Are they really the spirits of once-living people come back to say good-bye or to tend to unfinished business?
There are only two places where the Bible talks about ghosts. The first is 1 Samuel 28:3-20:
“Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in his own town of Ramah. Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land. The Philistines assembled and came and set up camp at Shunem, while Saul gathered all the Israelites and set up camp at Gilboa. When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. He inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. Saul then said to his attendants, "Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her."
"There is one in Endor," they said. So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. "Consult a spirit for me," he said, "and bring up for me the one I name."
But the woman said to him, "Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?"
Saul swore to her by the LORD, "As surely as the LORD lives, you will not be punished for this."
Then the woman asked, "Whom shall I bring up for you?"
"Bring up Samuel," he said.
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, "Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!"
The king said to her, "Don't be afraid. What do you see?"
The woman said, "I see a spirit coming up out of the ground."
"What does he look like?" he asked.
"An old man wearing a robe is coming up," she said.
Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.
Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?"
"I am in great distress," Saul said. "The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has turned away from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do."
Samuel said, "Why do you consult me, now that the LORD has turned away from you and become your enemy? The LORD has done what he predicted through me. The LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors—to David. Because you did not obey the LORD or carry out His fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the LORD has done this to you today. The LORD will hand over both Israel and you to the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The LORD will also hand over the army of Israel to the Philistines."
Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, filled with fear because of Samuel's words. His strength was gone, for he had eaten nothing all that day and night.”
Is this really the spirit of Samuel coming back from the dead, or is it a trick of the medium? In this case, we have to assume that it really was Samuel being summoned because we are given no indication that the event was inauthentic in any way. The key here is that Samuel had to be summoned. He wasn’t wandering the earth or haunting his old residence.
So where was Samuel being summoned from? He surely wasn’t in Hell and he wasn’t in Heaven yet. Samuel was being summoned from Sheol, or death, the place where all Old Testament persons had to wait until Christ died for them (more discussion on Sheol in the next chapter). And Samuel is only summoned for a brief period of time. He is still bound in death after this and unable to communicate or to leave death without being summoned again.
The second mention of ghosts in the Bible is found in Luke 16:19-31.
“Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
In this parable, Jesus is clearly portraying Lazarus and Abraham as being in Heaven and the rich man as being in a fiery Hell. Thus, Jesus is projecting the story forward to the time when He has already died and freed Abraham and all other Old Testament persons from Sheol. The story takes place in the time when people’s spirits do not remain in death, but are “carried” directly to Heaven or Hell. And when the rich man begs for Lazarus to return (as a ghost) and to speak to his family, his request is denied. Not because it is impossible, but because it is impractical. The sending of people back from the dead is simply not done in Heaven. It is ineffective in persuading people to repent.
So Samuel was able to be summoned because he was in Sheol at the time. Presumably, anyone could be summoned when they were in Sheol. But could Samuel be summoned after Christ died and Samuel was moved to Heaven? Could Abraham or Lazarus be summoned? I think not. People who are in Heaven or Hell, as in the parable, will not leave those places again until the time of Christ’s second coming and the final resurrection.
So what about ghosts that we see today? If people are carried directly to Heaven or Hell now and they do not return to appear as ghosts to us, what are the ‘ghosts’ that people experience?
I believe that the ghosts we see today are not people at all, but demons disguising themselves as our loved ones and the random dead. The reason they do this is to cast doubt on the reality of Heaven and Hell. If the demons can make us believe that people become ghosts and wander the earth for a time, then it takes away some of the urgency of our eternal fate. It makes it seem like Heaven and Hell aren’t so immediate. We don’t have to worry about it quite as much. We can finish what we were doing on earth first. We can avenge our murderer. We can say good-bye to our families first.Whereas these are all nice and comforting thoughts, they aren’t the reality. We don’t have any more time after we die. We can’t change our minds or repent or do things differently. We only have one life to do what needs to be done and we only get one life to make our decision for eternity. When we die, that’s it. Time’s up and Heaven and Hell are all that’s left. So we better live like we understand that. Demons appearing as ghosts only seek to distract us from this fact. Any ghost that we see today is a false apparition.