Martin Luther on Ghosts

As secular society observes Halloween and Christians prepare for All Saints’ Day, this excerpt from Luther’s sermon on Luke 24:36–47 (included in his Church Postil) on ghosts or “wandering spirits” seems appropriate. Luther believed in apparitions—but as a trick of the devil intended to subvert the faith of Christians. Read on for the reformer’s perspective and for his call to fight such apparitions not with sharpened stakes or garlic but with the only trustworthy weapons at the disposal of God’s saints: God’s Word and faith.

Something is also to be said here (because the Gospel reading mentions it) about appearing or wandering spirits. Here we see that the Jewish people and the apostles themselves held that spirits stray about and are seen at night and otherwise. When the disciples were in the ship at night and saw Jesus walking on the sea, they were frightened as of a ghost and cried out in fear (Matthew 14 [:24–26]). In this passage we hear that Christ does not deny it but confirms with His answer that spirits do appear, because He says, “A spirit does not have flesh or bones,” etc. [Luke 24:39].

However, Scripture does not say or give any example that these are the souls of dead people and that they wander among people and seek help, as we believed previously in our blindness, deceived by the devil. Because of this the pope has invented purgatory and set up his shameful trafficking in Masses. We may easily regard this lying doctrine and abomination as the fruit, which is also the consequence of that on which it is built, namely, the wandering souls, which comes from the father of lies, the devil [John 8:44], who has deceived the people in the name of dead men.

We have reason enough not to believe such apparitions of spirits straying about under the name of souls. First, Scripture says nothing anywhere about the souls of dead men who have not yet risen going about among the people, though everything else we need to know is sufficiently revealed in Scripture. He wanted us to know not even one word (it is not even possible for us to grasp and understand) about what happens with spirits which have departed from the body before the resurrection and the Last Day, since they are now divided and separated completely from the world and from this time. Second, it is clearly forbidden in Scripture to ask anything of the dead or to believe them (Deuteronomy 18 [:10–12]; Isaiah 8 [:19–20]). It is pointed out in Luke 16 [:29, 31] that God does not want any to rise from the dead or to preach, because Moses and the Scriptures are present.

Therefore, we should know that all those ghosts and apparitions which are seen or heard, especially with rumbling and rattling, are not the souls of men, but surely devils who are playing either at deceiving the people with false claims and lies or at frightening and afflicting them in vain. Therefore, a Christian should act toward these ghosts who pretend to be souls no differently than toward the real devil. He should be equipped with God’s Word and faith so that he is not confused or frightened but remains with the doctrine he has learned and confessed from the Gospel about Christ and cheerfully despises the devil with his rattling. He also should not remain for long where he perceives that people trust in Christ and despise him. I say this so that we will be wise and not let ourselves be misled again by such deception and lies, since he previously deceived and fooled even excellent people such as St. Gregory by claiming to be a soul.

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Amended from Luther’s Works volume 77, pages 78–79. © 2014 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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Dawn Weinstock

Dawn Mirly Weinstock has been with Concordia Publishing House for 25 years and has served as a production editor for professional and academic books for more than 10 years. Her projects have included Luther's Works, Johann Gerhard’s Theological Commonplaces, and the writings of Hermann Sasse, C. F. W. Walther, and many others.

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