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What does the Bible say about ghosts?

The disciples thought they were seeing a ghost when Jesus approached them walking on water.
Credit: Amédée Varin (1818–1883)/Wikipedia/Public Domain

With Halloween around the corner, what does the Bible have to say about ghosts?

Most of us are probably familiar with the story in the Gospels, when the disciples were crossing the sea of Galilee on a stormy night and thought they saw a ghost.

Because of the storm, everyone was already apprehensive and Christ who had chosen to remain behind, joined them a bit later, walking out to them on the water.

Seeing this apparition hovering over the rolling waves, the disciples immediately were fearful that they were seeing a ghost.

They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (Luke 24:37-39, NIV)

The Greek word, ‘phantasma’, translated ghost by most modern translations in this verse, referred to how people believed that the souls of the dead could still walk the earth and appear to people.

This is undoubtedly, what the disciples thought they were seeing.

But though this is what they believed, Jesus immediately addressed their fear and proved that He was not a ghost by telling the disciples to touch his hand and feet.

When the Apostle John recorded the moment Christ died on the cross, John writes that Jesus gave up His Spirit (John 19:30).

Thought the King James Version says that Jesus gave up his ghost, in fact it is a different Greek word, ‘pneuma’, translated spirit. This is how modern Bible versions including the New King James translated the word.

Humans have a spirit that continues on after death, but can they appear as ghosts?

There are a couple of Old Testament stories which may suggest that ghosts, the spirits of dead humans, can contact living people.

The first involved King Saul’s encounter with the witch of Endor recorded in 1 Samuel 28:7-20.

Saul was preparing to battle with the Philistines and decided to consult a medium who would call up a familiar spirit to give Saul advice on the looming battle.

Saul who had disguised himself asked the woman to call up the spirit of the dead prophet, Samuel.

And the Bible is clear on two things.

First the woman was shocked about what happened next. Obviously, she had not personally seen this before, as a spirit appeared which could not only speak, but could also be seen, as it is described as an old man wrapped in a robe.

And secondly, the Bible states that this was the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel, who told Saul that not only would he be defeated in the upcoming battle, but Saul and his sons would join Samuel in the afterlife. In other words they would die.

6 And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? 17 The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. … 19 Moreover, the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The Lord will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.” (1 Samuel 28:19, 20 ESV_

While some suggest this apparition was actually an evil spirit, the Bible states that it was the spirit of Samuel. As well, the prophecy Samuel gave was fulfilled as not only were the Philistines victorious but Saul and his sons died as a result of the battle.

The prophet Isaiah made a similar prediction telling the King of Babylon that the spirits of the dead will be greeting the king’s spirit when he died (Isaiah 14:9).

In this very rare instance, God allowed the spirit of Samuel to once again confirm the Lord’s judgement on Saul

There is a second mention of ghosts in the book of Job that also seems to imply that the spirit of the dead have the ability to contact men.

But there is a slight twist in this story.

First, we need to understand the book of Job is all about a spiritual attack launched by Satan against Job in an effort to have him curse God (Job 1:9-12).

One of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, speaks about his encounter with a ghost in the middle of the night. This was similar to Saul’s encounter with Samuel, as Eliphaz claims he not only saw this apparition but also heard it speak.

“A word was secretly brought to me, my ears caught a whisper of it. Amid disquieting dreams in the night, when deep sleep falls on people, fear and trembling seized me and made all my bones shake. 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. A form stood before my eyes, and I heard a hushed voice: “Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Can even a strong man be more pure than his Maker? If God places no trust in his servants, if he charges his angels with error, how much more those who live in houses of clay, whose foundations are in the dust, who are crushed more readily than a moth!” (Job 4:12-19)

But unlike Saul’s encounter, this apparition gave Eliphaz wrong advice and said that Job was being judged because of his sin.

It manipulated Elphaz to have him convince Job to curse God, because the Lord had abandoned the patriarch because of his sin.

This was not a ghost, but rather an evil spirit, spouting a lie, from the father of lies (John 8:44).

In his writings, Martin Luther, the leader of the Reformation, often wrote of personally being attacked by evil spirits.

In his article, Grant Van Leuven recounts the advice that Luther gave a pastor who was also seeing apparitions, similar to what Eliphaz encountered.

Luther described it as a Satanic manifestation and told the pastor to rebuke it:

“When a pastor from Süptitz came to Luther complaining of apparitions and disturbances caused by Satan for over a year (so much so that his wife and children wanted to leave), Luther recommended,  “ … pray to God with your wife and children [and say], ‘Be off, Satan!  I’m lord in this house, not you.  By divine authority I’m head of this household, and I have a call from heaven to be pastor of this church.  I have testimony from heaven and earth, and this is what I rely on.  You enter this house as a thief and robber.’ … you should sing him his litany and his legend …”[17] Source: Luther’s Works, Table Talk

Though it is obvious from the Bible that people believed in ghosts, there is only one mention in the scripture of a ghost contacting men, in what most would describe as a rare and unusual circumstance. Even the medium was shocked by this apperance.

With that as context, we can only presume that those claiming they have seen ghosts are in fact seeing what were little more than demonic manifestations or the product of an overactive imagination.

READ: Martin Luther and Stinkering at Satan

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