Friday, January 05, 2018

Are there ghosts?

Question: "What does the Bible say about ghosts / hauntings?"

Answer: Is there such a thing as ghosts? The answer to this question depends on what precisely is meant by the term “ghosts.” If the term means “spirit beings,” the answer is a qualified “yes.” If the term means “spirits of people who have died,” the answer is “no.” The Bible makes it abundantly clear that there are spirit beings, both good and evil. But the Bible negates the idea that the spirits of deceased human beings can remain on earth and “haunt” the living.

Hebrews 9:27 declares, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” That is what happens to a person’s soul-spirit after death—judgment. The result of this judgment is heaven for the believer (2 Corinthians 5:6-8; Philippians 1:23) and hell for the unbeliever (Matthew 25:46; Luke 16:22-24). There is no in-between. There is no possibility of remaining on earth in spirit form as a “ghost.” If there are such things as ghosts, according to the Bible, they absolutely cannot be the disembodied spirits of deceased human beings.

The Bible teaches very clearly that there are indeed spirit beings who can connect with and appear in our physical world. The Bible identifies these beings as angels and demons. Angels are spirit beings who are faithful in serving God. Angels are righteous, good, and holy. Demons are fallen angels, angels who rebelled against God. Demons are evil, deceptive, and destructive. According to 2 Corinthians 11:14-15, demons masquerade as “angels of light” and as “servants of righteousness.” Appearing as a “ghost” and impersonating a deceased human being definitely seem to be within the power and abilities that demons possess.

1. It's true that we need to take demonic activity into account. The question is whether that's an ad hoc explanation for all prima facie apparitions of the dead. 

2. The respondent's major prooftext is Heb 9:27. However, he doesn't exegete that text or explain how disproves the existence of ghosts. Let's examine the text:

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment (Heb 9:27, ESV).

i) Considered in isolation, this might be a universal statement: every human will die. Moreover, every human will die just one time. 

ii) In addition, both claims might be universal. Those who face judgment are coextensive with those who die. If death is universal, then judgment is universal. 

3. Let's consider the first clause. Is it universally true that everybody dies just once? For that matter, is it universally true that everyone dies? You can't die more than once unless you die at least one time. You can't die more than once unless you die a first time. But in Scripture, there are exceptions:

i) Elijah (1 Kgs 17) and Elisha (2 Kgs 4) raise the dead. But presumably, the children they restored to life were not immortal. So they died a second time. There's also the somewhat enigmatic statement about the revived corpse in 2 Kgs 13. But that might be another case of someone who's temporally revived, only to die a second time. 

In addition, Jesus raised the dead, viz. Lazarus (Jn 11), the daughter of Jairus (Lk 8), and the widow's son (Lk 7). Likewise, Peter raised the dead (Acts 9). More ambiguous is the case of Eutychus (Acts 20). 

Presumably, although these people were revived, they were still mortal. So they died a second time. 

ii) In addition, Paul indicates that Christians who are alive at the time of the Parousia will become instantly immortal (1 Cor 15:51; 1 Thes 4:17). So they won't die at all. 

iii) Likewise, there's the translation of Enoch (Heb 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kgs 2), who escape death by that intervention. 

In addition, what happened to the saints in Mt 27:50-53?

iv) Assuming the inerrancy of Scripture, Heb 9:27a is a general claim rather than a universal claim. Not a statement about what happens to everyone, but what happens to humans in general. 

And that's confined to examples from Bible history. But the Bible is not an encyclopedia. It doesn't detail everything that exists or everything that happens. 

v) Put another way, Heb 9:27 is not an absolute claim, but a statement about what happens to humans, all other things being equal. Yet it makes allowance for exceptions, all things considered. Like many unqualified statements in Scripture, it has an implicit ceteris paribus clause. If other conditions hold constant, if other factors remain unchanged, then that's what will happen. But in some cases, a different outcome is possible if there's a countervailing factor. 

4. In addition, this 1C statement doesn't address situations in which someone who's clinically dead is resuscitated by medical technology. Take someone who falls through ice, drowning in a fridge pond. He dies, but the chilling effect temporarily prevents necrosis, so in some cases he can be revived. But he'd be dead by 1C criteria. 

5. Let's consider the second clause. Is that a universal claim? Does it mean every human will undergo divine judgment? That depends on what the author means by "judgment" in this context:

a) Sometimes "judgment" has is a synonym for condemnation, damnation, eschatological punishment (e.g. Heb 10:27-30). But the author doesn't mean everyone will face judgment in a punitive sense. To the contrary, he sets "judgment" in v27 in contrast to "salvation" in v28. Some experience judgment while others experience deliverance from judgment. So the claim isn't universal in that sense.

b) Sometimes "judgment" denotes a verdict of acquittal or conviction (e.g. Heb 4:13; 12:23; 13:4). So it might be universal in that discriminating sense. 

6. In addition, Scripture presents a two-stage afterlife: (i) the intermediate state, followed by (ii) the final state. In that sense, most humans will be "judged" twice:

i) There's what happens to you after you die. The period in-between death and the Day of Judgment. Postmortem judgment is repeatable and individual. It happens at different times throughout human history, because people die at different times. 

ii) Then there's eschatological judgment. The Final Judgment. That's a corporate, one-time event at the end of the church age (or thereabouts). 

7. According to Scripture, every human will experience one of two divergent eternal destinies. The concise statement in Heb 9:27 doesn't unpack all these subdivisions. 

8. Does Heb 9:27 preclude apparitions of the dead? In principle, there are three or four possible options:

i) There's no possible contact between the living and the dead

ii) It's possible for the saints to contact the living

iii) It's possible for the damned to contact the living

iv) Both (ii) & (iii)

9. Some Christians think "judgment" in Heb 9:27 means that damned are quarantined, so that contact between the damned and the living is impossible. Even if that's true, it doesn't address the very different case of sainted believers. 

We have apparitions of the dead (Moses) at the Transfiguration (Mt 17). 1 Sam 28 is a prima facie apparition of the dead, in the context of necromancy. (Some readers dispute that interpretation.) 

In addition, Jesus appears to Paul (Acts 9) and John (Rev 1). 

The "dead" is ambiguous terminology. Jesus is alive, yet he usually resides in the realm of the "dead" (e.g. with the saints in heaven).

So even if Scripture ruled out apparitions of the damned, it doesn't rule out apparitions of the saints. (I'm using "saints," not in the Roman Catholic sense, but in reference to dead Christians.)

And, once again, it's important to keep in mind that the Bible is not an encyclopedia. We need to draw a distinction:

i) Scripture doesn't say if X happens

ii) Scripture says X doesn't happen

But (i) is not equivalent to (ii). The silence of Scripture is not a denial. 

10. Are the damned quarantined? Maybe so, maybe not. That depends on the nature of postmortem punishment and the intermediate state of the damned. Suppose, until the "great separation" at the Day of Judgment, some of the damned are "wandering spirits" or "restless spirits". That in itself is a punitive condition.

11. Consider the alternative explanation: demons impersonating the dead. But if demons aren't quarantined, why insist that the souls of damned humans are quarantined? After all, doesn't Scripture depict fallen angels as imprisoned spirits (e.g. 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6; Rev 9:1-3)? But if that picturesque language makes allowance for demonic activity on earth, why not ghosts? 

12. Yes, believers go to heaven when they die. Does that mean they're confined to heaven? Was Moses confined to heaven? Or Elijah? Or Jesus. Or celestial angels? 

13. What about the parable of Lazarus and Dives (Lk 16)? 

i) That's tricky because it's a fictional illustration, so the question is how much it is meant to illustrate. For instance, if you press the details, this would mean the damned can contact the saints. But do Christians who deny the existence of ghosts think that's generally the case? Can the denizens of hell initiate contact with the denizens of heaven whenever they feel like it? Is that realistic? Or is this an imaginary conversation between someone in "heaven" (Abraham) and someone in "hell" (the rich man) to illustrate whatever lesson(s) the parable is meant to teach?

ii) In addition, the barrier in that scene isn't between heaven and earth, but heaven and hell. There's no traffic between heaven and hell (v26), but that doesn't rule out the possibility of traffic between heaven and earth. When the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn the rich man's living relatives, Abraham doesn't say there's another barrier which prevents that. Rather, he says it would be futile since they wouldn't listen. 

Moreover, v31 is an allusion to the Resurrection, not the intermediate state. That verse doesn't speak directly to the status of ghosts. Rather, it foreshadows the incredulous reaction of the Jewish establishment to the resurrection of Christ.

14. BTW, I don't subscribe to universalism, annihilationism, postmortem salvation, or Purgatory. My analysis takes for granted a traditional evangelical view of the afterlife–which I've defended on other occasions. 


  1. An absolutely outstanding analysis, Steve.

  2. It seems that there was a widespread, persistent belief in ghosts among the earliest Christians. The belief was sometimes expressed in Jesus' presence, and he never corrected it, even though he had opportunity to do so, correcting them on the subject would have been relevant in those contexts, and he does correct them on other matters in those passages. See here, including Steve's posts in the comments section of the thread.

    And here's a thread on Acts 12:15 in particular. Bnonn Tennant has a good article on the subject as well.