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Are the Dead Aware of the Living?


At that moment, I knew — although the word know seemed so feeble in describing the certainty I felt — that everything Ellie had said was true. My father had seen it too, this land just beyond the great river. I was here because of them. And others.

Surrounded now by a great cloud of witnesses.

A single tear coursed my cheek. In later days, I would describe it as a baptism of sorts. That tear, washing me of my unbelief.

— Excerpt from The Ghost Box, Chapter 25

The Ghost Box is not Christian fiction. But there’s lots of Easter eggs for the faithful. One is found in the scene above. In it, an important character dies and Reagan Moon, my snarky hero, with the help of some peculiar old goggles, is able to watch that character’s soul actually leave their body, bound across a “golden river,” and begin a sojourn into a new, glorious estate. The experience is a turning point for my spiritually skeptical protag.

In the novel, I use a phrase that’s lifted straight out of Scripture. Here’s the verse it was taken from:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us (Heb. 12:1 NIV)

So Reagan Moon realizes that his own life is a “race,” that others have gone on before him, and that he is “surrounded by… a great cloud of witnesses.” In the previous chapter (Heb. 11), the biblical writer listed the long succession of saints and martyrs that have preceded us — Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Joshua, Rahab, Samson, etc., etc. Hebrews 11 is often called the “Hall of Faith” because of the vast array of “witnesses” it describes. The imagery is that of a coliseum filled with the faithful departed, a “great cloud of witnesses” who are looking down upon us, urging us forward.

Question: Is this imaginary or actual? Are the saints of the past actually looking down upon us, witnessing our travails, cheering us on, or is this simply a metaphor used to encourage us to “follow in their footsteps,” so to speak?

I tend to see this, and similar biblical images, as literal. That somehow, in some fashion, the holy dead are aware of the living. No, I can’t confidently say that this is a “proof text” for such a position. Nor do I think there IS a definitive one. Nevertheless, I don’t think the Scripture definitively states that the dead have no knowledge of the realm of the living. In fact, I believe just the opposite.

I realize this is an uncomfortable position for many evangelicals. We have this penchant for demystification. Unexplained phenomenon is best cordoned off behind cautionary Scriptures. It’s why ghosts, for example, are typically viewed as demons in evangelical circles. The notion that a disembodied soul can impinge upon and/or interact with our dimension is unsettling. If not flat-out heretical. Of course, the Bible is clear in forbidding necromancy, consultation with the dead, and the seeking out of occult seers and mediums. That’s indisputable. Nevertheless, there are several biblical occurrences that lend some credence to the idea that deceased saints are aware of the living.

  • The “spirit” of Samuel — The most famous and perhaps the most puzzling “ghost incident” in Scripture is Saul and the Witch of Endor (I Samuel 28). When Saul compels a seer to summon the prophet Samuel, they witness “a spirit coming up out of the ground” (vs. 13). The spirit is recognized as the dead prophet who seemingly validates himself by prophesying against Saul and predicting the king’s death in battle (vss. 16-19). Not only does the encounter suggest that the holy dead exist in close proximity to earth, but that they are conscious, and aware of a timeline of events, both past and (possibly) future.
  • The Mount of Transfiguration — In Mark 9:2-8, two dead prophets—Moses and Elijah—manifest alongside Jesus. Scripture is unclear as to their state, being that they appear neither ghosts nor resurrected bodies. Complicating matters is the fact the prophets “were talking with Jesus” (vs. 4), interacting within an earthly timeline and a physical estate.
  • The Rich Man and Lazarus — Because this is a parable, we must be careful not to force too much literalism into the tale. Nevertheless, in Luke 16:19-21, Jesus tells the story of a rich man who dies and is sent to Hades “where he was in torment” (vs. 23). From this state, the rich man appeals to Father Abraham to “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” (vss. 27-28). If we assume Jesus is illustrating a real condition in the afterlife, then the deceased rich man remains conscious after death, aware of his five brothers, and requests they be reached in “real time.”
  • The souls under the altar of God — The Book of Revelation offers up a remarkable glimpse of heaven, in particular after the opening of the fifth seal of wrath the apostle John sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?'” (Rev. 6:9-10) Again, some may object on the grounds that Revelation is largely metaphorical. Even so, we are given a picture of souls who are at rest, conscious, quite aware of a timeline of earthly events and awaiting the culmination of their avenging.

These verses aren’t enough to make a slam dunk case that a real cloud of deceased witnesses is really aware of us and cheering us on toward the finish line. Conversely, I’m not sure there’s an airtight case against such a point of view either. In fact, some faith traditions view the “Communion of the Saints” as not simply a metaphorical fellowship, but a vibrant reality.

In his book, For All Saints: Remembering the Christian Departed, N.T. Wright says this:

By the end of the fourth century some believed that the presence of the martyrs’ relics in their midst conveyed what one writer has called ‘the veritable and gracious presence of the martyrs themselves, and through them of the Godhead with Whom they were united.’ The church on earth believed itself privileged to enjoy an intimate fellowship with those who had gone on ahead. Hilary and Augustine, in the fourth and fifth centuries, both elaborated this doctrine.  The angels and saints, the apostles, prophets and patriarchs, they argued, surrounded the church on earth and watched over it. Christians here are to be conscious of their communion with the redeemed in heaven, who have already experienced the fullness of the glory of Christ. this, or something like it, is the doctrine which we affirm when we say ‘the Communion of the Saints’ towards the end of the Apostles’ Creed. (For All Saints: Remembering the Christian Departed, N.T. Wright, pg. 16)

Of course, this view can give rise to beliefs such as prayers for the dead and even purgatorial indulgences. But in the broader sense, All Saints Day and the Communion of the Saints is built off of a clear biblical idea that

  1. Deceased saints are conscious after death
  2. Deceased saints are at rest
  3. Deceased saints are in fellowship with God
  4. Deceased saints have some awareness of the living and the present
  5. Those who ‘die in the Lord’ enjoy fellowship — both present and future — with the saints

While there is no biblical precedent for praying to departed saints, the recognition that we are “privileged to enjoy an intimate fellowship with those who [have] gone on ahead” and should “be conscious of [our] communion with the redeemed in heaven” is rooted in Scripture and church history. So I suppose the bigger question isn’t whether the dead are aware of the living, but what forms our “intimate fellowship” and “communion with” the “great crowd of witnesses” should take.

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Michael May 2, 2016, 10:47 AM

    Good article/post. I think we too often overlook important ideas along these lines. The first and possibly most important is eternal life. Because our focus is limited to our current existence, we can not imagine we have been alive possible forever (not literally) and this is yet another experience in our eternal life.

    My second thought is Jesus appearing after he was killed and buried. Why shouldn’t those who died before us be looking on after us? Just because we can not imagine it being so, does not make not true. Thank you for the great reads!

  • Steve Rzasa May 2, 2016, 10:49 AM

    Interesting take on the subject. I’ve always been fascinated by Luke 24:39, in which Jesus states “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (ESV) Other translations render it ghost. So Jesus appears to have expected his audience to at least know what ghost/spirit was.

    • Carradee May 13, 2016, 12:41 PM

      And not only that, He spoke of ghosts/spirits as if they were real, providing evidences of why He was not a ghost, rather than saying there was no such thing.

      • Travis Perry May 13, 2016, 1:38 PM

        True–but a spirit or ghost can be real and still not interact with people on Earth.

  • Travis Perry May 2, 2016, 12:25 PM

    Mike, I don’t take the scene in Revelation you reference as mainly allegorical. Those who died can interact with God and those in heaven–the angels and the forward-timeshifted-John (yes, that’s what I think really happened 🙂 ) are aware of their presence.

    However, nothing says THEY are aware of the presence of John or the heavenly host. They have a voice that can be heard, but nothing in Revalation says that they can see or hear outside of their special strange place “below the throne” where all of them fit. (Even though presumably they would not fit in that same place in bodily form.)

    The Rich Man and Lazarus account indicates (if we take it as truth beyond a parable) that the spirits of the dead are aware of each OTHER, but nothing there says they can interact with things that are not themselves in the spiritual realm. The rich man asks to go back to see his family to warn them, but nothing says he can observe or watch them or knows specifically what is going on with them.

    Moses, Elijah, and the spirit of Samuel were all called back from heaven under special circumstances, so they doing does not provide evidence they are aware of the world of the living when they have not been called back. (Though Elijah presumably is in a different category as someone who has never died.)

    Hebrews 11 could in fact mean the dead are watching us. But the passage doesn’t require that interpretation–many expositors have read the witnesses as examples, as you well know.

    Scripture is in fact quite silent on the issue if the dead prior to resurrection are aware of the living in a general sort of way. Historically, we have to unfortunately conclude that Christians began to believe communion with dead saints was possible because the Pagan peoples who converted to Christianity believed it was possible.

    Mind you, they might be correct. Maybe the spirits of dead believers are in fact aware of what happens on Earth. The Scriptures don’t rule it out, but they don’t support it either.

    To rephrase what I just said a bit, it COULD be true the spirits of dead believers are aware of us. But there is no specific reason to think so according to the Bible.

    The Bible does rule out “soul-sleep” pretty well in Revelation (at least I think so), but I think one possible reason the resurrection of the body may be a necessity is that a human spirit may be incapable of interacting with the material world on its own. If that’s true, spirits might be aware of us–but only of our spiritual selves. Not the material world around us. That would paint a picture quite different from how most people have imagined ghosts to be…

  • JaredMithrandir May 3, 2016, 3:41 AM

    Elijah has not yet died, he will Die in Revelation 11.

    • Nick Houze May 3, 2016, 3:35 PM

      That’s speculation.

  • Nick Houze May 3, 2016, 3:34 PM

    Simply put, the witnesses in Hebrews 12 are witnessing to us by their examples, not watching (witnessing) us. This seems clear from the context. I don’t see them as spectators in the heavenly coliseum, with us still here on Earth as the players on the field. While Ecclesiastes may not be most reliable for doctrine, verse 9:5 includes the thought, ‘… the dead know nothing’; implying to me, nothing about what’s happening here. That’s my considered opinion, anyway.

  • Anita Cooper May 3, 2016, 3:35 PM

    Great topic Mike…stirring up the dust here! lol

    Seriously though, if you take Paul’s words (Phil 3:20) at face value, then we are already citizens of heaven which implies of course that our spirits (not our bodies, obviously, lol) are interacting with those who died in the faith who are now in heaven.

    And of course there’s also Ephesians 2:5-6 ” Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus”

    “HATH RAISED US UP” means we’re already there! So then, since your body is here on Earth and it needs the soul to remain in place, couldn’t your spirit, or at least a part of your spirit be IN HEAVENLY PLACES right now? I think it is.”

    Also, since the Kingdom of God is a government, why wouldn’t the King have all of his citizens (including those of us still alive here on Earth) be engaged in fighting against Satan?

    As you’ve rightly said, necromancy is forbidden, but if you look at the fact that it’s a real practice that, unfortunately many occultists are doing (that and much more) then it’s a real thing. Could Satan make it up? Sure, but why would God forbid it if it weren’t possible?

    So, to answer your query, albeit in a very strange way, I think that yes, we (at least our spirits) can and do communicate with those who have passed before, BUT…I think it would only happen in our physical bodies if it God ordained it.

  • R. L. Copple May 3, 2016, 6:33 PM

    There is also the part in Revelations, don’t recall the exact verses, where the saints in heaven are offering up the prayers of those on Earth before God’s throne as incense. I don’t know if one could extrapolate from that verse that they have a ring-side seat on events down here, but it at least indicates they are aware of our prayers.

    There is also the concept of the Body of Christ, which I believe you were alluding to. Christ defeated death per Scripture, so are we to suggest that death still has the power to separate the Body of Christ so that one is not aware of the other’s activities? While these things may not be readily evident to us on this side of the fence, it certainly indicates one could contradict scripture if they go too far in separating the living and the “dead” too strictly. I recall Paul stating that if one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts.

    It should also be noted that the OT Apocrypha, as we call it, was a solid part of the OT canon in Jesus’ and the Apostle’s day, and was included as “scripture” when it is referred to as such. In that you have a much clearer examples of angles and saints interacting with our world. So this didn’t come from pagan beliefs, but was a part of Jewish beliefs passed down to the Apostles which they never rejected out right either.

    So I certainly think there is more to this than we’ve generally been led to believe.

    • Travis Perry May 3, 2016, 6:43 PM

      Rick, all the living in Christ are one body. Yet are we spiritually linked into what is happening in, say, Uganda? No–we don’t have a connection that lets us know what all other believers are doing. If we don’t have that connection while ALIVE, why would we have it while we are dead?

      The acceptance of the Apocrypha as I understand it depended on whether you were a Greek-speaking Jew or not. The Greek-speakers generally accepted it (it was in the Septuagint) but the Hebrew/Aramaic-speakers did not.

      However, the fact that there is not a single clear quote from the Apocrypha by any of the New Testament writers indicates to me that they did not accept it as Scripture. So I wouldn’t put too much on its view of the afterlife…

      • R. L. Copple May 3, 2016, 7:09 PM

        Of course, we’re limited in this life, though there have been examples of God making known to someone who is a total stranger the needs of another somewhere else. But those in heaven are not as limited as we are, being in the realm of God’s presence. And God can fill them in as needed just like He can us. None of that indicates exactly to what degree there is knowledge and interaction between the two parts of the Body, just that to say there cannot be none is to attribute to death more power than the Gospel says it can have.

        On the Apocrypha, the Jew’s didn’t exclude it from their scriptures until 70 something AD in a council, mainly because too much of it supported Christian teachings on Christ. And while no direct quotes, Peter refers to a section of it in one of his letters as a support for a point. That being said, the fact there is no direct quote is not proof it wasn’t considered scripture by the Apostles and early church. It only means none of the NT writers ever had cause to quote from it. But the Bible they used contained it, as did the Christian Bible until some point after the Reformation. Who do you think put those books in the Christian Bible from the start, if not from the Jews?

        However, whether one considers it part of scripture or not, the point was that belief was part of the Jewish teachings at the time, and that is where the Church derived it from, not pagan sources so much.

        • Travis Perry May 3, 2016, 7:52 PM

          Rick, you are drawing a conclusion to say that those who are in the presence of God are less limited than we are. We don’t actually know that–I am of the opinion that the reason why a bodily resurrection is a necessity is because a human spirit without a body IS in fact limited. But I don’t know that either–there are simply certain passages that make more sense if a human being is not quite fully functional without a body. Which is why we require a resurrection. But I am drawing a conclusion I cannot fully support–just as you did in the opposite direction.

          As for the Apocrypha, I’m going to get a bit sharp with you, my friend (just a bit). Greek Jews did NOT use the same Bible as Hebrew-speaking Jews. The Apocrypha was in the Greek version but NOT in the Hebrew version. So you are only partially correct to say “it was part of Jewish teachings at that time.” No, it was a part of SOME Jewish teachings and not others. The tension between the two groups existed before it was officially cast out of Judaism (and this division is in fact reflected in a division between Greek and Hebrew Jews in the Early Church that I believe is recorded in Acts 6).

          As for the “no direct quotes”–the New Testament writers make MANY Old Testament quotations. Hundreds. That they never needed the Apocrypha only speaks slightly better for it than saying they didn’t consider it Scripture. It was either worthless to them in the important doctrines they laid down or not considered cannon. Either option is not good.

          And note the Roman Catholic Church didn’t accept the Apocrypha as cannon in an official way until 1546! Apparently they didn’t need it much either! (Sorry my friend, but I’ve read the Apocrypha and other than 1 Maccabees, which is exciting history, I’m not personally impressed.)

  • Jay DiNitto May 4, 2016, 4:03 AM

    I like using natal analogies, because it seems God is fond of patterns and types. Though there’s danger in making the analogy too concrete.

    So using the natal analogy, I’d offer that we don’t so much remember our own life on earth as much as we understand it much better…just as we don’t remember our time in the womb but we know much more about the gestation process when we become reasoning adults. This idea doesn’t seem to contradict scripture or anything believed or taught by its writers.

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