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Believing in ancestral spirits is a myth

24 Feb 2024 at 17:59hrs | Views
At death the body and spirit or the material and immaterial separate. In African society the spirits of the dead, variously known in sub-Saharan Africa as amahlozi or amatongo (Zulu), Xhosa), balimo (Sotho, Tswana), psikwembu (Tsonga), medzimu (Venda), midzimu (Shona), mikishi (Bemba), Orisha (Yoruba), maimu (Kikamba), etc. are believed to continue living either within proximity or in caves, from where they can watch over the affairs of their respective living family members. And in Hinduism, people believe in samara, that is, a belief which says the spirits of the dead return and incarnate animals like cows, monkeys, etc. Hence, there is no killing or slaughtering of such animals in Indian society in case one kills the indwelling ‘home’ or inhabitant of his dead relatives. The Chilean government has asked the British Museum to repatriate two moai statues back to Chile because Chileans believe that statues embody the spirit of a prominent ancestor of the Chilean people. People in different cultures have different beliefs and superstitions about the destinies of human souls at death. Even religious groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, the Baha’i Faith, Islam, etc and churches like the Roman Catholic Church have somewhat weird explanations of the destiny of human souls/spirits at death. Therefore, as created and finite human beings (Psalm 9:20) we all have to admit and accept that our explanations of the destiny of human souls are inadequate and the truth of the matter lies elsewhere apart from ourselves.

What the Bible says about human spirit/soul at death

Only God, the Creator and Giver of human life, informs us where He sends human souls/spirits when they die. In Hebrews 9:27 God tells us that every person is destined to die at some appointed time, and at death the body and spirit or the material and immaterial do separate. In other words, death is the separation oof the body and soul. At death, the soul of a Christian, that is, someone who has personally put his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as his Saviour, is taken straight to heaven and ushered into presence of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ and God the Father: "to be absent from the body (at death) is to be present with the Lord" in heaven (2 Cor 5:1, 6, 8). The spirits or souls of dead Christians will remain in the presence of God in heaven awaiting the promised resurrection of the dead when God the Son comes back first for His church (John 14:1-6; 1 Corinthians 15:12-16, 51-54; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). God will bring with Jesus the spirits/souls of the believers and reunite them with their new imperishable raised bodies (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). On the other hand, when a non-Christian or unbeliever dies, his soul/spirit is sent to hades or hell from where it will await the resurrection and judgment of all unbelievers before they are cast into the lake of fire where they will spend eternity (Luke 16:19-31; 2 Peter 2:4; Revelation 20:11-15). The Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) translated the Hebrew Sheol as Hades. In the OT Sheol referred to the realm of the dead in general without necessarily distinguishing between righteous or unrighteous souls. In the New Testament usage, hades or hell always refers to the place of abode for the wicked prior to their final judgment in hell or lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15). In Luke 16, Jesus used the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to show that there is impassable gulf between the abode of the souls of believers and that of the unbelievers. The Scripture consistently teaches that the souls of the righteous dead go immediately into the presence of God (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23), and those of unbelievers to hades or hell (Luke 16:19-31; 2 Peter 2:4; Revelation 20:11-15). The presence of Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:30) belies the notion that they were confined in a compartment of Sheol until Christ finished His redemptive work on the cross and raised to go back to Heaven. Belief in purgatory is foreign to biblical teaching.

If the Bible clearly teaches that souls of the dead cannot return from the places of abode, who then purport themselves from time to time as ancestral spirits demanding some form of appeasement ritual ceremony to be performed if any misfortune or tragedy (like sickness or women miscarriages, or a series of accidents, etc) is to be averted? I submit that it is Satan and his demons.

Satan and demons masquerade themselves as ancestral spirits

Belief in ancestral spirits is rife in African society, and Satan and his demons can deceitfully disguise and present themselves as ancestral spirits. In the Garden of Eden, Satan shrewdly disguised himself and deceived Eve into thinking that she was conversing with the snake. By speaking through the snake, the devil succeeded in deceiving her to disobey God (Genesis 3:1-19; 1 Timothy 2:14). By possessing some living relative Satan or his demons can purport to be ancestral spirits making demands for an appeasement ritual ceremony to be performed if the family misfortune (like sickness or women miscarriages, or a series of accidents, etc) is to stop (2 Corinthians 2:11; 11:14). In Mark 5 the Lord Jesus Christ encountered a demon-possessed man who made his requests known to the Lord Jesus Christ. And in response, Jesus gave the demons permission to enter into the herd of two thousand pigs who eventually plunged themselves to death into a nearby lake. Unlike us human beings, God the Son knew exactly that He was actually interacting with demons, and not with the man they had possessed. The demons spoke and made their demands known. In African society, when demons make demands for appeasement ritual ceremonies to be performed, God says that those who perform such appeasement ritual ceremonies they will actually performing them to Satan and his demons (1 Corinthians 10:20). During the appeasement ritual ceremony, someone claiming to be possessed by an ancestral spirit will go into a trance while supposedly uttering the grievances committed against the ancestral spirits, and how to make things right for the living members.

If one accepts the biblical explanation of where souls or spirits of the dead go at death, then, belief in ancestral spirits is a myth. A myth is a widely held belief or superstition which is actually false. The Lord Jesus Christ referred to Satan as "the father of lies" (John 8:44) who subtly disguises himself and his demons even as ancestral spirits. Today Satan uses false teachers and religious cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Baha’i Faith, Mormons, Islam, etc. as his human agents and advocates in spreading what the Bible calls "the doctrines of demons" (1 Timothy 4:1). All religious cults and false teachers as agents of Satan deny the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. In spite what Jesus Christ unambiguously claimed Himself to be God: "I and the Father are One" (John 10:30), cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses reject that.  The Lord Jesus Christ told the Jewish religious leaders of His day that He was Yahweh, "Before Abraham was, I AM" (John 8:58). The same name Yahweh used here in John is used in Exodus 3:14 for Yahweh. When the Jewish religious leaders heard Him claiming to be Yahweh, they picked up stone to stone Him accusing Him of blasphemy. Today cults religiously spread "the doctrines of demons" in the name of God. Sadly, they are not aware of it because "they are spiritually darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God" (Ephesians 4:18).  "Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded their minds…they are unable to see the glorious light of the Gospel, the message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God "(2 Corinthians 4:3, 4). Satan through cultural beliefs and superstitions, false teachers and religious cults deceive people even about life after death.

Getting ready for heaven before you die

Heaven is a real place of abode of the eternal God the Father, the eternal God the Son, and the eternal God the Holy Spirit who have always existed as three persons in One. In His divine plan which is beyond human comprehension and explanation, God the Father sent God the Son from heaven to come to earth to die on the cross on our behalf sinful people. After His triumphant resurrection from the dead God the Son ascended back to heaven where He asked God the Father to send God the Holy Spirit into the world so that He could testify for God the Son and convince lost and sinful humanity of their sins and their personal need for salvation through God the Son (1 John 2:1,2). And anyone who would hear the Gospel and turn away from their sin and put their trust in God the Son for the forgiveness of their sin would be saved. The Lord Jesus promised all believers a place in heaven (John 14:1-6).
No one can enter heaven on the basis of his good works or good life. What you and I may boast of as "my good works or deeds" to get me to heaven when we die, God says about such works "all your righteous acts are like filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6). Individuals get ready for heaven by trusting the Lord Jesus Christ for their Saviour from sin: "God saved you by His grace when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it" (Ephesians 2:8, 9). Neither belonging to a particular religious cult (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses; Mormons, Islam, etc) or church will qualify you for heaven at death as the religious Saul came to realise at the time of his Christian conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-12). Jesus Christ is the only way and only door to heaven, "No one can come to the Father in heaven except through Me" (John 14:6).  

In conclusion, Satan and his demons purport themselves as ancestral spirits since souls or spirits of dead relatives cannot return from their designated places of abode before the resurrection of the dead. God warns us against deceitful schemes of Satan and his demons who portray themselves as non-existing ancestral spirits (2 Corinthians 2:11). Since calamities are common to all people in the world, why do only Africans tend to attribute them to the activities of their grieved ancestral spirits? Think about that.

By Dr Onesimus A. Ngundu (
Theologian, historian, former Principal of Harare Theological College, Zimbabwe.


Source - Dr Onesimus A. Ngundu
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