By Mark Hunnemann
I came across an argument recently which I consider representative of many thoughtful and sincere Christians. The argument is that there seems to be some “wiggle” room in the bible for considering ghosts as a biblically admissible category—three texts are given as most important. Later, this brother stated that though he believes ghosts may exist, we must not speak with them because the bible is clear that we mustn’t do that (Deuteronomy 18, Leviticus 19, 20). I appreciate this person’s ability to make a distinction as to ghost’s existence and our communication with them as two, distinct issues.
My purpose in this unusually lengthy blog is to establish the fact that the bible is crystal clear regarding the fate of those in the intermediate state—those who have died before Jesus’ return—and that there is no wiggle room for ghosts. Instead of quoting a couple verses and then listing others for folks to read on their own, I have included most of the texts I deem most pertinent to the state of our souls after death. I trust that you will read them carefully, and feel the cumulative effect. I am of the opinion that “mere” belief in ghosts, even if we won’t attempt communication, is harmful….it certainly is unbiblical.
I will address his interpretation of 1 John 4:1 first, list the pertinent verses, and then address the three verses he considers as most supportive of the notion of ghosts. If you are a sincere seeker of truth regarding ghosts, then I appeal to you to listen and read all the texts and arguments carefully. I put a lot of time in this blog.
“It is simply too easy to resign all paranormal phenomenon into the category of the demonic. Besides, we have no need to “test the spirits and see whether they are from God” (I Jn. 4:1) if all spirits (or spiritual phenomenon) are categorically evil. So while the Bible cautions us about deceiving spirits, it does not go so far as to say that all “encounters” are necessarily of the “deceptive” order. (p. 105 paperback edition; bold mine)
The need for spiritual discernment regarding “spirits” is evidence that there may be some wiggle room as to their nature. If all ghosts are demons, we don’t need discernment. But if, as I believe, there’s a broader range of spiritual possibilities, remaining skeptically agnostic may be a virtue.
Furthermore, some biblical texts appear to challenge the “ghosts are demons” narrative. Here’s what I consider the three most important.
Saul and the Witch of Endor (I Sam. 28) — The “ghost” of Samuel is summoned by a witch and witnessed as “a spirit coming up out of the ground” (vs. 13). The spirit is recognized as the dead prophet who validates himself by prophesying against Saul (vss. 16-19). So what was Samuel? A ghost or a demon?
The Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) — Two dead prophets—Moses and Elijah—appear alongside Jesus in a glorified state. Had they been resurrected? Where did their bodies/souls previously exist? Where did they return to? Compounding matters is that the prophets “were talking with Jesus” (vs. 4).
Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearance to the disciples in which they mistake Him for “a ghost” (Luke 24:36-39) — It suggests that ghosts were an admissible category within their culture. Jesus does not rebuke them for this belief. In fact, He seems to substantiate it—“a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (vs. 39). This implies that ghosts ARE something and not another. (Note, this isn’t the first time the disciples thought Jesus to be a ghost — Matt. 14:22-33).
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:1-6)
First, I need to address the author’s interpretation and application of 1 John 4:1….notice that I quote the entire text to preserve context. Many people assume that John has 3 kinds of entities in mind when it comes to discernment (true, demonic, and ghosts) In fact, the author states we would not need discernment if all ghosts were demons. This is simply not true. Read 1 John 4:1-6 carefully and you will not see ghosts anywhere in the context. What John is clearly calling Christians to be is discerning about human teachers within the church.(1b) The spirits and human teachers are inextricably connected in v. 1.(for many false prophets have gone out into the world.. see v 5-6 for same connection of spirits with teachers) John’s point is that some people’s teaching is animated by the Holy Spirit, and others are animated by demonic spirits. THAT is what discernment is needed for. When he says “test the spirits” it is a call for doctrinal orthodoxy, especially a Christological test. Namely, any spirit which denies that Jesus was fully human is demonic in origin (unclean spirit), and any spirit which affirms it is from God. The clarion call for discernment had only two foci in this context….godly human teachers who were guided by the Holy Spirit who taught orthodox views of Christ, and ungodly teachers who were guided by unholy spirits who taught heterodox views of Christ. False teaching regarding Christ was/is rampant and John (the Holy Spirit) commands us to not be spiritually gullible, but discerning. The author’s assertion that discernment was not needed unless ghosts existed is simply not true, and misses the Holy Spirit’s intent for this text. Discerning false teaching regarding the Person and Work of Christ is plenty reason for dogged and determined discernment. Such calls for discernment regarding false teachers is a common motiff from Genesis to Revelation…from Jesus Himself and in virtually all the epistles. V.6 summarized John’s point. ”We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” It is an either/or. Human teachers like John who speak correctly regarding Jesus have the Spirit of truth, but human teachers who speak falsely of Christ are animated by demons—the spirit of error. John does not have ghosts anywhere in his mind in this text. Nowhere! And yet there is an alarming sense of urgency that we be discerning. I honestly don’t understand how one can say this text makes no sense (in its call for discernment) unless it was implying a need for discernment of ghosts. The issue is discernment between teaching from the Holy Spirit, and teaching originating from demonic influence. That is clearly the Holy Spirit’s intent for this text and not just my interpretation.
From here, I want to list the primary texts that clarify the nature of the intermediate state, which are uniformly ghost-less. For sake of space and time, my comments after each will be minimal. Please read ALL the texts,
9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, (2 Peter 2:9) Peter is speaking present tense. ALL of the unrighteous are being punished in hell during the intermediate state. From Adam and Eve onwards, there have been two streams of humanity—the righteous (those who looked forward to the coming Messiah, or look back to the Messiah who came) and the unrighteous. The seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Again, there is no allowance for exceptions regarding the location of all the unrighteous who have died.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Who is the author of Hebrews referring to as surrounding us? We need to look at the context, especially the preceding chapter. Starting with Abel there is a list of “faith hall of fame”… Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc. All of these folks listed in chapter 11 are commended as living by faith and not by sight…waiting for their heavenly home. The astonishing thing is that we are told that this great cloud of witnesses in heaven “surround us”. They are earnestly looking down upon us, perhaps cheering us on as we run our race of faith. These Old Testament believers are currently in heaven….disembodied but glorified spirits worshiping God face-to-face, covered in the righteousness of Christ, who is seated at the right hand of the Father. No exceptions….all the righteous dead from Old Testament times comprise the cloud of witnesses in heaven. In light of all Jesus endured (v.2) is it not noxious in the extreme to think that the perfect atonement made by the perfect Atoner of our sin, let somebody “slip” and become earthbound? The clear picture is that ALL the righteous dead comprise this great cloud of witnesses. They are conscious, and not in some suspended animation or soul-sleep, as some assert.
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:18-24)
This astonishing text is often overlooked. As is often the case in Hebrews, the greater glory of the New Covenant is accented in this text. Moses, and all the Jews, were fearful of God’s theophany on the mountain. Speaking to all true Christians, the author says that “we have come (not future tense!!)…to the heavenly Jerusalem.” There is a true, proper mysticism in Christianity. The church militant is united with the church triumphant! In some sense, by virtue of our common union with Christ, we have access to the spiritual realm of heaven where we worship together with angels and deceased believers. Notice that God is called the “judge of ALL” (accent added)..nobody is immune from the Judge of heaven and earth. “The spirits of the righteous made perfect” can only mean all believers now in heaven. Notice they are called spirits…their souls are in heaven…and upon death, their souls were glorified; made perfect and free from all sin. Whether living during the Old Testament era or the New, believers are said to be in assembly in worship in heaven, along with innumerable angels. In 2:12 Jesus is leading the assembly in singing!! This is the glorious hope of all Christians upon death. Nobody will escape from our holy God, who is a consuming fire. (v. 29) I earnestly hope that nobody would think to refer to these “spirits of the righteous made perfect” as ghosts, simply because they are disembodied spirits.
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing pat the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together2 at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60)
When the human courts had cast their vote of condemnation, Jesus came to Stephen’s aid. He was one of the first Christians killed (violent death, lots of emotion, unfinished business, before his time, ect…in world’s eyes—criteria set by paranormal community for haunting) But Jesus, King of Kings, became Stephen’s defense attorney. As His son was unfairly condemned and dying, Jesus STOOD UP—He is usually seen as seated at right hand—to tenderly welcome Stephen home. Jesus is our righteousness and He will similarly come to our defense when we die….if we are His children. What “fell asleep” was his body, until resurrected at Second Coming. Stephen’s death is a clear picture of God taking personal interest in everyone’s death, righteous or unrighteous. Can you picture, in light of this text, God just letting some poor soul become earthbound…avoiding any judgment or homecoming? At this point, I hope the cumulative effect of these texts is making its intended mark.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Revelation 6:9-11)
Under the altar is where sacrificial blood would pool. John sees the souls of believers under the altar, using Old Testament sacrificial imagery. The white robes signify victory and purity. Martyrs should be seen as symbolic of all believers who are called to be living sacrifices. (Romans 12:1-2) Obviously, these disembodied but glorified spirits are more alive and conscious than they ever were on earth! This is one of the clearest and most compelling pictures of the condition of believers during the intermediate state. Symbolism abounds in Revelation and these are symbolic of ALL believers who have died. Are they literally under an altar, cramped? No! All deceased believers are in heaven and clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and worshipping and enjoying God. Their cry for vengeance would become increasingly answered as the book progresses. Once again, we are walking on holy ground as we peer into heaven, where all deceased believers reside….very much conscious, but no communication seen in any text with those on earth.
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house—28 for I have five brothers7—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’
There are many things one could discuss regarding this remarkable parable, but I need to stay focused on what happens to all people when we die. We see both sides of the coin: after his death, Lazarus was taken to heaven (that is where Abraham is now), and the unrighteous rich man was sent to hell after death….that is what Hades means in this context. Putting aside all the other details, this parable clearly displays the reality of the intermediate state. After death and judgment, our souls go either to heaven or hell. The notion of anyone being trapped here is utterly foreign to biblical theology. V.31 intimates that there will be no visitations from heaven by righteous souls to folks on earth.
27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:27-28)
This one verse is so clear it should resolve the issue for the open-minded. Since the bible does not contradict itself, less clear verses should be interpreted in a fashion that does not contradict this crystal clear verse. First, note that all men are “appointed to die”. Clearly the unspoken appointer is the Judge of heaven and earth. This is a strong verb—the sovereign King has appointed your death, down to the exact second. God makes an appointment which no man can cancel. All men must die and will die. Not by fate but by divine appointment. We die once—“hapax”(denying reincarnation)…” meta de touto krisis.” In the Greek it is even clearer…immediately after death we face judgment. Death is a means to an end—to bring us before the judgment seat of Christ. This text disallows any wiggle room for anybody to remain earthbound and avoiding immediate judgment. We all die once, then we all immediately face judgment. That is the force of the Greek word rendered “after” (meta).This text strictly denies any option of entrapment. What is usually overlooked in discussions of this verse is the singular honor and dignity of Jesus as well as the perfection of the atonement in the follow up verse. (v.29)…a recurring theme in all these texts. We meet Christ immediately after death, whether believer or unbeliever, there is apodictic certainty that none will remain behind,,,you MUST appear before Christ’s seat of judgment. Christ shed His infinitely precious blood ONCE, just as we die once. This is a judgment before THE Judgment….a personal reckoning before God immediately after death which ushers us into the intermediate state. Our disembodied souls are sent to either heaven or hell…..until Jesus comes a second time and our private sentences will be made public, and we are reunited with our bodies.
This is a good place to point out the serious implications of believing in ghosts. The atonement is like a multi-faceted gem. Put another way, 10,000 benefits flow from the cross. The bible states that the perfect atonement was a frontal assault on sin, Satan, and death. Death lost its sting. However, if only one person gets trapped here, then that implies imperfection in the atonement or the Atoner, or both. It also takes the certainty out of our glorious hope. If for whatever reason folks can get trapped here, then nobody can die with utter certainty of seeing Jesus upon death.Not only is the notion of ghosts inconsistent with the bible it is hostile to every major doctrine in the bible. It certainly casts a shadow over the perfection of the atonement. That is a serious red flag.
All leave earth upon death.
Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. (Philippians 1:18-26)
Paul states it explicitly…he had the certain hope that when he died, he was going to be with Jesus. ….depart and be with Christ. It was so wonderfully simple for Paul—die and he would be with his beloved Jesus. How clearer can a man be? In this sense Paul was not special. All Christians are to see these verses as their certain hope—their inheritance. Notice it is all so very Christocentric…these verses ooze and dance with Jesus as the center stage in Paul’s life and death. Another verse which should be enough to demolish earthbound spirits. There is simply no way to jive the notion of earthbound spirits with this text. And as we’ll see, less clear texts are to be interpreted by clear verses like this one. The certainty of being with Jesus upon death was grounded in the Person and work of Christ, as seen in the larger context (cf. 2:8-11…ch.3) Clinging to the righteousness of Christ was the basis for Paul’s (and ours) absolute confidence regarding our heavenly home during the intermediate state. All leave earth upon death.
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Corinthians 5:6-10)
WE…..WE….(9 times in English bible) Frequently in his letters, Paul would use the first person/plural..we. What was true of the great apostle is true of the garden variety believer, like me/us. No exceptions. First, as in previous text, Paul states that death leads to going home to be with Jesus. Death is an immediate and certain doorway for believers into the beatific vision….seeing the Lord Jesus in His indescribable beauty, which will be the greatest pleasure in heaven. Second, we experience what is called the believer’s judgment prior to entry. I don’t have time to elaborate but this teaches that “each one” (no exceptions) will experience it upon death.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. (Revelation 1:17-18)
Having the keys to death means that Jesus has authority over it. Once again, His authority and victory over death is inextricably linked to Jesus’ death and resurrection. “I died…am alive forevermore”….As if to say, therefore I have absolute sovereign authority over death. I determine what happens to you when you die, not you. I have the keys, not you, and not Satan. John, perhaps Jesus’ closest friend while on earth, almost died from fright when he saw the ascended Lord Jesus in His holy glory. Then Jesus gently touched Him. I honestly believe that the greatest need of Christians is a renewed understanding of God’s holiness. With God as truly God Almighty, God-dishonoring notions like ghosts would melt away. Our God is too small.
Every person who dies has to face the One who owns death and has authority over it. Nobody can just hang around and not have to deal with the One who owns them by virtue of creating them and has the keys.
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
According to the paranormal community certain circumstances and kinds of death raise the chances of one becoming trapped. This man was experiencing one of the most painful ways to die ever devised by man…he met most, if not all, of the so-called death criteria. But he believes in Jesus at the eleventh hour, and Jesus says to him: ”Today you will die and get trapped here for an indeterminate amount of time….and your residual energy will seep into this ground” Right? Obviously not. Sounds horribly foolish doesn’t it? Jesus tells this dear man, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” In other words, Jesus was assuring this dying man that he would be in heaven after he died. During the intermediate state this man would be in conscious fellowship with Jesus Christ. Luke was written in part to show that Jesus is the Divine Messiah for all people. What was true for this man is meant to be seen as paradigmatic for all believers….going home.
Before looking at three classic texts used to support the notion that ghosts are an admissible category, it is prudent to list some basic rules of hermeneutics. It should become clear as we proceed, but there is a science to proper interpretation. Errors can be caught at the gate if we are cognizant of these basic rules. Honestly, most Christians are not trained in this area.
Rules for interpretation
1. New Testament interprets Old Testament
2. Scripture interprets scripture…..in non-contradictory fashion
3. Always interpret text in it’s context…immediate and larger (what precedes it, and purpose of book….e.g. what immediately precedes Mark 6 and what is purpose of Mark’s gospel? And the context of the entire bible, which takes hard work)
4. Determine what kind of literary genre text is (e.g. poetry, historical narrative, ect.)
5. Historical narratives are to interpreted by didactic (examples of historical narratives are 1-2 Kings and gospels….note that all texts cited by author are historical narrative) They record history and often without comment….generally they are descriptive and not prescriptive…unless meaning is made clear. Epistles were written to explain in further detail the meaning of the person and work of Jesus recorded in gospels and its application…and are almost always prescriptive
6. Unclear or bizarre texts are not to be used to formulate doctrine, and should be interpreted by clearer texts.
7. Determine the main intent of Holy Spirit and not what we wish it to mean. Determine what text meant to original audience before seeking personal application.
8. Any interpretation or implication drawn from text that implicitly/explicitly diminishes the singular honor and dignity of Jesus Christ, or casts a shadow over the absolute perfection of the atonement, should be rejected. If interpretation is inconsistent with letter or spirit of other clearer texts it should be rejected.
9. It should be noted that at significant junctures of redemptive history, there is usually an increase of extraordinary, sometimes mysterious, Divine activity. Examples would include Noah, Abraham, Moses, Saul/David, Elijah/Elisha, and Jesus. Care must be taken to ensure that the Holy Spirit’s intent for these texts is sought out, and our own agendas put aside. They are often extraordinary in nature and not directly applicable to us….e.g..just because Elijah did not die and was carried to heaven in chariot, does not mean we will have same experience!
10. Any comments made by disciples BEFORE Pentecost must be interpreted with extreme care and caution
11. Texts should be read theo-centrically. That is, after determining what the meaning was to the original audience, we should first ask: what does this text reveal about the nature of God, and of the Person and work of Jesus in particular?
3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him kin Ramah, his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the necromancers out of the land. 4 The Philistines assembled and came and encamped at Shunem. And Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. 6 And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets. 7 Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a medium at En-dor.”
8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments and went, he and two men with him. And they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.” 9 The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to bring about my death?” 10 But Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” 11 Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12 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.” 13 The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 14 He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped win a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage. 15 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.” 16 And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? 17 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. 18 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. 19 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.” 20 Then Saul fell at once full length on the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel. And there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. 21 And the woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, “Behold, your servant has obeyed you. I have taken my life in my hand and have listened to what you have said to me. 22 Now therefore, you also obey your servant. Let me set a morsel of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” 23 He refused and said, “I will not eat.” But his servants, together with the woman, urged him, and he listened to their words. So he arose from the earth and sat on the bed. 24 Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly killed it, and she took flour and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it, 25 and she put it before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they rose and went away that night.
Before we interpret this text we must ask what the central themes of the books of Samuel are. The essential theme is God exercising His cosmic Kingship by inaugurating a Davidic dynasty and not a Saulide one, and establishing Jerusalem as the place where the Divine King Yahweh will be worshipped. This is a very significant time in the flow of redemptive history as God’s people move away from a period of ruling Judges to a central monarchy, who is to be subject to the Word of God. (see rule #9).
The key themes in Samuel are: the absolute cosmic Kingship of God, His providential guidance, and God’s sovereign will and power. Obedience of God’s deputy (the king) to His revealed Word is of paramount importance. All of this is very significant when looking at this text.
This text is preceded by a narrative of God’s chosen one, David, and is followed by a tragic story of Saul’s rejection and God-ordained death.
All of the rules for interpretation given above must be kept in mind. Above all else, the clear and cumulative evidence of what happens to us when we die (both godly and ungodly) from the multitude of texts above must guide our interpretation of this bizarre and singular text. The New Testament interprets the Old, and didactic interprets historical narrative—and this is a historical narrative.
I am going to make this short, dealing with just the major issue. This is a significant juncture in the flow of the drama of redemption—Israel’s first king is about to be killed. Hence, it is no surprise to me that we have this singularly bizarre incident occuring. In keeping with the theme of the book, the Sovereign King steps in during this séance with a medium (not witch..’ob) and providentially guides its proceedings. Samuel’s soul is dispatched by God to deliver a message of judgment upon king Saul. Samuel is at rest in heaven (why did you disturb me?). God gives him an appearance that all would recognize as the deceased prophet. At this unrepeatable and significant juncture in redemptive history where Israel’s first king is on the verge of death—and the forerunner of the Lord Jesus is about to become king, David—God does something extraordinary. Remember that this is historical narrative and an in-depth commentary is lacking. Thus, drawing doctrine from this would be contrary to several of the hermeneutical rules laid out above. However, just because there was a very brief visit by a glorified soul is no basis for establishing further visitations. Here is a very significant point—Samuel was NOT an earthbound spirit. His rest was “disrupted” and after delivering his message, Samuel went back home to his celestial rest.
The issue at stake is not whether there are disembodied spirits (there are millions in heaven and hell right now). Like Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus, Samuel was sovereignly dispatched during a time of crisis at the beginning of the monarchy stage.
Ghosts are said to be trapped spirits, and usually for a long time. Samuel was not trapped and his visit was measured in minutes. There is nothing in this text which provides ammunition for those looking for a biblical basis for saying that ghosts is an admissible category. In fact, Samuel predicts that” tomorrow” Saul and his sons would join him. Nobody is being trapped or earthbound in this text. Case closed.
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure,2 which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”— not knowing what he said. 34 As he was saying these things, ma cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One;3 listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen. (Luke 9:28-36)
Three questions are asked of this text: are Moses and Elijah resurrected?; where did they previously exist? Where did they return to? And a comment was made that their talking with Jesus compounds the matter.
This is the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain with Peter, James and John. From the outset, we must point out this is historical narrative, which describes an event, but often without commenting on it….which is somewhat the case in this text. Let me hasten to add that the gospels obviously do contain much teaching from Jesus (or didactic), but they are primarily theological biographies of the Lord Jesus. Events are often compressed and frequently events are described without comment on it…..usually left to reader to see this through Holy Spirit’s anointing and wisdom.
The context and the Holy Spirits main intention for this text is to accent the divine glory of the Lord Jesus. The texts preceding this and the episode with the demoniac coming after it (on the next day intentionally “hooks into” this theme”).
The transfiguration is an illumination from the inside/out of the true divine glory of Jesus which He suppressed during His incarnation. His divine glory shone exceedingly brightly!
Peter, out of fear, makes a foolish comment regarding making a tent for all three….”not knowing what he said”. This is another situation in which a disciple made a dumb comment without Jesus rebuking or correcting them. This will be significant when we look at the text in Mark when Jesus made no comment regarding their fear-laden comment that He was a ghost.
In a rare case in which the Father spoke verbally, He tells the disciples that Jesus is His beloved Son and they/we must listen to Him. Jesus’ ministry supersedes and fulfills all those who preceded Him, like Moses and Elijah.
Speaking of Moses and Elijah, the purpose of their presence was that Moses represented the Law and Elijah the Prophets, and most importantly, Jesus fulfills both. I chose the Lukan text because it tells us what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were discussing. V.31 says that they were discussing His impending departure (“exodus” in Greek), which would entail His death, resurrection, and ascension. These were the events that all the prophets foretold and every inch of the Old Testament progressively revealed the coming ministry of the Messiah. How marvelous it must have been for Moses and Elijah!
To answer the questions: no, Moses and Elijah were not resurrected—that will occur at the Second Coming when we are reunited with our glorified bodies, such as Jesus’s was on the mountain. As we saw in the many texts above, Moses and Elijah existed in heaven, in the form of glorified souls. Jesus gave them an observable form but it was not yet their glorified bodies. Jesus’ whole ministry was THE most significant juncture in redemptive history. Hence we see unparalleled healings and exorcisms and other extraordinary, singular events—which include this Transfiguration. Jesus sovereignly transported Elijah and Moses for this short but magnificent event. How wonderful it must have been for Moses to see how the sacrificial system pre-figured the once for all sacrifice of The Lamb of God. And how moving it must have been for Elijah as he saw Jesus as The Divine Prophet..prophet, priest and king.
After their brief encounter (like Samuel) they went back home to heaven as the glorified souls we read about above (see Hebrews 11-12). Why does Elijah and Moses speaking with Jesus compound things? In God’s inscrutable wisdom, He included these two primary figures of the Old Testament. I find it unspeakably beautiful that God incarnate would bring these two men here to have a heart to heart about the upcoming events, which all of human/cosmic history hinge. The Creator of Moses and Elijah can certainly give them (as glorified souls) the ability to verbally communicate. Once again, their appearance was measured in minutes and they went back home. They were not earthbound. Their appearance enriched the significance of Jesus’ transfiguration by showing the centrality of Jesus in the Old Testament…and more glorious New Covenant.
To take such a God (and His glory) saturated text—with the Father telling us to listen to Him—and use it as an inference for ghosts is unwise, to put it mildly. We need to look to the epistles to give us the understanding of the status of Moses and Elijah. These are glorified souls engaged in conversation with their Creator and Savior, and were then sent back home. No ghosts. Indeed the notion detracts from the central theme—the glorious divinity of King Jesus. It saddens me that this God besotted text—and surrounding context on both sides- is used to support that which undermines the glory of Jesus by undermining the perfection of the atonement which they were discussing on that holy mountain. To infer that other spirits could remain with us, is to overlook the singular nature of Jesus and His role in redemptive history as expressed in His transfiguration. It also overlooks the main intent of this passage and breaks several of the rules of hermeneutics.
all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
Jesus Walks on the Water
45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:42-53…emphasis added)
I added this text because many folks are persuaded that this is the most powerful text proving Jesus believed in ghosts because he didn’t correct the disciple’s belief in ghosts. This text is preceded by the miracle of feeding 5,000…it is followed by Jesus landing on shore and healing everyone that came to him. These texts are designed to prove that Jesus is the divine “I AM”, and worthy of our worship and implicit trust. However, as we’ll see, this lesson was lost on the obtuse disciples.
Immediately (v.45) after a sensational, miraculous display of Jesus’ divine power and glory, Jesus made the disciples get into their boat. He went to pray. To condense this, when the disciples saw Jesus they thought He was a ghost (phantasma) Since He did not correct them, it must be that he agreed that ghosts is an admissible category.
Several problems with that argument. First, it is an argument from silence, which is a logical fallacy. You cannot derive doctrine from what Jesus didn’t say, especially in a historical narrative. Speaking of historical narrative, this text needs to be interpreted along the lines mentioned above—through the lenses of the epistles. Thirdly, what was the disciple’s emotional state when they thought this regarding Jesus….who they had just left across the lake, very much alive? We don’t have to guess. It says they were terrified, both by their crisis and Jesus’ appearance.
He did speak to them by telling them to not be afraid. Then He says “ego eimi” which is Greek equivalent of Old Testament Yahweh, I AM….was passing by them. But they totally missed it. In the Mt of Transfiguration, we have a precedent of a disciple saying something foolish without being corrected. What is kindness? Well, when people are terrified kindness and compassion looks like not jumping all over loved ones who just made a mistake. They were terrified…no time for lecture.
Most significantly, we are given a divinely inspired commentary on this whole event in v.52….it says that they didn’t understand the loaves (nor Jesus) because their hearts were hardened. This verse casts a long shadow over everything the disciples said/did in this text…especially regarding ghosts. Instead of operating out of well deserved faith and trust in Jesus, they were sunk in abject terror, unbelief and lack of faith. They (like me) were slow learners, until after Pentecost. Their cry of Jesus being a ghost was prompted by fear and unbelief. Here is the great I AM walking by, and they cling to popular superstition instead of faith in God Almighty. Without beating a dead horse, v. 52 makes it clear that the disciples were operating out of fear and not faith….their hearts were hardened to the lessons they should have learned the miracle done just hours before. Their utterance of Jesus being a ghost (which was absurd anyway since they knew He was alive) was an expression of their hardened heart. As Jesus said, out of the fullness of our hearts, the mouth speaks. In this context Phantasm is best translated as superstitious imagination. Ghosts were a popular notion in their day, as it is in ours, but the bible is our foundation. We must be transformed and not conformed. It was not until 24:25 that we are told that Jesus “opened their minds”….prior to that the disciples were quick to stick their foots in their mouths, and as historical narrative, often commentary is often very brief or lacking altogether.
36 As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 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.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish,2 43 and he took it and ate before them.
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you ware clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:36-49).
First, it is noted in v.37-38 that the disciples were once again overcome with fear and doubt—similar to the commentary in Mark 6:52, where their hearts were said to be hardened. With these emotions flowing from fear and not faith, they thought Jesus was a spirit (pneuma….not a ghost). There were many disembodied spirits in heaven and hell at that time. In fact, Jesus does gently rebuke them for their comments. If Jesus said “Hey, I’m not like those earthbound spirits which are all around us” then we would have a basis for inference regarding ghosts as an admissible category. Contrary to what the author said he does rebuke them. He gently rebukes them for their unbelief/fear, and simply states he is not a spirit.
Jesus had a glorified body and not an appearance like Moses or Elijah, who have to wait for their glorified bodies. Jesus was simply emphasizing that He had a true, physical body (though glorified)…THAT is the main point. He refers to disembodied spirits as a means to an end….to counter the notion that He only appeared to be fully human after the resurrection. It was not until v.49 that we see Jesus foretelling a time when His disciples would be filled with the Spirit and finally understand…and stop making foolish comments.
Jesus took bread and ate it to prove to them that He was not a spirit. His intent was not to give us a ghostology, but address THEIR mistaken belief that He was a spirit. In a simple attempt to comfort them He says that He is not a spirit. Using their own words, Jesus said He was not who they thought He was, a spirit. Nowhere is the modern notion of an earthbound spirit referred to.
Like other historical narratives, we must view this text through the grid of the above didactic texts. It is not that some verses are more inspired/important than others, but there are common sense rules for interpreting the bible properly…which is what we must do if we believe it is the very Word of God.
By the way, while Jesus ministered to countless demoniacs, He never sought out a ghost to help them. Likewise, we never see an earthbound spirit approaching their Creator to help them, as did many demoniacs. The only inference one can take away is that Jesus did not have a ghostology ministry because there are none. If we allow for the admissibility of ghosts, then we open a Pandora’s box from hell.
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.