"Do you believe in ghosts?"
Most of us heard that question when we were children, especially around Halloween, but as adults we don't give it much thought.
Are there ghosts in the Bible? The term itself appears, but what it means can be confusing. In this brief study, we'll look at what the Bible says about ghosts, and what conclusions we can draw from our Christian beliefs.
Ghosts in the Bible: When Jesus Looked Like a Ghost
Jesus' disciples were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, but he was not with them. Matthew tells us what happened:
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid."(Matthew 14:25-27, NIV)
Mark and Luke report the same incident. The gospel writers give no explanation of the word ghost. It's interesting to note that the King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611, uses the term "spirit" in this passage, but when the New King James Version came out in 1982, it translated the term back to "ghost." Most other later translations, including the NIV, ESV, NASB, Amplified, Message, and Good News use the word ghost in this verse.
After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples. Again they were terrified:
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)
Jesus did not believe in ghosts; he knew the truth, but his superstitious apostles had bought into that folk tale. When they encountered something they couldn't understand, they immediately assumed it was a ghost.
The matter is further blurred when, in some older translations, "ghost" is used instead of "spirit." The King James Version refers to the Holy Ghost, and in John 19:30 says,
When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.
The New King James Version translates ghost to spirit, including all references to the Holy Spirit.
Ghosts in the Bible: Samuel, a Ghost, or Something Else?
Something ghostly did turn up in an incident described in 1 Samuel 28:7-20. King Saul was preparing to do battle against the Philistines, but the LORD had departed from him. Saul wanted to get a prediction on the outcome of the battle, so he consulted a medium, the witch of Endor. He ordered her to call up the spirit of Samuel the prophet.
A "ghostly figure" of an old man appeared, and the medium was startled. The figure scolded Saul, then told him he would not only lose the battle, but also his life and the lives of his sons.
Scholars are split over what the apparition was. Some say it was a demon, a fallen angel, impersonating Samuel. They note that it came up out of the earth instead of down from heaven, and that Saul did not actually look at it. Saul had his face to the ground. Other experts feel God intervened and did cause Samuel's spirit to manifest itself to Saul.
To put the ghost controversy in perspective, it's important to understand the Bible's teaching on life after death. Scripture says when people die, their spirit and soul immediately go to heaven or hell. We do not wander about the earth:
Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:8, NLT)
So-called ghosts are demons posing as dead people. Satan and his followers are liars, intent on spreading confusion, fear, and distrust of God. If they can convince mediums, like the woman at Endor, that they actually communicate with the dead, those demons can lure many away from the true God:
...in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes. (2 Corinthians 2:11, NIV)
The Bible tells us that a spiritual realm does exist, invisible to human eyes. It is populated by God and his angels, Satan, and his fallen angels, or demons. Despite the claims of unbelievers, there are no ghosts wandering about the earth. The spirits of deceased humans inhabit one of two places: heaven or hell.