The problem with details is that they defy any kind of logic whatsoever. The idea is that ghosts are the souls of people who have died. Does this mean that clothes, ships, and trains have souls as well?
The Biblical Teaching
What does the Bible have to say about ghosts? First, Scripture never portrays people lingering on earth after they die. It teaches, instead, that believers go straight to the present heaven upon dying (Luke 16:22-23; 23:43; and 2 Corinthians 5:8), and Luke 16:23 tells about the rich man going straight to the present hell. Hebrews 9:27 says, “Just as a man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment…” These passages clearly teach us that after people die they do not linger around on this planet anymore (looking for their daughter’s heads or whatever else). Believing that ghosts are real forces us to reject certain parts of Scripture, and this can cast serious doubt on the Gospel itself. If the passages just mentioned cannot be trusted, than why should we trust other parts? If Scripture is wrong on lingering spirits, than how can a Christian trust it on heaven and hell?
How do we explain ghosts?
So, how are we to explain what millions of people throughout history have seen? It would be easy to just say that all of these people are either lying, misinterpreting natural phenomena, or are even hallucinating. No doubt these explanations can explain a lot of ghost sightings, but is it possible that some people really are seeing (or hearing) something? I believe that it is possible, and I believe there is a very good explanation biblically to what is going on. Let me explain.
Throughout the Bible we hear about beings called angels. The Bible has much to say about angels, for example: 1) they are spirits, but they always appear to humans as a physical man (Hebrews 1:14; Genesis 19:1; Luke 24:4) even to the point where they seem so real that we do not recognize them as being angels (Genesis 18:1-16; 19:5; Hebrews 13:2); 2) they are more powerful than men (2 Thessalonians 1:7; 2 Peter 2:11); 3) they can appear among and even interact with humans, even killing them (Genesis 16:9; 19:15; 1 Chronicles 21:15; Psalms 78:49; John 20:12). 2 Kings 19:35 even says that one angel, note only one, killed one hundred eighty-five thousand soldiers in one night; and 4) they are not to be worshipped (Romans 1:15; Colossians 2:18; Revelation 19:10).
In the New Testament, we find many different encounters with what the Bible calls demons, fallen angels who rebelled with Satan. Acts 8:7 tells us of Philip preaching and “unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed.” Matthew 8:28-34 tells about two demon-possessed men who were so violent that no could even pass in the general direction where they were. Jesus healed the men and the demons went into a herd of pigs. Matthew 17:14-23 describes how Jesus healed a boy with a demon who would give the boy seizures, and make him fall into the fire or the water. Matthew 12:22-28 teaches us that demons are governed by Satan. Rick Barry quotes Bible scholar Charles Ryrie as saying:
“The very fact that demons can enter human or animal bodies shows they can pass through barriers that would restrict human beings…Demons are not humans; neither are they God. But they are superhuman with superior intelligence and experience and powers.”
Researcher John Keel has noted that “The devil and his demons can, according to the literature [written throughout history], manifest themselves in almost any form and can physically imitate anything from angels to horrifying monsters with glowing eyes.” Gary Bates notes:
“Although such occurrences are deceptive entities (fallen angels) manifesting from the spiritual realm, some might be surprised at their ability to manifest physically in our realm. This, once again, is due to a cultural idea about angels as being merely some sort of ethereal spirit (non-bodied) being and sometimes with fairy-type wings. The Bible indicates that angels are “ministering spirits” (Hebrews 1:14). In addition, Jesus was described as a “life-giving” or “quickening spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45), and God the Father is described as a Spirit (John 4:24), as is the Holy Spirit. The Bible also says that human beings have a spirit. So the spirit is not the sum of who we are, but a part of our being.”
These writers clearly believe that what people are seeing when they report a ghost is a demon. Scholar Ron Rhodes agrees with this by saying, “People sometimes genuinely encounter a spirit entity – though not a dead human. Some people encounter demonic spirits who may mimic dead people in order to deceive the living (see 1 John 4:1; 1 Timothy 4:1-3). Many who claim to have encountered such spirit entities have some prior involvement in the occult.”
The idea that disembodied spirits of the dead roam the earth is not a new idea. Occult manifestations have been around for thousands of years, and the Bible records occult practices being undertaken by Israel and Judah (this is one of the reasons why God had the Assyrians and Babylonians destroy Israel in Old Testament times). “Manifestations have often appeared in the guise of deceased persons and even dead relatives. It is a very powerful counterfeit, because it tugs on the emotional relationship and heartstrings of the person seeing the manifestation.”
Because demons are the servants of Satan and the enemies of God, they have every reason to want to deceive a person – to cast doubt on God’s Word. Since the Bible clearly teaches that humans do not stay on earth after death, but go straight to the present heaven or hell, then if someone sees a ghost, then it can cast doubt on what the Bible teaches. Someone who sees a ghost may think: “The Bible teaches that ghosts are not dead people; but I just saw my great-grandmother’s ghost last week. So the Bible must be false.”
Problems with the demonic theory
C. Michael Patton, in his blog post titled “Do You Believe in Ghosts? The Christian View of the Paranormal,” lists a few potential problems with the idea that ghosts are always demons.
1) Many hauntings are said to be in places such as abandoned hospitals, towns, and the like. “These places are uninhabited and therefore do not seem suitable for a malicious demon to inhabit.”
2) Communication with ghosts is usually limited. “Shadows, moving objects, and faint voices [do] not seem effective toward the demonic agenda of confusion.”
3) We do not know where the present heaven and hell are.
4) Disembodied spirits of humans on the earth do not necessarily have to confuse the Christian worldview.
5) Certain features of hauntings (such as a child’s laughter and no personal engagement of the ghost) “seem to favor something other than a demonic spirit.”
6) The appearance of Samuel in 1 Samuel 28, and Elijah and Moses in Luke 9:29-33 shows us that believers can manifest themselves. Also, the disciples believed that Jesus was a ghost when he was walking on the water.
These explanations are rife with problems. First, just because some hauntings are only a child’s laughter, shadows, or in limited places such as abandoned towns do not mean that it cannot be demons. Demons can, and will, try to confuse people about the afterlife in any way possible. In fact, only haunting an abandoned building will cause someone to think that it is not a demon (just like this author noted), thus forcing the experiencer to question the Bible. Secondly, just because we do not know where the present heaven and hell are does not mean that spirits of dead people are ghosts. Third, disembodied spirits of humans does confuse the Christian worldview as I have noted earlier in this article.
What about Samuel, Elijah, Moses, and Jesus?
But what about Samuel, Elijah, Moses, and the disciples? Doesn’t the Bible teach that ghosts are real because of these examples (1 Samuel 28:7-21; Luke 9:28-36; and Mark 6:49)? Let us take a look at each of passages. First, the appearance of Elijah and Moses (Luke 9) does not have anything to do with ghosts in the way that we have been discussing them. Elijah and Moses must have had some kind of physical appearance since Peter wanted to build a shelter for them (why would a ghost need a shelter?). Also, just because they appeared to Jesus does not mean that they can manifest themselves any time they want or that they linger on the earth. They appeared for a purpose – it was Jesus’ transfiguration.
Second, 1 Samuel 28:7-21 gives us an account of Saul, the first God-appointed king of Israel, visiting a medium in order for her to summon the prophet Samuel from the grave. Samuel appears and actually causes the medium to cry out in fear. Does this passage show that a ghost of a person can come back from the dead? Does it show us that spiritual mediums and witchcraft actually work?
Gary Bates notes that “if God has the ultimate power over our spirits, how can the witch call up a departed spirit? I believe this may have been allowed via a sovereign act of God as a mechanism of punishing and pronouncing judgment on a rebellious Saul….When one reads the passage, it is noteworthy that the witch herself was taken by surprise when she saw that it actually was Samuel.”
Who Samuel was in these verses has resulted in two different interpretations. First, some think that God sent Samuel back to appear to Saul. Second, others note that it must have been a demon in disguise because Samuel prophesized something that never came to pass. The apparition warned Saul that all of Saul’s sons would die the very next day However, not all of Saul’s sons died.
However, Bates disagrees that it was a demon in disguise. He bases this on that fact that “there is no biblical or other evidence that demons can foretell the future (although they often claim to be prophets via a variety of deceptive guises) and the prophecy about Samuel came to pass. Moreover, Samuel berates Saul for disobeying God in this way. Seeking after the dead is something that deceptive spirits would encourage, not admonish. And indeed, the next day, Saul’s army was routed and Saul committed suicide.” It should also be noted that verse 19 does not say that all of Saul’s sons would die.
Bates summarizes the story of Samuel by saying, “The story reflects the reality of falling from grace, and being out of God’s favor, by following one’s own desires instead of being obedient. Samuel did not give advice but pronounced the penalty for Saul’s disobedience, which in part including partaking in forbidden rituals. It is thus not something that affirms biblical support for the idea of ghosts.”
It’s a ghost!
But did not the disciples believe in ghosts (Mark 6:49)? In different Bible translations, the words ‘ghost’ and ‘spirit’ are used interchangeably. This is where the reader can run into confusion. The King James Version uses the word ‘ghost’ extensively (“Holy Ghost,” for example, or “give up the ghost”), whereas more modern translations have used “spirit.” (“Holy Ghost” is now translated as “Holy Spirit.”) The change is a good one because the word “ghost” has changed its meaning over time. Culturally, in today’s world, “ghost” has the connotation of a wandering spirit of a dead person.
Does the fact that the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost mean that ghosts really exist? Bates shares his belief: “Obviously the disciples had never seen a man do anything like either of these events before [referring to both the walking on the water and appearing to the disciples behind closed doors after the resurrection], so their first thought was to invoke the supernatural, resorting to ideas from their culture to explain it.”
Bates makes an excellent point about the disciples referring to a ghost: “In fact, these are instances of the disciples failing to recognize Jesus’ divinity. Job 9:8 teaches that only God can tread on the waves, and after Jesus had just completed the feeding of the five thousand (which would have recalled God’s supernatural provision of manna for the Hebrews) they should have seen the significance of this miracle. So, even though the Gospels seem to indicate that the disciples believed in ghosts, Jesus’ followers are in any case not being presented as models for belief or obedience at that stage. In fact, they continually miss the point.”
It is also possible that the disciples thought that they were seeing an angel or demon, since angels are spirits (“ghosts” in the old meaning of the term).
Bates says it well: “There is no room in traditional, orthodox evangelical theology for our departed spirits to be roaming the Earth. As shown earlier, though, there are multitudes of rebellious spirits (or angels) who are doing that…”
It is clear that the Bible teaches that ghosts do not exist in the way that many think of today. However, this does not mean that people are not seeing something. If you ever see a ghost you are not seeing a dead person’s spirit, but a demon, a follower of Satan, the father of lies.
What do you think? Have you ever seen a ghost? Now that you have read that it could have been a demon, what do you think about your experience? Leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.
Update: I wanted to add one quick thing to this article. I want to make it clear that good angels would not appear to someone as a ghost (a disembodied spirit of a dead person). This would be deception, and deception is the expertise of Satan and his demons. Demons have great interest in deceiving people so that few people will get into heaven. So don’t think for one moment that if you have seen a spirit then it was an angel – it would be a fallen angel (a demon), but not a good angel.
 Rick Barry. “Do You Believe in Ghosts?” Answers 5:3, July-Sept. 2010: 31.
 Charles Ryrie. Basic Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1999. Pg. 186. Quoted in Barry, 33.
 John Keel, Operation Trojan Horse (Lilburn, GA: Illuminet Press, 1996 edition) 192. Quoted in Bates.
 Ron Rhodes. The Truth Behind Ghosts, Mediums, and Psychic Phenomena (Eugene: Harvest House, 2006). Pg. 71. Quoted in Barry, 33.
 Barry, 33.