Ghost stories are for many people a cherished part of childhood. Ghosts still attract a lot of attention today through reality shows which follow the investigations of ghost hunters and paranormal experts. Some surveys have suggested that as many as half of all Americans believe in ghosts.
Ghosts stories become serious when people speak of beloved family members who have returned to offer comfort or guidance. This kind of ghost story is found all around the world. Many cultures have stories of ancestors whose spirits remain in contact with the living. Several of the major Oriental religions and nearly every tribal religion believes their ancestors are still present and interact with the living. Since belief in ghosts is so widespread, is that not proof ghosts are real? Does the Bible say anything about ghosts to help understand this topic?
The Bible teaches that every person has an eternal spirit. Genesis 2 tells how God breathed into man to make him a “living spirit.” From that point onward the Bible treats man as a physical creature with a spirit which continues to exist after the death of the body. (Ecclesiastes 12:7) The Bible teaches that the spirit departs at death (James 2:6), but it never indicates that the spirit of the dead remains on the earth. Instead, the Biblical picture consistently teaches that when this life is over so is the person’s interaction with the earth and the living. At death the body goes into the grave and the spirit goes directly into heaven or hell (Luke 16:22-23; Phil 1:23; 2 Corinthians 5:8). Consequently, whatever strange things the living may see or feel, they are not the spirits of people consigned to remain on the earth.
If ghosts are not the souls of the dearly departed then what is the explanation for the unearthly phenomena seen by people? Many ghost stories can be attributed to emotional agitation. Grieving family members often see everyday events, like a bird perching nearby or a gentle breeze through the garden, as the actions of the spirit of a loved one who recently died. Such events need have no ghostly origin. Birds perch, breezes blow and butterflies flutter on a regular basis. These everyday events only gain significance when a grieving person associates them with the memory of a with a departed loved one. Such attributions prove nothing about the reality of ghosts. Many of the other experiences of ghosts are nothing more than strong emotions. Feelings of fear, nervousness, agitation or excitement are just feelings. They prove nothing about the existence of ghosts. The cause of those feelings may be nothing more than overworked imaginations.
Stories of moved items, damaged property or manifestations of a dead person present a more difficult challenge to explain. No certain answer can be given. Two plausible explanations can be suggested which do not require the existence of ghosts. First, unknown physical forces may be the cause of many mysterious movements. A shelf that suddenly falls over may be the result of nothing more than a weak leg that gave way, or an unnoticed vibration in the house which caused an already precarious shelf to topple. Second, though people do not become ghosts when they die, spiritual creatures do exist. These spiritual creatures are able to interact with the physical world. The Bible speaks of angels and demons involving themselves with the affairs of this world. Demons are described as inhabiting people and causing them great harm. (Matthew 17:15-18) Possibly demonic influences are the cause of some of the phenomena attributed to ghosts. Possibly certain demons afflict a location for the purpose of terrorizing or deceiving people.
In the end, no matter what strange experiences a person may have had, the Bible teaches that death ends a person’s involvement with this world. All explanations for unfamiliar phenomena have to be filtered through the Biblical teachings about life, death and the afterlife because the Bible is the only reliable source of information for what happens to a person after death.
A ghost is generally understood to be a mystical, non-physical presence of a person who has died. Of course, such manifestations make great fodder for movies and television shows. For millennia, men and women have made a living offering others a chance to speak with or to see a departed loved one. Many people over the ages have experienced strange, spiritual encounters with beings that have appeared to be the spirit of a deceased person. Are these experiences real? Are the beings encountered really the spirits of dead people?
As in all other matters, the Bible must be the final source of authority in this. Despite the difficulty of reshaping one’s conclusions, those who have personally experienced a manifestation must let the Bible control the understanding of any strange experiences. The Bible speaks much of the spiritual. Man has a spirit that is somehow distinct from the flesh. God created a vast army of powerful spiritual beings who are active in this world. The Bible leaves no doubt a great spiritual conflict exists and will continue until eternity is usheredSome spiritual creatures are malevolent and bent on the destruction of men. Some are benevolent and act as God’s servants for the benefit of men. These demons and angels are in conflict against one another. These spiritual creatures have the ability to appear in human form. The Bible tells of one instance in which a spiritual being appeared as a specific, deceased individual.
Saul, the King of Israel, was desperate for guidance. The prophet of God, Samuel, had died and Saul had been rejected by God because of his disobedience. Despite it being expressly forbidden in the law of God, Saul visited a medium and asked her to call up the spirit of the prophet Samuel. To the medium’s amazement, an apparition of Samuel appeared and spoke to Saul. What was this? Was this the ghost of Samuel the prophet of God? Since the woman of Endor was engaged in activity forbidden by God, and since Saul was conspiring with her to continue her wicked practices, it seems very unlikely that what appeared to Saul was actually the spirit of Samuel.
Other Biblical reasons add further weight to the conclusion that Samuel did not appear to Saul. In Hebrews 9, the Bible summarizes death and it’s subsequent events, “It is appointed unto man once to die, but after this the judgment.” Little room seems to be left in the afterlife for haunting the earth or appearing at seances. Most forceful in this regard are the words of Jesus. In Luke 16 He tells of the deaths of two men, one who went to heaven and one who went to hell. Jesus relates a conversation between the one in hell and Abraham in heaven. The one suffering in hell plead with Abraham for someone to be sent from heaven to warn his brothers of the horrible judgment of hell. Abraham responded that it is impossible for anyone to be sent from heaven to earth. None leave their eternal abode to visit the earth. Not Samuel the prophet, not the poor man Jesus told of and not any other person who has passed on.
If the apparitions people see are not the spirits of men, what could they be? In many cases, such things can and should be chalked up to an over reaction of the mind. Those distraught, fearful or fatigued are much more likely to experience mild hallucinations or to greatly exaggerate something unexpected. In those few cases where something actually appears, the most likely possibility is that the creature is of demonic origin. Saul probably saw a demon masquerading as Samuel to torment him further with his rejection by God. Ghostly forms that terrorize people or “haunt” buildings are best explained as demons seeking to terrorize men. Ghosts are not real, but the spiritual creatures that may appear as ghosts definitely are.