By Jessica Brodie, Crosswalk.com
When I was young, ghosts were a popular topic on television shows and movies. As an imaginative kid, I’d sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, hear the howl of wind or a faint scratching at my bedroom door, and cling to my sister.
“It’s a ghost!” I’d whisper, terrified.
Friends would spin wild tales about haunted houses on the outskirts of town, and everyone knew you weren’t supposed to tiptoe through graveyards after midnight.
Over the years, the idea of ghosts was added to my growing list of childhood fantasies and cultural untruths. But reading through the Bible, I’m often surprised to discover a mention of ghosts, not only by the disciples of Christ but elsewhere.
What does the Bible say about ghosts? Are they real?
In truth, it depends on your definition. While the Bible is clear that spirits of deceased humans do not remain on earth as “ghosts” and haunt the living, the Bible is also clear that there are indeed spirit beings that inhabit the earth — angels or demons doing the work of God or of evil.
Are There Any Ghosts in the Bible?
Today, most modern dictionaries define a ghost as a disembodied spirit, perhaps an apparition of a dead person or a demon. The word “ghost” is used in a few ways in Scripture. In the King James Version, the Bible uses “ghost” almost interchangeably with “spirit,” for example: the Holy Ghost, such as in Matthew 28:19, when Jesus tells the disciples, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (KJV).
But in other, more modern translations, “ghost” is used more sparsely, and typically for things referencing specters or apparitions.
For example, in the Gospel of Mark we’re told the disciples were overcome with fear after they saw Jesus walking on water, for “they thought he was a ghost” (Mark 6:49, NIV). And in Luke, after Jesus’s crucifixion, the disciples saw him and again thought him to be a ghost. But Jesus reassured them he was not, showing them his hands and feet and eating some broiled fish as proof of his full resurrection.
The word translated as “ghost” in Matthew 14:26 is the Greek word phantasma, meaning illusion, phantom, specter, or most commonly, ghost. In Luke 24:37, the Greek word is pneuma, or wind, breath, or immaterial substance, much like a ghost.
There are also a few other places where a ghost or ghostly figure was mentioned in the Bible. For instance, in 1 Samuel 28, Saul consulted a medium, who brought forth the spirit of what Saul believed was the recently deceased prophet Samuel, to explain why God had left him.
In Job 4, Job’s friend Eliphaz the Temanite described a frightening encounter he had in the middle of the night, when, “A spirit glided past my face, and the hair on my body stood on end. It stopped, but I could not tell what it was” (Job 4:15-16).
And in Isaiah 29:4, the prophet Isaiah told the people of the city of Ariel they will be “brought low,” and their voice “will come ghostlike from the earth.”
What Does the Bible Say about Life after Death?
These are only brief mentions, for it is clear that ghosts are not what many have imagined them to be, even during Bible times. For while some assume the apparition of a spirit is, perhaps, the “ghost” of a late relative come to communicate, the Bible sets us straight: this does not happen.
When people die, they die. They cannot communicate from beyond the grave.
As it says in Job 7:9-10, “As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so one who goes down to the grave does not return. He will never come to his house again; his place will know him no more.”
And as Psalm 146:4 says, “When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.”
Hebrews 9:27 notes that “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”
That judgment results in one of two things, the Bible tells us: heaven or hell.
As it says in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Often, people confuse demons or “familiar spirits” as if they are the ghosts of people who have died. God issues strong words urging people to avoid these spirits at all costs.
In Leviticus 19:31, we’re urged “not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists,” which are seen as detestable to the Lord. In fact, we’re told, “A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads” (Leviticus 20:27). This is reiterated in Deuteronomy 18:9-15.
For example, what Saul did, above, in asking a medium to bring forth the spirit of Samuel, is an example of how far he strayed from the Lord as the first king of Israel — and why he was replaced by King David.
Familiar spirits are not the departed family member but some other spirit impersonating them — or a demon.
Are Ghosts Demons?
Some of what we might interpret as ghosts are actually demons. The apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 11:14-15, describes how Satan sometimes masquerades as an angel of light.
We know there are spiritual beings at work in the world. The Bible often depicts how angels visited people to bring them messages from God, such as the three angels who visited Abraham to tell him of his wife’s pregnancy (Genesis 18), or the angel who told the virgin Mary she would give birth to the Christ child (Luke 1).
But there are evil spirits, too, at work in the world.
In 1 Peter 5:8 we’re warned the devil is always on the prowl around “like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
For this reason, Peter urges us to be alert and sober, and Paul urges us to put on the armor of God for the spiritual battle ahead of us.
As Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
Mark 5:1-18 tells about a man who might have appeared to many as a ghost. He lived among the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones, until Jesus encountered him and understood he was possessed by evil spirits. Jesus drove out the spirits, named Legion, from this man, and the man was healed.
Many who saw this man might have thought he was communicating from beyond the grave, while in reality he was possessed by demons filled with trickery and evil intent.
Should Christians Try to Communicate with Loved Ones Who Have Passed?
When someone we love passes away, our grief can be terrible. We might feel tempted to communicate with them in some way, thinking that consulting a medium or otherwise talking to their spirit will help comfort us or set things right.
But the Bible makes it clear that Christians shouldn’t communicate with those who have passed. First, it’s a practice detestable to God per Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Second, their soul has already departed, whether for eternal punishment or eternal life.
As we’re told in Isaiah 8:19-22, “When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.”
Should Christians Be Worried about Ghosts?
While evil-spirit “ghosts,” or demons, are fearful and upsetting, Christians don’t need to worry about them. As 1 Peter 5:8 and Ephesians 6:11-12 advise, we should be aware of them and armor up against them with the sources God gives: truth, prayer, faith, etc. And we can trust that God will protect us from evil spirits.
As we’re told in 1 John 4:4, “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”
And, as we’re told in 2 Thessalonians 3:3, “The Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one.”
If you hear a bump in the night, first know that it is probably just a bump in the night. But rest assured that if we’re worried about the souls of departed ones “haunting us,” this is one thing we most decidedly do not need to worry about.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/leolintang
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Her newest release is an Advent daily devotional for those seeking true closeness with God, which you can find at https://www.jessicabrodie.