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OPINION - Ghosts, the afterlife, and paranormal in the Bible

Matt Arnold, editor of the Christian Parapsychologist Journal, shares his thoughts on what the Bible has to say about the paranormal.

Read time: 9 minutes and 30 seconds

The rise of interest in ghosts and the paranormal continues to gather pace across the world. Streaming Media, podcasts, books and TV shows have recognised this zeitgeist and helped maintain its momentum into mainstream public perception. It seems almost everyone has or knows of someone with a story of encountering spooky phenomena, whether hauntings, poltergeists, or the visitation of departed loved ones shortly after leaving this life (after-death communications, ADCs). With a burgeoning interest in such spiritual matters, many Christians have been conspicuously silent in this field, brushing the subject aside as either psychological phenomena at best or demonic at worst. Why is this the case and how can we think sensibly and biblically in this area?

Many people are under the impression that the Bible has nothing to say about the subject of ghosts and the paranormal.

Many people are under the impression that the Bible has nothing to say about the subject of ghosts and the paranormal, and many Christians have become functionally agnostic when it comes to the supernatural in the Bible. They may still believe in supernatural events such as the creation, virgin birth, miracles of Jesus and the second coming of Christ, but when it comes to the paranormal, the Bible is often perceived as either silent or only ever condemnatory of such phenomena.

One root cause of this lack of belief in the paranormal is the Reformation, which began with Martin Luther arguing against the use of selling ‘indulgences’ by the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s strategy here was straightforward: use the Bible to argue against the existence of an afterlife of conscious torment in purgatory, from which they could be released by indulgences; thereby removing the need for them. Instead, his belief that the physically dead were sleeping a ‘deep and dreamless sleep’, gave much of the Church the doctrine of ‘soul-sleep’.

However, not all Reformers bought into this, believing the intermediate state was a place where the dead were conscious of their surroundings. Calvin in particular wrote a strongly argued tract called Psychopannychia which attacked what he perceived as the heresy of ‘soul-sleep’.

The idea of ‘soul-sleep’ is still held in many parts of the Church today, and in different forms.

The idea of ‘soul-sleep’ is still held in many parts of the Church today, and in different forms. Many Christians prefer not to discuss the intermediate state of the physically dead, looking only for the resurrection and the ‘life-after-the-afterlife’. The belief of many goes that if the Bible doesn’t say much about the afterlife, then exploring it is surely fruitless.

The diversity of opinions about the afterlife within the Western Christian Tradition created the context within which Spiritualism flourished, with its promises of answers regarding the afterlife. Spiritualism saw a renaissance after the two World Wars. Around this time, relatives were having spiritual encounters with their loved ones who had died in far-flung battlefields, a phenomenon termed ‘after-death communication’. Often these accounts were dismissed by the clergy as either a figment of the imagination, mental health issues, or worse, demonic impersonations that should be rejected. To those experiencing ADCs, Spiritualism appeared to listen and provide answers when many ministers were dismissive of them.

Whilst the Catholic Church always maintained the belief that prayers for the departed could be effectual, the Protestant/Anglican Church rejected this. After battlefield chaplains argued their benefit pastorally for those left behind, the Anglican Church eventually relented regarding prayers for the dead. However, prayer for the dead has been off-limits for the Protestant Church possibly because of the links to the causes of the Reformation. The words “Rest in Peace” (a simple prayer for the dead found in some of the very earliest Christian epitaphs) are often written on gravestones by those of many denominations, not necessarily due to any belief in praying for the dead, but simply as a condolence and comfort for those still alive.

The diversity of opinions about the afterlife within the Western Christian Tradition created the context within which Spiritualism flourished.

As a result, many modern Christians have been left without a voice in society’s milieu of the paranormal. This would be bewildering for the 1st Century Judeo-Christian, steeped in cultural backgrounds that included accounts of spirits of the dead, ghouls and other paranormal issues. It is important to realise that when we interpret the Bible, we should always remember that the Bible wasn’t written to us 21st Century people, but was written to the readers of the time. The words of its writers had meanings which were embedded in their cultures, and they were happy to use these to convey deeper truths.

If we look at the Hebrew word Sheol, it is almost exclusively used to denote the realm of the underworld, a gloomy existence (Job 10:21-22), where the immaterial part of a person resides. It was a fortress-like prison with bars (Job 17:16) and gates (Psalms 9:13), where one was gathered together with one’s ancestors, tribe and nation. It was known as the ‘shadow of death’ (Psalm 23:4) and the place of no return (Job 10:21).

Except… it was believed the dead could return … under certain conditions, such as being killed in an accident or murdered. Right near the start of the Bible, Abel’s blood cried ‘from the ground’ (Genesis 4:10-11) - imagery of him demanding justice, which the souls of the martyrs under the heavenly altar in Revelation 6:9-11 also demand. They could also be summoned by a ‘ghost master/mistress’ who would use an ‘ob (translated as ‘ghost’ in Isaiah 8:19 NRSV) to go into the underworld and bring up whomever one wished to contact. The ghost of Samuel at Endor (1 Samuel 28) is the prime example of this, where it is clear from the text this was no impersonating demon. The Septuagint translators also believed this was Samuel (1 Chronicles 10:13-14; Sirach 46:9-10).

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Christianity OPINION - Ghosts, the afterlife, and paranormal in the Bible
Ghosts appear many times in the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible.

Ghosts appear many times in the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible. Having already learned of the ‘ob, the ‘oberim were spirits who traverse the worlds of the living and the dead (Ezekiel 39:11-16). In Isaiah 19:3 the word ittim is a cognate of the Akkadian ettemu (ghost). Rephaim is cognate with the Akkadian rp’um, understood as the spirits of the departed (Psalms 88:10; Proverbs 21:16), even royalty, who would rise from Sheol to meet other dying royalty (Isaiah 14:9).

The disciples twice unexpectedly encounter Jesus and believe he is a ghost: when he’s walking on water (Matthew 14:26), and when he appears in the upper room (Luke 24:37,39). Jesus could have taken the opportunity to say ghosts were not a reality, but he implicitly affirms their belief in ghosts.

The afterlife in the New Testament is found in Jesus’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Here he speaks of it to warn the Pharisees (who believed in the afterlife, spirits and angels) of torments awaiting them if they did not repent of their attitude towards money. Parables are always based in reality: well-sown seeds grow and wisely invested money accrues interest. It is only by reading the text with an a priori commitment to no active afterlife that one would dismiss this as Jesus teaching about the afterlife.

The disciples twice unexpectedly encounter Jesus and believe he is a ghost.

Jesus even goes on to speak with the long physically dead Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-3), where the veil between worlds is thin enough for the disciples to peer through and see Jesus, Moses and Elijah speaking together. This should not be unusual considering God is the God of the living, not the dead, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – words spoken by Jesus (Mark 12:26-27). It should be noted that seeing through to the unseen realm occurred previously in the Old Testament when Elisha asked God to open his servant's eyes to see the heavenly host protecting their town (2 Kings 6:15-17).

Between Jesus’ death and resurrection, we read of his descent into Hades (Acts 2:27,31). He wages war on the ‘gates of Hades’ (Matthew 16:18), conquering Death and Hades and taking their keys of authority over the realm of the dead (Revelation 1:18). In the underworld, Jesus preaches to the fallen angels in prison and to the spirits of the dead that they might receive the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 3:18-4:6). Such teaching formed part of the earliest atonement model called Christus Victor. Some traditions call this the Harrowing of Hell (Hades). It also forms part of the Apostle’s Creed - ‘[Jesus] was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into Hell [Hades]’ - widely accepted as one of the three major creeds of the Christian Church.

When we study the Bible ... we discover it has a great deal to say about human spirits, the afterlife and the paranormal.

When we study the Bible, learning the literary, historical, cultural and theological contexts of its books, we discover it has a great deal to say about human spirits, the afterlife and the paranormal. Many interpret certain Biblical texts as speaking of an intermediate state with the conscious spirits of the dead as an unseen reality, where they await their resurrection and unification with a physical body. It also warns against intentionally attempting to contact the dead for divinatory purposes. And whilst initiating contact is forbidden, those who do make contact with us should be tested (1 John 4:1), discerning how we should ensure they are dealt with in the right manner. This discernment feeds into the Church's historical practise of ghost laying, which sought to bring healing and wholeness to the unquiet dead, and is something still practised today by some involved in deliverance ministry.

Rather than being afraid of the dead, or ignoring them, we can go back to discover how the earliest Christians understood the unseen realm, because it has much that speaks into people’s experiences today.

  1. Indulgences are found in the Roman Catholic Church, and are used to buy remission from punishment for the souls of loved ones which are said to reside in an afterlife place called ‘purgatory’
  2. Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.
  3. Hades is the Greek word for Sheol in the Septuagint, used in the New Testament for the afterlife realm.
  4. Personifications of the lords of the underworld (see Hosea 13:14; c.f. 1 Corinthians 15:55).
  5. Christus Victor is C.S. Lewis’ basis for Aslan’s atoning death and resurrection in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.


Bass, J. W. (2014), The Battle for the Keys, Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster.

Byrne, G. (2010), Modern Spiritualism and the Church of England, 1850 – 1939, Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press.

Heiser, M. S. (2015), The Unseen Realm, Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Pearson, F. B. (1938), ‘Sheol and Hades in Old and New Testament’, Review & Expositor, 35:3, pp. 304-314.

Schmidt, B. B. (1996), Israel’s Beneficent Dead: Ancestor Cult and Necromancy in Ancient Israelite Religion and Tradition, Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Van der Toorn, K., Van der Horst, P. W., Becking, R. (Eds.) (1998), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Leiden, NL: Brill

Matt Arnold is the editor of the Christian Parapsychologist Journal (a publication of The Churches Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies – ) and researcher / writer for the website Ghosts, Ghouls and God – He regularly speaks and lectures on all things strange and spooky in the Bible.