Keep in mind that much of what scripture tells us about the afterlife involves generalization, comments that possibly or probably aren't meant to be taken as universals. Some of the Biblical authors were aware that men like Samuel, Moses, and Elijah appeared on earth after death. There can be an intermediate state between death and being in heaven or hell, even if it's just a brief intermediate state, as the carrying away by angels to Abraham's bosom in Luke 16:22 illustrates. Jesus' disciples seem to have thought that spirits of the dead or representatives of them could appear to people on earth (Mark 6:49, Luke 24:37, Acts 12:15). Notice Jesus' response to the disciples in Luke 24:38-43. The response is relatively lengthy. He responds to their concern in word and action, but he doesn't try to correct their belief that a spirit (presumably a spirit of a deceased human) could appear to a person on earth. Rather, Jesus focuses on persuading them that he was more than a spirit. The disciples' belief in the appearance of spirits is significant. Most of them or all eleven of them held the view, apparently, which suggests that it was widespread, orthodox Jewish belief at the time. But it's even more significant that their belief was so persistent (coming up in Mark 6, Luke 24, and Acts 12) and was never corrected by Jesus as far as we can tell, even when he responded to them at length in Luke 24.
Christians have sometimes had experiences of seeing the dead or coming into contact with them in some other way. Sometimes, both parties, the deceased individual(s) involved and the person(s) still alive, are Christians, even significantly mature ones, which poses problems for a demonic explanation. Some of my relatives have seen deceased Christians after death, with corroborating evidence.
There are a lot of ambiguities here. For example, Jesus might have disagreed with the disciples in Luke 24 without having said so or without Luke's having recorded it. But both of those scenarios are less likely. So, the passage provides some support for the conclusion that the dead can appear to people on earth. Does a passage like Acts 12:15 suggest that some representative of Peter was thought to be involved, not Peter himself? Might the same sort of concept be involved in the other relevant passages? I doubt it, since most of the passages don't include such a qualifier, and we have no reason to assume one. And while some Biblical passages and extra-Biblical experiences may involve something like a vision of the dead rather than a visit from a dead person, I see no reason to assume that it's always the case. Furthermore, how significant is such a distinction in most instances? For most people in most contexts, I doubt that it matters much whether the dead person visited or appeared in something like a vision. I suspect that dead people, including dead believers, do sometimes appear on earth.
That doesn't mean it's a normative occurrence. I suspect it's exceptional rather than normative, given how scripture generally talks about the afterlife and how unusual it is for Christians to report such appearances of the dead. They happen, but they seem to be minority occurrences. And we shouldn't try to initiate contact with the dead, whether dead believers or dead unbelievers. See our posts on prayer to the dead (and angels) here. You can search the Triablogue archives for more posts on the subject. Even when the dead initiate contact with those on earth, there's a danger of becoming too focused on the experience or thinking too highly of the dead person who appeared, for example. We should be aware of such dangers and guard against them. We also need to consider possibilities such as delusion and demonic activity. It's important that we exercise discernment.
For those who are interested, I have an archive of posts on near-death experiences and other paranormal phenomena, such as apparitions of the dead, here. Several years ago, Steve Hays wrote a post providing an overview of paranormal experiences from a Christian perspective.
Saturday, February 07, 2015
Yes, Spirits Of The Dead Appear On Earth
Here's something I wrote in another thread: