By Reverend Mark Hunnemann
I recently read an article in which eight reasons were given as to why some are likely to become ghosts upon death: violent death, dying with addictions, money owed to them, died suddenly, have young children, unresolved emotions, betrayal, and seeking revenge. However, even the author stated that most of these fell under the general principle of unfinished business.
While the paranormal community has no consensus as to who or what makes the final decision as to who stays behind, there is a somewhat of a consensus as to WHY people stay behind. There are four criteria: traumatic death, emotional death, untimely death, and unfinished business.
I shall look at those next time, but there is another reason stated as to why some folks refuse to move on: the fear of hell.
Before we examine this notion, we have to deal with first things first. That is, from where do we derive our ideas about the fate of the dead? There are ultimately only two alternatives, though they may be semantically streamed in different ways. We either lean on revelation or speculation. Those are the only two possible alternatives.That is, we either look to what God has revealed to us in His Word, or we autonomously seek to use our God-given faculties to determine this issue by reason, feelings, observation, etc…placing them above God’s Word.
Since the soul, the after-life (including hell) are manifestly theological issues, then whether people can refuse to pass on due to a fear of hell is clearly a theological issue as well. Hence, we NEED God’s Word to answer this question. Natural reason cannot answer that question.
Some assert that the bible is not clear regarding the Intermediate State (when we die, and before Jesus’ Second Coming). Hence, this is the time when folks may avoid going to the Light. First, there are only a very few theologians who think the bible is unclear about the Intermediate State. I have shown elsewhere that the bible is exceedingly clear as to what befalls all people immediately after death…our judgment. Second, the “Light” is not a celestial bright spot. Rather, the Light before whom we all must come for judgment (either to be pronounced “not guilty’ or condemned) is the High King of Heaven, the Lord Jesus…the refulgence of His awesome holiness is the Light we see. The Light is a Person, and not a destination or a thing, which can be avoided or resisted.
Again, it is stated that some spirits/souls stay behind out of fear of what awaits them IF they walk into the Light. Either because of fear of what they believed, or how they lived their lives, the possibility of going to Hell dissuades them from crossing over.
According to this theory, humans retain free will after they die, which includes the free will to (at least temporarily…some say eternally) to insist on staying on earth, in order to avoid hell.
This belief places man in the position of final determiner of his eternal fate (at least temporarily). This casts a long shadow over both God’s holiness and His absolute sovereignty. It is a denial of the reigning Kingship of God as Judge of all the earth (Genesis 18:25)If a person can run away from God’s judgment as long as he wishes (eternally according to many), then man is placed in the seat of ultimate authority. God could only judge us IF we let Him! The most cruel and wicked men who ever lived could laugh at the King of Glory and tell Him to basically “get lost.” The very thought should be odious to all God’s saints.
As many have pointed out, Jesus spoke much more about hell—its reality and horror—than He spoke of the glories of heaven. He did this because He loves us, and wants us to think long and hard about something we would rather ignore, or explain away.
Jesus warned many people to flee from the wrath to come…He warned them of the eternal consequences upon death if they put anything before Him. Nowhere do we get a hint of possible snubbing of the Holy One of Israel. To state that man may choose to flee from hell is to strip the gospel of its utter urgency. Why? Because we can just say to ourselves: “I’ll just resist going into the Light.”When you read the gospels and epistles, the gospel is a message of fleeing from a clear and present danger…a message which is of eternally urgent importance.The gospel is good news, but it is urgently good news…for sinners who are hell-bound.
Jesus pled with people to not waste their lives on trivialities, only to be thrown into the pit where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is clear in its implications regarding the inalterability of God’s Judicial summons and holy decree after death. It cannot be averted.
28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.
30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.
31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven,
33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.
Please read v. 28 carefully. Is there any hint of human free will to avoid hell? If you look closely, in the succeeding verses, Jesus is asserting His utter control over seemingly insignificant events. How much more the lives and deaths of His image bearers—whether to heaven or hell. Again, there is no hint of avoiding God’s judgment in v. 28, 32-33.
If a person misses an important court date, then a summons is given for their arrest. Do we really think that the Holy Lawgiver and Judge will let us avoid being prosecuted for cosmic treason?
What disturbs me about the notion of ghosts avoiding hell is the trivializing effect it has on the holiness and utter sovereignty of God, as well as the reality of Hell. The bible is clear that our free will ceases upon our deaths. Upon death, it is too late to believe in Christ, and we cannot flee from the personal judgment. This is an appointment that no man can cancel or flee from. Death ushers us into God’s holy throne-room, and we are either sent to heaven or hell, depending on whether we have clung to finished work of Christ on the Cross.
We need to remember, that by virtue of creation, God owns us—body and soul. He determines when we shall die (Psalm 139: 16 ) Hence, there is no such thing as a untimely death. (more of that next time)
Hebrews 9:27 states it very clearly. In a context of the once-for-all nature of the atonement…it says: “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…” Notice, that our deaths are appointed by God. He is utterly in control, and any human effort or free will, melts away. What does it say comes after (meta, Greek) our appointed deaths—which implies there are no untimely deaths? Our appointed judgment comes immediately after our appointed deaths.The notion of a person choosing to avoid their appointment with the Ancient of Days is repugnant to both reason and Scripture. God’s sovereignty, and the beauty of the atonement is everywhere in this context, and resisting the Irresistible summons is impossible.
To state that we can avoid facing God’s judgment also minimizes the beauty and efficacy of Christ’s atonement, in which He became a curse for us….so that we would be blessed and not eternally cursed. Jesus shed His infinitely precious blood to ransom us…to pay the price to release us from sin, Satan and death. To assert that we can avoid hell is to deny the urgency and centrality of the atonement.
If our deaths are appointed by God, then how much more so are our judgments appointed by God. And after we die, we face judgment. The notion of retaining a free will which averts this judgment flies in the face of this clear text, and countless others.
There are two judgments: our personal judgment the moment we die, and then the general/universal judgment (or Great White Throne…Revelation 20:11-15) The two are often conflated, because the general judgment is simply the public announcement of God’s holy judicial decree at the moment of our deaths.
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.
12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.
13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.
14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Upon reading this text, does the notion of avoiding God’s judgment seem possible to you? The same God who will stand as Judge at the end times, is the Judge whom we all face immediately upon death. Again, I ask: does this God/Judge seem like One whom we can avoid simply because we fear hell?
Stephen saw the Lord Jesus stand up in anticipation of his arrival, but unbelievers have nothing but the fearful prospect/certainty of the Lord Jesus pronouncing an eternal guilty verdict upon them and sentencing them to an eternity in Hell. In Hell, Satan won’t rule, but God Almighty will be present, and causing the excruciating eternal agony of all those there. This is where we must bow our heads and weep for those who are lost. It is ugly, very ugly, for a person to speak glibly of hell. On the other hand, it is monstrous to think that we can cancel/postpone our judgment before our Holy Creator. To think that a reason for some people remaining as ghosts due to fear of hell, is to deny every attribute revealed about God in the Bible.
When we die, we are drawn by an omnipotent, irresistible summons before the holy Judge of heaven and earth. Let us expunge any notion that minimizes the incomparable glory of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Let the Word of God control all of our thoughts and beliefs.
Mark Hunnemann is the author of Seeing Ghosts Through God's Eyes: A Worldview Analysis of Earthbound Spirits. It's also available in eBook format.