Popular television shows like “Ghost Adventures” use the latest technologies to “prove” that spirits of the dead are all around us – and want to make their presence known.
But is this true? The short answer is no. As Christians, we must gauge all truth claims by the Bible, the ultimate and unchanging measure of reality.
Ghost stories in the Gospels
Some people argue that the apostles believed in ghosts and even thought Jesus was one when He walked toward their boat on the Sea of Galilee (Matt. 14:22-33).
Later, after Christ’s resurrection, the apostles once again mistook Jesus for a ghost. He assured them that “a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have” (Luke 24:39).
Don’t the beliefs of the apostles and the words of Jesus prove that ghosts are all around us?
Let’s be clear on two points. First, scripture teaches that all humans possess both physical and non-physical properties – the body and the soul/spirit, the second of which survives physical death.
Second, nowhere does the Bible support the notion that spirits of the dead (“phantasma” or “pneuma” in the Greek) are free to return to the physical realm prior to their future resurrection.
In other words, the departed are just that – departed.
Heaven or Hades
The souls of the dead either are in the presence of God in Heaven or separated from Him in torment in Hades.
In Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the rich man, the righteous beggar at death is carried by the angels to Abraham’s side and is comforted there, while the unrighteous aristocrat finds himself in torment beyond the grave.
The rich man petitions Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, but Abraham makes it clear that is not permitted. “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them,” Abraham explains (Luke 16:29).
The apostle Paul reminds us that when Christians die, their souls/spirits go directly into the presence of God (2 Cor. 5:8).
The appearances of the righteous dead on earth are brief and rare exceptions to the rule. For example, Moses and Elijah appear briefly on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus and His inner circle of apostles (Matt. 17:1-9).
In the Old Testament, we read the story of Samuel, who appears on earth after his death. King Saul has gone to the witch of Endor, seeking to engage her in necromancy – communicating with the dead, a practice denounced in scripture and banished by fiat from the land of Israel in Saul’s day.
The appearance of Samuel shocks the witch as much as it surprises Saul. As Hank Hanegraaff describes it, “When the departed Samuel appeared to the living Saul, the witch of Endor immediately recognized the occasion as a non-normative act of God – a divine display of judgment rather than a haunting.”
In other words, God called the witch’s bluff. She dabbled in deception and demonic activity to ply her trade but had no real power to bring back the spirits of the dead.
So, what are we to make of reports of modern-day hauntings?
First, understand that ghosts – the spirits of the departed – do not roam unseen among us; they are with the Lord in Heaven or apart from him in Hades.
Second, avoid fascination with modern-day “ghost adventures.” At best, they rob you of your time; at worst, they draw you into demonic deception. While Satan has no power to raise the dead or create human flesh, he and his demons play on the field of superstition.
Third, stay armed. Paul exhorts us to put on the full armor of God so we can evade Satan’s fiery darts (Eph. 6:18ff).
Finally, measure all experiences by the scriptures, “which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 3:15).
Who you gonna call? The Word of God is the ultimate ghostbuster.
This column first appeared July 16, 2013, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.