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)

It’s a Demon!

Gargoyle

One question I am asked fairly often is whether some of the magicians on TV use demonic power to accomplish their feats–particularly levitation. People also ask me whether demons enable psychics to know the future.  So in this second post in my series on the occult and paranormal, I thought I’d briefly address the topic of demons.

People have a lot of ideas about what demons can do, but where are we getting our information? Does the Bible indicate that demons can make people or objects levitate? Does the Bible tell us that demons know the future? Unfortunately, I think our understanding of demons is based more on Hollywood than Scripture.

So what does scripture really say about Satan and demons? A good place to start is Jesus’ own words in John 8:44, that the devil is “a liar and the father of lies.” So Satan is a deceiver. (And I think it is reasonable to say the same about demons in general.)  So is it possible that displays of demonic power are, at least in some cases, nothing but deception? As an entertainer using stage magic, I can appear to levitate people and objects. Through entirely natural means, I can seem to foretell the future. 2 Thessalonians 2:9 talks about Satan using what would be literally translated as “lying wonders.” The New Living Translation puts it this way, “This man will come to do the work of Satan with counterfeit power and signs and miracles.” In at least this instance, the power is fake! Isn’t it likely that Satan is using “lying wonders” or “counterfeit miracles” today?

As a magician, I can say that I have never seen any levitation or predictions of the future that couldn’t be accomplished entirely by natural means. That is not to say that there is no demonic influence. I am only saying that the supposed manifestation of power is not necessarily what it appears.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am not arguing that demons have no power. Scripture clearly says otherwise. Satan is “like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) I am in no way suggesting that demons are harmless. As we are reminded in Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

What I am saying is that our beliefs about demons, and the spirit realm in general, need to be based on the truth presented in Scripture, not movies and popular culture. While Satan and demons are genuinely powerful, they ate finite created beings. They are not all-powerful or all-knowing. We do not need to live in fear of them. The Bible is clear that we should fear God alone. (Matthew 10:28).

Christians and the Occult and Paranormal

Ever since we had a discussion about psychics on my page on Facebook, I’ve wanted to write a series of blog entries on this topic. It’s been a while, but I finally have some time to get started, so here goes:

Our culture is extremely interested in the “paranormal.” As an example, consider all the “reality”  television shows that are on the air now dealing with this topic. I recently came across an interesting study from Baylor University, entitled What Americans Really Believe. (Here’s a Wall Street Journal article about the study.) Its from 2008, so it’s a few years old. It shows that people with no religious faith and members of more liberal denominations are much more likely to believe in the paranormal and pseudoscience than evangelical Christians. 31% of people who never attended worship services believed in things like  ghosts, communication with the dead, dreams that foretell the future, and Bigfoot. However, only 8% of those who attend worship services weekly  believe in these sorts of things.

I think illustrates shows how the paranormal serves as a substitute for the genuine spiritual. I believe everyone has a need for a connection with something beyond the natural. While I’m not sure I can prove that biblically, it is suggested by passages like  Ecclesiastes 3:11 and Romans 2:15. Those who lack a real relationship with the living God are much more likely to accept a substitute.

Of course, we should be much more concerned with what the Bible says than what people believe. There are numerous references to occultic practices in the Old Testament legal code. This was “the law of the land” for ancient Israel. Obviously these laws don’t directly apply to us today, which is why we don’t worry about things like wearing “clothing woven of two kinds of material.” (Leviticus 19:19) However, we can still learn from thes laws but exploring the unchanging principles behind them.

Here are a few examples:

Do not defile yourselves by turning to mediums or to those who consult the spirits of the dead. I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:31 (NLT)

I will also turn against those who commit spiritual prostitution by putting their trust in mediums or in those who consult the spirits of the dead. I will cut them off from the community. Leviticus 20:6 (NLT)

For example, never sacrifice your son or daughter as a burnt offering. And do not let your people practice fortune-telling, or use sorcery, or interpret omens, or engage in witchcraft, or cast spells, or function as mediums or psychics, or call forth the spirits of the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord. It is because the other nations have done these detestable things that the Lord your God will drive them out ahead of you. Deuteronomy 18:10-12 (NLT)

Clearly, God did not want the Israelites involved with mediums, fortune-tellers, psychics and so forth.

There are plenty of other verses on this topic throughout the Bible. For example, sorcery–or witchcraft, depending on your Bible translation–is listed among the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:20. Here is one passage that sums it up well:

Someone may say to you, “Let’s ask the mediums and those who consult the spirits of the dead. With their whisperings and mutterings, they will tell us what to do.” But shouldn’t people ask God for guidance? Should the living seek guidance from the dead? Isaiah 8:19 (NLT)

As believers, we need to rely on God rather than turning to other supernatural sources. God often describes himself as being a jealous God (eg. Exodus 20:5, 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24, 5:9; Joshua 24:19.) He will not tolerate anyone or anything taking his rightful place in our lives.