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Are ghosts real?

Are people really communicating with the spirits of the dead?

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Published: 28 December 2010 (GMT+10)

Note: this updated and expanded version replaces the original article posted on 28 December 2010.

Photo www.syfy.com/gh A scene from the popular TV show Ghost Hunters
A scene from the popular TV show Ghost Hunters

For centuries people have claimed interactions with entities that appear to be supernatural in nature. The seeming reality of the experience often has a transforming effect, even to the extent that the experience itself becomes a new kind of worldview filter. For example, today people claim interactions with alleged aliens and even abduction experiences at their hands.

If an interdimensional (as in, it looks as if it suddenly emerged out of nowhere) entity suddenly appears at the foot of someone’s bed in the middle of the night and claims that it is from the Pleiades cluster, then on most occasions the person will believe that its claims are true. The belief in the experience often changes their views about the big picture issues of life, such as “Where did we come from?” and “Where are we going when we die?” So, because of the experience, they are also given over to the larger claims of the entity that may include tales that the alien benefactors were originally humankind’s creators; that they have been overseeing our evolution for millennia; and that in the end they will redeem and restore the human species and the Earth to some kind of utopian paradise. In short, most experiencers undergo a kind of religious transformation or ‘awakening’ and many researchers believe that this is the actual purpose of the deceptive entities.

One of the biggest mistakes I believe that many Christian researchers make is to also accept the reality (and in particular the physical aspects) of what these experiences are presenting and then try to fit them into the Bible somewhere.

World-renowned UFOlogist Jacques Vallée wrote: “I propose the hypothesis that there is a control system for human consciousness … I am suggesting that what takes place through close encounters with UFOs is control of human beliefs, control of the relationship between our consciousness and physical reality, that this control has been in force throughout history and that it is of secondary importance that it should now assume the form of sightings of space visitors.”1

Similarly, in my view, the experiences people have with ghosts or other supernatural entities often reveal a similar agenda to that described by Dr Vallée above—that is, to control human beliefs.

And apologists John Ankerberg and John Weldon added: “These researchers believe that the UFO entities are deliberately programming the human observers with false information in order to hide their true nature and purpose.”2

While the experience itself may be real, it does not automatically follow that the claims the entities are making about their origin and purpose are truthful. Noted abduction researcher Donna Higbee wrote:

I noticed a drastic change … in the attitudes of several of the abductees from one meeting to the next. People who had been traumatized all their lives by ongoing abductions and had only anger and mistrust for their non-human abductors suddenly started saying they had been told/shown that everything that has happened to them was for their own good, that the abductors are highly spiritual beings and are helping them (the abductee) to evolve spiritually. By accepting this information, the abductees stopped fighting abduction and instead became passive and controlled. When I checked with other researchers, I found that this was a pattern that was repeating itself over and over again around the country. I became concerned that abductees were accepting these explanations from entities that we know can be deceitful, use screen memories to mask real memories, use virtual reality scenarios to implant images into abductees’ heads, and manipulate and abuse. I wrote an article for the MUFON UFO Journal (September 1995) and encouraged abductees to seriously think about what they were accepting as their truth, in light of the evidence, not the explanations offered them by these non-human entities.3

So, we can determine that the entities are liars and con artists, but, nonetheless, it is the power of the experience that still shapes people’s views about what is happening to them or what they have experienced in the first place. For many, it is their only source or filter to interpret what is happening to them.

Ankerberg and Weldon commented: “How credible is it to think that literally thousands of extraterrestrials would fly millions or billions of light years simply to teach New Age philosophy, deny Christianity, and support the occult … . Why would they consistently lie about things which we know are true, and why would they purposefully deceive their contacts?4

So, as Christians, we can recognize and believe that these physics-defying experiences are interdimensional, that is, emanating from the spiritual realm and are indeed centered on redefining our traditional beliefs and man’s place in the universe. As corporeal human beings we cannot travel to these dimensions to test these claims. But, we believe that one very famous visitor from that realm can act as a source of truth for determining them. That is, the Lord Jesus Christ. When awaiting judgment before Pontius Pilate He said: “My kingdom is not of this world … my kingdom is from another place.”

The Bible says this same Jesus is the Creator of the universe (Colossians 1), and the exact human representation of God (Hebrews 1:3). As God is the Creator, He created the laws of physics that govern our universe. He is omniscient and therefore the source of all truth. This means we can trust His revealed Word to us (the Bible) as being authoritative. And we can use it as a filter for determining the truth of the alleged alien encounters or any other experience that might be deduced as being spiritual in nature. One of the biggest mistakes I believe that many Christian researchers make is to also accept the reality (and in particular the physical aspects) of what these experiences are presenting and then try to fit them into the Bible somewhere. This often leads to unbiblical or extra-biblical ideas. This is a dangerous game, as it is exactly what masquerading and deceptive angels would have us do. I do not believe that it is wise to go beyond what God’s Word tells us about such things. In short, we shouldn’t try to ‘fit’ the seeming reality of these experiences into Scripture; instead, we should use Scripture to explain the experience. When we do, we can peel away many more layers of the deception that might not be otherwise apparent from the surface.

Ghosts and aliens—common parallels

There are many other strange experiences that people undergo, such as claimed visitations by ghosts. The term ‘ghosts’ being used here specifically refers to the cases in which these entities claim to be the disembodied spirits of the dead—even the departed loved ones of the experiencer.

Belief in ghosts, and a fascination with the supernatural and the occult in general, is mainstream in popular culture today. In the same way that the majority of the population believes in extraterrestrials, similarly large numbers of people believe in ghosts. And there are a myriad of movies and TV shows perpetrating and embellishing these ideas. One should always remember that these programs are fictional. Just imagine if every week we watched a ‘Ghost Hunters’ type show—that is, where investigators enter allegedly haunted houses, and after their investigations they simply came to the conclusion, “No, there are no ghosts,” or “No aliens.” The shows would have a pretty short lifespan and nobody would watch them.

Controversy and conspiracy are big marketing gimmicks, and in my own research into the UFO phenomenon, I’ve found that truth is always the first casualty. It is also problematic that most people today read less, and less in depth. They tend to get their news or information (let’s call them ‘facts’) from the popular media. In the modern audiovisual age, mass frauds and hoaxes have been perpetrated upon populations, often because we think that people would not go to all the trouble of grand deceptions if there were no truth in their claims. For example, their has been a tremendous amount of misinformation deliberately created to support the bogus claims that extraterrestrials crash landed at Roswell, and the myriad of TV shows and ‘documentaries that claim to have found evidences of ghosts and haunted houses etc. If researchers who call themselves ‘ghost hunters’ were to enter a house and discover orbs of light, sudden drops in temperature, and witness the alleged apparition of a disembodied spirit, then, in essence, they believe that they have found what they are looking for—they expected it. This is reminiscent of 2 Thessalonians 2:9–11: “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false.

A Bible-first approach will demonstrate to us that the idea of the disembodied spirits of deceased human beings roaming the Earth would contravene some very basic principles of God’s Word and would cast serious doubt on the Gospel itself.

In other words, God may allow Satan to give you what you ask for. Most certainly the appearances of alleged ghosts, UFOs, and the appearance of aliens in people’s rooms etc., have at times created physical disruptions in our corporeal realm. I say ‘alleged’ because there are actually no such things as ghosts (please read on for more clarification on this). A Bible-first approach will demonstrate to us that the idea of the disembodied spirits of deceased human beings roaming the Earth would contravene some very basic principles of God’s Word and would cast serious doubt on the Gospel itself.

When people claim that ghosts have appeared, on some occasions power fluctuations or outages have been reported as well. Also, things can move or be shifted and there have been manifestations of beings in a variety of forms. In the same way that so-called aliens seem to defy the laws of physics, noted supernatural and UFO researcher John Keel said:

Demonology is not just another crackpot-ology. It is the ancient and scholarly study of the monsters and demons who have seemingly coexisted with man throughout history. Thousands of books have been written on the subject, many of them authored by educated clergymen, scientists, and scholars, and uncounted numbers of well-documented demonic events are readily available to every researcher. The manifestations and occurrences described in this imposing literature are similar, if not entirely identical, to the UFO phenomenon itself. Victims of demonomania (possession) suffer the very same medical and emotional symptoms as the UFO contactees … . The devil and his demons can, according to the literature, manifest themselves in almost any form and can physically imitate anything from angels to horrifying monsters with glowing eyes. Strange objects and entities materialize and dematerialize in these stories, just as the UFOs and their splendid occupants appear and disappear, walk through walls, and perform other supernatural feats.5

There is equipment that can detect, for example, power surges or fluctuations, and cameras that record images etc., so I suppose in some cases it might be possible to claim that such equipment has been able to test or even demonstrate such things. Of course, the detection of a power field or surge in a room would be interpreted by those wanting it to be ghosts as exactly that. I noted comments from other Christian researchers in my book, Alien Intrusion: UFOs and the Evolution Connection: “It seems evident that these [including UFO] phenomena are produced in the same manner that other occult manipulations are produced. They involve dramatic manipulations of matter and energy. Although they originate from the spiritual world, they can produce very powerful, temporarily physical manifestations at the material level … ”6

Although such occurrences are deceptive entities (fallen angels) manifesting from the spiritual realm, some might be surprised at their ability to manifest physically in our realm.

Although such occurrences are deceptive entities (fallen angels) manifesting from the spiritual realm, some might be surprised at their ability to manifest physically in our realm. This, once again, is due to a cultural idea about angels as being merely some sort of ethereal spirit (non-bodied) being and sometimes with fairy-type wings. The Bible indicates that angels are “ministering spirits” (Hebrews 1:14). In addition, Jesus was described as a “life-giving” or “quickening spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45), and God the Father is described as a Spirit (John 4:24), as is the Holy Spirit. The Bible also says that human beings have a spirit. So the spirit is not the sum of who we are, but a part of our being.

The Bible records about angels that:

The last point is very pertinent. For many UFOlogists, ghost hunters, spiritualists, witches, crystal-ball-gazers and New Age practitioners, such phenomena have become the basis of substitute religions. They are indeed bowing down to angels. Many of the descriptions of these angelic beings conform to the ‘spiritual, yet physical’ characteristics attributed to UFOs, aliens, and other occult manifestations. It enables us to understand why, when masquerading as such, angelic beings are able to perform such incredible physics-defying feats as John Keel noted earlier.

Does the Bible confirm ghosts?

Given my comment earlier that ghosts are not real, many will no doubt claim that the Bible actually supports the idea of ghosts and even that the Lord Jesus confirmed their reality when He made a comment about the same. In different translations of the Bible, the words ‘ghost’ and ‘spirit’ are used extensively and seemingly interchangeably. This is where confusion reigns for the reader. We find that in the King James Version, and particularly in the New Testament, the word ‘ghost’ is used extensively (‘Holy Ghost,’ for example, or ‘give up the ghost’), whereas the more modern translations have simply used the latter term ‘spirit’. For example, the ‘Holy Ghost’ is now rendered in modern translations as ‘Holy Spirit.’ In this case, the change is useful because the word ‘ghost’ certainly has changed its meaning over time. Culturally, it now has a modern connotation as the wandering spirit of a dead person. It is this concept that I reject. In most modern Bible translations, the word ‘ghost’ is only mentioned three times, which helps avoid further confusion. One of the problems is that words can change their meaning over time. For example, in Genesis 1:28 in the KJV, God commanded Adam and Eve to ‘replenish’ the earth. In 1612, this word meant to fill. Nowadays it means to refill. In the same way, when modern translations refer to ‘ghosts,’ the KJV often uses ‘spirits,’ so we need to look at the original Greek or Hebrew behind the English words to see which word better translates the original concept.

There is one example in the Old Testament where modern translations used the word ‘ghost.’ The KJV says this: “And thou shalt be brought down, and shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be, as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust” (Isaiah 29:4); the ESV translation states: “And you will be brought low; from the earth you shall speak, and from the dust your speech will be bowed down; your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost, and from the dust your speech shall whisper.” Compare these with the NIV which says: “Your voice will come ghostlike from the earth; out of the dust your speech will whisper.”

The term that is translated in the KJV as “one who has a familiar spirit” is the Hebrew word ôb. This word, like many Hebrew words, has a wide semantic range that could be used in various applications, and thus could have potentially different meanings. These meanings include ‘necromancer’, ‘wizard’, ‘spiritist’, or ‘soothsayer’. These are people who profess to call up the dead. But ôb can also mean ‘ghost’ as the raised up spirit of a dead person (hence the more modern translations’ use of the word ‘ghost’). However, it does not automatically follow that just because the concept of a disembodied human spirit communicating with spirits is mentioned in Scripture, it is teaching that ghosts actually exist. For example, worship of other gods is forbidden, but it doesn’t follow that there actually are other gods. We know that the practices of spiritism are forbidden by Scripture (read on to see why).

This is clearly an analogy, and it seems to give an indication that the destruction of Jerusalem will linger in memory—almost as if, from the ashes of history (ghostlike), what happened to the great city shall be remembered and shall cry out for all time, which it has.

It is in the New Testament where we find the words ghosts and spirits being used more often, interchangeably between translations. There are two Greek words that are used. The first is φάντασμα (phantasma), which literally means ‘apparition’ like the commonly understood word ‘ghost’. The word πνεῦμα (pneuma) means spirit, air or breath. This can refer to what I described before as the essence of a being. It can also mean ‘demons’ when paired with the word ἀκάθαρτον (akatharton).

The most remembered New Testament passage regarding ghosts is Matthew 14:26. Whereas the KJV says: “And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit [phantasma]; and they cried out for fear,” the ESV says, “But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear.

And Mark 6:49: “But when they saw him walking upon the sea, they supposed it had been a spirit [phantasma], and cried out” (KJV). “But when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out” (ESV).

On another occasion when Jesus suddenly appeared in the room with the disciples, they said: “But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit [Greek pneuma]” (Luke 24:37, KJV). The ESV says, “But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit.

Notice in these examples how in its translations the ESV distinguishes between the two Greek words, whereas the KJV translates both the Greek pneuma and phantasma as spirit.

These first passages are referring to the occasion when Jesus was seen walking on the surface of the Sea of Galilee, and the Luke account is when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples in the room. Obviously the disciples had never seen a man do anything like either of these events before, so their first thought was to invoke the supernatural, resorting to ideas from their culture to explain it. In the Luke account, they had seen Jesus die on the cross not too long before, so they thought they were seeing His spirit (a somewhat understandable reaction since He suddenly appeared in a locked room).

… the power of the deceptive experience (whether ‘alien’ or ‘ghost’) can change lives. It has the potential to alter a person’s worldview, framework, and/or their perception of reality.

It should be remembered that the idea that the disembodied spirits of the dead roam the Earth is not new. Occult manifestations have been recorded since the earliest times, and the Bible often records occult practices being undertaken by an unfaithful nation of Israel (and Judah). Manifestations have often appeared in the guise of deceased persons and even dead relatives. It is a very powerful counterfeit, because it tugs on the emotional relationship and heartstrings of the person seeing the manifestation. As I mentioned earlier, the power of the deceptive experience (whether ‘alien’ or ‘ghost’) can change lives. It has the potential to alter a person’s worldview, framework, and/or their perception of reality. So, in ancient times the idea of ghosts was a culturally popular one, and even more so today where people have become desensitized to the occult, due to its portrayal in the media as harmless dalliances with psychic phenomena.

In the locked room in Luke 24:38–39 Jesus said: “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit [pneuma] does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.

Notice that Jesus did not affirm that ghosts were real (in the sense of being the spirits of departed people—as opposed to spiritual or angelic/demonic beings). He asked them to touch Him to prove the point that His body was a physical one. However, He did not chide the disciples for believing in the popular idea of ghosts. That may not have been the issue. He was definitely affirming that he was not a spiritual being, ghost, apparition, spirit or whatever, but that He had been bodily resurrected. If they did think He was an apparition, then they simply underestimated who He was and His power and they resorted to cultural beliefs, because of the astonishment of what was going on. For example, I wonder what ideas we would come up with if we saw a ‘man’ (because at this stage they did not recognize Jesus as God) walking on water or suddenly appearing in a locked room.

In fact, these are instances of the disciples failing to recognize Jesus’ divinity. Job 9:8 teaches that only God can tread on the waves, and after Jesus had just completed the feeding of the five thousand (which would have recalled God’s supernatural provision of manna for the Hebrews) they should have seen the significance of this miracle. So, even though the Gospels seem to indicate that the disciples believed in ghosts, Jesus’ followers are in any case not being presented as models for belief or obedience at that stage. In fact, they continually miss the point.

In the Luke portrayal, the word ‘spirit’ is used (KJV and ESV). Jesus was using this term to contrast the fact that He was, in fact, physical as opposed to ethereal. This is where it can become very confusing for many, because now ‘ghost’ and ‘spirit’ seem interchangeable. The Matthew and Mark accounts use the Greek Word phantasma, which literally means ‘appearance’ or ‘apparition.’ The Luke account uses the word pneuma, which is correctly translated as ‘spirit.’ So, although Matthew and Mark use phantasma, it has similar, overlapping meaning. Remember that although ‘spirit’ can refer to that part of a human which cannot be tangibly seen, it can also be applied to non-humans. As angels are spirits, the disciples could have been similarly afraid, thinking it was an angelic being, fallen or otherwise.

God has control of our departed spirits

But, once again, none of this means that our spirits will roam the Earth once they have departed our bodies. It is of fundamental importance to remember that God is the only One who has the final say about where we go when we die, and it will only be to certain specified locations. In the Old Testament, hell was known as Sheol, and in the New Testament, Hades. Although there has been conjecture for many years as to what it was, where, and whether it had compartments or not, both terms were unmistakably referring to it as a place of departed spirits. It was clearly a holding place. But, since the first advent of Christ and His atoning work on the Cross, the Bible is clear that non-believers will now go to hell and believers to heaven (in the presence of the Lord). There is no room in traditional, orthodox evangelical theology for our departed spirits to be roaming the Earth. As shown earlier, though, there are multitudes of rebellious spirits (or angels) who are doing that, deceiving many in the process into thinking they are either ghosts, aliens and more.

This biblical teaching is very important, because many Christians believe they have seen ghosts and the spirits of departed loved ones. But Hebrews 9:27 says that "it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment".

The Witch of Endor

No doubt many will refer to the case of King Saul visiting a spiritist known as the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:3–25). Saul had banned mediums and sorcerers from the land. But ironically, because he had strayed from God, and was paranoid about seeing the young David in God’s favor, he was given over to his own evil devices and seeking help from the very practitioners he had banned (see 2 Thessalonians 2). This led to him seeking out the “spirits of the dead”—something God strictly forbade His people to do knowing the power of the deception involved and how they could be led astray by such things. See, for example, Deuteronomy 18:10–12, and note Leviticus 19:31 which says: “Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.” The ESV puts it this way: “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God.

Saul instructs the witch to call up the spirit of one of God’s greatest prophets—Samuel, and a plain understanding of the text indicates that this indeed happens. In fact, the text says it was Samuel, i.e. not an evil spirit, interacting with Saul four different times (1 Samuel 28:12: "…When the woman saw Samuel…", verse 15: "…Samuel said to Saul…", verse 16: "…Samuel said…", verse 20: "…filled with fear because of Samuel’s words…"). But if God has the ultimate power over our spirits, how can the witch call up a departed spirit? I believe this may have been allowed via a sovereign act of God as a mechanism of punishing and pronouncing judgment on a rebellious Saul. In short, he was getting what he asked for—(equivalently) “You want Samuel to tell you the future? OK, you’ve got it, but it’s not going to be nice.” When one reads the passage, it is noteworthy that the witch herself was taken by surprise when she saw that it actually was Samuel. Verse 12 says: “When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, ‘Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.’” The prophet Samuel then pronounces judgment on Saul in 1 Samuel 28:17–19: “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. Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day. 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.

Many have said this may have been a demon in disguise, but for one thing, there is no biblical or other evidence that demons can foretell the future (although they often claim to be prophets via a variety of deceptive guises) and the prophecy about Samuel came to pass. Moreover, Samuel berates Saul for disobeying God in this way. Seeking after the dead is something that deceptive spirits would encourage, not admonish. And indeed, the next day, Saul’s army was routed and Saul committed suicide.

The story reflects the reality of falling from grace, and being out of God’s favor, by following one’s own desires instead of being obedient. Samuel did not give advice but pronounced the penalty for Saul’s disobedience, which in part including partaking in forbidden rituals. It is thus not something that affirms biblical support for the idea of ghosts.

The Danger!

All occult phenomena cause one to be almost enslaved, that is, given over to the powerful illusory nature of the experience. Persons often feel that they are privileged or special to have undergone the experience, and thus, it draws them in deeper and deeper. But when people seek after the experiential, many are not aware how their very senses can be deceived. I repeat again: it is unwise for Christians to invoke some kind of extrabiblical revelation to accommodate ghosts into Scripture. I’ve even had pastors on occasions write to me to explain that they have been ministering to wandering, lost spirits. This is unbiblical, and once again, a case of accepting the experiences at face value and then using them to interpret our understanding of Scripture. It is reminiscent of the warning that Jesus Christ gave us in Matthew 24:24–25, when He said: “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand.

Supernatural encounters, whether they are UFO sightings, alien abductions, or ghostly apparitions, fall into the category of the supernatural, because they seem to act in opposition to our known physical laws. It is this ‘power’ that reinforces the deception. Of course, non-Christians are the most vulnerable because they do not have the benefit of the lens of Scripture to discern such things, and Scripture itself indicates why they are vulnerable: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).


Ed. note: Publication of comments is closed for this article.

References

  1. Ronald Story, The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters, in an article by Jacques Vallée, p. 753–754. Return to text.
  2. John Ankerberg and John Weldon, The Facts on UFO’s and Other Supernatural Phenomena (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1992), 10–11. Return to text.
  3. Donna Higbee, “New Abductee Trend,” Flying Saucer Review, last accessed July 6, 2011, http://www.fsr.org.uk/fsrart14.htm. Return to text.
  4. John Ankerberg and John Weldon, The Facts on UFO’s and Other Supernatural Phenomena (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1992), 8. Return to text.
  5. John Keel, Operation Trojan Horse (Lilburn, GA: Illuminet Press, 1996 edition) 192. Return to text.
  6. John Ankerberg and John Weldon, The Facts on UFO’s and Other Supernatural Phenomena (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1992), 36–37. Return to text.

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