The belief in ghosts has always been a part of the human condition.
While believing in revenants, poltergeists, phantoms, and ghostly apparitions may seem passé in this hyper-rational and scientific age, the truth is it’s just as prevalent in the twenty-first century AD as it was in the twenty-first century BC.
And what about ghosts in the Bible? After all, the Holy Writ is the spiritual and historical touchstone that transcends human generations. It has a great deal to say about the creation of the world and the universe, as well as what awaits us on the other side of the veil of death.
So it’s not surprising that the Good Book touches upon the paranormal in all its myriad facets—including the matter of ghosts.
Ghosts in Ancient Christian Tradition
Do Christians believe in ghosts? That is a question that is entirely dependent upon the personal beliefs and convictions of each practicing Christian, whether of the Roman Catholic Church, or smaller evangelical churches like Parkway Fellowship Church.
But if the question is generalized to include the religion itself, then there is ample evidence from Christian history to demonstrate a belief in ghostly phenomena. So before we tackle the matter of ghosts in the Bible, let’s look at what ancient Christian tradition says about ghosts and supernatural activity.
St. Isidore of Seville
Among the earliest Christians to write about ghosts and their activities was the seventh-century encyclopedist St. Isidore of Seville (AD ca. 560-636).
As Bishop of Seville, St. Isidore had access to the rich literary resources of the ancient world. He strove to preserve this knowledge as the Dark Ages descended on Europe, and in doing so shaped Catholics’ beliefs for centuries to come.
In the Origines, his great encyclopedia, St. Isidore wrote of malevolent “ghosts,” or Larvae as the Romans called them, which were the revenants of evil men. He also notes that it was in the nature of these specters to “terrere parvulos et in angulis garrire tenebrosis”—”frighten small children and gibber in dark corners” (VIII:11.101).
The Larvae and Lemures were the evil ghosts of ancient Roman tradition. So it’s evident that at least some aspects of old pagan beliefs about ghostly apparitions lingered on among the newly Christianized populations of Dark Age Europe.
Tales of Hauntings by Early Saints
There’s also a rich tradition in Christian literature and hagiography of hauntings and the exorcism of ghosts.
For instance, St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) recounts the story of the wealthy landowner Hesperius in his famous De Civitate Dei. Hesperius and his family were beset by evil spirits, but these were finally exorcised through the intervention of a local priest.
Then there are the plentiful tales of ghostly hauntings in the early hagiographic works, such as the Life of St. Theodore of Sykeon. Active in the Eastern Roman Empire just before the Persian invasions of the Seventh Century, St. Theodore’s life is positively lousy with ghostly hauntings.
St. Theodore was a bit of a wonder-worker and had frequent encounters with troublesome ghosts and noisome specters. One story involves the saint banishing a group of “foul spirits” from the city of Herakleia. Another has him exorcising a spirit from a young boy, which pushes itself out of his mouth in the form of a giant black insect.
Ghosts in the Bible
So it would seem that ghosts are a pretty common theme in early Christian literature. But what does the Bible say about ghosts? Let’s look at some of the better-known ghost tales in the Holy Book:
The Story of the Witch of Endor
Perhaps the most famous ghost story in the Bible is found in 1 Samuel 28:7-20. In this book, we find King Saul in sore distress over his war with the Philistines. He has been forsaken by God and is desperately seeking divine counsel.
So he consults what we might term a medium or psychic: the famous Witch of Endor. The medium is understandably reluctant because her profession has been outlawed in the land upon pain of death. But Saul assures her that he will not punish her, and she calls up the shade of the prophet Samuel.
“And Saul disguised himself and put on other raiment, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night…Then said the woman, Whom shall I bring up unto thee? And he said, Bring me up Samuel…And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw Gods ascending out of the earth” (8-13).
It’s a strange passage and bears more than a passing resemblance to those Greek and Roman stories of Odysseus and Aeneas consulting the shades of the dead in the underworld. Or, for that matter, the consultation of the Thessalian witch Erichtho by Sextus Pompeius in Lucan’s De Bello Civili.
Ghosts in the New Testament
Ghosts do make a few appearances in the New Testament. However, this is mostly in the context of the disciples supposing that Jesus is a ghost, a notion that is quickly dispelled by the Lord Himself.
For instance, when Jesus walks upon the waters of the Sea of Galilee, his disciples fear that it is a ghost:
“And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear” (Matthew 14:25-26).
Later, after the Resurrection, Jesus must assure his astonished disciples that he is not a ghost: “And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you…But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit” (Luke 24:36-37).
Clearly, the disciples lived in a milieu in which the belief in ghosts was prevalent. Nevertheless, it often falls to Jesus to chide them and disabuse them of this belief.
God and the Paranormal
So what have we learned about ghosts in the Bible? Mainly, the Good Book is remarkably silent about the whole matter…although the shades of the departed do occasionally appear from time to time.
Little of Christian ghost lore derives from the Bible itself. Much of it descends from pre-Christian tradition and folklore, and the anecdotes and musings of prominent theologians.
But there’s plenty of paranormal activity, ghostly and otherwise, to explore in the world, both ancient and modern. Be sure to check out more paranormal stories at Infinity Explorer.
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