So the Bible only has one recorded “ghost sighting” in Moses at the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus walking on water, after His resurrection and Peter when released from jail all were thought to be either a ghost, spirit or angel (immaterial presence of a person thought dead or not physically present) but each encounter came to reveal that the person was indeed actually there in the flesh, literally. No ghost. We will also clarify at this juncture that Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones coming back to life one layer at a time (Ezekiel 37:1-14), the martyrs under the altar of Heaven awaiting vengeance on their blood (Revelation 6:9-11) , Jesus’ words about the “dead burying the dead” (Matthew 8:22) and Paul’s about a “baptism on behalf of the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:29) are also not ghost sightings. The first is a prophetic vision of the resurrection that the Christ would bring, the second an apocalyptic vision of the future judgment on those who persecuted the Church, the third is Jesus’ commentaries about the spiritual deadness of those who are not seeking the Kingdom of God as a priority and the last is used by Paul to substantiate the truth of the resurrection by way of a possible obscure, albeit, unbiblical practice in Corinth. None of these is speaking about the spirit of a dead person, however, lingering on earth and seen by man. A final seemingly relevant passage is Jesus’ Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. This is not the Lazarus of John 11 fame whom Jesus raised from the dead (also not a ghost sighting) but a different one who goes to Abraham’s bosom while the rich man goes to hell. He wants to come back to warn his wicked brothers ala Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The answer given in the story is that the brothers have the Scripture which is better than a ghostly or ghoulish visit from the grave anyway. The next pertinent Scripture for our study is Hebrews 9:27, “It is appointed unto a man once to die and then comes the judgment” which in turn raises a lesser addressed teaching in the Bible- the interim state of the soul. We’ll go there next.
3. What is the interim state of the soul?
Death is the separation of body/flesh and soul/spirit. It is a transient state foreign to the nature of how God created man as body and spirit (breathe of life) together. Jesus said, “Father into Thy hands I commit my spirit” and then He died. We thus say regarding death- “giving up the ghost”. Paul talks of wanting to depart “the tent” of the body and immediately be with the Lord in spirit (2 Corinthians 5:1-10) but here he is distinguishing not a permanent spirit without body wish (that’s the heresy of Gnosticism) but a longing for the sinful body of flesh that will pass away like a tent for the permanent glorified body as we are taken into the immortality of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:35-49). This isn’t the same out of body experience that is described when he is taken up into Heaven either (“in or out of body he doesn’t know”- 2 Corinthians 12:2) nor the ecstatic experience of John on the Lord’s Day when he receives from Jesus his apocalypse Revelation while “in the Spirit” (Revelation 1:10). Then there is the Hebrew Sheol, the grave, a kind of waiting room for especially the unrighteous dead but also a word virtually synonymous with death and the Greek Hades, the abode of the dead. The faithful go to be with the Lord as Jesus told the penitent thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”. Hell or Gehenna (trash dump outside the city) is a more elaborate understanding of the place of demons and the eventual place of the unbelieving damned where there is suffering and darkness. Jesus goes there to proclaim His victory after His resurrection (1 Peter 3:19).
But having said all this, we still know very little from the Bible what happens to a human being when they die and yet await the Judgment Day at the end of time. Where, during the interim state of the soul, do souls await that Day? The flesh is gone awaiting the bodily resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Some speak of soul sleep. Most find no comfort in that and opt for a conscious awareness of the soul especially as the person died in true faith (angels, archangels and all the company of heaven laud and magnify Thy glorious name…). And Hebrews 9:27 may only be ruling out reincarnation not intending to say the soul immediately is judged either to salvation or damnation. How would that happen as a real event while being an event we, the living, still wait for in time? And the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1, are they aware as the root us on in faithfulness or are they merely set out as devout examples for us to remember?
This is the possible Biblical “loophole” some look for to justify a belief in ghosts. They would say some souls take a detour or linger for some unknown reason on earth while awaiting the final Judgment. They may use visible signs. The interim state of the soul doesn’t prove the existence of human spirits present on earth after death in the body (i.e. ghosts) but it doesn’t end the debate either.
But why would ghosts be here? What is their business? What have they to do with the living and how can we distinguish them from demons? While the ambiguity in Scripture regarding the interim state of the soul leaves a possible opening for ghosts, there are other Scriptures that clearly warn the living from having contact with the dead. This is the topic next time for our final part of this study.