This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #465, on the subject of Believing in Ghosts.
In Matthew 14:26 we are told that the disciples, caught in a storm on the water, saw Jesus walking on the waves coming toward them and thought He was a ghost. (We find the same statement in Mark 6:49.) This raised a question: Did they believe in ghosts? Do we? Should we?
The question was raised by a long-time friend and reader who sometimes brings questions about the Bible and faith to me (notably, the question about The Abomination of Desolation). I had recently commented in an article elsewhere that many people do believe in ghosts, and not just those who, like the cowardly lion, are faced with frightening events they don’t understand. Our world even has professional ghost hunters who are fully persuaded that there is something real about these phenomena, and that they know what it is.
Of course, we have many who disbelieve, as well. C. S. Lewis commented (in Miracles: A Preliminary Study) that he knew someone who had actually seen a ghost, but that the witness did not believe in ghosts either before or after that sighting.
The Greek word in this passage is the one from which we get the word “phantasm”, and etymologically derives from a word for light to suggest something that appears, something that can be seen but has no substance. “Ghost” is a good translation for it. It is not used in any other passage in the New Testament, but it fits here quite well: if you were in a small fishing boat on an inland sea in a storm, and through the rain and the winds you thought you saw a person striding atop the waves, you would be fairly certain it could not be a physical body and so probably identify it as some kind of spirit entity. That, though, begs the question: did they believe this was what we normally identify as a “ghost”, that is, the spirit of a departed person? That matters to my questioner, because he was concerned about the Old Testament proscriptions against communicating with the dead. The fact that they recognized something as an apparation does not necessarily mean they believed it to be a ghost in that sense.
Also, what they believed might not be relevant. After all, in this case we know they were wrong–what they saw was not a ghost, but the living, breathing body of Jesus walking on the water. The fact that they may have believed ghosts to exist when faced with something they did not understand does not mean that ghosts actually do exist.
On the other hand, it is difficult to read I Samuel 28, where King Saul visits a woman in Endor said to have the ability to contact the dead, and so has her connect him with the spirit of the deceased prophet, and not conclude that the Bible appears to teach some kind of survival of the spirits of the dead in some form. That’s not quite the same thing as a spirit roaming the world or haunting its locale, but it is something we might call a ghost. A belief in ghosts is not opposed to our faith.
And those prohibitions don’t say we can’t believe ghosts are real; it says we shouldn’t have any contact with them. The prohibition against communicating with the dead would be rather foolish if it were not possible, and although it might be reduced to a command not to allow anyone to dupe you into believing you were speaking to the departed, that’s not the feeling we get from it. It is certainly within the realm of our faith that we could believe in ghosts and keep our distance from them.
Again, though, many of prohibitions in the Old Testament Law were targeting the religions of other nations, and this has the hallmarks of one of them. Ancestor worship was a common practice, and witches were people who sought to contact spirits other than God, which included demons and angels but also those of the departed, as part of religious practice. We don’t contact spirits other than God because there is no good reason to do so. As I have said in my book Why I Believe, there might be many spirits out there, but we are not well equipped to determine which ones might be benign and which might have motivations for compromising us in ways that make sense in a spirit realm beyond our understanding. It is better to stay clear of ghosts and apparitions and spirits, simply because we can’t know which ones can be trusted. It might seem nice enough, but then even among humans the ones who seem nice enough are frequently the con artists and sometimes the serial killers.
I don’t believe Christians either must or must not believe in the existence of ghosts, and in our grace-based lives it is not particularly relevant whether we have any contact with them. What the original disciples believed about ghosts is similarly not relevant to what we should believe about them. What matters is that our trust is in God, and not in spirits no matter who or what they claim to be. It is better to stay clear of any such spirit, not because it is dangerous but because we don’t know what it is or what its motivation might be, and if it tells us things we don’t already know, we can’t know when it lies.
I’m not sure whether this answers the question completely, but I hope it helps.