A Reformed Perspective on the Question:
Do the Souls of the Dead Appear to the Living?

posted by Reed DePace

I was recently asked for Reformed articles dealing with the phenomena of ghosts. Unfortunately I was unable to point the inquier to any. Given the time of year it is (I like candy all year round myself) I thought it worth my time to take a crack at an answer. Here is what I came up with.

1. Scripture is relatively silent on this question. Thus, at best we have an inferential based argument. Do the disembodied souls of dead human return the physical realm of existence where they are seen by the living?

Positively, there appears to be only one passage which lists a verifiable witnessing of a disembodied human spirit appearing to credible living witnesses:

1 Samuel 28:8-12 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.”

Notice that the witch is used to doing something. Whether she merely deceived her clients or actually had some sort of apparitions appear is not stated. What is stated is that when she saw Samuel – a disembodied spirit, she recognized him for who and what he was. Her shock shows that she was not used to calling up from the dead actual disembodied human spirits.

I cannot think of any other passage in which an actual disembodied human spirit appears to living human beings. There are some passages which teach that necromancy (magic involving the dead) is a wickedness to be destroyed. Yet these passages do not credit the necromancer with any actual results. Given that Scripture intends for silence on a subject related to the spiritual realm to squelch speculation (cf., Dt 29:29), it appears that God is at least telling, “don’t worry about ghosties – don’t even think about it.”

Negatively, there are some strong inferential arguments to support that disembodied spirits do not return to earth:

Matthew 27:50-53 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. 51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

Some have tried to use this passage to support a “ghost” hypothesis. Yet note that the passage is very clear, the dead that appeared were in bodily form. In other words, what we have here is a resurrection. Similar to Lazarus’ raising, and other pre-Easter resurrections, they all serve to picture the perfection and power of the promised resurrection on the Last Day. No ghosts are involved here.

Hebrews 9:27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,
Job 7:9-10 9 As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; 10 he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him anymore.

With regard to what happens when a person dies, the general pattern is this: 1) death, 2) judgment, and 3) placement (in heaven or hell). Note particularly Job’s observation that the dead man cannot return to this world at all. Further emphasis in:

Job 20:9 The eye that saw him will see him no more, nor will his place any more behold him.

These passages at least inferentially demonstrate that living human beings will not see the disembodied soul of a man once he has died and left this world (i.e.,, the eye does not see him.) This is supported by Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:

Luke 16:22-26 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.1 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.’

While it is admitted that not all details in a parable are to be understood literally, the essential features of the parable are to be. I.e., there may not be a literal chasm between heaven and hell, yet nevertheless there is some sort of barrier preventing travel between them. Now some may want to argue that this is just between heaven and hell, not heaven and earth or hell and earth. But this is to base the argument for ghosts on silence – and in opposition to the positive and negative inferences.

The biblically consistent position is that once a human dies his spirit departs this physical world, never to be seen again. Yes, this is the ordinary, and we do have evidence of one example. Yet this is biblical evidence – without question factually accurate. It is dangerous to say the least to build a case on this for ghosts.

I conclude – human disembodied spirits do not return to earth and appear to living human beings.

2. So what are we to do with the numerous evidences, often from credible witnesses, that some sort of apparition, a visible manifestation of an immaterial being, can occur and has actually occurred? (I include myself among such witnesses.) Again, we must let Scripture answer the question for us. Some verses to consider:

Colossians 1:16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.

We begin by acknowledging that the spiritual realm is real. There does exist an immaterial reality (i.e., invisible creation), populated by immaterial beings.

Revelation 12:9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Some of these immaterial beings (Satan and his demons) are given over to a ministry of deception. This is their sole purpose for existence.

2 Corinthians 11:14 even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.

As a part of their ministry of deception, these immaterial beings will take on visible forms intended to deceive human beings.

2 Thessalonians 2:9-11 9The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false,

Such visible manifestations are consistent with the authority God has given Satan to perform deceiving signs – works of power and wonder whose goal is to deceive those who reject God into believing the deception put forth by Satan.

Given all this, I am comfortable with the standard Reformed* explanation for ghosts; all such appearances are appearances of demons. When taking on human form they are masquerading as recognizable human beings who have died, with the intention of deceiving those who see them that they are actually the disembodied spirit of the dead person return to earth.

As with all Satan’s lies, I’m grateful to the Truth who has set me free from fear of such silly apparitions.

* See the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 32, Of the State of Men after Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead
See also the 2nd Helvetic Confession, Chapter 26, The Second Helvetic Confession – Chapter XXVI, Of the Burial of the Faithful, and of the Care To Be Shown for the Dead; of Purgatory, and the Appearing of Specters

posted by Reed DePace


  1. Jeff Downs said,

    October 8, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    These would not be from a reformed perspective, but I am aware of two books on the topic from those in Countercult ministry:

    The Truth Behind Ghosts, Mediums, & Psychic Phenomena. Ron Rhodes (Harvest House, 2006; ISBN#: 0-7369-1907-4).

    SpellBound: The Paranormal Seduction of Today’s Kids. Marcia Montenegro, foreword by Norman Geisler (Cook, 2006; ISBN#: 0-7814-4360-1).

    There may be others, I’ve been out of the loop for some time.

  2. October 8, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    Thanks Reed.

    I lol’d at the title.

  3. michael said,

    October 8, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    A couple of things pop into my mind; some verses and some concepts and ideas a stone’s throw from this topical thread.

    One is negative. The other one is positive yet it opens up to the invisible world and reflects upon an Apostolic ingredient being added to the mix.

    Consider these verses and the adverse nature of them upon a human soul that might preclude some from dabbling off the path of sound reason and doctrine?

    Job 18:5 “Indeed, the light of the wicked is put out, and the flame of his fire does not shine.
    Job 18:6 The light is dark in his tent, and his lamp above him is put out.
    Job 18:7 His strong steps are shortened, and his own schemes throw him down.
    Job 18:8 For he is cast into a net by his own feet, and he walks on its mesh.
    Job 18:9 A trap seizes him by the heel; a snare lays hold of him.
    Job 18:10 A rope is hidden for him in the ground, a trap for him in the path.
    Job 18:11 Terrors frighten him on every side, and chase him at his heels.
    Job 18:12 His strength is famished, and calamity is ready for his stumbling.
    Job 18:13 It consumes the parts of his skin; the firstborn of death consumes his limbs.
    Job 18:14 He is torn from the tent in which he trusted and is brought to the king of terrors.

    Now for a couple of “somewhat” positive notes; one more positive than the other yet they involve the salvation of one’s being.

    Consider these verses:

    1Co 5:1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.
    1Co 5:2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
    1Co 5:3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.
    1Co 5:4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus,
    1Co 5:5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.


    Col 2:5 For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.

    And to go a bit further in the digression, one wonders if the “spiritual” gift of knowledge was functioning fully at work within Peter, James and John so that these three knew it was Moses and Elijah, two people who walked the earth at different times and for different purposes at the visitation with Jesus and them on the Mount of Transfiguration?

  4. Paige Britton said,

    October 8, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    There are (to my knowledge) four spots in the NT where ghosts/apparitions are mentioned in passing, indicating not necessarily an entirely correct view of the universe, but at least the perennial human interest in/fear of/superstition about such things:

    Acts 12:14-15 Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!”

    Luke 24:36-39 As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit (Gk pneuma, tr. “ghost” in NIV). And he said to them, “….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.”

    Mt. 14:26 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. (cf. Mk. 6:49-50; this time the Gk is phantasma.)

    Obviously, ghosties were part of the pop culture back then, too. Jesus’ gentle corrective to his superstitious disciples’ assumption may have merely been an acknowledgment of their culture-bound expectations, and not an affirmation that “this is how the universe is set up (as you’ve always feared…).” As you’ve said above, Reed, the rest of the Bible sure doesn’t lead us to believe that ghosties wandering around are the norm.

    Here’s spooky, though: in my previous church (non-denom evangelical), the local “ghost tours” were advertised in the church bulletin around this time of year…We were really working on biblical literacy there.

  5. Reed Here said,

    October 9, 2010 at 7:16 am

    Thanks for all these reponses folks.

    Paige, I think I need to adjust and at least acknowledge these verses. They show we share a similar cultural fear that is unfounded.

    MIchael : Mt of Transfiguration, duh! The only twist on that is that these were both individuals who appear to have entered heaven body and soul (Elijah is clearer than Moses). I’ll adjust with this passage as well.

    As to your further reflection, I see where you’re going. That seems pretty slim to me. I take those “spirit” references to simply be a factor of the spiritual unity we share via the Holy Spirit, not any hint at a disembodiement potential for human souls (a concept more common in some pagan religions and cults).

    Jeff, as always, the resource man! Should of remembered to check with you brother. Thanks!

    Patrick – me too. :-)

  6. Vern Crisler said,

    October 9, 2010 at 11:29 am

    “So what are we to do with the numerous evidences, often from credible witnesses, that some sort of apparition, a visible manifestation of an immaterial being, can occur and has actually occurred? (I include myself among such witnesses.”

    The imagination is a powerful thing.

  7. K H Acton said,

    October 11, 2010 at 9:07 am

    I have given some thought to this over the years as well. One resource that I think is helpful (if not to be followed completely) is Richard Gilpin’s Satan’s Temptations published by SDG. For one thing we need to remember for most of history GHOST did not necessarily mean spirit of the departed, but just a spirit (demonic possibly). And the question of apparitions is also significant, an apparition is something that just appears to be. There are reasons why Satan may cause appearances of the departed to be seen. He seems to cycle between inculcating gross materialism and superstitious fantasy. I think we can say that the spirits of departed saints are kept safe with God, the damned may be cursed in a variety of ways that we are not given to know. But I believe that most ghosties are the product of the imagination AND/OR the machinations of the devils.

  8. Reed Here said,

    October 11, 2010 at 10:52 am

    K.H., agreed.

  9. D. T. King said,

    October 11, 2010 at 11:48 am


    Here is a perspective on the subject from an ancient member of the church…

    Chrysostom (349-407): Therefore let us not seek to hear from dead people what the Scriptures teach us much more clearly every day. For if God knew that dead people by rising could help the living, He who has worked everything out for our good would not have omitted or neglected such a great benefit. Catharine P. Roth, trans., St. John Chrysostom On Wealth and Poverty, 4th Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), pp. 85-86. See also F. Allen, trans., Four Discourses of Chrysostom, Chiefly on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, 4th Sermon, §3 (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1869), pp. 97-98.

    Chrysostom (349-407), speaking of the impossibility of the dead to speak to the living: But God, forseeing all these things, has prevented such an attempt, and out of regard for us, has not permitted any one at any time to come from thence to relate to living men the things that take place there. He has taught us to regard the Holy Scriptures as more worthy of trust than everything else. For He has made certain things more clear to us than they would have been made by the resurrection of the dead; He has instructed the whole world; He has driven away error, and brought in the truth; He has, by the instrumentality of fishermen and men of no reputation, procured all these benefits, and afforded to us on all sides sufficient proofs of His own providence. F. Allen, trans., Four Discourses of Chrysostom, Chiefly on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, 4th Sermon, §3 (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1869), p. 99. Cf. Catharine P. Roth, trans., St. John Chrysostom On Wealth and Poverty, 4th Sermon (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), pp. 86-87.

  10. Reed Here said,

    October 11, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    David: wondeful! Thanks so much for this.

  11. Cris D. said,

    October 11, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    D.T.King “Here is a perspective on the subject from an ancient member of the church…” If you are correct on Chrysostom’s dates, then I take exception to your characterizing his as an ancient member of the church! Member of the ancient church, maybe… These days, some folks reaching Chrysostom’s age are just hitting stride. Just saying…

  12. Paige Britton said,

    October 12, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Hey all,
    I’d welcome some guidance on good discussion of the Transfiguration. In particular, is it necessary or relevant for us to try to figure out M & E’s after-earthly-life-state? While Elijah had been translated, we just don’t know for sure about Moses, right — and does this matter for an understanding of the event? (And is it fair to mine the event for clues about the afterlife?)

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