GIVING UP THE GHOST
I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body (Philippians 1:23-24).
Have you ever seen a ghost? Most people have, at least if they’ve been to the movies lately. Ghost was the top box-office movie of 1990, and now one of the top video rentals of 1991. One evening I decided to see the ghost that so many others had already seen, so I rented the video of Ghost.
In the movie, Sam has a great job and a beautiful girlfriend named Molly. Although Sam and Molly are living together, he never says to her, “I love you.” Then one day Sam is murdered. Sam’s ghost is able to move about and see what is happening in Molly’s life, but he can’t communicate with her. As the story unfolds, Sam sees that his girlfriend is still in danger from the murderers. Since he can’t talk directly to Molly, Sam speaks to a psychic who is able to communicate with the dead. Eventually, with the help of this psychic, Sam is able to rescue Molly, and he’s even able to touch Molly and tell her what she always wanted to hear: “I love you.” Sam’s killers are themselves killed, and their evil souls are snatched away by frightening goblins. When Sam’s work is finished, his ghost finally leaves this earth in a blaze of brilliant light.
I’m not surprised that millions of people enjoyed this film. It’s unfortunate that in Ghost, as in so many movies, the romance involves a couple who would rather live together than get married. But I’m not going to dwell on that right now. People flocked to see Ghost because it’s an exciting story that blends romance, action, humor, tears, and supernatural mystery. And not only does it tell an interesting tale, but it touches feelings that are very real to us.
If someone you love has died, you desperately wish you could have that person back again. You wish you could talk together and enjoy each other’s company. You’d give anything for just one more hug. Sometimes, when you face trouble without that person at your side, you feel helpless and alone. That’s one reason we identify with a film like Ghost: the dead person actually does provide help when it is most needed. Haven’t you longed to communicate with a person who is no longer living? Luke Skywalker is lucky. In the Star Wars films, whenever Luke faces a crisis, the spirit of his dead mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, appears to him and gives Luke advice and encouragement. We’d all like to believe our dead loved one is somehow still looking out for us, and able to make contact with us.
This longing to get in touch with the dead becomes even more powerful when there is unfinished business in a relationship: things we should have done, words we should have spoken. Then we’d like just one more chance to say, “I love you.” Or when a person dies right when a relationship is still hurting, we wish we could somehow say we’re sorry and come together again. That’s what happens in Field of Dreams. Ray, the leading character, had a turbulent relationship with his father, and his father died before they could make up. But when Ray responds to a mysterious voice and plows up his corn to build a baseball field, Ray’s father returns, and father and son come together again on that magical baseball diamond. The past hurts are finally healed. Even though Field of Dreams is only fantasy, it can still put a lump in your throat if you long for the chance to make up with someone who died when you were still at odds with each other.
So although popular entertainment often helps you to relax and enjoy yourself, it also stirs up some very real feelings and raises some very important questions. You can’t help asking: What if there’s an element of truth in these films? Is there life after death? What is it like? Can the spirits of dead people give us messages? Can we talk to them? Is there such a place as heaven? Is hell for real? These are vitally important questions, and if you’re looking for the answers, you’ll need to go beyond the fantasies of the movies to the facts of the Bible.
Life and Death
In the Bible God tells us the facts about the unseen world of life after death. All of us need to know the truth about this, especially when we are grieving the death of a loved one or thinking about our own death. At times you may wonder: If God cares, how could he let this happen? Unless you can see beyond death, you’ll be tempted just to walk away from faith in God. But once you know the truth about life after death, you can trust your ultimate future to a loving God who has a splendid home waiting for you.
Sometimes we’re not sure whether the immediate future holds death or more years of life. But people who know the facts of the Bible about life after death can trust God whatever happens, because we know what lies in the ultimate future.
We find this attitude in a letter the apostle Paul wrote to his Christian friends in the city of Philippi. Paul’s letter isn’t just a moment of fantasy from a creative movie maker; it’s written under the direct inspiration of God by a man in very difficult circumstances. When he wrote to the Philippians, Paul was locked up in a Roman prison awaiting trial, not knowing whether he would be released from prison or executed for his faith. Here’s what God inspired Paul to write in Philippians 1:
“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:20-27).
As he sits in prison thinking about his future, Paul sees two possibilities: either he will continue to live and do everything he can to help others, or else he will die and go to be with Jesus. As long as he remains in the body, he can be of use to people on earth; when his body dies, his spirit will go to heaven to live with Jesus. Although Paul looks forward eagerly to the day when he can go to heaven, he feels that he still has important things to do on earth.
Paul realizes that he can help people only as long as he is still living in his body. Once his body is dead, his spirit will go to heaven and his career on earth will be over. He won’t be able to go around as a ghost to encourage the Philippians, and they won’t be able to communicate with him. According to the Bible, there are no disembodied ghosts on earth.
That’s very different from what you see in the movies or what you sometimes hear at funerals: “Although her body is dead, her spirit is still with us.” That sounds nice and you’d like to believe it, especially when you miss your loved one, but it’s just not true. Her spirit is not with us. Certainly, when a loved one dies, the memories remain with us. But her spirit doesn’t. The spirit instantly goes to its eternal destination.
Whenever we lose a loved one, we must accept this fact. Just three years ago my wife and I held our young daughter Rebekah in our arms and watched her die. I helped to dig the grave where her body now rests, and I can tell you: It’s hard to let go of someone we love. But we have to. Rebekah is gone. Her body is in that grave, and her soul is in heaven with Jesus. We’re happy that she’s with Jesus, but we must also accept the fact that she isn’t with us. We won’t see her again until we are also with Jesus.
When you lose someone you love, you must let that person go. The body is dead, and the spirit has gone to another place. If you are both Christians, you will see each other again in heaven, and your bodies will be raised to life again when Jesus returns and brings heaven to earth. But in the meantime, you are completely separated from each other. You can’t communicate with a dead person or depend on that person for help. Death forces you to let go of each other for a while. You must bury that person’s body, and you must also give up that person’s ghost. That’s terribly painful, but it’s far more healthy to grieve realistically than to live in a fantasy.
Trying to consult the dead is not only useless, but it’s downright harmful. You become vulnerable to your own fantasies, or to the deceptions of any psychic who holds a seance. The Bible warns us in Deuteronomy 18:11-12 against anyone “who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord.” The biblical prophet Isaiah says, “When men tell to you 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? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn” (Isaiah 8:19-20). You see, when we try to get our guidance from the dead, we stop listening to God’s Word. When we depend on ghosts, we show that we don’t trust God to provide the help we need.
So if you believe what God says in the Bible, you won’t try to communicate with anyone who is dead, no matter how much you loved or admired that person. Sometimes you’ll long for a conversation with someone you miss terribly. At other times you may want an especially noble person who is now dead to speak to God on your behalf. You may feel that God is more likely to listen to the spirit of that holy person than to you, so you’d like to ask that person to put in a good word for you. But the Bible reminds us not to try to communicate with the dead. God used these people to help many others while they were on earth, and we cherish their memory, but their time on earth is over. The apostle Paul clearly wrote that his time for helping others on earth was while he was in the body. Once Paul’s body was dead and his spirit was in heaven, it would be useless for anyone to ask for his help.
The only spirit we may communicate with directly is the Spirit of the living God. That shouldn’t disappoint us too much. If you need help or guidance, who would you rather talk to than God himself? Why ask a dead person to talk to God for you, when you can go straight to the top? You can pray directly to Jesus; he is the Savior and Healer, and he speaks to God the Father on our behalf. As the book of Hebrews says, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). We can go straight to the throne of God in prayer. But we cannot and we may not communicate with the spirits of the dead. Painful though it may be, they are gone.
Make a Difference Now
When we give up these ghosts, we also begin to realize that we ourselves cannot make a difference on this earth once our spirits leave our bodies. If you want to do good on this earth, you must do it now. Paul clearly says that he must remain in the body if he is to continue helping the Philippian Christians. Once your body dies, your ghost won’t be able to help anyone, so you’d better make the most of the time you have in your body. If you love someone, now is the time to tell them so. Once you die, you won’t get another chance to express your love like they do in the movies. If you are at odds with someone, now is the time to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. Once death separates you, there is no Field of Dreams that will give you another chance to make up. If you want the world to be a better place, now is the time for you to take action. Right now, while you still have life in your body, is the time to strengthen your relationships and make a difference in this world.
Although your spirit will continue to exist after your body dies, it goes directly to its eternal destination. You will have no further opportunities to interact with people on earth. This means that your ghost doesn’t stay here, and it means that you won’t come back in a different form. You don’t have any past lives or future lives on this planet. You’ve got just one life on earth, and this is it. The Bible says that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
So far we’ve seen that we must let go of those who die and also make the most of our time while we’re still alive, because the spirits of the dead don’t remain on earth or come back in a different form. We must give up those ghosts, and accept what the Bible clearly shows doesn’t happen to the spirit of a dead person. Now let’s see what does happen when someone dies.
Better Off Dead
Paul says, “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” In other words, Paul says he will personally be better off if he dies than if he goes on living. What does he mean? First of all, we must keep in mind that Paul is a Christian. Although Paul had been a cruel and evil man, Jesus had saved him and transformed his life. Paul believed that Jesus had died to to take away his sins, and he knew that Jesus had been raised from the dead in a transformed, immortal body. This gave Paul a very clear focus when he looked at his own future. He knew that if he continued living on earth, he would keep working for Jesus and help other people to know Jesus. When the time came for Paul to die, Jesus would be waiting to welcome Paul’s spirit into heaven. Being in heaven with Jesus, even if it meant existing without a body until resurrection day, would be far better than any life here on earth. It would mean being with Jesus, the source of all love, joy, peace, and contentment. Paul had tasted a little of how good Jesus is, and he wanted the full experience.
When a Christian dies, his or her spirit goes immediately to heaven to enjoy the presence of Jesus. In a letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes, “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it” (2 Corinthians 5:6-9). If you love Jesus, you will spend your time in the body doing the Lord’s work, and when you leave your body, your spirit will instantly be at home in heaven.
Notice that once you become a Christian, there are just two possibilities. You are either at home in your body, living on earth, or else you are absent from your body and at home with the Lord Jesus in heaven. “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” If you really belong to Jesus, death means gain. This doesn’t mean that once you are a Christian, you will enjoy the thought of dying. The actual experience of dying may frighten you, but you don’t have to worry about what comes after death. Jesus’ suffering on the cross has already paid the price for all your sins. Once you’ve accepted that by faith, you don’t need to worry about suffering after you die before you are pure enough for heaven. Jesus has done it all; for the Christian, there is no further suffering beyond death.
The instant you die, your spirit will be with Jesus in heaven. According to the Bible, “He will wipe every tear from your eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Your suffering will be over, and you will be experiencing something so magnificent and delightful that no words can describe it.
Hell Without Jesus
Everything I’ve said so far applies to you only if you belong to Jesus. The Bible clearly says that not everyone will go to heaven. If you reject Jesus while you are alive, you will certainly not go to live with him after you die. In rejecting Jesus, you reject God, the only source of hope and happiness. You cut yourself off from the Son of God, and the result is what the Bible calls hell. Hell is the dreadful situation of being totally cut off from God and every good thing that he gives. According to the Bible, Christ “will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9).
God gives us the blood of Jesus to take away our sins; he gives us his love; he gives us eternal life with Jesus. It’s a gift, not just an offer; and rejecting this gift is the ultimate insult to God. In Hebrews 10 the Bible asks, “How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” Rejecting God’s gift has the most dreadful consequences.
I’m sure you don’t enjoy hearing about hell, and I don’t enjoy talking about it. But according to the Bible, hell is very real. Some people who don’t read their Bibles think Jesus is too kind to talk about hell, but in fact Jesus talks more about hell than anyone else in the Bible, and he uses the most frightening words to picture what hell is like: darkness, torment, unquenchable burning, endless weeping. Jesus doesn’t say these things just to be cruel; he loves us, and he wants us to know the truth about hell so that we won’t go there.
I realize that I can’t make you believe any of this. You can believe whatever you want: you can believe whatever your favorite movie says about life after death; you can read about “near-death experiences”; you can ask a psychic what happens after death; or you can make up anything that makes you feel better. But none of this will change what God says in the Bible. You can’t avoid hell just by pretending it’s not real, any more than you can go to heaven just by wishing you were there. So I urge you to believe what God says in the Bible.
Jesus wants you to accept him and receive the free gift of everlasting life. He wants you to live for him now, and he wants you to live with him forever. Here’s how you can receive God’s gift: First, believe that Jesus died and rose again to make all of this possible. Then pray to Jesus and ask him to forgive your sins. Ask him to control your life here on earth by giving you his Holy Spirit, and thank him for giving you eternal life in heaven. Then, like Paul, you’ll want to make the most of your life on earth serving the Lord, and your greatest longing will be to see Jesus face to face.
Jesus embodies the splendor and love of God. My words can’t begin to describe what it will be like to meet Jesus face to face. There’s a world waiting for you and me that is amazing beyond description. It’s a world of radiant beauty and tender love, a place of eternal safety and exquisite pleasure. Jesus has prepared a magnificent place for every one of God’s children. If you accept this by faith, I invite you to join me in praying this prayer from the Bible.
Lord, my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body will also rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:1, 9-11). Lord Jesus, thank you for making us citizens of your eternal city. We want to live for you right now, and we look forward joining you in the heavenly home you’ve prepared for us. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.