Who doesn’t love a good ghost story?
Now, who doesn’t love a good ghost story? Perhaps there are some sitting before me who have never enjoyed them…but I’ve always liked tales involving other-worldly beings.
For instance, I can still remember back in third grade when Mrs. Edwards would read to us from horror books written for kids. Or how about “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”–a television series about a cantankerous…and dead…New England captain not to keen on sharing his house with the young family that has moved in? How many were surprised by the end of the “Sixth Sense?”…which gave us the famous (and oft used comedically) line, “I see dead people”? Even my favorite film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” technically has a ghost–Clarence Oddbody doesn’t become an angel until after he gets his wings…and only George Bailey is able to see him.
My guess is that the average person loves a good ghost story…
[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the "extras" that come out in the audio (which is available here). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]
So, “Why?” you ask, “Are you preaching about Ghosts?” Well, last Saturday after dropping Mikey off for work I looped around the back of the police station, stopped before turning onto Main Street, and what did I see? Two huge banners on Maplehurst Inn proclaiming:
GHOST HUNTERS COMING
TO THE MAPLEHURST INN
My immediate reaction was, “That’s great news…both the Inn and Antrim can use the publicity.” But then I thought about it a bit…is it good that people believe in ghosts? Should shows like “Ghost Hunters” be encouraging it? Do ghosts exist? If so, what are they?
Now…I can’t say all those questions popped into my head at that very moment…but I realized that no, I didn’t really think it was good news that that show was coming to town. Yes, everyone likes a ghost story…but Ghost Hunters doesn’t treat them as fiction…they are looking for the real thing. (Now I’m not saying that everyone who watches the show believes in ghosts…I suppose, like with WWF wrestling, many just assume it’s all fake and enjoy it as fictional entertainment.)
(Please note: if you click on the image you can get a larger version.)
What does the Bible say?
So…with Halloween a week away (and Ghost Hunters’ visit past)…let’s turn to Scripture together to see whether my initial reaction…or the one that soon followed…is correct.
What is a ghost?
I suppose before we can do that we do need to agree what a ghost is. The easiest way to define it is to say it is the spirit of a dead person. However, most Christians believe that when we die our spirit either goes to heaven or hell (or some temporary non-temporal middle ground)…so I would also add that to be a ghost…you would have to be the spirit of a dead person hanging out here on earth. We would not call the spirit of a dead saint in heaven is a ghost.
Now…if you want to do a word study of “ghost” in the Bible, probably best to avoid using the King James Version. Do you know why? That’s right…it uses “Holy Ghost” instead of “Holy Spirit”…so you get way too many hits.
Most modern versions end up with just a few uses of the word. The English Standard Version, for instance, only has three…and the first two are speaking of the same incident:
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. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:26-27)
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” (Mark 6:48-50).
Basically Jesus is walking on water, His disciples see Him, and they think He is a ghost.
But Jesus…kind and caring as ever…”immediately” says, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
From this this incident we know is that the disciples believed in ghosts…not that there are ghosts. And before you conclude that the apostle’s belief in ghosts mean they exist…please remember the other misperceptions they had the Bible records. For instance, how did that earthly kingdom they were expecting go?
The New Revised Standard Version adds a couple more New Testament uses of the word ghost, but it’s a similar context:
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:36-39, NRSV).
Basically, being thick as a brick, the disciples didn’t pick up that Jesus was going to be resurrected, so the first time they saw Him after his death they, understandably (but wrongly), thought he was a ghost.
Now…in this case Jesus Himself seems to confirm there are ghosts: “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
Here, however, we have to discuss proper logic. Just because someone speaks to someone else’s belief does not mean they are confirming that belief. It is normal for people to take this approach. For example, a liberal might say to a conservative, “To end welfare you must pay for training and daycare so people can learn the skills they need for a job.” In making that statement the liberal isn’t saying they think welfare should go away…just using it to make a point.
Even theologically we can see this in action. Providing an argument for the resurrection (Christ’s and ours), in 1 Corinthians 15:29 Paul asks, “Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” Unless you are a Mormon, you are unlikely to believe that Paul was saying we should be baptized for the dead…Paul was making another point.
As was Jesus…who, in both cases…was just saying, “I am not some disembodied spirit like you think.”
Heading back to the English Standard Version, we find it’s final “ghost” verse back in the Old Testament:
And you will be brought low; from the earth you shall speak,
and from the dust your speech will be bowed down;
your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost,
and from the dust your speech shall whisper (Isaiah 29:4).
Basically Isaiah is using a ghostly voice metaphor to tell Jerusalem how they were going to be after being sieged. No more a boastful city…but one that is brought low with bowed down speech.
And once again, just because the Bible speaks of ghosts doesn’t mean ghosts exist…if anything, the fact that after three references I’ve exhausted the word in the ESV, the lack of ghost references speak louder for a “biblical” belief against the existence of ghosts than the few verses speak for it.
Saul and Samuel
However, I would be being deceptive if I didn’t share what I believe is the Bible’s only “true” ghost story. It’s a bit long to read the entire narrative, but it can be found in 1 Samuel 28. We’ll only look at verses 8 through 14:
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 in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage.
As much as I would like to say that it was a demon pretending to be Samuel, the natural reading does have the ghost of Samuel speaking with Saul…and I don’t think the writer (or the God who inspired him) intended people to assume otherwise.
That’s it! The gate is open! Everyone dead from the beginning of time is roaming the earth, haunting local inns, and watching every move you make!
We probably should slow down a bit. Let’s also remember that God once had a donkey talk to help make a very important point to Balaam (Numbers 22:28, 30). Since that happened once in the Bible, should we all start consulting donkey-whisperers to see if they can get the Kendalls’ mule on Elm Avenue to say a couple words?
Of course not! 🙂
God is a being who is more than willing to use irony to make a point, and isn’t it ironic that just before sharing Saul’s visit to the medium at Endor it says this?:
Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the necromancers out of the land (1 Samuel 28:3).
So…the very same Saul who was expelling people who talk to the dead went to someone to…talk to the dead! And…who better than Samuel could God use to tell Saul he blew it and his time was up? Personally I kind of wish our Lord hadn’t done it this way (because of the confusion it causes), but I trust He knew what was best both in doing it and recording it. But, the Bible makes it very, very clear that Saul should not have:
13 So Saul died for his breach of faith. He broke faith with the LORD in that he did not keep the command of the LORD, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance. 14 He did not seek guidance from the LORD. Therefore the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse (1 Chronicles 10:13-14).
Saul died, in great part, because he sought guidance from a medium, not God…and the Scripture could not be clearer that we shouldn’t try to speak with the dead:
Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 19:31).
If a person turns to mediums and necromancers, whoring after them, I will set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people. 7 Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 20:6-7).
“A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them” (Leviticus 20:27).
There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). (The NRSV says, “…or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead.”)
And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? 20 To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn (Isaiah 8:19-20). (The NRSV says, “Now if people say to you, ‘Consult the ghosts and familiar spirits that chirp and mutter…’”)
As you can see…we find plenty of cases where the Bible condemns speaking with the dead…but none that describe it positively.
What are ghosts?
We are close to the end of our sermon…but technically I haven’t said whether ghosts are real or not. Personally, I am skeptical…I do know from the the Bible that God can choose to have a saint from old show up in physical (think the transfiguration attended by Moses and Elijah) or non-physical form (as in the case of Samuel)…but once again I think the lack of “ghost stories” in the Bible speaks volumes about the likelihood my mom and dad could be sitting in the pews with you…not to mention that for all the talk of heaven and hell it never talks about anyone hanging around the planet Earth.
And…if there are ghosts…one thing is clear…you should never, ever, ever, ever try to talk to them. Have you wondered why God was so specific about this? Why He even commanded “mediums and necromancers” put to death? (Leviticus 20:27)
First…if I am right…and there is no such thing…just like worshiping idols is worshiping nothing…consulting ghosts is consulting nothing.
Well…I stand corrected…the Bible makes it clear when we worship idols who we are worshiping:
What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons (1 Corinthians 10:19:20).
They served their idols,
which became a snare to them.
37 They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to the demons (Psalm 106:36-37)
16 They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods;
with abominations they provoked him to anger.
17 They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
to gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,
whom your fathers had never dreaded (Deuteronomy 32:16-17).
When you offer, or serve, or sacrifice to idols or false Gods you are sacrificing to demons.
Keeping that in mind, here is an interesting translation in Keil and Delitzsch’s Commentary on the Old Testament of that ghost verse I shared from Isaiah:
“And I encamp in a circle round about thee, and surround thee with watch-posts, and erect tortoises against thee. And when brought down thou wilt speak from out of the ground, and thy speaking will sound low out of the dust; and thy voice cometh up like that of a demon from the ground, and thy speaking will whisper out of the dust.”1
“And thy voice cometh up like that of a demon from the ground.” I would suggest just just as offering to an idol is offering to a demon, consulting a ghost is consulting a demon. Break open that Ouija board and you are, if you get any answer at all, consulting the Devil’s angels. Visit that fortune teller, and you are seeking advice from Satan’s emissary. Check your horoscope to see what kind of day you are going to have and you digesting Lucifer’s words.
Do you really want to consult “a murderer from the beginning” who is “father of lies”? (John 8:44)
“Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking [you] to devour” (1 Peter 5:8) Resist him (1 Peter 5:9)…and, unlike Saul, seek your guidance from the Lord…no matter how much you like a good ghost story!
1Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F. (2002). Commentary on the Old Testament. (Is 29:1–4). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.