But they aren’t what you may think they are.
So on this All Hallows Eve, let me speak to one of the most common questions I used to get from people all the time while serving on a pastoral staff. Do Christians believe in ghosts?
Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy was talking about this last night on Twitter–which got me thinking about the subject.
First, a couple of stories.
1. About 10 years ago, I was having some work done on a shotgun by a gunsmith whom someone had recommended to me. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember that he was a master at his craft. We got to know each other over the course of several weeks, and I came to like him very much. He was quiet, absorbed in his work, not chatty at all. But we did talk about our backgrounds. I found out he had an M.Div. from Gettysburg Seminary, and when I asked him if he believed in ghosts–given the fact that 25,000 people suffered violent deaths there in the space of 3 days in 1863–I’ll never forget his response. He stopped what he was doing, looked at me over his glasses right in the eyes, and said, if you didn’t believe in ghosts when you got to Gettysburg Seminary, you sure did when you left. He didn’t elaborate. Then, he simply returned to his work.
2. My grandmother moved into a new house she had built shortly after her husband had died in 1969 on the outskirts of Gordonsville, Virginia. I remember visiting that house when I was little, and finding it fascinating. She died when I was only 6, but for years, I had a recurring dream of being in the pasture across the road from her house. In that pasture, I would meet my grandmother and my uncle, who died in a tragic car accident. My aunts told me that my grandmother believed the house was haunted, and they thought so, too. They lived in the house for two years after my grandmother died, and they thought there was a connection between the house and my recurring dreams.
Thirty years later, my wife and I found ourselves living in the same community as my grandmother had lived at the time of her death. I took my brother on a drive to her house one afternoon, because he hadn’t seen it during all that time. I said, why don’t we drive up the driveway and see if anyone is home–maybe they’ll invite us in when we introduce ourselves. This being rural Virginia, the people who lived in the house were very friendly and welcomed us inside. We had a great deal of fun going from room to room, and experiencing a flood of wonderful memories.
After visiting for about an hour, the owner of the house said to me, “This may sound strange, but did your grandmother ever say anything about this house being haunted?”
I was speechless.
3. My great aunt and uncle lived in the same house in Ennis, Montana for almost 60 years, but they weren’t the original owners of the house. My Aunt Joan always said that the house was haunted. She surmised that the “ghost” was the spirit of a young child, because she would find random toys on the floor of the house as if a little one had just gotten up from playing. After so many years of being in the house, Aunt Joan and Uncle Chet just got accustomed to sounds of laughter, lights coming on or off at random, and the little marbles and jacks that would show up on the floor in the night or while they were out. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the prospect of their house being haunted, but I didn’t take it all that seriously.
One evening at about 10, I was sitting in the dining room of their house writing a letter to a friend. I was all alone in the house at the time, and concentrating on my letter. Suddenly, I heard the sound of a small person running up and down the upstairs hallway.
Out the door I went, and slept in the bunkhouse that night. I never finished that letter.
So what’s the deal, at least from a theological perspective? Hebrews 9.27 states, “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” Jesus said in John 5.28-29, “an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, and those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” Jesus’ words are consistent with Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 12.2–“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.”
It would appear that Scripture teaches that, after death occurs, we are all held accountable for our lives before God, the only One to whom we are ultimately responsible, since he is our Creator. Those who put their trust in Christ arise to the newness of eternal life. We see this throughout the entire Scripture, but a couple of passages in particular serve as examples of this teaching–
“For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will you allow your Holy One to undergo decay. You will make known to me the path of life; In your presence is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Psalm 16.10-11
“Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.” Isaiah 26.19
“Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people.” Ezekiel 37.13
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11.25-26
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” I Corinthians 15.22
So, if there is no intermediate state by which spirits of the dead roam the earth, how do we explain the myriad and diverse accounts of apparitions? Many of us have had direct experiences of encountering apparitions–we’re not simply relying on History Channel episodes. Some of us have seen or heard things that have no rational explanation except that of an encounter with an apparition.
Scripture itself suggests that such encounters are possible. One of the strangest stories in all the Bible is found in I Samuel 28. Here we have Saul going to the witch of Endor, and asking her to bring the prophet Samuel up from the dead so that he might consult with him (I Samuel 28.13-25). To Saul’s utter shock and awe, Samuel appeared and sternly rebuked him, reminding him of his sins and of the fact that God had chosen David in his stead to be king of Israel. My own position (and that of St. Augustine, I might add) on the identity of the personage brought up by the witch of Endor is that it was indeed Samuel, and God brought him up to rebuke Saul for his sins (as well as the witch herself, for her spiritualism, which was, and remains, a grave sin.)
But we must remember another key passage from the New Testament, a passage that sheds light on the true identity of apparitions that the living sometimes encounter. Paul wrote in II Corinthians 11.14-15, “No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore, it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.” To be sure, Paul is talking about living false prophets and apostles, who go about spreading heretical teachings. But clearly, the Apostle Paul is warning his readers that the devil and his servants have great power to deceive we who are among the living, and draw us away from some of the most significant truths of the Scriptures, namely, that all have sinned (Romans 3.23), all stand accountable to God upon their deaths, and there are no second chances for the dead to get it right on earth after their deaths.
Jesus told the Pharisees that Satan is a liar–“Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” In that same verse, he said that Satan “was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.”
What better way to deceive and murder then to draw us away from the truth of the gospel by convincing us that there is no sin, no hell, no heaven, no accountability to God, no atonement for sin, and no eternal life united with Christ?
Ghosts are real. But they are not spirits of the departed. They are demons, attempting to deceive, and draw us away from the gospel. They can strike fear into our hearts, but there’s no cause for all that. The glorious Christ declares, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Revelation 1.17-18). He who has life in and of himself gives life to those who put their trust in him. Those who are Christ’s need have no fear of the grave, or of those who would have us believe they are among the dead.