Can spirits manifest physically?

After attending a screening of our movie Alien Intrusion: Unmasking a Deception, David H. wrote in with the following question.

Just a question: I saw your movie tonight, and was interested by its explanation for many alien/UFO phenomena as being spirit-based. But I don’t understand how UFOs: (1.) can be tracked on radar and (2.) similarly recorded on film and in photographs while still being spirit-based? And some of them are recorded as performing very complex high-speed maneuvers. How can this be possible for spirit-based entities?
An animation from CMI’s movie Alien Intrusion: Unmasking a Deception.

, CMI-US CEO and writer/producer of Alien Intrusion, responds:

Hi David,

Thanks for the opportunity to address this. Yes, this is a nagging subject for many when trying to wrap their minds around this phenomenon. However, I've learned over the years that our perceptions of what we term spiritual are somewhat driven by cultural views rather than biblical ones. In the movie we quoted respected UFO researcher John Keel, who wrote:

“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.”1

As the movie showed, overwhelmingly even the most serious secular researcher agrees about the ‘spiritual’ nature of the UFO phenomenon. But what is a spiritual being?

In my article Are ghosts real? (which I think you should read in conjunction with what follows), I wrote:

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).

And Jesus reinforces this in Luke 24:39 after his resurrection when He says:

“See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

So here Jesus is saying that it is not just His spirit that appeared but that He had been bodily resurrected.

‘Spirit’ is a multi-use term

It can be confusing because there are many definitions of the word ‘spirit’ in the Bible and earlier we even saw the disciples chastised for believing in cultural interpretations of their experience with our supernatural Creator. People seeing strange things in the sky with no biblical basis or filter often interpret these as alien spacecraft or in the case of alleged abductions, real physical aliens. The Bible clearly records that spirits, as in angels, can appear physically, can interact physically with people and can affect our environment just as phenomena in the UFO realm. Some differing scriptural examples follow:

  • In Exodus 12:21–30 God sends His destroying angel or angel of death to kill all the first born in Egypt (except for those who followed His ‘immunity’ instructions). In 2 Kings 19:35 perhaps this same angel killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers.
  • In Genesis 18 Abraham sits down and prepares a meal for three visitors. They ate food so presumably they had stomach organs and digestive tracts, for example. What about the clothes they were wearing? Where did the materials come from?
  • In Genesis 19:11 we see two angels appearing physically as men in the account of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the angels have the power to strike men with blindness. And in Genesis 19:13 they state that they (the angels) are about to destroy the towns (obviously at God’s behest).
  • In Exodus 7:9 Pharaoh challenges Moses and Aaron to produce a miracle. Moses is commanded by God to instruct Aaron to throw down his staff so that God would turn it into a serpent (presumably a snake). Then in Exodus 7:11–12 we read, “Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.” Many think that Pharaoh’s sorcerers conjured up an illusion but this cannot be so, because Aaron’s serpent swallowed the sorcerer’s serpent (note it says the sorcerers “did the same … and they became serpents”. Now, while Satan does not have the power of ex nihilo creation, I believe this is an example of where he and his minions possibly manifested as something distinctly different, yet physical, or somehow he has manipulated matter to appear as something different. This is speculation, of course, but all we can glean is that Aaron’s snake certainly did not swallow an illusion.

The cultural interpretation of ‘spirit’

Our views of angels as just spiritual beings—that is, somehow just ethereal, ghostly or vaporous—is culturally driven by images of beings with fairy wings, for example. It is clear that they are intelligent, thinking beings, and can appear physically in a variety of forms in our realm. We saw earlier how biblically the word ‘spirit’ can mean different things depending upon the context. A word search will reveal a multitude of applications. For example, angels are called “ministering spirits” (Hebrews 1:14). One can have a “spirit of jealousy” (Numbers 5:30). Or that “the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29). “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3). “But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand” (Job 32:8). And in 1 Corinthians 15:45:

“Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”

But both Adam and Jesus were/are physical beings. And whenever we see the term applied to people, and even Jesus, it is clear that ‘the spirit’ is not the sum of who we are, but part of who we are. All humans are physical, but we also have an eternal spiritual component. So, is it possible that it is similar with angels? I do not know what their ‘spiritual’ realm is like or how they exist there (if at all in some physical sense), but the Bible is clear that they are powerful, can take on many guises, and can appear physically in our realm. For example, Gabriel appearing before Daniel in Daniel 10:10–20 and explaining fighting other fallen angels. Or Luke 1:26–56, where Gabriel appears to Mary.

All of this is very challenging to our preconceived perceptions of the spiritual realm. At the end of the day, these are just insights that we can draw from Scripture, and I have to admit that we do see through a glass rather darkly in this regard, simply because we are limited by our own spacetime dimensions in which we live. In short, we can’t go there, but they can come and go here, so we have a very limited perspective. I’ve heard all sorts of grandiose ideas over years, but such speculation is not recommended. If we are limited in what we can test, then we need to limit our speculation, or rather what we can know, to what Scripture tells us about such things. There are literally dozens more examples I could refer to (see box below) but I hope this relatively brief explanation helps give some insight.

The nature of angels or those ‘ministering spirits’

The Bible records about angels that:

  • They are spirits (Hebrews 1:14), yet they always appeared to humans as physical men/males when doing God’s bidding (Genesis 19:1; Luke 24:4).
  • They number in the hundreds of millions or perhaps more (Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 5:11).
  • They were given names such as Gabriel, Michael, and even Lucifer (Luke 1:19; Jude 9; Isaiah 14:12).
  • There are various types and categories of angels mentioned, e.g., cherubim (Genesis 3:24; Ezekiel 10:1–20), seraphim (Isaiah 6:2, 6) and watchers (Daniel 4:17, KJV). They also appear to differ in rank and dignity, some being described as archangels, princes, or rulers (1 Thessalonians 4:16; Jude 1; Daniel 10:20–21, 12:1; Ephesians 6:12).
  • They are/were called holy and elect (Luke 9:26; 1 Timothy 5:21).
  • They are more powerful than mankind (2 Thessalonians 1:7; 2 Peter 2:11).
  • They can appear among, and interact with, humans, even killing them on occasion (Genesis 16:9, 19:15; 1 Chronicles 21:15; Psalms 78:49; John 20:12). In Exodus 12:23, God’s destroying angel killed all the firstborn in Egypt (except for those of the Hebrew families who followed God’s instructions for protection), and in 2 Kings 19:35, an angel sent by God killed one hundred eighty-five thousand soldiers in one evening.
  • They can appear physically, and so real to humans that we do not recognize them as angels (Genesis 18:1–16; Hebrews 13:2).
  • They are not to be worshiped (Romans 1:25, NKJV; Colossians 2:18; Revelation 19:10).
Published: 24 April 2018

References and notes

  1. John Keel, Operation Trojan Horse, p. 192, Illuminet Press, Lilburn, GA, 1996. Return to text.

Helpful Resources