Ghosts in the Bible

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Though I have shared this story elsewhere, it is such a powerful illustration that I simply must tell it again. Years ago, I had a friend named Stephen who owned an old farm house in the country. The house formerly belonged to his grandfather, who had passed away there a short time before Stephen moved into it. Standing alone in the middle of a corn field, Stephen’s new home had an isolated feel to it. There was something eerie about the old place. More than that, it was common knowledge that strange occurrences happened on the premises; there were many things that “go bump in the night.”

Doors would close. Objects would unexplainably move. Occasionally, footsteps could even be heard on the second floor. Surprisingly, Stephen was not overly concerned about it. He strongly believed that the strange activity could be explained as the workings of his grandfather, who was probably just looking over his former dwelling. I never accepted that explanation, but I didn’t try very hard to convince him otherwise. It just wasn’t important at the time, or so I thought.

That all changed one winter morning. I remember it vividly; Stephen called me very early and, in an almost frantic stutter, explained how “something” had pushed him down his basement steps. He was positive that whatever it was had attempted to really hurt him. While he was able to catch himself on the railing before tumbling all the way down, the incident really rattled my friend. In listening to Stephen’s account, I noticed something very interesting about his description: he never once mentioned his grandfather. And why would he? He knew that his grandfather loved him and would never try to cause him harm. Instead, Stephen had come to a decisive conclusion that something (or someone) else was at work. Ultimately, he understood his experience to be the product of a demonic entity. Stephen’s family, however, came to believe that it was some other ghost (not his deceased grandfather) that had pushed him down the steps.

I didn’t buy that view then, and I still don’t.

It would be fair to say that there is something of a ghost obsession that has been going on within our culture over the last twenty years or so. Some of the more recent polling that has been done on the matter clearly displays this fact. A 2005 Gallop poll revealed that 75 percent of those interviewed believe in the paranormal, and 32 percent of those believed that we can interact with ghosts or spirits.[1] A later study by the Barna Group focused exclusively on American teens, finding that 73 percent of those interviewed admitted to making efforts to contact spirits.[2]

Since then, the phenomenon has only grown in popularity. There are now more shows dedicated to “ghost hunting” than could be mentioned, and literally thousands of books have been written on the subject.

Since secular cultural has always had a way of seeping into the church, it is no surprise that massive numbers of Christians have also come to believe in ghosts. More than that, some are actively chasing them in a way that would make Zak Bagans proud.[3] None of us can deny that the prospect of deceased people roaming the earth is, at minimum, a fascinating idea. If true, it would be exciting, alarming, and most definitely macabre. The problem is that it isn’t true. If we are basing our worldview on the Bible—as many Christians claim to (and should)—then we would never arrive at the conclusion that ghosts exist, much less that they can interact with the living.

The first thing to understand is that the word “ghost” has nearly no role within the Bible. There was no Hebrew term (OT) that directly corresponded with this notion—which is rather telling—and the Greek term (NT) for “ghost/apparition” is used only twice. Clearly, this information alone tells us that the subject wasn’t very popular or prolific for God’s people. The word is used in the New Testament is phantasma, and it is found in Matthew 14:26 and Mark 6:49. Moreover, both verses reference the same event. There, the apostles believed that Jesus was some sort of apparition (not a tangible being) because he was walking on the sea: “But when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed that it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were terrified” (Mk. 6:49-50).

In their minds, no physical creature could perform such an act! Elsewhere, Jesus set them straight by informing them that he was indeed a flesh and bone being (Lk. 24:39). In terms of finding ghosts in the Bible via terminology, we are obviously not getting very far. But perhaps such entities—beings entirely devoid of bodies—show up in other ways throughout Scripture?

As a matter of fact, something of the sort does show up in the Bible. In one of the very strangest events in Scripture, a strange entity appears to Israel’s very first king: a man named Saul. 1 Samuel 28 provides us with this account. There, it is described that the Philistine army had gathered for battle against Israel (28:4). Saul—who had already lost much of his favor with both God and man—became terrified after seeing the assembled army. In an act of desperation, Saul decided to consult an outside source for wisdom on the matter. Putting on a disguise and traveling by night (28:8), Saul set out to meet a medium from a place called Endor. Specifically, she practiced necromancy—the art of communicating with the dead—which has historically earned her the name, the “Witch of Endor.”

After arriving, King Saul asked the Witch of Endor to do something incredible: conjure the prophet Samuel from the dead. Much to any reader’s surprise (and even her own), she was indeed able to bring Samuel back to life (28:12-14). In the midst of everyone’s horror, Samuel proceeded to advise Saul on what would happen next: the Philistines would defeat Israel, and both Saul and his sons would die within the next day (28:19). Rather than finding comfort in Samuel’s words, Saul found his appearance more as an omen of doom. One cannot help but wonder if Saul was pleased with his decision to consult Samuel. Personally, I doubt it.

While this is certainly an odd account, the truth is that it isn’t talking about a ghoulish appearance from beyond the grave. The word used to describe Samuel is elohim, which may sound familiar to some readers. The reason is that elohim is the term we typically translate as “god” or “God,” and it refers not to a deceased person but to a divine being (a deity or perhaps an angel).[4] Further, the text describes Samuel as an “old man” who is “wrapped with a robe” (28:14), which would suggest we are dealing with a physical being and not an immaterial one.

For these reasons—and the fact that a pagan medium was involved—many interpreters outright reject that it was Samuel who came back in the first place. I will speak to the alternatives momentarily. In any event, this is the only record in Scripture—from front to back—where something even resembling a ghost appears. As I described, even this text probably isn’t talking about a deceased and disembodied human being.

Beyond this, the only event in the Bible that potentially speaks to the issue of ghosts is when Jesus appeared to his disciples in Luke 24:36-49. In this passage, the apostles were gathered together in Jerusalem listening to the account of the two followers who had met Jesus on the Road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35). In true Jesus fashion, he suddenly appeared to them, seemingly from nowhere. Just like when he had appeared to them on the sea, they became extremely frightened and believed they had seen a “spirit” (24:37). Jesus’ response to them was emphatic: “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (24:39).

Clearly, Jesus was not a “spirit” or any sort of disembodied being; they were not seeing a “ghost.” Further, it is highly doubtful that Jesus was insinuating that such a thing even exists. In both cases where the apostles saw Jesus and thought they were seeing a “spirit” or a “ghost,” the incredible nature of the events was the matter at stake. Human beings don’t walk across the sea (Mk. 6:49) or come back from crucifixion (Lk. 24:39)! Neither of these events point to the idea that either Jesus or the apostles believed that dead people roam the earth in immaterial form. It is functionally the same as seeing someone who appears to be shocked and disheveled, and responding: “You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” You are not telling the person that ghosts exist—even if you believe that to be the case—but are instead appealing to a belief that is prominent within our culture. In some respects, we could view these instances as utilizing figures of speech. As I will show, the Bible’s cautionary nature in dealing with spiritism and necromancy further bolsters this idea.

The cases where ghosts are presented in the Bible are extremely rare and, upon close inspection, don’t describe these types of entities at all. In addition to this, there is an entirely different reason why we can be sure that ghosts are not out wandering the world. Concerning the afterlife, the collective information contained within the Bible points to the conclusion that deceased people cannot roam the earth. In a separate blog, I described that there are a few possible destinations for the deceased. I have also detailed my position in numerous blogs and with an entire book, which is that “death” is really death (the absence of life), and that we are brought back to life at the resurrection.

Regardless of what position one takes on the details of the afterlife, the Bible provides no reason to believe that we can communicate with the deceased. If one believes that the soul of a person goes to heaven or hell at death, then the person is in heaven or hell; they are not roaming the earth. If one believes that the soul of a person goes to an interim destination between death and the resurrection—like Abraham’s Bosom or Hades—then the person is in one of those two places; again, they are not roaming the earth.

As a matter of biblical teaching and simple logic, the dead cannot be in multiple places at the same time. If we hold that they can, then we have ascribed to the dead a type of God-like power. Hopefully, the problems with doing that should be obvious.

Supposing that some of us have come into contact with otherworldly powers—which I fully believe is true—one critical question remains: If people are not encountering ghosts, what are they encountering? To answer this question, we must briefly return to the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor. Prior to consulting the pagan conjurer, the Bible records that Saul had banished all mediums and spiritists from Israel (1 Sam. 28:3). In fact, the Witch herself admitted this, saying: “Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those who are mediums and spiritists from the land. Why are you then laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?”[5] This shows that, in consulting the spiritist, Saul was breaking the very command he had established.

Worse than that, Saul was breaking the commands that God had previously given to Israel. On numerous occasions, God commanded the Jewish people to steer clear of those who practice any type of sorcery or attempt to dabble in what we might broadly call “the occult.” God said that engaging in such practices was both a type of defilement (Lev. 19:31) and an act of spiritual prostitution (Lev. 20:6). Those found guilty would be “detestable” to the Lord and would be driven out from the community (Dt. 18:9-13).

Clearly, attempting to contact the dead is off limits for God’s people.

This being the case, the only obvious conclusion is that practicing spiritism will not result in contacting the deceased. Instead, it can open the door to something rather worse. The Bible is replete with examples of demonic entities negatively effecting the living,[6] and this is probably what is envisioned with the insistence to avoid contacting the dead. This is what my friend, Stephen, had to learn the hard way. It was not his dear grandfather that was hanging around the house but an entity which found that disguise to be a perfect entry point into Stephen’s life.

Even those who actively “hunt ghosts” in private or on television often report being scratched, pushed, or otherwise physically assaulted. Worse, they sometimes bring an unwanted guest home with them.

The Bible clearly affirms the existence of both holy and unholy beings (angels and demons), and explains that these entities can even influence our world. However, it is equally resolute that dead people cannot. Whether you accept my overall position or are so inclined to believe that the human soul continues at death, all who base their lives on the teachings of the Bible should agree on this: ghosts cannot contact the living, and vice-versa. To the contrary, there are other types of entities that can, and not all of them are good.

Attempting to communicate with the dead is not simply a breach of biblical law; it is something done at our own peril.

If you found this interesting, please check out my other blogs on this site.

Looking for a new book to read? Click the links to check out my titles on Amazon: 

The Death Myth: Uncovering what the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife

God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact

Spiritual Things: Exploring our Connection to God, the Angels, and the Heavenly Realm

Footnotes:

[1] David W. Moore, “Three in Four Americans Believe in Paranormal.”

[2] Barna, “New Research Explores Teenage Views and Behavior Regarding the Supernatural.”

[3] Zak Bagans is perhaps the most recognizable “ghost hunter” in the known world. He is the star of the Travel Channel series, Ghost Adventures, which has aired since 2008.

[4] Strong’s Hebrew, “elohim” (430).

[5] 1 Samuel 28:9. Recall that Saul had disguised himself, so the Witch of Endor believed she was talking to someone else from Israel.

[6] Consider the following cases of demonic aggression: We have a man in a synagogue (Lk. 4:31-37), a young girl (Mk. 7:24-30), and even a demon who was literally attempting to murder a young boy by either burning or drowning him (Mk. 9:14-29). These are just a taste of the demonic carnage that exists in the Bible.

Author: Brian M. Rossiter

I am a Christian teacher, author, and lecturer. Most importantly, I am a truth-seeker. My research has led me to both believe in and defend the veracity of the Bible, evaluating my own personal views in light of its teachings along the way. In addition to my blogs, I have written several books: "The Death Myth," "God Made the Aliens," "Spiritual Things," and most recently, "Missing Verses: 15 Beliefs the Bible Doesn't Teach." My hope in these endeavors is to give skeptics reasons to believe, to strengthen the faith of those who already do, and to challenge each of us to truly evaluate our own worldviews.

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