What Does the Bible Say About Them?
Ghosts. Do Christians believe in them? It is a fascinating question! And I have to approach the answer from at least a couple of angles. To answer the question as it’s worded, yes, I’m sure there are some Christians who believe in ghosts. But Christians can believe a lot of things, both true and untrue. They can be correct, or they can be mistaken. A better question is: Does the Bible teach that there are such things as ghosts? Rather than taking a poll of what others think, it’s good first of all to build a foundation of truth from Scripture.
The simplest answer, based on the Bible’s teaching, is that there are no such things as ghosts–if we are talking about spirit visitations from human beings who have died–though this needs to be qualified a bit. (I’ll get to that in a moment.) If we are talking about the spirits of dead people lurking around graveyards, or causing mysterious noises in old houses, the answer is no. And the reason there are no after-death appearances of the dead is because death is a gateway into our eternal destiny, not a revolving door through which people commonly come and go.
DEATH FOR THE SAVED
For the saints of God (believers), “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4) leads to eternal blessing in the presence of the Lord (Ps. 23:6; cf. Jn. 14:2-3; 17:24). Paul is confident that death means “to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (II Cor. 5:8). Because of that, he was able to testify “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He had “a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better [better than this present mortal life]” (Phil. 1:21, 23). When the dying thief on the cross next to Jesus expressed faith in Him, the Lord said, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43).
Everything God reveals in His Word about life after death for the Christian indicates that we move on to a new life with Him. There is no suggestion that we ever come back as disembodied spirits to haunt the living! (Who would want to forsake the perfection of heaven for that?!) There are a few times in the Bible when the dead are resurrected, by the supernatural power of God. (Lazarus is one example, Jn. 11:1-44). But that is quite different. Lazarus and the others were not ghosts. They came back temporarily in their mortal bodies, and died again later. Their restoration to life was, in effect, a brief resuscitation, after which they died as we all do, and did not return again.
DEATH FOR THE UNSAVED
Of the unsaved God’s Word says, “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27; cf. Ecc. 12:14; Matt. 25:46), and “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). Even though unbelievers do not receive their final sentence and consignment to “the lake of fire” (hell) until a future time (Rev. 20:11-15), they begin their eternal punishment immediately after death. The day of opportunity to be saved has come and gone, and they are under God’s condemnation. Jesus describes a man in that condition who wanted someone to go back and warn his five brothers. This would have been a perfect job for a ghost. But none was sent. Instead, the answer came back, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets [if they don’t believe the Bible, in other words] neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead” (Lk. 16:19-31).
A couple of times, the Lord Jesus appeared suddenly and unexpectedly in the midst of His disciples and they were terrified, thinking maybe it was a spirit being (Matt. 14:22-27; Lk. 24:36-37), but they were mistaken. In the latter instance, Jesus specifically says, “Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Lk. 24:39). We cannot make of these appearances any ghostly notions.
TWO UNUSUAL INCIDENTS
There are a couple of instances in the Bible where the appearance of people who had previously died, one in the Old Testament and one in the New, may have involved some kind of spirit visitation, but they are both unique situations, and nothing like the common claims about ghosts. (Note too that in both instances the people involved were believers, and special servants of God during their lifetimes.)
1) One incident comes at the end of the life of Saul, Israel’s first king. He had rebelled against God, and the Lord had withdrawn from him. For years, the prophet Samuel had been God’s spokesman, delivering His word to the king. But now Samuel was dead. Saul wanted guidance about fighting the Philistines, but God gave him none (I Sam. 28:6). In desperation, Saul (in disguise) consulted a witch, who conducted a seance for him. She claimed she saw “a spirit ascending out of the earth.” It was apparently Samuel, who then said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” and he prophesied that the army of Israel will be defeated by the Philistines, “and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me [in other words, they would be killed]” (I Sam. 28:7-20). (And it happened exactly that way.)
What are we to make of this? Some commentators refuse to believe this was actually Samuel, insisting that a holy God would not use such a pagan practice to communicate with Saul. They say the apparition was either a fake, or it was some kind of demonic counterfeit. However, my own thought is that this argument is weak. Certainly God did not need to use this unusual means to pronounce Saul’s doom. But we do know the Lord at times, worked through some unusual instruments to deliver a message (including Balaam’s donkey, Num. 22:21-31). It is possible that in this unique situation the Lord sent Samuel back to express His final condemnation of the wayward king.
Saul had sought out a woman who had what the King James Version calls “a familiar spirit” (I Sam. 28:7) meaning that she was a medium, who claimed to have regular communication with a demonic spirit (a practice forbidden in Israel, Deut. 18:9-14). It seems the woman was startled by what happened, likely because, instead of her expected “familiar spirit,” Samuel actually appeared, causing her to shriek in terror (vs. 12). She calls what she sees “a spirit” (vs. 13). The Hebrew word is elohim. It is a common word used for the true God, but occasionally of men and of spirit beings. She was saying what appeared was a god, or a mighty one (a spirit). But again, we do not know for sure what is going on here. Certainly the unusual circumstances prevent us from jumping to conclusions about the reality or common appearance of ghosts.
2) The second instance occurs on what is known as the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-8). There long-dead Moses and Elijah appeared, talking with the Lord Jesus (vs. 2). But again, the situation was absolutely unique. During His time on earth, the Son of God veiled His heavenly glory. But He needed to prepare His disciples for ministry after He returned to heaven. This incident gave them a brief glimpse of what the Lord will be like when we stand before Him in eternity. Matthew says “His face shone like the sun.” And the presence of Moses and Elijah shows us something more about heaven–that we will recognize one another, and be able to converse with one another, and with the Lord Himself. But again, this was an unusual situation, and nothing like the ghostly visitations some claim today.
SOME POSSIBLE EXPLANATIONS
So, what about those who say they have seen ghosts? Or who say that they have held seances and dear departed Aunt Betsy has come back to talk with them? (And they’re sure it was Betsy because she knew things that only that person would know.) What about that? If the dead do not reappear as ghosts, what explanation can be given for such things? Let me offer three possibilities.
1) Maybe those who think they have seen a ghost (or have "felt" something spooky in an old building) are simply mistaken. An overactive imagination and superstitious presuppositions may fuel such things. As with UFO’s, the actual explanation may be quite different from what is supposed. Or they may have dreamed something, and confused the dream with reality. Or they may have had a hallucination, either rooted in mental illness, or perhaps the appearance was drug induced.
2) The ghostly visitor may have been a clever fake and a fraud, perpetrated by dishonest “mediums” to bilk the gullible of their hard earned money. A century ago, magician Harry Houdini used to routinely debunk these quacks and show them for what they were. Today, James Randi and Chris Sarantako (stage name, Criss Angel) do the same. Over the years, they have failed to find any legitimate examples of ghostly manifestations.
3) There is a third possibility that cannot be ignored: That the manifestations have a demonic origin. The Lord Jesus declares the devil to be a liar (Jn. 8:44). And the Bible warns that “deceiving spirits” will be at work in the last days (I Tim. 4:1), and that the Antichrist of prophecy will delude people with “all power, signs and lying wonders... according to the working of Satan” (II Thess. 2:9). Satan is able to disguise himself as an angel of light (a good angel, II Cor. 11:14), so would he not also be able to imitate Aunt Betsy or someone else? While I do not believe in ghosts in the usual use of that term, I do believe it is possible for evil spirits to take on a visible form and imitate and counterfeit the dead. Their inside knowledge of some details of the person’s life may give an air of credibility to this, but it is a deception.
The purpose of this is to give the unsaved a comforting (but false) view of the afterlife. To give the impression that all is peaceful on “the other side,” and they have nothing to fear from death is a dangerous lie of the devil. From the beginning he has tried to cast doubt on God’s Word. When God said that sin would bring death (Gen. 2:17), the devil said boldly, “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). He told Adam and Eve that God was jealous of His power, but if they would reject His warning and make their own rules, they could be just like God (vs. 5). It was a lie, intended to bring them to destruction.
No, I do not believe there are such things as ghosts, dead people in spirit form coming back to haunt the living. But for obvious reasons this is a dangerous area with which to be involved. My counsel is: Focus on the living, not the dead–whose destiny is sealed. Base your convictions on the clear teaching of the Word of God, and don’t dabble in things that will only cause confusion and lead you astray. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which have been revealed belong to us and to our children” (Deut. 29:29). “To the law and to the testimony [the Scriptures]! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20).
And make sure of your own salvation by accepted Christ's sacrifice on the cross as the full and only payment for your sins (Jn. 3:16). The Bible is very clear. Our soul’s salvation can only come God’s way. Specifically, today, outside of personal faith in Christ there is no salvation, no eternity of bliss (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12). “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him....He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the only begotten Son of God” (Jn. 3:36 and 18). “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (I Jn. 5:12).