Are ghosts in the Bible? Let's take a deep-dive.


Ghosts in the Bible? Uncovering Spooky Traces

Caleb Mathis

17 mins

Don’t look now, but ghosts are everywhere.

No longer content to haunt the final weeks of October, ghosts have become so deeply integrated into our society that we hardly notice them anymore. They float over that social media app we keep meaning to delete; they sell us sugary cereal that definitely doesn’t contain any artificial dyes; they inhabit bathrooms at our favorite wizarding schools, throw the best Christmas parties, and reign supreme as the go-to lazy Halloween costume.

The idea that deceased spirits might still inhabit our natural world is as old as the dirt itself—so you might be wondering, does the Bible have anything to say about ghosts? Interestingly, it does. And what it teaches just might change the way you think about that creepy house at the end of the street or the strange noises you heard last night.

Before you start the spooky movie marathon or eat your body weight in Reese’s pumpkins, let’s do a quick flyover (or maybe we should float…cause, you know, ghosts) of the scriptures to see what it has to teach us about the dearly departed.

What Does the Bible Say About Ghosts?

They’re Heeeere (Or, The Spirits In The Room)

The Bible is very clear: spiritual beings do exist. In fact, they’re probably in your vicinity right now. They aren’t Victorian-era children or the victims of some grisly murder—they’re angels and demons.

Wait?! Ghosts are demons? Are demons ghosts? Hold your headless horsemen; we’ll get there. First, let’s start with the good guys: angels.

Far from pudgy little babies with suction cup arrows, angels serve as God’s special operations task force. The Bible describes them as ministering spirits (Hebrews 1:14), used to protect and guard God’s children (Psalm 91:9-13).

So why haven’t you felt touched by an angel? It’s likely because they don’t want the attention or focus on themselves. As true servants of God, they always point back to him as the only object of our worship and affection (Revelation 19:9-10). But that doesn’t mean they can’t pack a punch. Angels in the Bible are often portrayed as warriors, flexing their muscles to engage in unseen spiritual battles to advance the movement of God (Revelation 12:7-9 for just one example).

Warning signs from the dead

The Bible teaches that we should live alert, as some people have interacted with angels without even knowing it (Hebrews 13:2). And if you take Jesus’ words seriously, you have your own guardian angel looking into the face of God right now (Matthew 18:10).

Of course, you wouldn’t need a spiritual special-ops if there wasn’t an enemy, and the big-baddie has his own band of spirit soldiers repping the dark side. We call them Death Eaters…I mean, demons.

The Bible says that demons were once angels, but choosing to align themselves with Satan, they were removed from God’s realm and sent packing down to earth (Revelations 12:7-10). They’re out in the wide world doing the works of their boss—namely, deceiving people to sin (1 Timothy 4:1), cultivating confusion of mind and thoughts (2 Corinthians 11:3), and causing a streak of pain, suffering, and chaos wherever they go (Mark 9:22 as just one example).

According to the scriptures, angels and demons are created beings with free will to choose whom they serve. They aren’t ghosts because they aren’t the spirits of previously-living humans. So, no, your boss isn’t a demon (even if he calls a meeting at 4:30 PM on a Friday), and your dear Aunt Petunia didn’t become an angel when she passed.

Angels and demons have existed since the beginning of time, and these spiritual entities likely have a greater impact on your day-to-day life than you realize. The Bible doesn’t speak of them as something to be feared but rather realities to be acknowledged.

Author C.S. Lewis struck a good middle ground when he wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

If you’re keeping score at home, unseen spirits do exist (and even impact our day-to-day lives), but they aren’t exactly ghosts, at least not in the way our culture thinks about them. That’s good and all, but what do we do with the 20% of Americans who claim to have seen or interacted with a ghost?

Warning Signs from the Dead?

I See Dead People (Or, But What About…)

That’s a great question and one that could have layers of potential answers. We don’t have space here to tackle every potential scenario, but some high-level thoughts might be helpful.

What does the Bible say about ghosts?

First, let me say I’m keenly aware that not every reason someone believes they’ve seen a ghost has a spiritual root. There are a host of scientific and psychological reasons that make good sense—answers as varied as post-traumatic stress to sleep disorders, dementia (like sundown syndrome), to pareidolia (the scientific term for seeing patterns in places where there are none), to a season of intense grief and everything in between. I’m no expert on any of this, except to admit that the human brain and psyche are incredibly complex things.

What I have learned, the more I’ve looked into this topic, is that we all tend to live at the mercy of our biases—those who already believe in apparitions are likely to find evidence to support their theories, while those who do not, will not.

One paranormal researcher, who approached the subject from a purely scientific standpoint, came to the conclusion that “there are no haunted places, only haunted people.” That doesn’t mean, if you believe you’ve seen a ghost, you are damaged or demented. I have close family members and friends who would count themselves part of that 20% of Americans who have had a ghostly encounter. I only mention it to say this: what we think we see is not always what we see.

I think back to Jesus’ disciples and a terrifying encounter they had with him one stormy night. Having fought the wind and waves for hours, they look to the dark horizon and see a figure walking on the water. They cry out in terror, believing a ghost is approaching their boat. What they thought they saw was not actually what they were seeing. It was no ghost but the son of God coming toward them on the waves. As Jesus drew closer, he came into focus. He corrected their misconception, even shared the experience with Peter (who was brave enough to get out of the boat), and used it as a lesson in faith. The closer the disciples got to Jesus, the more true their vision became.

Studying some of the spookier encounters in the Bible, I believe, brings my frame of mind closer to reality. Instead of just assuming a strange encounter at night is a ghost, we should consider the possibilities that the Bible outlines.

Instead of a specter, you might have encountered…

  • An angel - When God’s special-ops show up in the Bible, fear is the first emotion felt by those who encounter them. In fact, most of the time, angels have to tell humans “Not to fear” before they can get on to sharing God’s message… presumably because seeing an angel is freakin’ terrifying (Luke 1:11-13 and Luke 2:8-10 for just two examples).

  • A demon - While angels initially cause fear, they always help humans move past that emotion. Demons, on the other hand, seem to thrive on fear, wanting humans to sit in it. Among Jesus’ interactions with demons, we find a pair of crazed men who lived in a graveyard and terrorized travelers (Matthew 8:28), a spirit who caused convulsions, foaming at the mouth, and often threw its host into fire or water to kill him (Mark 8:20-22), and a man causing disruptions in the temple (Luke 4:31-37). While each of those situations would feel frightening, Jesus soundly handles each one. His power and authority are so great that at a word, he can cast the demons out and even prohibit their speech (Luke 4:41). It’s not hard to imagine that many ghost sightings, especially ones that produce long-standing fears and traumas, could find their origin in the realm of the demonic.

  • A Vision - In the scriptures, God has been known to reveal himself and his plans through visions—experiencing a divine reality with our human senses. And some of them are pretty freaking weird. The prophet Ezekiel saw a valley of dry bones come back to life (Ezekiel 37:1-14), an evil king of Babylon saw a huge hand writing on the wall of his party (Daniel 5:5-29), and John received the last book of the Bible, Revelation, complete with its dragons, beasts, and multi-eyed angels, as a vision. The bottom line for every vision, weird or not, is communication between God and humanity. Could some people’s experiences, mistaken for ghosts, be visions sent by God to get their attention?

All that being said, all our neat little boxes of explanation get blown up with one incredibly intense Bible story from the Old Testament. So we obviously have to go there next. When it comes to the question of ‘Are there ghosts in the Bible,’ this is about the best counterargument you could come up with:

So…are There Ghosts in the Bible?

You Best Start Believing In Ghost Stories, You’re In One! (Or, Sammy’s Ghost)

What does the Bible say about ghosts? Or what does the Bible say about the dead visiting the living? There’s one story that sticks out amongst the rest. Saul was the first king of Israel and, honestly, not a very good one. God eventually named David—a shepherd kid with a penchant for killing giants—as the next monarch. As you might imagine, Saul didn’t look too fondly at the idea of giving up the seat of power. For years, he did everything he could to hang onto his title, including trying multiple times to kill David.
Ghosts in the Bible

Near the end of his reign, Saul is grasping for straws. The Philistines, the enemies of the Israelites, had gathered for war. When Saul saw their vast numbers, he was gripped by fear. Could this be the end? He started reaching for some kind of answer. By this time, the old prophet Samuel had died, and no great prophet had risen to take his place. Saul tried to inquire of God and yet was receiving radio silence. In a desperate last attempt, he asked his servants to find him a medium.

This, according to God’s ancient law for his people, was strictly prohibited. The Promised Land, where God led his people after rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, was inhabited by people who practiced divination and necromancy. God’s people were to be different. Instead of seeking wisdom or warning signs from the dead, they were to turn to God himself (Leviticus 19:31, 20:6).

Yet that’s exactly what Saul does. His servants find a medium, and he goes to visit, asking her to bring up the spirit of the prophet Samuel. In life, Samuel had been a consistent voice of God for Saul, and with his back against the wall, he wanted to turn to him again.

The story continues…

When the woman saw Samuel, she screamed… But the king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?”

“I see a spirit form coming up out of the earth,” she replied… “An old man is coming up. He’s wearing a robe.” Then Saul knew that it was Samuel and he bowed his face to the ground and paid homage.

“Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Samuel asked Saul.

“I’m in serious trouble,” replied Saul. “The Philistines are fighting against me and God has turned away from me. He doesn’t answer me any more, either through the prophets or in dreams. So I’ve called on you to tell me what I should do.”

Samuel answered, “Since the LORD has turned away from you and has become your enemy, why are you asking me? … You did not obey the LORD… He will hand Israel over to the Philistines along with you. Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.”

So there’s that. What in the hocus pocus is going on here?

Bible scholars have loads of different opinions about this passage, most of which we’ve already covered thus far. Some believe it was a demon, some an angel, and some a vision shared by the medium and Saul. Or, we could just take the scripture at its word—and this passage becomes the singular instance of a traditional ghost in the Bible.

Why bring up this disconfirming information after spending pages laying out the Bible’s teachings on ghosts? Because it’s the perfect example of God’s x-factor. He can do whatever He wants to do, and sometimes, He bends the rules of nature that He established. We call those instances miracles.

When someone unexpectedly recovers from an illness (Luke 4:38-40), or a blind man has his vision restored (John 9:1-12), or a few pieces of bread and fish are multiplied into a feast for thousands (Matthew 14:13-21), we see God bending the rules of the natural world—illness doesn’t disappear on its own, blind man don’t get their sight back, and a happy meal isn’t enough for a grown adult, let alone 5,000+ of them. Because God created the world and set the laws that govern life on earth, he alone is capable of bending them.

In his brilliant movie Nope, filmmaker Jordan Peele asks, “What is a bad miracle? You got a word for that?” I don’t have a word, but whatever word we land on, this might be the perfect example of it.

Are demons ghosts?

Personally, I believe God bent the rules around death and spirits visiting Earth for this one encounter with Saul. First, because the medium seems generally scared when she sees Samuel—as if she didn’t expect her parlor tricks to work, and then they suddenly do.

Secondly, the words the ghostly Samuel speaks come true. The next day, Saul and his sons die in battle with the Philistines, allowing for the long-promised ascension of David to the throne. Finally, God keeps his word about consulting mediums. In the book of the Law, he promised anyone who did so would be cut off from his people. Unfortunately for Saul, that meant death.

If we are wondering as a result of this story, ‘What does the Bible say about the dead visiting the living?’, we should consider this the outlier. The ghost of Samuel is a one-time exception, not the rule, a story that displays the depths the once-great king Saul had fallen to.

Saul’s impatience had gotten him in trouble with God in the past, and this time, it sealed his fate. Not content to wait for an answer from God, Saul blatantly broke God’s commands, and God showed his power in a most unexpected way. Boo!

Being the exception, not the rule, I don’t read this story as confirming the existence of ghosts on planet Earth—just that God can (and will) use any means necessary to get his message across to his people.

And, just so we’re clear, it’s still not a good idea to try to contact the dead. In fact, you don’t need to, because God left you a good ghost as a helper instead.

The Spirit Above All Spirits

The Friendliest Ghost You Know (Or, Who Is The Holy Spirit?)

While He was still on earth, Jesus promised His followers that He would not leave them as orphans. Although He could not physically stay on earth with them, he would send a helper, a counselor, so that they could stay connected, even when they were physically apart (John 14:19-26). If you’re looking for things like signs a spirit is trying to get your attention, you may be looking at the wrong helper. That real helper is the Holy Spirit—and honestly, no other ghost (real or imagined) can compare.

Signs a spirit is trying to get your attention

Scripture says that the Holy Spirit lives inside Christ’s followers, “The same spirit that raised Him from the dead,” empowering our lives (Romans 8:11). The Holy Spirit is a teacher that helps us remember what Jesus taught and how He lived (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness, intercedes for us, and aids our understanding of spiritual truths (Romans 8:26,1 Corinthians 2:13). The Bible goes on to say that the Spirit brings freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17), hope (Romans 15:13) and grows inside of us, making us more loving, patient, kind and joyful (Galatians 5:22-23). The Spirit convicts us of sin, pushes us to repent, and leads us into righteousness (John 16:7-15).

The Holy Spirit is so important, Jesus told his disciples it was better for them if he left earth, because that meant the Holy Spirit would come (John 16:7). While most of us would give anything to spend an afternoon with Jesus, He thought the Spirit was an even greater gift. For followers of Jesus, the Spirit is our connection and anchor point to Him. “[The Spirit] will not speak on his own authority,” Jesus taught, “But whatever he hears he will speak… he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-15).
The Holy Spirit is our seal of salvation, a free gift from God so that we live lives of power, meaning, and transcendence as we follow him (Ephesians 1:13). Even in a room, all by yourself, you are never alone (Hebrews 13:5-6). We need not seek out warning signs from the dead when we have a divine word from a living God.

Followers of Jesus have the good ghost, The Holy Spirit, with them all the time—so, in reality, anything that goes bump in the night better fear us, instead of the other way around.

Disclaimer: This article is 100% human-generated.

Caleb Mathis
Meet the author

Caleb Mathis

Dad of three, husband of one, pastor at Crossroads, and at the moment would rather be reading Tolkien, watching British TV, or in a pub with a pint of Guinness.

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