Spirits have captured the imagination for as long as humans have been around. Ghosts, angels, apparitions, and the like are found in the literature of all cultures throughout history. But how should a Christian understand these ideas? Do Christians believe in spirits?
Christians believe in spirits because the Bible testifies to their existence. But we must carefully separate the Biblical truth about spirits from the ideas presented in mythology and pop culture.
Setting the Parameters
One problem that we encounter when dealing with this question is that there are widely differing notions of what counts as a ‘spirit.’ In this, we are influenced as much by our traditions and cultures as by our understanding of scripture. And so we must begin by defining the term ‘spirit.’
Easton’s Bible Dictionary defines a spirit as: (Heb. ruah; Gr. pneuma), properly wind or breath. In 2 Thess. 2:8 it means “breath,” and in Eccl. 8:8 the vital principle in man. It also denotes the rational, immortal soul by which man is distinguished (Acts 7:59; 1 Cor. 5:5; 6:20; 7:34), and the soul in its separate state (Heb. 12:23), and hence also an apparition (Job 4:15; Luke 24:37, 39), an angel (Heb. 1:14), and a demon (Luke 4:36; 10:20).
For our purposes, this definition is too cumbersome. So, we will paraphrase common English language dictionaries to settle on the following definitions:
1: A non-human supernatural being that exists in the non-physical, spiritual realm.
2: The immaterial and eternal part of a human being.
A Biblical Perspective
Just as we need to establish a uniform definition of ‘spirit,’ we also must establish a uniform basis for Christian belief. To the Christian, the Bible is God’s revelation and our sole source of authority.
While Christian traditions throughout the world have amplified or minimized the significance of the spiritual realm, we seek to center our discussion on the words of scripture itself, without favoring any particular tradition.
What the Bible Says About Spirits
Now that we have defined ‘spirit’ and determined that the Bible is the source of our understanding, let’s put the two together. The Bible identifies several distinct types of spirits, which we will examine individually.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit, being one of the three Persons of the Trinity, is in a category unto His own. A core tenet of Christianity is belief in the Triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit.
At the last supper, Jesus promised his disciples that the Father would send them another Counselor, the Spirit of truth. Jesus assures the disciples that they know the Spirit because he lives with them and he will be within them (John 14:16-17).
Jesus’ words convey two truth’s about the Holy Spirit. First, the Spirit is an actual being, which Jesus reinforces by repeatedly using ‘he’ and ‘him’ in reference to the Spirit. And second, that the Spirit is distinct from Jesus himself.
In Acts chapter 2, the promise of the Holy Spirit is fulfilled when He indwells the disciples on the Day of Pentecost. Peter proclaims that all who come to Christ will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Paul further reinforces the gift of the Spirit in his letters. To the Corinthians, he writes “we were all baptized by one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
Angels appear in both the Old and New Testaments, either as messengers or to intervene in human matters. Two angels, the archangel Michael and the messenger Gabriel, are mentioned by name in the Bible.
Abraham, Daniel, Mary, and even Baalam’s donkey are among those who received messages delivered by angels. Scripture also records angels performing specific assigned tasks, such as the cherubim that guarded the Garden of Eden and the angel that rescued Peter from prison.
Glimpses into the spiritual realm reveal great numbers of angels. Moses described seeing many angels in the presence of God on Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 33:2). In Revelation 4 and 5, John was given a view of heaven’s throne room, where he saw thousands of angels worshiping God (Revelation 5:11).
When making personal appearances, angels sometimes testify to the inhabitants and activity of the spiritual realm. The angel that appeared to Joshua described himself as the commander of the Lord’s army. And in Daniel 10, an angel sent to Daniel told of being delayed by an opposing demon (the “prince” of the Persian kingdom) until the archangel Michael could help him.
Paul writes about spiritual warfare in Ephesians, encouraging us to stand against the devil’s schemes. He describes a battle against rulers, authorities, and spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:11-12). Originally created as angels, demons rebelled against God and became fallen. And like angels, demons also intervene in human activity, but with the purpose to deceive and destroy.
Throughout the gospels and Acts, we encounter people who are subjugated to evil spirits, to their personal detriment. The most memorable and vivid encounter with a demon is recorded in Mark 5. Here, Jesus confronts a demon who identifies himself as Legion (because they are actually many demons). Jesus then drives the demons into a nearby herd of pigs, freeing their victim.
The best known demon is, of course, Satan. The Bible plainly identifies Satan as a being and shows him interacting with God in the spiritual realm (Job 1:6-12), tempting Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11), and entering Judas at the last supper (John 13:27).
What about Human Spirits?
We must consider human spirits more carefully, since this is where most misunderstanding resides. The Bible clearly describes humans as having a spiritual aspect, which we defined earlier as the immaterial and eternal part of a human being.
It is in the spirit that we know and interact with God. In Romans 8:16, Paul declares that the [Holy] Spirit testifies to our spirit. Job 32:8 says it is the spirit of man that makes him understand. And Jesus speaks of our salvation in Him as an event that affects our spirit (John 3:6).
Spirits, Not Ghosts
Some cultures teach that the spirits of our ancestors remain on earth and continue to exert an influence over us. And throughout the world, including the modern western world, people commonly believe that we can sense, or even communicate with, the spirits of our departed loved ones. However, there is no Biblical basis for believing that human spirits remain in contact with us after death.
Our spirits live for a time in our bodies (James 2:26) and then depart from the material world at death, to exist eternally and exclusively in the spiritual realm.
Ecclesiastes 12:7 says that the human spirit returns to God the same as the body returns to the earth. At his death, Jesus cried out “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” (Luke 23:46).
Jesus’ teaching also demonstrate the inability of the human spirit to return to earth. In the story of Lazarus and the rich man, he describes a scene in which Lazarus and the rich man are seen in their respective eternal places. The rich man asks for Lazarus to be sent back to earth, but Abraham declares that he cannot go.
We could go on for pages about all that the Bible says about spirits, spiritual things, and our spiritual lives. Today, we’ve only glimpsed a small sampling of scripture. But even from a quick glance, we understand that spirits are very much a part of our existence. And further, we must continue to seek God’s wisdom and study His Word to fully understand the spiritual world and discern truth from lies.