Ghosts. What do you really think about them? If someone pushes us, most will admit a degree of love for scary stories. But what about reports of real ghosts, even by sincere Christians? Few Christians seem to know what to think. If we look to the Scriptures, however, we find solid answers, even on this murky subject.
Both children and adults alike wonder about the existence of ghosts. Some reject the notion. Others insist that ghosts exist and cite experiences—their own or friend-of-a-friend stories—as proof.
But what is a ghost? Although definitions vary, the most common one is that ghosts are the disembodied spirits of dead people that linger on earth. According to tradition, ghosts are invisible but can permit humans to see them.
Of course, either a thing exists or it doesn’t. No amount of belief will cause ghosts to exist if they don’t; nor could personal opinion cause ghosts not to exist if, in fact, they truly do exist. Because a person’s belief in ghosts creates very serious and far-reaching ramifications, it’s a topic that no Christian should ignore.
Tales involving apparitions drift down to us from ancient times. Various languages contributed words such as wraith (Scottish), phantom (French), specter (Latin), shade (Old English), banshee (Gaelic), and poltergeist (German).
In ancient Iraq, the Epic of Gilgamesh portrayed Gilgamesh conversing with the spirit of his dead friend Enkidu. Old Egypt left a cryptic tale about the ghost of Nebusemekh chatting with the high priest of Amun-Re. Such stories prove nothing, of course, except that the concept goes back a long way. In fact, even Christ’s twelve disciples fearfully mistook Jesus for a spirit when He appeared walking on the sea at night (Mark 6:49).
Homer included ghosts in his Odyssey and Iliad, and Shakespeare cast roles for spirits in Hamlet and Macbeth. Whether these authors believed in ghosts is unknown. What they understood, however, is that a truly chilling ghost story can grip an audience.
Yes, ghost stories have been around for ages, and some (such as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol) have become fixtures in modern culture. However, in recent decades the genre has exploded with an abundance of movies (Field of Dreams, The Haunting in Connecticut, The Sixth Sense, as examples) and TV shows (such as Lost and Ghost Whisperer) that depend on spirits to drive the plots. Nonfiction programs such as Ghost Hunters attempt to investigate claims of ghosts using infrared cameras and other devices.
Do you believe in ghosts? The question is huge. Getting people to believe in ghosts automatically forces them to reject key Bible verses.
Does a diet of such entertainment influence anyone? Undoubtedly. In 2006 the Barna Group published the results of nationwide studies involving more than 4,000 teens. The study found that 73% of the youth surveyed had “engaged in at least one type of psychic or witchcraft-related activity, beyond mere media exposure or horoscope usage.” One tenth had participated in séances. Nine percent had visited a supposed medium or spiritual guide.1
The Barna Group’s vice president noted that 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 a problem for adults as well.
An astounding find is that only 28% of churched teenagers could recall hearing any teaching at church in the past year that helped to define their understanding of the supernatural. Is it any wonder that so many teens enter adulthood without the answers they need on this topic?
Most reports of ghost sightings include details that defy logic. For instance, most alleged apparitions are clothed. But if a ghost is the spirit of a dead person, shouldn’t a spirit appear unclothed after shedding his earthly body and its garments? Is one to conclude that pants, shirts, dresses, and medieval armor contain spirits of their own that faithfully cling to the ghost of a person?
Further challenges to logic stem from stories of ghost ships (such as the Flying Dutchman), ghost trains, and similar accounts. Does a vehicle constructed by human hands gain a “soul” that reappears later?
People who listen to ghost stories around a campfire understand that their friends have concocted those tales. The wish to embellish a spooky yarn naturally explains the addition of such silly details as ghostly nightgowns and horse carriages. But what about people who insist they really did see spirit manifestations, clothes and all? Is it possible that some individuals—including sincere, Bible-believing Christians—truly observe supernatural apparitions?
God—the Creator of the universe—offers solid answers to man’s questions. His Word, the Bible, is the foundation for understanding both the visible and invisible world because God is Lord of both the natural and the supernatural. Regardless of whether a question concerns the origin of life or human souls, the first resource to check is God’s Word.
Even new students of the Bible quickly notice that it never portrays souls as lingering after death. (The immediate destination of heaven or hell rules out that idea. See, for instance, Luke 16:22–23, Luke 23:43, and 2 Corinthians 5:8.) Yet Scripture bluntly affirms the existence of immaterial intelligences. Mark 5:2–15 details Jesus’s encounter with a man indwelt by a multitude of unclean spirits. Christ ordered them out but permitted them to enter a herd of swine. In Samaria, Philip preached and “unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed” (Acts 8:7). Later, Acts 19:14–17 tells of a man inhabited by a demon. The sons of Sceva tried to exorcise it, but the man attacked them. However, these aren’t ghosts; they’re demons—fallen angels—governed by Satan (Matthew 12:22–28).
Bible scholar Charles Ryrie noted, “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. To deny the existence of demons is not skepticism; it only displays ignorance. To be unrealistic about their power is foolhardy.”2
Interestingly, the Bible records one occasion when the living appeared to contact the dead. King Saul donned a disguise and visited a medium to summon the dead prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 28:7–21). An apparition that looked like Samuel appeared to the witch—causing her to cry out in fright.
However, this passage doesn’t suggest that séances work, and it absolutely doesn’t condone witchcraft. Some scholars believe that God sent Samuel on this unique occasion.3 But others believe a demon was impersonating the prophet based on the fact that he made some false claims. For example, commentator John Gill notes that the apparition warned that all of Saul’s sons would die on the next day, but some survived.4
Either way, the emphasis is that Saul had sunk so low that he tried to dabble in the occult, which God condemns. The next day Saul died.
No evidence has produced a single fact that should sway a Christian into believing that the spirits of deceased people can loiter on earth. In light of the Bible, the only conclusion is that ghost sightings are either the figments of overactive imaginations, or else they are demons.
In his book The Truth Behind Ghosts, Mediums, and Psychic Phenomena, Christian author Ron Rhodes states, “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.”5
But why would demons want to deceive the living by impersonating the dead?
As servants of Satan and enemies of God, they would have every reason to cast doubt on God’s Word and its warnings about future judgment. Getting people to believe in ghosts automatically forces them to reject key Bible verses (see Hebrews 9:27).
Do you believe in ghosts? The question is huge. Coming to a wrong conclusion about the afterlife has eternal consequences, and the wrong choice on this side of the grave can condemn a soul to eternal agony on the other side.