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