Some people disbelieve the Bible because they find what I’m calling fantastic creatures – creatures which they believe don’t exist, and thus they conclude the Bible is full of fairy stories and make believe. But nothing could be further from the truth. So in this series we’re looking at the reality behind the creatures which the atheist who tweeted the below finds objectionable:
“He follows a holy book with a jealous & genocidal god, ghosts, zombies, seers, devils, demons, witches, satyrs, unicorns, talking animals, a man who lived in a fish and a 7 headed dragon.”
(Not listed but also covered: The Cockatrice)
And though this is not the season for Halloween, next up we’re looking at witches and ghosts.
Are there Witches in the Bible?
The short answer is yes, there are witches in the Bible but I had to think about why that would be objectionable. Because in terms of their existence – “witches” exist today as they have in the past. There are witches in this day and age who are trying to cast a spell on the president, various types of wiccan witches, and a host of witches who use various types of witchcraft. So what exactly is the objection since witches clearly exist? I suspect, since atheists reject the supernatural, the objection is to the supposed supernatural powers attributed to witches. It has been said that witches “…held the power of nature in their hands” and “…posses the power of flight.” If such were true, one wonders why, among those accused of the capital crime of witchcraft during the 17th century, why none of them did not simply up and fly away, or manipulate nature to gain their freedom. Reports have it that in addition to the 20 killed in Salem Massachusetts, there were tens of thousand executed across Europe. And the question of escape is even more pressing for the accused in France where death was by burning, not by hanging as it was in England and America.
The reason why the accused witches didn’t use supernatural powers is obvious: they didn’t have any. But that question leads us to an even more important question: Why would it be supposed that witches had supernatural powers? For those making that assumption in this age of media saturation, the answer is easy: They have allowed the popular depiction of witches to influence their idea of what the Bible says a witch is – without ever consulting the Bible for the biblical definition.
Depictions of witches in movies and TV shows are rife: From Bewitched (1960’s TV serial and 2005 movie), to Sabrina the Teenage Witch to the Harry Potter series to the Wizard of Oz, there is no shortage of depictions of witches with supernatural powers – including flight. And the depictions are not limited to secular shows and movies. Even movies used as Christian allegories contain witches with supernatural powers. Movies such as the The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and the entire The Lord of the Rings series for example.
But the fact that there are common myths about what witches are or can do does not alleviate a person making accusations against the Bible to consultant the Bible to determine what it actually says about what a witch is – and not rely on popular culture of the day. Unless of course you’re content with raising straw man arguments – which I suspect those raising this objection are.
What is the Biblical Description of a Witch?
Probably the clearest description of the activities of witches is in the prohibition against the various acts of witchcraft. One of the clearest passages is Deut 18.9-12:
9 When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there.
10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft,
11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.
12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to go in depth into each one these forbidden practices – all – save the first (child sacrifice) have to do with contacting evil spirits – typically to gain information, but sometimes to entreat the demon to perform an act – either a malicious one against an enemy or one of protection for the sorcerer.
This contacting of evil spirits is the main charge we see in the Salem witch trials – that people were in league with the devil, or that some had made “pacts” with the devil, or were communicating with the devil and acting as his agent. One “power” these witches were thought to possess – aside from communication with demons – was the ability for their spirit to leave their body and attack and torment others. Such was an important factor during the Salem witch trials – where young girls were supposedly afflicted by such spirits or “specters”. It was this belief in “spectral” evidence – the supposed attack by the specter of accused witches that only the afflicted could see – that allowed for such easy convictions of witches. There was effectively no way to refute it once accused. Thus today’s connotation of a witch hunt: a bogus trial with false and irrefutable evidence that allows for a guaranteed – but unjust – outcome.
But note both the biblical description and even the interpretation at Salem is a far cry from the supernatural power commanding, broom flying, familiar possessing witches we see in the media. Clearly the witches of the media and common parlance are NOT what is described in the Bible.
Are Ghosts in the Bible?
As we saw with witches above, one should first define what you mean by the term “ghost” before stating whether or not it’s in the Bible. With any ancient legend or myth, movies that cleverly depict the various elements of the legend or myth tend to be very popular. Such is the case with the 1990 film Ghost starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. The story follows the efforts of a man, murdered by a colleague for money, trying to protect his love from beyond the grave from the same murderous colleague. In his efforts to do so, the movie depicts in an internally consistent way, all the phenomenon typically associated with ghosts: Apparitions, the effects of poltergeists (physical objections moving, noises), clairvoyant knowledge, hauntings, good and evil ghosts, contacting ghosts through a medium in a séance (a form of witchcraft by the way), trances, a depiction of where ghosts come from, where they ultimately go (heaven or hell), even out of body experiences. And it wove all these elements together so well, so seamlessly (including the love story) it became the highest grossing movie for that year.
But the question to ask is, is this popular depiction of “ghosts” the biblical one? The answer is an emphatic, unequivocal no. The bible is quite clear about ghosts – which in modern bibles is translated as spirit(s). There is much ground to cover, so I can only summarize in bullet point fashion here:
- Both “ghost” and “spirit” translate the Greek word πνευμα (pneuma – the p is silent as in pneumonia)
- Man (i.e. humans) consist of both body and spirit 2 Cor 7.1; Jam 2.26
- When the body dies, the spirit continues to live (forever) and is sent either:
- To be with God in heaven for believers in Christ 2 Cor 5.8
- For unbelievers -To a holding place for judgment called hell, a place of torment Lk 16.22-23
- Those in hell cannot cross from hell to the land of the living Lk 16.26
- Since people cannot cross back from hell to the land of the living, any apparent contact with ghosts (in seances, via ouija boards, apparitions, etc.) are not people, but demons masquerading as the spirits of people 2 Cor 11.14
- Thus those who contact spirits do not contact former humans but rather fallen angels -demons whose only desire is to kill, steal and destroy John 10.10
- Demons are deceptive (2 Cor 11.3, 1 Tim 4.1) They masquerade as: angels of light(2 Cor 11.14), serpents (2 Cor 11.3), are identified with beasts (Is 34.14) and by extension masquerade as, aliens, UFOs or departed friends and relatives 2 Cor 11.14
- As noted above (Deut 18.9-12) dealing with ghosts (i.e. demons) – as mediums (a.k.a. witches) do – is strictly forbidden and was and remains condemned by God (Rev 21.8).
- Those in hell will face a final judgment Rev 20.12-13
- After the final judgment those in hell will be poured into the lake of fire (Rev 20.15) there to spend eternity apart from God (just as they’ve lived their lives) in torment and without hope of redemption (That’s why today is the day of salvation 2 Cor 6.2)
- Those in heaven will return with Christ, and after Christ has conquered Satan and thrown him too into the lake of fire (Rev 20.10), those who have believed and trusted in Christ will reign with him forever (2 Tim 2.12, Rev 22.5).
This is quite different from both the depiction in Ghost and popular media and cultural depictions. In fact it appears the only thing Ghost got right is that the medium in the movie – “Oda Mae Brown” – played by Whoopi Goldberg, was a fraud, performing fake séances to bilk people out of their money. When she finally meets a real ghost she is shocked and terrified.
That parallels the encounter of the medium or witch of Endor who Saul, the first King of Israel goes to see for counsel since God no longer answered him due to his disobedience. That witch too, appears to have been a fraud for she also was shocked and terrified when a real spirit appeared to her – presumably that of the prophet Samuel under the allowance of God.
The popular notion of supernaturally powered witches and ghosts of people haunting and roaming the earth is nowhere depicted in the Bible. Rather the Biblical depiction is summed up well by the prophet Isaiah:
When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?
“Medium”, “spiritists” and “witch” are overlapping terms describing those who seek to speak with spirits. And as one commentator has pointed out the antics of such people – the whispering and muttering – is suggestive of the fraud they are perpetrating – surreptitiously speaking on behalf of the spirit. Also besides being forbidden (Deut 18.9-11) why even attempt to consult the dead on behalf of the living? The dead cannot help you, and the beings who are actually responding are demons whose only interest in you is to create a path for you that leads to hell. Thus it’s for our own good that God has forbidden any kind of contact with spirits other than the Holy Spirit – i.e. God himself.
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 1: Jealous God and Unicorns?
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 2: Satyrs, devils and demons
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 3: Cockatrice
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 4: Witches and Ghosts
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 5: Seers
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 6: Talking animals and Jonah
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 7: Zombies
Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 8: The Dragon and the Beast
2.Origins – Werewolves, Vampires, Witches, Bellum Entertainment Documentary, 2015
3. America: Facts vs. Fiction: Pilgrims and Witches, Discovery Communication Documentary, 2013
4. America’s Hidden Stories: Salem’s Secrets, SNI/SI Documentary, 2018
5. According to Explore Entertainment, “Ghost 25th Anniversary: What critics thought of it in 1990”, July 10, 2015, https://ew.com/article/2015/07/10/ghost-25th-anniversary-reviews-1990/
6. Once again the overlap of terms for “medium” and “witch is evidenced – with the main idea being one who consults spirits. Following is how various Bible translations label this section where Saul visits a person who contacts the spirits of the dead:
NIV – Saul and The witch of Endor
NASB – Saul and the spirit medium
NKJV – Saul consults a medium
RSV – Saul and the medium of Endor
KJV (Cambridge Ed.) – Saul, forsaken of God, seeketh to a witch
KJV (NY Bible Society Ed.) – Saul seeketh to a witch
Good News Bible – Saul Consults a medium
7. I say “presumably” because theologians debate whether it was truly the spirit of Samuel – in spite of the prohibition God placed on contacting the dead (Dt 18.10-11), and the fact that Samuel is describe as coming up from the earth (instead of down from heaven); or whether the one appearing is Satan, up to his old trick of masquerading. (2 Cor 11.14). I lean toward God making an exception in this case, as he did for Enoch (Gen 5.27) and Elijah(2 Ki 2.11), who never died though all men are “appointed once to die” (Heb 9.27)
8 On Mediums being frauds:
“In two places the prophet Isaiah hinted that consulting mediums may be a kind of ventriloquism (8:19, 29:4)”
Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Herbert Lockyer, Sr. Gen.Editor, New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986, page 668
All images used by permission
Featured: Witch casting spell watched by Ghost – composite by Duane Caldwell
Witch Spell © Leo Lintang | Dreamstime.com used by permission
Victoria Ghost © Ryanarya | Dreamstime.com used by permission