Do the Dead Return to Visit the Living? By Robert Hawes
"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God..." - 1 John 4:1
Recently, I came across a disturbing idea being advocated by some well-known Christian authors whom I otherwise respect: namely, the notion that there are "godly ghosts," that is, spirits of dead Christians who sometimes return to visit the living. Evidence cited in favor of this idea includes the fact that Christian author C.S. Lewis believed that the spirit of his dead wife returned to comfort him in the wake of her passing, as well as a tale recounted by J.B. Philips concerning how the ghost of C.S. Lewis appeared to him, encouraging him when he was working on his translation of the New Testament. In another recent example, the father of popular Christian TV minister Perry Stone claimed that the ghost of a friend appeared to him and commissioned him for the ministry. Other examples could be cited as well, including various stories in which the godly dead allegedly returned to help the living in some way or to settle affairs they were unable to conclude in life.
In keeping with this, "godly ghosts" theorists argue that it's possible that not all spirits of the departed reside in either Heaven, Hades (the NT equivalent of Sheol), or "Abraham's Bosom"; instead, they speculate that some human spirits may be roaming the earth in a type of limbo (possibly what the Bible terms "outer darkness"), and that this may be why people have reported that ghosts often seem confused, tend to be found near places where tragedies have occurred, and usually appear sorrowful and tormented.
The Bible certainly teaches that there is what we might call a "spirit world," an unseen realm in which both good and evil spirits operate, and it is clear from scripture that these spirits interact with mankind to various degrees; but I have to caution that there is absolutely no scriptural justification for the belief that spirits of the dead can or do return and manifest themselves to the living. It is my belief that all encounters with what are believed to be "ghosts" are actually demonic manifestations designed to deceive mankind into accepting delusions about the spirit world and the questions surrounding life after death.
- Scripture Forbids "Calling up" the Dead
Leviticus 19:10 and Deuteronomy 18:10 specifically forbid consultations with mediums: those who communicate with the dead on behalf of the living (what we call "Necromancy" today):
"Do not turn to mediums or spiritists; do not seek them out to be defiled by them. I am the Lord your God."
"There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead."
Thus it seems very unlikely that God would permit, or even facilitate, that which he has strictly forbidden.
Nevertheless, one proponent of the "godly ghosts" theory argues that such verses prove that communication with the dead must at least be possible, otherwise God would not have forbidden it, but this is not necessarily the case. As we can see from Deuteronomy 18:10, God forbade contact with persons who were involved in a number of occult practices, including calling up the dead, but he did not offer commentary on the validity of those practices or on how they were performed. A surface reading of the text might lead one to believe that occult practitioners have some sort of natural ability that enables them to successfully divine, perform acts of witchcraft, or to cast spells, but other passages of scripture suggest that these things are actually accomplished by the power of demons.
A ready example of this is Acts 16:16-21, where Luke provides of an account of how the apostle Paul cast a spirit of divination out of a slave girl who "was bringing her masters much profit by fortune-telling" (KJV). After the demon was cast out of the girl, she no longer had the power of divination (Acts 16:19).
For this reason, it is entirely likely that "the dead" that are conjured in the practice of Necromancy are actually demons, and not departed spirits at all. Indeed, in I Samuel 28, when King Saul was trying to communicate with the departed prophet Samuel, he specifically sought out a woman that had "a familiar spirit"in other words, a demon (I Samuel 28:7). Obviously, Saul thought that the practice itself was validthat is, that mediums were actually able to conjure the deadbut it's clear from his words that he realized that a demon was necessary to facilitate it. Strangely enough, he does not seem to have considered that the demons involved in contacting the dead might not be mere facilitators, but might actually be impersonating the spirits they were supposed to be contacting. It seems rather odd to trust an evil spirit to act in good faith, but Saul was desperate at the time (more on this later).
Thus, it seems unlikely that God issued the command to avoid those who "call up the dead" because they are actually able to do it. It seems more likely that he gave this commandment in order to keep his people from being deceived by evil spirits.
- Scripture tells us that the Dead are not aware of the World of the Living
"For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun." - Ecclesiastes 9:5-6
"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol [the grave] where you are going." - Ecclesiastes 9:10
"Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish." - Psalm 146:3-4
If, as the Bible indicates, the dead are not aware of what takes place in the world of the living, it's rather difficult to see how they could be contacted, conjured, or otherwise summoned by mediums from the living world. How can you hear or respond to a voice from a reality that is hidden to you? Indeed, for those who believe that the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke chapter 16 represents an actual account rather than a parable or an allegory, the situation becomes even more complicated:
"Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.'" - Luke 16:22-26
It's difficult to understand how spirits of the dead could be summoned to return to the world of the living when they are incapable of crossing a physical barrier between two different parts of their own domain! If the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus references actual events, then it is clear that spirits of the wicked dead cannot leave the confines of their imprisonment in Hades, and that even spirits of the righteous dead cannot simply come and go as they please. Angels carried Lazarus to Abraham's Bosom, implying that he could not reach that place on his own from the world of the living, and thus making it almost certain that he could not return on his own, either.
Furthermore, note that the rich man asked Abraham to return Lazarus to the world of the living in order to warn the rich man's brothers about the place of torment that awaited them beyond the grave. He did not ask that Lazarus be permitted to contact the living, but rather that he be sent to them. This strongly implies that the dead cannot communicate with the living from the underworld; at least it is certain they cannot initiate contact from there, and thus it is also highly doubtful that they can be conjured from there by the living.
- Saul and the "Ghost" of Samuel
What then of the story of Samuel's spirit being called up by the witch of Endor in I Samuel 28? Was this the true spirit of Samuel, or a demonic impostor?
The account in I Samuel 28 is controversial, and for good reason. In this account, the Philistines were readying themselves for battle with Israel. Saul, who had long been in rebellion against God, was desperate for help, but God was not answering him, and the prophet Samuelwho had anointed Saul king over Israel and used to serve as a guide to himwas dead. So in his desperation, Saul asked his servants to find a woman who could call up the ghost of Samuel for him.
Then said Saul unto his servants, 'Seek me a woman that has a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her.' And his servants said to him, 'Behold, there is a woman that has a familiar spirit at Endor.' - I Samuel 28:7 (KJV in modern English)
Once again, a "familiar spirit" is another term for a demon. In other words, Saul wanted his men to find a demon-possessed woman for him to inquire of, with the expectation that the spirit within this woman would contact Samuel and that Samuel would speak to him through the woman. In other words, he was looking for a medium who would speak to him for Samuel just as people ask mediums today to convey the words of dead relatives and friends at séances. Another word for this is type of intermediary contact is "channeling." This is exactly the type of activity that God had forbidden in the Law of Moses, and it was at least one area in which Saul had been obedient to God, as he had nearly wiped out the mediums in Israel. Indeed, he was forced to disguise himself so that the medium would not recognize that he was the king, and he had to assure her that she would not be punished:
"Then Saul disguised himself by putting on other clothes, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said, "Conjure up for me, please, and bring up for me whom I shall name to you." But the woman said to him, "Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those who are mediums and spiritists from the land. Why are you then laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?" Saul vowed to her by the Lord, saying, "As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing." - I Samuel 28:8-10
Saul then asked the woman to bring up Samuel for him, and the Bible records that, "when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice." Many have supposed that she cried out because she was expecting a demon and was startled when it was actually Samuel who appeared, but a careful reading of the text does not support this. Consider for a moment: What is the very first thing the woman said to Saul after she cried out?
"You are Saul."
Again, Saul had killed all of the mediums and sorcerers in Israel, and as we saw in verses 8-10, initially the medium did not even want to perform this act of necromancy for fear of her life. She cried out because the spirit within her revealed that the man who had come to her was actually the king she feared so greatly.
Moving on, there is another important detail in this story that we should note: the witch never identified Samuel by name. When Saul asked her what it was that she saw, she told him: "'I see a divine being [Hebrew - elohim]...an old man coming up, and he is wrapped with a robe.' And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and did homage." The witch did not identify Samuel, and Saul did not actually see this spirit; Saul assumed that the spirit was Samuel based on the medium's description; and given that the woman was a medium, the spirit would have spoken through her as well, just as spirits commonly speak through mediums today.
Are we really to believe that Samuel took his robe to Hades with him? Was Samuel an old man in spirit form? I believe it is more plausible that the demon deceiving Saul presented itself in a form that Saul would recognize: as the old man whom he had known in life.
It has been argued that the text itself identifies Samuel, but I would remind readers that this account was written down based on the testimony of those who were with Saulnone of whom actually laid eyes on this spirit. I am not arguing that the text is in error; only that it is an account that was based on the testimony of witnesses. It is, undoubtedly, an accurate account of what they believed took place and how things appeared to them. This is a type of chronicle, a Hebrew government record, not a divine revelation.
There are similar examples of this sort of perspective in scripture:
In Genesis 18, the Lord appeared to Abraham with two angels, yet the text repeatedly refers to all three of them as "men," which is certainly what they appeared to be to Abraham, Sarah, and Lot, as well as the men of Sodom, who also saw them and referred to them as "men" (see Genesis 19:5).
Moses records for us in Exodus 33 that God appeared to him, covering Moses with "his hand," and allowing Moses to see his "back parts" but not his "face"; yet other scriptures indicate that God is "invisible," "a spirit," a being without physical form, and that no one has ever seen him (John 1:18; 4:24, Colossians 1:15, and I Timothy 1:17). Clearly, God appeared to Moses in some sort of representation, a physical manifestation, but not his true essence. Yet, on the surface, the text appears to read as if God actually has a physical body.
When Mary Magdalene saw Jesus after his resurrection, she initially thought he was the gardener (John 20:15).
In Mark 16:5, the women who came to the garden tomb on the morning of the resurrection saw "a young man" when they looked into the tomb. Luke 24:4 mentions "two men" at the tomb. John 20:12 makes it clear that the "men" the women saw at the tomb were angels, but in the other accounts they are actually called "men." This does not mean that Mark and Luke were in error, just that they recorded what the women literally saw and reported themselves.
These accounts also demonstrate to us that spirit beings can assume physical form, appearing, speaking, and even eating as human beings do. Thus it is entirely possible for an evil spirit to have impersonated Samuel. Again, I remind the reader here that Saul assumed that the entity the medium contacted was Samuel, and even today occultists warn practitioners of the magical arts that spirits often lie and misrepresent themselves. Indeed, in I Kings 22:19-23, God actually permitted a lying spirit to speak through the mouths of prophets in order to lure King Ahab to his death.
Furthermore, consider that Samuel was one of the most righteous men spoken of in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah 15:1, God places him in the same category as Moses, who was the greatest of all of Israel's prophets. Would such a righteous man have broken the commandment of God by communicating with Saul through a demon-possessed witch when God had specifically forbidden this practice, knowing that witchcraft is particularly detestable to God? Would God himself have facilitated this kind of contact in violation of his own commandment?
Neither of these options seems likely.
What then of the fact that the spirit told the truth when it prophesied that Saul would die in battle the following day?
Demons are notorious liars, but they do not always lie. The Pythian priestesses of the ancient world were renowned for their ability to predict events and "see" at a distance, and were even consulted by kings. The slave girl that the apostle Paul cast the demon out of in Acts 16 must have been correct at least part of the time, otherwise she wouldn't have made her owners very much money! Consider also that the Egyptian priests who opposed Moses and Aaron were able to perform genuine miracles, yet they did not do so by the power of God. And again, remember how an evil spirit was used to do the will of God in 1 Kings 22. It's clear from the account of Saul and the witch of Endor that "Samuel's" prophecy of doom absolutely unhinged Saul (I Samuel 28:20-23), and probably aided in his defeat the next day.
- Other Alleged "Ghosts" of the Bible
- A Ghost on the Water
"Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the crowds away. After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid." - Matthew 14:22-27
The Greek word translated "ghost" here is "phantasma," which Strong's defines as meaning: "an appearance, an apparition, spectre." The KJV renders this word as "spirit." Young's Literal Translation renders it "apparition."
Does this passage constitute biblical proof that ghosts exist, because this is what the disciples believed they were seeing?
It certainly demonstrates that Jesus' disciples believed in what we could call "ghosts" or "apparitions," but it does not tell us what they believed these things to be. It does not seem that they believed them to be good, however, as their immediate reaction was one of fear. It is also evident from other passages of scripture that the Jews knew that demons existed, and it may well be that they assumed that a "phantasma" was a visible manifestation of such a spirit. People in the Bible tended to react in fear when angels appeared to them as well, though, so it is difficult to say for certain what they may have believed a "phantasma" to be. The text does not offer commentary on this subject.
Furthermore, even if the disciples believed that a "phantasma" was indeed the spirit of a dead person, this does not mean that they were correct in that belief. The Jews of Jesus' day were mistaken about a number of things, as Jesus demonstrated in his disputations with the leaders of the day. Indeed, the Bible tells us plainly that the sect of the Sadducees did not believe in spirits at allnot even in angels. Greco-Roman culture, which dominated Judea at this time, was, as the apostle Paul comments in the book of Acts, "very superstitious," and the Bible is clear that the Jews were prone to picking up the beliefs and practices of the nations that surrounded them. Belief in ghosts as spirits of the dead may have been part of the superstitions they had absorbed from the dominant culture of the day. Since at least the time of the Exodus, they had believed that mediums could summon the dead, and even this was likely a belief they had picked up from the Egyptians (Egypt being the primary home of the "Mystery" religions at that time).
- The Appearance of Moses and Elijah
Three of the gospelsMatthew, Mark, and Lukedescribe an event known as the "transfiguration," when Jesus was revealed in glorified form in the presence of Peter, James, and John. All three gospels also agree that Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus at this time. Does this then prove that spirits of the departed do in fact return on occasion?
Jesus himself partially answers this question for us in Matthew 17:9 "As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying 'Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead."
Jesus referred to his transfiguration, and the accompanying appearance of Moses and Elijah, as a "vision." "Vision" is translated from the Greek word "horama," which can refer to "spectacles" in terms of unusual sights (such as how Moses' sighting of the burning bush is referred to in Acts 7:31), symbolic representations (such as Peter's vision of the sheet lowered to him from heaven in Acts 10), and to glimpses of the future (such as Paul's vision of Ananias healing him of blindness in Acts 9:12, and the vision of the man from Macedonia saying "Come over and help us," in Acts 16:9).
So, given the three possible usages of "horama," which was the transfiguration? Was it a "spectacle," a symbolic representation of some kind, or a glimpse of the future?
There are some clues that I believe provide the answer.
Six days prior to the transfiguration, Jesus told his disciples: "Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom" (Matthew 16:28). Matthew then immediately relates the transfiguration story in chapter 17, verses 1-13. All of the original twelve apostles are dead, so Jesus could not have had in mind his actual second coming when he said this, given that his coming has not yet taken place. Furthermore, he said "some of those standing here." Some, not all. And, of course, he took only three of the twelve with him when he went up onto the mountain.
In light of this, it makes sense that, when Jesus referred to some of his disciples not experiencing death until they had seen him coming in his kingdom, he was referring to Peter, James, and John witnessing his transfiguration. Therefore, the vision of his coming must have been a glimpse of his future glory. This would also mean that the vision of Moses and Elijah was also a glimpse of how they would appear in the future, given that human beings are not glorified until the time of the resurrection, when Christ comes again:
"And, behold, two men were talking with him; and they were Moses and Elijah, who, appearing in glory, were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem." Luke 9:30-31
"When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then you shall also appear with him in glory." Colossians 3:4
"So also is the resurrection of the dead. It [the body] is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory" I Corinthians 15:42-43
Peter refers to the transfiguration in II Peter 1:
"For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to him by the Majestic Glory, 'This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased'and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention" II Peter 1:16-19
This is also what he is likely referring to in I Peter 5:1 "Therefore I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed"
Peter testifies that he saw exactly what Jesus said "some" of his disciples would see prior experiencing death: that is, the Son of Man coming in his kingdom, a glimpse of the glory yet to be revealed.
In other words, there is every reason to believe that what Peter, James, and John saw during the transfiguration was a glimpse of the future, of Christ glorified and of Moses and Elijah also glorified as they will be during the Millennium, after the resurrection. It was confirmation of Jesus' identity and of his mission. It does not require that the ghosts of Moses and Elijah were actually present at the time; indeed, how could it, given that it presents Moses and Elijah "in glory" when neither has yet been resurrected?
In my opinion, there is no biblical reason to believe that "spirits of the dead" can or do return and contact the living. In fact, I believe this is a very dangerous idea. It is my conviction that all "ghosts" are demonic spirits bent on deception.
One "godly ghosts" advocate I engaged with some time ago protested against the idea that all ghosts are demons by arguing that it made no sense for a demon to pretend to be C.S. Lewis and appear to J.B. Philips in order to encourage him in his translation of the New Testament. Why would a demon do a good deed by encouraging a Christian minister in his work? Why would a demon appear to Perry Stone's father in the guise of a friend and commission him into Christian ministry?
In reply, I ask the following: why would a demon cause the slave girl of Acts 16 to follow Paul and his friends around, saying to the people of the city: "These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation."?
Were Paul and his fellow disciples servants of the Most High God? Yes. Were they proclaiming the way of salvation? Yes.
So why would an evil spirit bear witness to the gospel? That it did so is beyond question. Evidently, demons can and will do what we consider to be good things when it suits them.
The question is, why?
One answer readily suggests itself: a demon might tell the truth, or possibly appear in the guise of a "ghost" to do a good deed, if, by doing so, it can gain the confidence of those who hear of it, and thereby set them up for deception in the future. The slave girl of Acts 16 had a solid reputation as an accurate fortune teller, and was respected in the eyes of the people of the city. Her apparent testimony to the truth of the gospel could have presented a trap for new Christian converts in the city, as they would have been predisposed to believe what she said. The demon working through her could then have begun to lead them astray, thereby perverting the gospel and destroying the work that was being done in that region.
By the same token, Lewis, Philips, and Stone are well known in Christian circles, and are respected by many. Their association with ghostly phenomena lends the subject a kind of credence it could not otherwise enjoy, and thereby presents a great danger. If Christians, particularly leaders and respected authors and speakers, are led to understand that their dead Christian friends and relatives may well be able to interact with them"Hey! It happened to J.B. Philips!"they could be opened up to powerful demonic deceptions. They might even begin to seek out such experiences on their own. I could even see the rise of "Christian mediums," those with prophetic gifts who could take it upon themselves to contact the dead on behalf of believers, thinking it a "safe" means of facilitating such communications.
What new "revelations" might these "ghosts" bring? What new ways of interpreting scripture? What guidance might they offer? I'm sure it will sound wonderful at first, and may be packed with scriptural truths, just as the girl in Acts testified accurately regarding Paul and his gospel message. Satan is a master con man, and con men are willing to string a victim alongsometimes for long periods of time, in what is known as the "long con"until the time comes when they can spring their trap with maximum payoff. It may well be that the evil spirits that make inroads into the church through ghostly revelations will exercise great care in sticking close to the scriptures for a long time, and will not deviate significantly until they have their audiences thoroughly deceived and an especially good opportunity to destroy large numbers of believers presents itself.
Think it can't happen?
"But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons." I Timothy 4:1
The height of this falling away will take place during the Great Tribulation. While discussing the terrors and pressures of those days, Jesus warned us that "false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect" (Matthew 24:24). Believers under great strain during those days will be tempted to rely more on the word of respected Christian authorities than on the Word and Spirit of God (already a serious problem in the church), and if those they are depending upon to guide them are under the influence of evil spirits (as Paul warned in I Timothy 4), the result could be catastrophic for many.
The biblical record teaches that the dead are unaware (at the very least of what occurs in the world of the living), and is particularly clear that when God wants to send his people a message, he does so through human prophets, by the Holy Spirit, or by the hand of an angel. There is no record of him sending a "ghost" to deliver a message to a living person. The idea of "godly ghosts" is extra-biblical and, in my opinion, extremely dangerous.
- Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible.
Robert Hawes is the author of "In Search of God: A Look at Life's Most Essential Question," as well as many articles on various subjects ranging from politics to theology and Christian apologetics. His blog is: http://takeupyourcross73.blogspot.com.
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