Monday, February 22, 2010

The Bible and the Dead: Do Ghosts Exist?

In "Did the Disciples Fear Ghosts?" we discovered that when Jesus walked on the water, the disciples did not fear what they thought was a ghost, but what they thought was an appearance of the Lord, the likes of which meant certain death. But this particular event aside, what does the Bible say about the dead? And does it allow for the existence of ghosts? Do the disembodied spirits of the dead roam the earth?

As we will see, the answer to this question is unequivocally, "No." When a man dies, he goes to a place where the dead are utterly separate from the living, awaiting the final resurrection and judgment throne of God. While in this state, he has no access to the land of the living. He can neither appear here and interact with the living, nor does he have knowledge of their goings on. Only in a few rare, specific cases does God cause the dead to appear to the living.


Let's start this study by looking at the parable Jesus gives of Lazarus and the rich man:

"Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man's table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.' And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father's house--for I have five brothers--in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.' But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' But he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!' But he said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.'" (Luke 16:19-31)

This parable is a veritable treasure trove of insight into the state of the dead. Despite being a parable, it is likely reflective of reality. Jesus' parables were meant to reveal truth to His disciples, and if the pictures He painted were not rooted in reality, then how could one be assured of the truth of that which He intended to reveal? Therefore, we should probably assume that the story told is an accurate picture of the state of the dead.


Note first that when these men died they are taken to "Hades," and whereas the rich man awakens in torment, across a great chasm Lazarus is comforted in the bosom of Abraham. Some translations, including the NIV, call it "hell," though this is different from the place of eternal torment likened unto a lake of fire in Revelation. The word is ᾅδης (hades) which is how the translators of the Septuagint--a pre-Christ translation of the Hebrew text into Greek--rendered the word שאול (sheol).

Usually Sheol is referred to in the Old Testament simply as "the grave." Little, if any, activity is said to take place there. Solomon wrote, "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going" (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Whether or not there is consciousness in Sheol, it is evident from the context that he's speaking of activity on earth. Once we are dead, we no longer have the ability to act among the living.

Jesus' parable seems to confirm this. The rich man twice pleads with Abraham to let him warn his living brothers. Twice Abraham denies the request. Granted, there is a specific reason the rich man is told he cannot return to his father's house. Nevertheless, what is clear is that by default the dead have no access to the living. Only with special permission can the dead appear outside of Sheol on earth, and very few such occurrences are found within the pages of Scripture.


Saul was on the verge of being attacked by the Philistines, and he was scared. He asked the Lord for guidance, but God remained silent. So Saul sought out a medium in the hopes she could conjure Samuel up to advise him:

"Then the woman said, 'Whom shall I bring up for you?' And he said, 'Bring up Samuel for me.' When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, 'Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul.' The king said to her, 'Do not be afraid; but what do you see?' And the woman said to Saul, 'I see a divine being coming up out of the earth.' He said to her, 'What is his form?' And she said, 'An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped with a robe.' And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and did homage. Then Samuel said to Saul, 'Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?'" (1 Samuel 28:11-15)

Here is one case in which, apparently, the dead is allowed to interact with the living. The text does say, after all, that "Samuel [spoke] to Saul." However, it is worth noting that the woman appears to be shocked at the appearance of Samuel, for she "cried out with a loud voice." This has led many theologians to understand this as being unique, that she was not accustomed to actually interacting with the dead. As Chuck Smith writes,

"...this woman was shocked and surprised when Samuel came back. She expected to have a little conversation with her demon guide, and her demon spirit, and from him to get the information that Saul was seeking. But to her amazement this spirit actually came out of the earth, and she shrieked when she saw it."

You see, the woman is described as being a "medium," and the Hebrew reads בעלת־אוב, which literally means "mistress of a familiar spirit." Mediums, apparently, communicated with, or at least believed they communicated with, spirit beings, and a "familiar spirit" is a demon. These spiritists, then, if they had any real talent, did not actually interact with the dead; they interacted with demons who may have given them information about the dead.

In this case, however, the woman is surprised that, instead of simply communicating with her familiar spirit, she actually sees the spirit of Samuel coming up from the dead. Interaction with the dead, therefore, must not have been commonplace, even for a medium. Whether this interpretation is correct or not, it is evident that this was an exception to the rule that the dead do not interact with the living.


Another case in which the dead appear to the living is at Jesus' transfiguration:

"Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Peter said to Jesus, 'Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.'" (Matthew 17:1-4)

There is some debate as to whether or not Elijah physically died. We know, however, that Moses died, for Scripture records it (Deuteronomy 34). Clearly, then, the spirit of Moses was permitted to appear in such a way as to be visible to Peter, James and John. However, like the spirit of Samuel's appearance to the woman at Endor, Moses' appearance before Jesus' apostles was a unique event, one with a particular purpose. As Peter wrote,

"For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, 'This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased'--and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic word made more sure..." (2 Peter 1:16-19)

The appearance of Moses and Elijah, then, was for the specific purpose of demonstrating the reality of His majesty to the disciples, so that as a result "the prophetic word [was] made more sure." Like the appearance of Samuel's spirit from the dead, the appearance of Moses and Elijah was unique, an exception to the rule. These are not normative, commonplace experiences. They are exceptions allowed in extremely rare circumstances for specific purposes.


If the dead are utterly separate from the living, unable to interact with the living except in rare circumstances, what are the "spirits" referred to throughout Scripture? I happened upon a website which points to several passages its authors believe to be support for the existence of ghosts, such as Jesus' appearance in the upper room after His resurrection:

"While they were telling these things, [Jesus] Himself stood in their midst and said to them, 'Peace be to you.' But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. And He said to them, 'Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 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.'" (Luke 24:36-39, emphasis mine)

The website I found claims, "Christ himself describes a ghost, 'a ghost does not have flesh and bones'...would not this indicate that ghosts do exist? Jesus could of easily said that something on the lines that there are no such things as ghost, but instead Jesus describes a ghost." This is not what happened at all. The disciples did not think they were seeing a ghost, they thought they were seeing a demon, an "unclean spirit," as we'll see from examining the original Greek.

The Greek word for "spirit" is πνεῦμα (pneuma) and most often refers to the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 10:15, 1 Corinthians 6:19). In some cases it refers to an attitude ("of quiet" 1 Peter 3:4) or purpose ("with you in spirit" Colossians 2:5). It often describes demons, "unclean spirits" (Matthew 8:16Mark 5:8,12). While the word is sometimes used to refer to a person's spirit, "the vital principal by which the body is animated," it never speaks of a disembodied human spirit anywhere but in Hades. Let's look at where the word is used to refer to a person's spirit:

"Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit [πνεῦμα] is willing, but the flesh is weak." (Matthew 26:41, see also Mark 14:38)

"And Mary said:...'my spirit [πνεῦμα] has rejoiced in God my Savior." (Luke 1:46-47)

"Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit [πνεῦμα] was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols." (Acts 17:16)

"For God, whom I serve in my spirit [πνεῦμα] in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you" (Romans 1:9)

"For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit [πνεῦμα] of the man which is in him?" (1 Corinthians 2:11)

Other passages that speak of the human spirit (arguably, in some cases) include: 1 Corinthians 7:34; 14:2, 14-16, 32; 16:18; 2 Corinthians 2:13; 7:1, 13; Galatians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Timothy 4:22; Philemon 1:25; Hebrews 4:12; James 2:26; Hebrews 12:22-23; 1 Peter 3:18-20; Revelation 4:2; 17:3 and 21:10. But in every one of these cases, the human spirit is in one of two places: a living human body, or in the place of the dead apart from the living. There are only a few arguable cases:

"And her spirit [πνεῦμα] returned, and she got up immediately." (Luke 8:55)

"They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit [πνεῦμα]!'" (Acts 7:59)

In the former verse, the human spirit was absent and returns to animate the body, but there's nothing to suggest that this transition from the place of the dead to the reanimated body is anything but instantaneous. In Stephen's case, the living body is about to die and the spirit will leave, but Stephen's plea makes it clear that he expects his spirit to be received immediately, not left to wander the earth indefinitely. Finally:

"Beloved, do not believe every spirit [πνεῦμα], but test the spirits [πνεῦμα] to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit [πνεῦμα] that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit [πνεῦμα] that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world." (1 John 4:1-3)

In this case, if the spirits we're to test are those of humans (it is possible this is referring to demons), it is evident they are of living of humans, the "false prophets [who] have gone out into the world." We are not being told of ghosts roaming the earth trying to deceive people. So of the nearly 400 places in the New Testament in which πνεῦμα is used, fewer than 40 refer to human spirits and they're always either inside a living body or in the separate abode of the dead.

Nowhere is a disembodied human spirit manifested visibly. At Christ's transfiguration, we're told Moses and Elijah appeared visibly, but the word πνεῦμα (spirit) is not used; it is possible they were temporarily reunited with their bodies. The medium of Endor called up Samuel from Sheol, but the text doesn't say Saul saw him; he may have appeared only in a vision to the medium through whom he spoke. The point is, even in the few rare exceptions, there's no evidence that disembodied human spirits can appear visibly to the living.


So, back to the passage at hand. What does it mean that the disciples were "frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit?" Many well-known theologians have assumed that "spirit" here does, in fact, refer to a disembodied human spirit, and that the disciples were startled by Jesus' appearing before them in this fashion. However, it is evident from Jesus' words that the disciples did not think it was truly Him: "See My hands and My feet, that it is I myself" (emphasis mine).

Jesus was not trying to prove to His disciples that He was physical, He was trying to prove to them that it was Him! They were not questioning the physicality of Jesus' resurrection body, they were questioning the identity of the "spirit" that was standing before them. And Jesus proves to them that He is not a "spirit" because a "spirit" does not have flesh and bones as He has.

What or whom, then, did the disciples fear they were seeing? We've seen that there's no biblical warrant for belief in disembodied human spirits manifesting visibly to the living, so it's unlikely that the disciples thought that's what had appeared to them. Of all the other definitions of the word πνεῦμα (spirit), the only remaining possibility is that they feared they were seeing a demon.

Biblical examples of demons manifesting visibly are admittedly lacking, at least given my meager volume of research. However, most Christians believe demons are "fallen" angels, those which followed Satan, also a former angel. And there are several examples of angels appearing visibly to humans, so it would stand to reason that, if allowed to by God, demons can likewise make themselves visible, even if it is uncommon. Therefore, I believe the most likely explanation is that Jesus' disciples were afraid they were in the presence of a demon until He proved to them it was Him.


What, then, is the answer to the question, "Do ghosts exist?" No, they do not, at least from a biblical perspective. The disembodied spirits of dead humans await resurrection in Sheol, wholly separate from the land of the living. They cannot interact in the land of the living whatsoever, except in extremely rare circumstances in which God has a specific purpose, and even then not as "spirits," but either in a vision or, so far as we can tell, physically.

When Jesus walked on the water, the disciples feared the kind of appearance by God that in the time of Moses would kill those who drew too near. When Jesus appeared to them in the upper room after His resurrection, they feared they were in the presence of a demon rather than the Lord. These are simply not examples of the dead appearing to the living, and we are left with no biblical warrant for believing in ghosts whatsoever.

In this day of sensational stories of supernatural terror, as Christians we needn't fear ghosts. I laugh at shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures and the like, and hope my wife succeeds in getting me on as a guest along for one of their adventures. For while any dark place in the middle of the night will be a bit creepy, I think I would still find the experience rather laughable, bringing with me a biblical world view.

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