By Dr. Roger Barrier, Crosswalk.com
Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at [email protected].
I have had a friend ask me a question about ghosts. They have stated that they have seen a ghost, a man who stands by a window. The ghost walks by them but does not do anything to them. They also asked if this could this be a family member who died and has returned from Heaven? Are ghosts real? Annon
Surprisingly—or, perhaps not—the Bible has a lot to say about ghosts. Let’s begin with several definitions that give us a foundation from which we can work.
Bible Definition of a Ghost
A ghost may be defined as “the spirit of a dead person, especially one believed to appear in bodily likeness to living persons or to haunt former habitats.”
A ghost may be defined as “any faint shadowy semblance; an unsubstantial image; a phantom; a glimmering; as, not a ghost of a chance.”
A ghost is sometimes said to be “the apparition of a deceased person. The word ‘ghost’ may also refer to the spirit or soul of a deceased person, or to any spirit ...”
Ghost Stories in the Bible
Ghosts are encountered several times in the Word of God. In Job 4 Eliphaz, one of Job’s three argumentative “friends”, described a night-time encounter with a ghost who enforced Eliphaz’s incorrect assumption that Job’s problems resulted from his sin. Eliphaz’s night-time demonic (?) encounter makes for fascinating reading (Job 4:12-19):
"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!"
Several things stand out in this ghost encounter.
First, he experienced what to him was a visual, auditory and physical event.
Second, the conclusions drawn by the apparition (ghost) were not from God.
Third, it is not beyond the realm of imagination to think that Eliphaz made up the encounter in order to give some credence to his philosophical position on sin and suffering.
Finally, under times of great stress, the brain is perfectly capable of conjuring up a seemingly very real human experience (like seeing a ghost) which, in fact, never occurred at all!
Another infamous “ghost” experience occurred with King Saul and the Witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28:4-25 Again reading the passage is fascinating:
When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. He inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. Saul then said to his attendants, "Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her." "There is one in Endor," they said. So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. "Consult a spirit for me," he said, "and bring up for me the one I name."… Then the woman asked, "Whom shall I bring up for you?" "Bring up Samuel,"….The king said to her, "Don't be afraid. What do you see?" The woman said, "I see a spirit coming up out of the ground." What does he look like?" he asked. "An old man wearing a robe is coming up," she said. Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?" "I am in great distress," Saul said. "The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has turned away from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do." Samuel said, "Why do you consult me, now that the LORD has turned away from you and become your enemy? The LORD has done what he predicted through me. The LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors —to David. Because you did not obey the LORD…”
Let’s make several observations. First, this is an enigmatic passage. Nothing like it is found anywhere else in the Bible. Second, God recorded in Deuteronomy 18 a list of ocultic practices which are an abomination to Him. This passage is God’s glossary of the occult. He specifically mentioned that consulting mediums is detestable. Third, Saul’s behaviors were in direct disobedience to the will of God. Fourth, it is most probable that the “person” who appeared to Saul was not Samuel but what the Bible refers to as a “familiar spirit”—a demonic spirit who masqueraded as the then-dead prophet Samuel.
Fifth, the Bible is quite clear that no one returns to earth and makes appearances after death. Jesus made this fact quite clear in Luke 16:26 In reiterating Abraham’s answer to the rich man who wanted a chance to return to earth from Hell and warn his brothers, Abraham said: “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” In addition, the writer to the Hebrews declared in Hebrews 9:27 that the “after-death process” includes no option for a return to earth: “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”
Are Ghosts Real? Four Direct Conclusions from the Bible:
First, your friend may very well have seen a ghost. The ghost might appear to be a familiar spirit impersonating a departed family member.
Second, the apparition they observed is certainly not a returned-family member. Once we die, there exists no possible pathway to return to the land of the living. This fact rules out the return of a dead person as a “ghost” to haunt a house or place of their death—or wherever.
Third, the apparition could be an actual demonic manifestation. This happened to Martin Luther when he was in the process of composing his “Ninety-Five Theses” for posting on the Wittenberg Door. The Devil appeared in his room at night and Luther actually threw an ink bottle to drive him away.
Fourth, let’s consider the possibility that our minds are perfectly capable of fooling us into experiencing a ghost that doesn’t exist!
Contrary to popular belief, the brain is not a tape recorder. It records “highlights” and then fills in the blanks between the “highlights” according to what the brain “thinks” most likely happened—based on previous experiences. This is why four people who witness a traffic accident from four different corners of an intersection can have greatly varying accounts. It is not just that they are looking from different angles. Their brains each record the “highlights” most meaningful to them. One observer may focus on the horror on a passenger’s face at the moment of impact. Someone on another corner may be fascinated by how the front of the engine collapsed back into the firewall. Each brain then fills in “facts” that it thinks most probably occurred between the recorded “highlights”. Each observer believes that they have the real truth of what happened at the accident.
By the way, stored memories are never retrieved in the same form in which they were laid down. The “highlights” emerge relatively unscathed but the “in betweens” can vary considerably over time. Walking in scary places at night can provide all sorts of possibilities for “ghostly” encounters—especially when someone thinks he or she might actually see one. Memory of strange noises, frightful moments, mewing cats, imbedded pictures of horror movies—just to name a few stored emotional triggers—can bring up “highlights” that remind us of ghosts. Stress, tension, fear and/or expectations can cause “ghostly” highlights to emerge. It is possible for the brain to fill in a “ghost” between the recorded “highlights. Then, we actually “see” a ghost. The various parts of the brain that would be involved in actually encountering a ghost light up positive simultaneously during fMRIs.
Well, Annon, I hope this helps to give you some insight into how to respond to your friend. Share with him some of the possible explanations for what he saw--or didn't see. Gently tell him that whatever he saw was not his mother portraying a ghost. I have not seen my long-time dead child, Jesse, since we buried her. I don't expect to see her again until we meet in Heaven's glory. Nevertheless, I have much comfort when I am praying to take a moment and tell Jesse that we love and miss her and are looking forward to seeing her soon. May God bless you in loving and helping him.
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.
image courtesy @korpa, Unsplash.com