Saturday, February 07, 2015

Yes, Spirits Of The Dead Appear On Earth

Here's something I wrote in another thread:

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.


  1. A few quick comments:

    i) There are Protestants who mistakenly believe sola scriptura means treating the Bible like an encyclopedia. They feel they need a specific biblical justification for whatever they believe or do. This results in some very strained efforts to squeeze guidance out of Scripture in matters where Scripture is silent or taciturn.

    ii) Regarding apparitions of the dead, I'd draw some distinctions:

    a) I think a person's eternal destiny is sealed at death. There are no postmortem opportunities for salvation.

    b) I don't think there's anything heretical about the idea that a dead Christian might appear to the living. That's something they could only do with God's permission.

    But take "crisis apparitions" in which a dead Christian relative appears to a the bereaved (e.g. widow, widower) to give them comfort and assurance at a critical time. I don't think Christian theology rules that out. And there are credible reports of that happening.

    c) Another issue, which Jason raises, is whether, right after death, there's a temporary window in which the decedent might appear to a friend or relative.

    d) Regarding the damned, I think the idea that, prior to the Final Judgment and definitive separation, some of the damned are restless spirits who linger in places where they used to live, is a fitting preliminary punishment. They no longer have a place to call home. Time passed them by.

    There's extensive evidence for haunted houses and related phenomena. Since Christians believe in postmortem survival, there's no reason to reject the existence of ghosts out of hand. As I say, I think that, itself, can be a punitive condition.

    I think it's analogous to the demons who told Christ, "Have you come to torment us before our time?" That indicates two things:

    a) Before the final judgment, they are free to roam the earth.

    b) Their doom is a foregone conclusion.

    I treat these explanations as a working hypothesis.

  2. Thank you for this article. It's something I have wondered about for quite awhile now. I haven't read the other articles you linked to, but I fully intend to do so. My dad (who is not saved) had an experience about 25 years ago. My youngest sister died at the age of 21 after going through a liver transplant that failed. He told me that one night not long after she died, he awoke to see her standing in his room and she told him that "everything would be all right." He said it was as if she were actually there in body. I believe my sister was saved months before she died, at least according to my mom who was taking care of her at the time. I still have questions, but don't know all the answers. Your article is enlightening, though. Thank you.

  3. Very interesting!
    You said some of your relatives have seen deceased Christians, with corroborating evidence, could you tell us about that?

    1. Alex,

      I was referring to two incidents.

      The first involved a relative whose mother-in-law appeared in his house. She was living far away at the time, so she couldn't have been visiting the house by any natural means. The mother-in-law said "I know you'll take care of [name of my relative's wife]" or something similar, then disappeared. He later found out that his mother-in-law had died around the time when the appearance occurred, and he had no reason to expect the death to occur at that point in time.

      Only a small minority of purported encounters with the dead are visual in nature. Since my relative's experience was not only visual, but also audible, coordinated with the then-unknown time of his mother-in-law's death, and unexpected, I suspect it was an extremely rare experience and very likely paranormal. (I'm aware that there are other cases of a similar nature in the paranormal literature. My "extremely rare" comment is relative to the billions of people who have lived. I'm not claiming that the experience was unprecedented, only occurred once or twice before, or anything like that. Keep in mind that even if you read about, say, fifty cases of a particular nature in a book, those fifty cases may only involve a tiny percentage of the population. Fifty may seem like a lot in the context of reading a book, but it's not much in other contexts.)

      (continued below)

    2. (continued from above)

      The second incident involved my mother. My father died in 2012. During the afternoon one day in late 2013, my mother was doing some dusting and sweeping. She had her head down, about to start dusting one of the rooms (my old bedroom), and had a strong urge to look up. When she did, she saw my father walking across the hallway, looking at her (and smiling), after which he walked into my brother's old bedroom (directly across from mine). The walls in my bedroom should have prevented her from seeing most of the hallway, but she was able to see him through the wall. That initially doesn't seem to make sense. If there's going to be an appearance, why not have it occur in a more open area, where there wouldn't be so much blocking her view? But the place where my mother was standing at the time has a lot of significance to me and makes a lot of sense in the larger context, though I've never told her that. I suspect that her ability to see through the wall was meant to accommodate her being in the right place and to underscore the significance of her being there. The incident dovetails well with other events surrounding my father's death, including other paranormal events. Nothing comparable or greater, nothing even close, in fact, has happened when other close relatives have died before my father's death or since then. There's been a large network of paranormal events surrounding my father's death, but nothing similar surrounding other deaths or in other contexts in my life. And I wasn't expecting that. My father became a Christian shortly before his death, and my mother is a Christian (and was one when the event in question occurred). The network of paranormal events I've referred to has a significantly Christian nature. It's not just paranormal in a general sense, but instead is specifically Christian. My mother thought that seeing my father after his death was a peaceful and encouraging event and beneficial in other ways, and, from what I can tell, it's produced good fruit in her life and in other contexts. Any demonic explanation for what occurred seems highly unlikely.

      After my mother told me what happened, I asked her a lot of questions about it. (I took notes, which I recorded shortly after talking to her, and I've checked this post against those notes.) She said she'd never had such an experience before. Every other paranormal experience she'd had was of a relatively minor variety, such as answered prayer. She wasn't expecting to see my father, at that point or at any other point leading up to the incident. She has no history of hallucinations or anything similar. She wasn't tired at the time. Doing common housework during daylight hours doesn't make somebody prone to hallucinate. She was confident that it was an objective experience. It would require multiple naturalistic explanations to dismiss what happened. Why did she have an urge to look up when her head was down? Why did she think she saw a deceased person she wasn't expecting to see? Did she just happen to think the incident occurred in a location that was so significant to me, without her knowing it? And the incident just happened to line up so well with and to so much help explain other incidents (which she also had no way of knowing)? For these and other reasons, I think it's tremendously probable that the event occurred and was paranormal.

  4. Just an interesting story:
    My grandfather Bruce was a faithful Christian.
    A few years ago, he turned 98, and the day after, he went to the hospital and died.
    Now, nearly all of our family got to turn up and be with him that night, except for my auntie Margaret. She didn't get to come be with us at his death bed, and naturally, she was upset.
    Within 1 or 2 nights, however, she had a dream:
    She was sitting in her childhood room, when my grandfather Bruce came in, and he didn't have a slouched disposition as usual, but rather he was standing up tall. He was wearing his best clothes, and he was getting his bags for leaving. If I recall correctly, he came up to her and kissed her on the head. He then smiled, and walked out the door.
    This was very significant for her obviously.
    So yeah, I guess that may be relevant?

  5. When we evaluate apparitions of the dead and other paranormal experiences, it's important to scrutinize them on a lot of different levels. It's not just a matter of judging whether the events seem to have occurred, but also judging the significance of the events and how they fit into the larger network of other lines of evidence, for example.

    So, let's say that a woman thinks her dead husband appeared to her one night while she was in bed. He didn't say anything. He just appeared, then disappeared shortly after, and his wife had a sense of peace, was comforted by the experience, and so forth.

    In many circles today, such an incident would be taken not only as evidence of the existence of the soul, an afterlife, and such, but also evidence that the man in question went to heaven and that other people, maybe even most or all other people, will go to heaven as well. But do such conclusions actually follow from what happened? No.

    Not only do we have to consider possibilities such as delusion, psi, and demonic activity, but we also have to consider the possibility that a deceased person who's appeared to somebody was lying or honestly mistaken. There's no reason to think that people become infallible the moment they die. A friend who appears to you after death and tells you that all is well may be misjudging a temporary intermediary state he's experiencing (and "all is well" is somewhat relative and ambiguous). I'm not saying that we should begin with distrust as our default position. But dishonesty and honest mistakes on the part of deceased individuals are possibilities that we should consider.

    Anybody who knows much about the paranormal should realize that there are a lot of inconsistencies and a lot of suspicious material in what's reported. I discuss some examples in my collection of posts here. There's a dark side to the paranormal that's often ignored or underestimated. It's important that the totality of the evidence be taken into account, including the evidence we have for the truthfulness of Christianity.

    An important thread that runs through all of the accounts related by Nina, Alex, and me is that there's good evidence that the deceased individuals in question were Christians. (And even where there isn't such evidence, the possibility of conversion just before death should be considered.) Often, people don't even consider such factors, but instead take a shallow, presumptuous, and dangerous approach toward the paranormal, an approach that frequently lines up suspiciously well with their wishful thinking. For many people, their view of the afterlife doesn't go much beyond wishful thinking, and paranormal phenomena are shoehorned into what they want to believe. Christians can make the same sort of mistake and should guard against it.

  6. Regular Triablogue bloggers and readers will know that J.B. Phillips had two experiences of what he believed to be apparitions of the dead C.S. Lewis. For those who don't know this here's a link to a Randal Rauser blog where he quotes Phillips.

  7. As for apparitions of the living...
    I just remembered a very strange experience.
    I was staying the night at a friends place, and I was staying the night by myself in his spare room.
    At my bed side there was an alarm clock of sorts with a bright blue light.
    Suddenly, the light started blinking, lowly illuminating the room. Suddenly, at the foot of my bed, there stood an ex teacher of mine. The light would blink and illuminate him, and I blinked my eyes, and he was still there. I wasn't afraid, but I still mashed the buttons on the alarm clock, to turn it off. It did, and I looked back, and he wasn't there.
    I wasn't even thinking of him, and I was utterly awake.

    If it's of any meaning, I recently found out that he was a oneness-pentecostal and vehemently anti-Calvinist.


  8. Someone on Facebook commented on Jason's post. Here's my reply:

    Gregory R Kitt I'm just wondering how you see Luke 16:22 - 31 fitting in this this theory? The rich man asked for Lazarus to be sent back to warn his brothers. He didn't ask to go back himself and Abraham didn't suggest that either option could have been a possibility.

    Bnonn Tennant Because that would have complicated the story ;p

    Steve Hays Excellent one-sentence reply by Bnonn. I'd add a few further observations in response to Kitt's query:

    i) Dives hasn't caught on to the fact that the pecking order on earth doesn't carry over into the afterlife. He imagines that he has leverage with Abraham. He imagines that Lazarus ought to do his bidding. Naturally his demands are rebuffed since one basic point of the story is that he suffered a precipitous demotion when he died. The status he took for granted on earth he left behind the moment he died.

    ii) Apropos (i), notice that he doesn't even ask Lazarus to volunteer. He treats Lazarus as a subordinate, and instead imposes on Abraham to order Lazarus to do this for him. Since, in the parable, he can see and speak with Abraham, and Lazarus is with Abraham, he could ask Lazarus directly. But instead, he wants Abraham to pull rank on Lazarus. He retains the same sense of entitlement he had on earth.

    iii) There's no reason Lazarus would think the rich man's brothers are entitled to special treatment. They are the rich man's relatives, not relatives of Lazarus.

    iv) For that matter, it's not as if Abraham has the authority to send Lazarus back. Abraham is not the director of heaven.

    v) It is surely not the point of the parable to say it's improper for someone to return from the dead to witness to the living. For the statement that Jesus puts on the lips of Abraham is a veiled prediction of his Resurrection, as well as the defiant disbelief of many Jews in response to that miracle.

    So there's some biting irony here. The attitude of the rich man's brothers foreshadows the attitude of Jews who resist the resurrection of Christ. People like *that* will never benefit from such an encounter. They steel themselves against Messianic prophecies and Messianic miracles alike.

    But, of course, the Resurrection was a convincing events for *some* Jews–as Luke records, both in his Gospel and in Acts. And this was a cornerstone of the Apostolic kerygma.

    1. I'm just throwing this out there, but I'm wondering if Dives' request could be a tacit acknowledgement by Jesus of a widespread Jewish belief at the time (which He Himself may have accepted) that sometimes the dead do visit and communicate with the living (via apparitions) when God permits it. That the incident with Saul and the spirit of Samuel is not a one time exception. The OT prohibition of necromancy is against initiating contact with the dead. Something which seems different from an encounter that's initiated by a spirit.