This odd episode, aside from showing that Jesus has sovereignty over creation and the properties of water, indicates that the disciples were familiar with the idea of ghosts. They thought Jesus was a disembodied spirit floating toward them, and it scared them witless.
A 2007 poll found that about a third of Americans believe in ghosts. But upon what do they base that belief? I would venture to say that many have had some kind of spooky experience they can’t otherwise explain. Some may realize that the spiritual world is quite real, and deduce that therefore the existence of ghosts makes sense. Still others probably add a credulous belief in ghosts to their heartfelt conviction that Elvis is still alive.
What does the Bible say?
Although people have believed in ghosts since way, way before the disciples freaked out on the Sea of Galilee, Scripture nowhere indicates that ghosts, the disembodied spirits of dead people, roam the earth.
In Luke 16 there is a story about dead people, but one of them, Lazarus, is with Abraham in Paradise, and the other, a rich man when he was alive, is in Hades. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers to mend their ways. He says, “if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” But Abraham refuses, telling the rich man that his brothers have all the warning they need in the Scriptures that are available to them. And here’s a key phrase; Abraham says, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.” Not ‘goes to them from the dead,’ but ‘rises from the dead.’ Dead people don’t travel back to communicate with the living. They don’t walk around unless they’ve been resurrected. Even the bizarre account of saints coming out of their graves in Matthew 27 has them resurrected in their bodies.
The only Biblical event (that I can recall) featuring a ghost is Saul consulting the witch of Endor in 2 Samuel 28. He asks her to “bring up Samuel” for him. The medium is shocked to the core when a spirit actually appears to her. Theologians debate whether God made a one-time exception and had Samuel really appear in order to rebuke Saul, or whether this was a demon impersonating Samuel. And that brings us to the crux of the matter.
Ghosts or Demons?
I believe that what people experience as seeing a ghost, if it is not merely their overwrought imagination or a mental problem, is an encounter with a demon from hell. Yes, what a person sees may look like his cherished mother, or Napoleon, or a derelict ship, but then Satan is the ultimate deceiver. Demons, who are the fallen angels, are spirit beings. They can take on whatever appearance suits their nefarious master in his unceasing efforts to snare human beings and hurl them to their destruction. Whether a demon terrifies with gore and frightening phenomena, or manifests as a beautiful presence pretending to give loving and helpful advice, be assured that our enemy’s goal is the same: destroy God’s people.
Satan deceives in this way because when people are convinced that dead people may be communicating with them, or roaming the earth seeking justice or revenge, it is difficult for them to believe what God says, and to take comfort from the Truth. And here is the Truth: the dead are not free to roam. Jesus, appearing to John in Revelation 1 says, “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last, and the Living One. I was dead, but look—I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades.” Jesus is alive and has the dead securely in custody.
But also take warning. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” Dead people do not get an after-death chance to set things right, make up for wrongs done while alive, warn loved ones about hell, or any such thing. When a person dies her fate is sealed. It is each person’s responsibility to trust Jesus for salvation while she is alive. All of us are helpless sinners—if we are not perfect we can’t live in the embrace of a holy and perfect God. Jesus Christ, the Creator God of the Bible, lived a perfect life and paid the penalty we each owe for being lawbreakers, and He offers His perfection (salvation) to us as a free gift. If we reject this gift, even by deciding to do nothing about it, we have doomed ourselves to an eternity without Him, and that is more frightening than a thousand ghosts, zombies, or Halloween horror films.