Bible Study – Special Ghost Episode

Special Bible Study given on Halloween (N.S.); what does the Bible say about ghosts?  You might be surprised!

Check out this episode!


The Theology of Ghosts
Bible Study for 31 October 2017
Fr. Anthony Perkins

Ghost Scriptures.

Giving up the ghost.

  • Genesis 25:8. Abraham gave up the ghost. (25:17 for Ishmael; 35:29 for Isaac; 49:33 for Jacob; lots of times throughout Bible, to include the crucifixion)

The God of the Old Testament does not want competition from mediums and psychics, but wants the people to turn only to Him for answers and guidance (does not directly involve ghosts, except that necromancy is part of the lists).

  • Leviticus 19:31. Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God. (also Leviticus 20:26 & 27; Deuteronomy 18:9-12; 1 Samuel 15:22-23; 2 Chronicles: 33:6. Isaiah 8:19-20. Note that these assume that such practices are real and, at least to a certain extent, effective.
  • Galatians 5:19-21. Acts 16: 16-34 (plus Simon Magus). Revelations 22:15. Show that prohibition on witchcraft is still in effect.

God sent a “distressing spirit” to trouble (haunt?) Saul

  • 1 Samuel 16:14-19,23. St. Jerome says that God’s spirit cannot stay with Saul so God leaves him to himself; St. Basil’s take is very similar.

Examples of “ghosts” appearing (or not).

  •  I Samuel 28. Saul has a medium call up Samuel. The ghost of Samuel appears. [NOTE: The Tradition is is mixed in terms of what the implication is about the existence of ghosts.]
  • Matthew 14:26. Walking on water. Shows the disciples were scared of apparitions.
  • Mark 9:4. Transfiguration. Moses and Elijah. Appear.
  • Luke 24:39: Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit (ghost in NIV) hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.

More ideas that touch on ghosts from the New Testament

  • Philippians 1:23 (leave here to be with Christ), and Ephesians 4:8 (lead captives out of Hades) say where souls go (and there is MUCH MORE written on this topic), but there is NOTHING about spirits trapped here.
  • Matthew 22:31-32. But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. (immortality of the soul through grace)
  • Luke 16: Lazarus and the Rich Man. Not allowed to visit earth (would such ever be allowed? Not addressed).
  • Acts: Peter’s angel (such things might be seen as a ghost today).
  • 2 Corinthians 11:14-15. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works. (this one is HUGE and explains a lot, but far from all of such things; it is augmented by Ephesians 6:12 about spiritual warfare; 2 Corinthians 4:4 warns about how Satan blinds us to the Christ).
  • Hebrews 12:1 We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. (reminds us that the Body of Christ is real, and that we live in the midst of a great Mystery). It is also worth remembering that we join this cloud during the Divine Liturgy.


Additional Tradition

Saints appear to people. So do demons. One deceives, the other doesn’t (although scripture shows that people can deceive themselves about angels).

How about non-saints?

Saint Macarius spoke with a dead pagan priest through the priest’s skull. How is this different from necromancy? (It must be, but how?)

Here is an interesting (admittedly third hand; but used to make a point) story from St. Gregory’s Dialogues (IV: 55); “[The pastor of St. John church in Tauriana told Bishop Felix] that himself did use (when he had need) to wash his body in a certain place, in which there were passing hot waters: and that going thither upon a time, he found a certain man whom he knew not, ready to do him service, as to pull off his shoes, take his clothes, and to attend upon him in all dutiful manner. And when he had divers times done thus, the Priest, minding upon a day to go to the baths, began to think with himself that he would not be ungrateful to him that did him such service, but carry him somewhat for a reward, and so he took with him two singing breads: and coming thither he found the man there ready, and used his help as he was wont to do: and when he had washed himself, put on his clothes, and was ready to depart, he offered him for an holy reward that which he had brought, desiring him to take that courteously, which for charity he did give him. Then with a sad countenance, and in sorrowful manner, he spake thus unto him: “Why do you give me these, father? This is holy bread, and I cannot eat of it, for I, whom you see here, was sometime lord of these baths, and am now after my death appointed for my sins to this place: but if you desire to pleasure me, offer this bread unto almighty God, and be an intercessor for my sins: and by this shall you know that your prayers be heard, if at your next coming you find me not here.” And as he was speaking these words, he vanished out of his sight: so that he, which before seemed to be a man, shewed by that manner of departure that he was a spirit. The good Priest all the week following gave himself to tears for him, and daily offered up the holy sacrifice: and afterward returning to the bath, found him not there: whereby it appeareth what great profit the souls receive by the sacrifice of the holy oblation, seeing the spirits of them that be dead desire it of the living, and give certain tokens to let us understand how that by means thereof they have received absolution.

In Dialogues IV: 57, St. Gregory tells of a living priest whose prayers for the help of a lost mariner took his form and offered him aid. There are similar examples of bilocation in hagiography.

St. Gregory has more such stories in his dialogues(e.g. the monk who hid the three crowns; the damned man buried in the church) which show that he was, at the least, willing to use “ghost stories” (and stories involving other paranormal activity) to teach theology.

The 40 Days after Repose

  • St. John Maximovich, “A description of the first 40 days after death.” For the course of two days the soul enjoys relative freedom and can visit places on earth which were dear to it, but on the third day it moves into other spheres.”
  • St. Makarius of Alexandria (ibid; who heard it from an angel); “In the course of two days the soul is permitted to roam the earth, wherever it wills, in the company of the angels that are with it. Therefore, the soul loving the body, sometimes wanders about the house in which its body has been laid out, and thus spends two days like a bird seeking its nest. But the virtuous soul goes about those places in which it was wont to do good deeds. On the third day, He Who Himself rose from the dead on the third day, commands the Christian soul, in imitation of His Resurrection, to ascend to the Heavens to worship the God of all.” He goes on to say that this vision of heaven lasts until the 9th day, at which point the deceased spends the rest of the 40 days visiting Hades. ( Note that the Apostolic Constitutions (and modal Orthodox Tradition) are much more general about the meanings of the memorial days. THIS IS NOT GOSPEL, DOGMA, OR DOCTRINE (they are the theological opinions of saints).
  • St. John of Damascus. Funeral Service. “Alas, what an ordeal the soul endures once separated from the body! Alas, what tears then, and there is none to pity her! She turns towards the Angels, her entreaty is without effect; she stretches out her hands to men, she has none to help. Therefore my dear brethren, thinking on the shortness of our life, let us ask of Christ rest for him who has passed over, and for ourselves his great mercy.” Is this just poetical license?

BACK TO BASICS: Scripture – and even Orthodoxy – is not meant to explain everything. It describes, celebrates, and practices the glory of God and the history and economy of salvation. This means that it does not flesh everything out or describe all phenomena (normal, paranormal, spiritual, physical, or otherwise).

Other interesting subjects worthy of further discussion.

  • Demons as disembodied souls. This is given impetus by Christ’s description of how demons go through dry places looking for a new body to inhabit (Matthew 12:43-45), as well as the drowning of the nephilim in the flood (Genesis 6:4 for nephilim and Genesis 6-8 for flood). The relevant place in 1 Enoch on the nephilim has really fired folks’ imagination. According to a Jewish tradition (and also found in the early Church Fathers), the disembodied souls of the nephilim became ghosts/demons (this is not the modal Orthodox opinion, but it is out there). FWIW, Matthew 24:36-39 gets pulled in (falsely, in my opinion and that of every Orthodox theologian I have read) to say that the nephilim are still a threat.
  • Common Superstition: people wander the earth for forty days after death. This is post-hoc theologizing: 40 days Christ walked the earth; 40 days of mourning (inherited from Judaism). Greeks eat fish on the 40th day; the last day with his apostles. Lots of this kind of folk theology (see, for example, Letters from Heaven).
  • Common Superstition: cursed souls (or souls with unfinished business) haunt places. As above, there is no direct evidence. There may be places where it is easier to discern the fate of the departed; there certainly seem to be people that have such innate capabilities (?). Spiritualists have methods they use/recommend for seeing more of this kind of thing.
  • Common Superstition: departed loved ones come each year (e.g. “Holy Supper”) to visit. This is a variation on an ancient theme.
  • Common Superstition: mediums allow us to talk with the dead. This is best attributed to “familiar spirits” (i.e. demons that deceive) and simple showmanship/gullibility.
  • Can places “remember”? Perhaps; we do believe that matter is transformed by Grace (e.g. Romans 8:21).
    • Several negative examples of cursed places exist in the Old Testament. The most intriguing – of what we might call a haunting – is given in Isaiah 13:19-21 (It shall be that Babylon, called glorious by the king of the Chaldeans, will be as when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. It shall never be inhabited, nor will any enter it for many generations. Neither shall the Arabians pass through it, nor will shepherds take their rest in it. But wild animals of the desert will rest there, and their houses will be filled with noise. Sirens will rest there, and demons will dance there. Donkey centaurs will dwell there, and hedgehogs will make dens in their homes. It will come quickly and not delay.
    • More examples are found in Joshua 6:26, when Joshua curses those who would rebuild Jericho (and, presumably, Jericho itself). This curse was fulfilled in 1 Kings 16:34. Also see the treatment of Sodom and Gomorrah (e.g. Deuteronomy 29:23-25) and use as a standard for such things (Jeremiah 49:17-18; Zephaniah 2:9; Matthew 10:15; 2 Peter 2:6; Jude 1:7). [Sidenote: Hazor is to be cursed with dragons! Jeremiah 49:33)]. Tempting to give Leviticus 14:33-38 an allegorical treatment (houses left over from wicked inhabitants may end up haunted by leprosy; this will require specific treatment by a priest).
  • Are there other dimensions? This is not addressed so it can be considered and tested as with every other theory/hypothesis. It would explain a lot.
  • Are my departed family members looking out for me?Possible (saints), but guardian angels definitely do (and Tradition suggests that it’s easy confuse angels for other things).

Remember: There are more than just disembodied souls inhabiting the “spiritual realm” (Michael Heiser isawesome on this! E.g. elohim is a category for different types of spiritual beings); and; the scriptures speak of many spiritual entities: angels, gods, demons, etc. The problem is that demons are out to deceive us and can appear as whatever they want. They are con-men, we are their marks, and they have been studying us for a long time. How naive do you want to be, especially given the stakes (Matthew 10:28; “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”)?

The Theologies of Ghosts: Conclusion

Prologue: define the term: Ghost. For this, we will limit ourselves to the tangible presence of someone who has reposed.

Secular Explanations for Ghosts:

  • Skeptic Debunker: The phenomenon is a false positive. Data collection errors. Processing errors (seeing patterns). Complicated by fog and charlatans. Positives. Negatives.
  • Scientific Believer: The phenomenon is mis-specified. Multiverse. Quantum physics. The world is complex and we don’t have much of a clue about these things. Energy and information cannot be lost. Positives. Negatives.

Spiritual Explanations:

  • Fundamentalist: It is all demonic. Even the “false positives” (experiences that are just in our head) are the result of prelest (spiritual pride). There are plenty of Orthodox Christians who take this view. Positives. Negatives.
  • Traditional/Folk: Some of it is demonic, but some of it is exactly what people claim it to be: restless souls, helping souls, visiting souls. There are plenty of Orthodox Christians who take this view (sometimes mixing it with bits of the Fundamentalist view…). “T”radition and “t”radition merge. Positives. Negatives.
  • Gnostic: paranormal stuff happens all the time. You just need to attune yourself properly to experience it. With sanctification comes all kinds of powers and discernment. This one actually combines with the others, but believes in the whole range of phenomena. Practitioners ranging from mediums to gurus are examples. Positives. Negatives.
  • Orthodox Sceptic. Paranormal phenomenon is very rare. Can’t be ghosts because there is no “person” without the body. Regrets the way Tradition has been corrupted by gnostic and folk superstitions.

What do I think? I know that strange things happen. I do not believe that it is all demonic. But I also believe that ghosts are very rare. Why?

Factors against the existence ghosts.

  • The mind is flawed for this kind of thing and there really are forces trying to deceive us (for a variety of reasons).
  • There are potentially lots of things that behave like ghosts that aren’t. This includes imagination, prelest, mundane phenomena (e.g. e-m flux, imprints, multiverse), angels, demons, etc..
  • The soul does not wander after the death of the body – it awaits the Judgment and the Great Remaking. Moreover, Christ teaches (in his parable of Lazarus) that souls are not allowed to go back and teach the living. [more convincing]

Factors for the existence of ghosts.

  • Evidence from Scripture (Witch of Endor, appearance of Elijah and esp. Moses at the Transfiguration), and lots of anecdotal data. Plus the fact that some saints/fathers seem to have accepted the existence of ghosts [but I would remain agnostic if this were the only evidence – see quote from Archbishop Puhalo in “Out of Body Experiences: The Orthodox Christian Teaching”].
  • The many examples of saints appearing to people. Saints are not thought of as “ghosts”, but they fit the criteria we are using. How is it that incorporeal saints appear to people? The Orthodox teachings (i.e. Patristic commentaries) on the Transfiguration give a hint at this Mystery: e.g. these people exist “in Christ” and can appear to those who are also “in Christ”; God’s “plentitude” allows for anything; they could be post-Eschaton visitations. Throw in the theology of icons and communication w/ departed saints and you pretty much have a slam-dunk for the existence of this specific subset of “ghosts”. [very convincing]

So where does this leave me?

A balance of skepticism and humility, grounded on the reality of the Orthodox faith, mean that while we know the most important thing (and will grow in this knowledge as God perfects us), there are many things that simply are not addressed by this faith.

There is a lot about this world that we just do not understand. It’s best to place our faith firmly on those things we do know (and rightly believe) and use Christian virtues (to include “bearing the burdens of the weak” and a commitment to honest investigation) to guide our positions on the rest.