You don’t have to dig far to find a ghost story. This friend’s aunt was visited by her dead mother; that person has a friend who grew up near a haunted house. There are even ghost stories on the edges of the Scriptures.
The disciples think they see a ghost when Jesus is walking past them on the Sea of Galilee (Matt. 14:26) or when He appeared in the upper room after His resurrection (Luke 24:37–39). In a particularly strange incident, King Saul visits a medium in Endor, and she summons a spirit that claims to be Samuel (1 Sam. 28:8–20; for more information, see the Concordia Commentary on 1 Samuel). Eliphaz, Job’s friend, is visited by a ghost at night (Job 4:12–17). We will talk about this text more in a moment.
Let’s quickly clear up a few things.
First, we believe ghosts exist. A person’s soul continues on even after it is separated from its body by death. When we die, our souls continue living, waiting for the resurrection when our souls will be reunited to our bodies.
Second, we do not believe that ghosts, the disembodied souls of the dead, are hanging around this earth. Jesus tells a story about Lazarus and the rich man. Both die. The angels carry Lazarus to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man is taken to hell. Neither remain on earth. In fact, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to preach to his brothers, and it is forbidden (Luke 16:19–31). The souls of the dead do not remain on earth.
Third, the Lord’s people are strictly forbidden from attempting to communicate with the dead. This abuses our Lord’s name. (“We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name” [SC I].) Specifically, consider Deuteronomy 18:10–12:
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 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 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.
(See also Isaiah 8:19–20 and Micah 5:12.)
If these are true, what do we make of all the ghost stories, all the experiences of people being visited by the dead? Are these simply delusions? Perhaps some are, but there might be more to discern if we listen to what the specters preach.
Consider, for example, the ghost story that Eliphaz tells Job (4:12–21):
Now a word was brought to me stealthily;
my ear received the whisper of it.
Amid thoughts from visions of the night,
when deep sleep falls on men,
dread came upon me, and trembling,
which made all my bones shake.
A spirit glided past my face;
the hair of my flesh stood up.
It stood still,
but I could not discern its appearance.
A form was before my eyes;
there was silence, then I heard a voice:
This is a creepy story. Eliphaz should bring comfort to Job in his mourning and affliction, but instead he brings the message of a ghost. And what does the ghost preach?
Can mortal man be in the right before God?
Can a man be pure before his Maker?
Even in his servants he puts no trust,
and his angels he charges with error;
how much more those who dwell in houses of clay,
whose foundation is in the dust,
who are crushed like the moth.
Between morning and evening they are beaten to pieces;
they perish forever without anyone regarding it.
Is not their tent-cord plucked up within them,
do they not die, and that without wisdom?
This ghost comes to Eliphaz and denies the Gospel. This ghost says that it is impossible for a sinner to be right before God. This ghost preaches despair. This ghost, it turns out, is a demon, and we know it by the false doctrine.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
A Lutheran perspective
This assessment of ghost stories turns up in our Lutheran Confessions.
Luther notices the pattern of ghosts showing up to asking for alms, masses for the dead and other rituals that denied the sufficiency of the saving work of Jesus.
Evil spirits have produced many wicked tricks by appearing as the souls of the departed (1 Samuel 28), and with unspeakable lies and tricks demanded Masses, vigils, pilgrimages, and other alms.
(SA II II 16)
Luther doesn’t hesitate to identify the ghosts as demons, “evil spirits,” and he recognized them by their teaching. If a ghost requires an indulgence to free them from purgatory, then that ghost is a deceiving spirit.
Martin Chemnitz recounts in greater detail the ghost stories that supported the false teaching of purgatory. (See the Examination of the Council of Trent, vol. 3, Third Topic, Concerning Purgatory, Section 2, the History of Purgatory, chapters 8–10 [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986], 288–306.)
Therefore Gregory introduced into the church a different, new method of proving and confirming dogmas of faith, namely to seek the truth from the dead, which however God clearly and expressly prohibited in Scripture. (288–89)
[W]hen ghosts had once been admitted to the teaching office of the church, fables of apparitions and visions without end and measure were heaped up. (292)
On the basis of these specters, and not on the basis of Scripture, the papalists have established the whole structure of their purgatory. (301)Examination of the Council of Trent, vol. 3, Third Topic, Concerning Purgatory, Section 2, the History of Purgatory, chapters 8–10 [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986], 288–306
The essential question: What do the ghosts preach?
In our day, at least from the stories I’ve heard, the ghosts are not preaching purgatory. Their false teaching has a different flavor.
Some preach that there is light and peace for everyone after death, denying the truth of the Lord’s judgment. Some demand action to right a wrong, denying the reconciliation work of Jesus on the cross. Some preach despair, telling the living that they have been abandoned by God, denying the promise of Jesus to forgive all our sins and carry us through life and death to eternal life with Him.
In all these ways, the ghosts bring a doctrine of demons and show themselves to be spirits of darkness and deception. We trust in Christ. We believe in His Word. We live in the confidence that the Light has come into the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
And we are not afraid of the ghost, of the demons, of the devil. We resist him, and he flees (James 4:7). He is overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the Word of God (Rev. 12:11).
If someone has a ghost story, we don’t necessarily deny that they might have seen something fantastic or heard something difficult to explain, but we listen to what the ghost says, and we recognize the voice of the devil, tempting us away from the Word of God. We have a better story, the history of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, the confidence that sinners can be made right with God, have been made right with God, and that through the work of our Savior and Lord and friend, Jesus Christ, we have been saved.
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