I Ain’t ‘fraid of no Ghost!

There is a lot of interest in ghosts. There are more and more “reality” television shows purporting to be investigating the truth about ghosts. If we really want to know the truth, our starting point shouldn’t be the TV we watch, the stories we hear, or people’s opinions. Our starting point should be the Word of God. So what does the Bible have to say?

First, the Bible gives no indication that people’s spirits can just hang around after death. For example, Hebrews 9:27 says, “…people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”

What about after that? Can people return from heaven or hell? A good place to start is the account of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. It should be noted that there is disagreement over whether this account describes actual events or is a parable. I think there are good reasons to believe that Jesus was recounting events that actually happened. However, for our purposes here, it doesn’t really matter. Whether or not the account is a parable, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus’ words accurately reflect the way things work in the afterlife.

Jesus tells about two people, an unnamed rich man, and a beggar named Lazarus. (This is a different man than the one of the same name that Jesus raised from the dead in John 11.) Lazarus went to paradise, while the rich man was tormented in Hades. The rich man wanted to return and warn his family so they wouldn’t end up where he was. However, because he could not, he asked if Lazarus could return to warn them. Abraham neither confirmed or denied that it was possible for Lazarus to return, but merely pointed out that it would do no good.

It seems clear that the “unrighteous dead”* can’t return. And, really, this is just common sense. If hell had an exit door, it would be empty.

But what about the “righteous dead?”* Well, that’s not quite as simple to answer. In 1 Samuel 28, King Saul asks a medium to contact Samuel from beyond the grave. It appears to work, as the medium sees a spirit that she and Saul believe to be Samuel, and receive a message of judgment.

So, did Samuel really return from the dead? The answer to that is not as clear as it might first appear. The passage does seem to confirm that the medium really did see something. There is a great deal of debate as to whether this was actually Samuel, or a demon impersonating him. I don’t think it is possible to conclusively say either way.

The Bible tells us that mediums don’t really have the ability to contact the dead. (See Isaiah 8:19, for example.) So, if Samuel did return, it wasn’t because of any special power that the medium possessed. Instead, it was an act of God.

In conclusion, it is clear that the popular idea of people’s spirits can remain on earth as ghosts has no basis in reality. Yes, the Bible is clear that there is a genuine spiritual realm, but hat doesn’t include the dead returning as ghosts. It is certainly within God’s ability to send someone back with a message, as he may have done with Samuel. However, if this does happen, it is the exception rather than the rule.

So, we don’t need to be afraid of ghosts. Also, even though there are people who claim to be able to contact the spirits of the dead, they have no real power. In fact, we are commanded not to turn to these mediums and spiritists. (See  previous entry,  Christians and the Occult and Paranormal.) There are spiritual forces out to deceive and destroy us, as long as we rely on God, we have nothing to fear.


*Note: To be clear, when I use the terms “righteous” and “unrighteous” in relation to people’s eternal destination, I am not talking about a works-based righteousness. (Isaiah 64:6) I am referring to being declared righteous based on faith alone. (Romans 4:5)

What is a Christian Response to Halloween?

jack-o-lantern

I currently am having a discussion on my Facebook page about how believers should relate to Halloween. I had a thought that was too complex for a Facebook post, so I thought I’d expand on it here. It seems to me, the more general issue is, how are Christians to respond to pagan cultures? (I am using the word “pagan” in a fairly broad sense to refer to non-Abrahamic or polytheistic religions. I am not using it in a derogatory way against individuals or people groups.)

There is a great deal of debate among Christians as to how “pagan” or “satanic” Halloween really is. Let’s lay that question aside and assume, for the sake of discussion, that it is a pagan holiday. How are believers to respond to pagan cultures and festivals?

When I approach this issue in this more general sense, I see interesting parallels between Halloween and some of my overseas missions experiences. For example, I have been to India during festivals honoring a Hindu god. It was basically a giant party, with people dancing in the street, having a good time while celebrating their god.  I didn’t feel the need to hide in my hotel room until the festival ended. To do so would have meant admitting defeat. I was there to share the love of Jesus. I believe Jesus is infinitely more powerful than any other god, so the festival was nothing for me to fear. Similarly, the presence of which doctors in Africa did not in any way give me second thoughts about going there.

At the same time, I could not wholeheartedly engage in the festivities. For example, during the Indian festival, they were throwing brightly colored paint powder on each other. I did not want any on me because it could appear that I was participating in worship of another god, and hamper my witness.

In thinking this through, a Bible passage came to mind, Acts 17. It tells of Paul engaging a pagan culture in Athens. Paul was “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16) He didn’t hide from them, but instead engaged the culture on its own terms. He used their pagan beliefs as an initial point of contact where he could build a bridge to the truth. Listen to his opening comments:

Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22-23)

As his presentation continued, he employed more of their cultural references:

As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (Acts 17:28-30)

Paul neither ran from nor embraced their culture. Instead, he used their culture as a starting point to spread the gospel. And it worked. Some people converted immediately, and others left with a positive attitude, wanting to hear more.

I see a clear mandate for the body of Christ to engage and transform the culture, and that mandate does not stop on October 31st. Just as the polytheistic religion of Athens could be used as a tool to share the gospel, Halloween can also serve as a tool for evangelism. We, as the body of Christ must not retreat from things that are pagan or even demonic. We cannot hide from the world and be a light to the world at the same time.

While I believe the biblical mandate for the body of Christ as a whole is clear, it does not follow that God calls each believer to respond in the same way. Just as God doesn’t call everyone to act as a missionary to pagan lands or cultures, he may not call everyone to engage the world on Halloween. Perhaps some believers are called to the “front lines,” while others may be called to respond in other ways, such as prayer. So, to individual believers, I say do as God leads you. However, to the body of Christ as a whole, I say we must not surrender anything to the enemy. Not even a single day.

So, what do you think? Let me know if you agree, or if  there is something I am missing.