Spirits, NDEs, and OBEs in the Scriptural Record

by James A. Scarborough, Ph.D. Professor of Physics, Delta State University, Cleveland, MS, 38733.

Paper given at the International Forum on New Science, October 14-17, 1993, Fort Collins, Colorado, 80526


Progress in understanding spirit phenomena, out-of-body experiences (OBEs), and near-death experiences (NDEs) frequently meets with negative emotional reactions from orthodox scientists, clergy, and their followers.  Much of what we, and they, either believe or think we know about spirit effects is derived from our culture, which has previously absorbed these concepts from the dominant religious traditions.  This paper focuses on the written sources of these traditions, the Bible, and shows that all of these spirit effects were known, accepted, and understood by the biblical authors.  As a result, religious opposition to these phenomena and their study is groundless.


The scriptural record gives many details when describing spirit entities and their comings and goings.  The record further indicates that human spirits can disengage from either physical bodies in various degrees, these degrees being currently described as either an out-of-body experience, a near-death experience, or physical death.

Characteristics of Spirits

It is said of man, "'Ye are gods'" (Psa 82:6), this statement being affirmed later by Christ (John 10:34).  The Hebrew were elohim is rendered here as "gods."  It is the same word used in the Scriptures when it is written that we are created in the image or likeness of the gods (Gen 1:26-27, 5:1, 9:6).  We therefore look like these heavenly spirits, as indeed we should, having been made temporarily "a little lower than the angels (elohim)" (Psa 8:5).

On the other hand, the term carne is the Latin term for "flesh," as in chili con carne, carnivore, and other such words.  Consequently, we are in-carnated spirits, spirits "in flesh," a term for which is found in both biblical and extra-biblical literature, "the spirits of the flesh," i.e., Mankind.  The figure of speech that "we have a spirit" conveys a false impression, then.  Instead, we are spirits, as indicated by "there is a spirit in man" (Job 32:8).  What we have, as well, are physical bodies.  It is the spirit which gives physical life to the fleshly body it inhabits, for "the body without the spirit is (physically) dead" (James 2:26).

The body of a spirit is called by various names, such as "spiritual body" and "celestial body."  Paul contrasts the physical body with the spiritual body: "It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body" (1 Cor 15:42 NAS).  The points out that the physical body decays and decomposes into the dust from which it came.  The spiritual body, the body composed of spiritual substance, is the imperishable body which remains.  Paul further explains: "If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body" (1 Cor 15:44 NAS).  The word "spiritual" has the scriptural meaning "of or pertaining to spirits."  When Paul writes of a spiritual body, he means precisely that: the body of a spirit.  Today, "spiritual" is more likely to be used in the sense of "religious" or "saintly."  Such current meanings, if projected into the New Testament translations, gravely distort certain passages.  In addition, some of the meaning of the Scriptures has been lost or obscured by our misunderstanding of the literal meaning of "spirit" as a real entity rather than an emotion.

Unfortunately, the English language has numerous idioms involving "spirit," such as "in good spirits," "in high spirits," "in a spirit of cooperation," "a spirited horse," "ran a spirited race," and others.  These phrases are used to refer to moods, attitudes, and emotions.  They mislead the mind when we attempt to read similar phrases in the Bible in that way.  It is worth remembering that the English language did not exist when the Scriptures were written.  We cannot take the current popular usage of such words and impute their meanings into the Bible.

In particular, we notice that a spirit is a thinking, conscious, acting entity or agent.  The term means a real entity existing outside of our minds.  The word "spirit" "is never used in the New Testament of temper or disposition" (Vincent, 1977, p. 387).

A case in point is Ephesians 4:23 where we see the word pneuma, "spirit," translated in the New International Version (NIV) as "attitude": "to be made new in the attitude of your minds."  The Greek text reads:  ἀνανεοῦσθαι δὲ τῷ πνεύματι τοῦ νοὸς ὑμῶν, literally, "to be renewed, then, by the spirit of knowledge that belongs to you."  The phrase τῷ πνεύματι τοῦ νοὸς ὑμῶν is rendered by the NIV to mean "attitude" or disposition, "the attitude of your mind."  Other versions, however, come closer to the real meaning, "let the Spirit renew your thoughts" (New Living Translation) and "Let the Spirit change your way of thinking" (Contemporary English Version).  The import of the verse during the first-century would have been "be renewed by means of the spirit of knowledge belonging to you," i.e., through your spirit communication, gain knowledge that will renew you.

The term "angel" is another stumbling block, calling up images of creatures bearing little resemblance to their Scriptural description.  "Angel" is often identified as meaning "messenger" or far better "agent."  The name itself describes the function of the creature, not the creature itself.  In the same way, the words "soldier," "mother," and "friend" do not tell us the appearance of these people, nor even that they are people, but rather describe their function or their relationship to us.  An angel is a creature who is functioning as an agent of God.  But what is this creature?  The angel is a spirit.  "Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?" (Heb 1:14 NIV).

Spirits are the inhabitants of the various dimensions of creation, which form a multi-dimensional spirit world.  God Himself is pure Spirit (John 4:24).  Christ, the image of God, is a Spirit.  The angels are spirits, and we are spirits.  None of these spirits fits the popular myth that a spirit is a shapeless, formless intelligence having no body, or some wispy, airy thing moving about and making spooky sounds.  The opposite is the case: spirits have bodies.

Spirit bodies are necessarily composed of a different condition of substance than that of fleshly bodies, since they are invisible to us in their usual condition.  The bodies of these spirits are every bit as real, solid, and visible to each other in their dimension as our bodies are to each other here on Earth.  Some of these spirits have been seen when they materialized on Earth.  Their reported appearances in the Scriptures show that these spirits walk, talk, eat, wear clothes, and generally resemble people in every way.  So great is their resemblance to humans that they are sometimes simply referred to as "men" (Gen 18:1-15, 19:10-12, 32:24-30; Dan 9:21, Luke 24:4, Acts 1:10).  We are told that these materialized spirits are sometimes among us, but that we mistake them for ordinary people.  "Let love the brethren continue.  Do no neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Heb 13:1 NAS).

The biblical description of angels has no resemblance to the usual conception of angels as pretty people with wings on the shoulders.  This myth grew from the early references to seraphim and cherubim.  Seraphim are mentioned only by Isaiah, where we read that he saw a vision (Isa 6:2-6).  The seraphim were part of the vision, not claimed to be real beings.  Cherubim are referred to on several occasions.  Most of the verse involving cherubim describe statues of cherubim.  Whereas the statues themselves have wings (as in ancient Greek culture, e.g., Cupid), it is not clear that the cherubim themselves do.  Since there are mentions of cherubim, seraphim, powers, authorities, principalities, and others in reference to "angelic beings," the possibility is open that many species of spirits may be non-human.  Perhaps they materialize by means of technology instead of magic, i.e., "beaming down."  Perhaps, as some writers have proposed, these entities who project into our space-time dimension may travel from one place to another in silvery discs.  At any rate, their resemblances to us go much deeper than mere external appearances.  There must also be internal similarities.

Humans can eat angel food (Psa 78:24-25).  Materialized spirits can eat human food, also, as the angels who appeared and visited with Abraham and Lot ate quite a variety of human foods (Gen 18:1-22, 19:1-26).  Even the high spirit, Christ, when He materialized from heaven at fish with the Apostles. He had mentioned to them earlier that both food and wine exist in heaven (Mark 14:20; cf. Psa 78:24-25).  Since these spirits eat and drink, it follows that they must have internal organs of every necessary kind.  It is as though these spirits of the higher realms are more or less like flawless humans might be if such existed.  Yet even they are not perfect.  We both make mistakes (Job 4:18, 15:15).  The angels are wise (II Sam 14:21) and discerning (II Sam 14:17).  They have extraordinary knowledge, but do not know everything.  In particular, they do not know all of the details of the plan of salvation, although they are especially interested in finding out (I Pet 1:12).  They worship and serve God (Psa 148:2), as man is expected to do.  The angels of the spirit world of God are, as one of them has put it, our "fellow servants" (Rev 22:8-9).

In summary, we find that the Scriptures teach of many similarities between angels and human beings.  It is apparently intended that, upon our arrival in the next dimension, we will be prepared to live in harmony, for it is said that man shall then be equal to the angels (Luke 20:36).  During the time that we serve our internships on this planet, we have been made temporarily "a little lower than the angels" (Psa 8:5), in the same manner in which Christ Himself was also "made . . . for a little while lower than the angels" (Heb 2:6-9 NAS) during his earthly incarnation.  There is a deep connection between angels and Mankind.  They have much in common, yet we humans are bound within physical bodies on Earth instead of in spirit bodies in the higher dimension.  The distinction between Man and angel seems to be more one of quality, or degree or spiritual purity, than one of species.  We are, in fact, the same species of spirit.