Should Christians believe in ghosts?
The question was recently posed to me by one of my readers. Stuart did not share my assumption that the world may contain ghosts who, among other things, might engage in hauntings:
“I think you’ll need to provide some more scritural backing to convince me that people can die (or be killed) and then their spirit can continue to inhabit/haunt a house. Ghosts sound far more demonic than human in nataure.”
“For someone to continue in spirit form after they had be killed and to inhabit a house suggessts they continue to have some control over their choice of actions/location rather than that being dictated by God. Heb 9:27 tells us people die then face judgement, no mention is made of the option for them to go and be a ghost and haunt a house Randal might purchase.”
So should a Christian believe in ghosts? Well let’s look at the evidence (or at least some of it).
Ghosts in the Bible
The ancient Israelites, like other ancient peoples, held a belief that human persons continue to exist after the death of their bodies. This existence is in a shadowy spectral bodiy form in a place called sheol which, on some accounts, was in a vast cavern beneath the surface of the earth. This is the worldview backdrop against which we should read the story of the Witch of Endor calling up the ghost of Samuel (1 Samuel 28). Note how this background worldview and the details of the story both fit comfortably within the contemporary concept of ghosts as people who have survived the demise of their physical bodies and continue to exist with a spectral body.
This basic picture was shared by the ancient Greeks and Romans and can be seen operative in the background worldview of the disciples of Jesus. Consider Mark 6:48-50:
He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
Since ghosts were a part of the background worldview of the disciples it is understandable that when they first saw Jesus they thought he was a ghost.
A rich understanding of the world of ghosts is also behind Luke 24:36-37:
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.
At this point Luke shows a real awareness of the popular first century views on ghosts among Greeks, Romans and Hebrews for he carefully distinguishes the post-resurrection body of Jesus from disembodied spirits, revanants (that is, mere reanimated corpses), immortal heroes and translated mortals (see Deborah Thompson Prince, “The ‘Ghost’ of Jesus: Luke 24 in Light of Ancient Narratives of Post-Morten Apparitions“, JSNT, 29, 3 (2007), 287-301). This is the rich world of ghosts that frames the “pareschatology” of the Bible.
Ghosts in Church History
This openness to the existence of ghosts can be found throughout much of church history. It is perhaps most memorably on display in Gregory the Great’s fourth dialogue where he discusses a number of fascinating accounts of ghosts (c. AD 585).
So what do ghosts do?
Many Christians have understood ghosts, or at least some of them, as enduring a purgatorial existence. But this does not exclude other possibilities such as some “lost” ghosts who are engaged in malevolent mischief (e.g. poltergeist activity) or ghosts who are regenrated but engaged in particular missions on earth. Moreover, even the purgatory option is open to Protestants, so long as it is qualified appropriately (i.e. some views of purgatory are inconsistent with Protestantism but others are not).
All this should leave the Christian, relative to his or her background worldview assumptions, as very much open to the possiblity of ghosts and even hauntings. So remind yourself of that fact the next time your spouse asks you to go check on that strange noise in the basement.