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.