Last summer, Heather Beville felt something she hadn’t in a long time: a hug from her sister Jessica, who died at age 30 from cancer.
In a dream, “I hugged her and I could feel her, even though I knew in my logic that she was dead,” she said. She immediately texted a group chat with her close friends, including her husband and her pastor, to tell them about it.
Like fellow Christians, Beville is sure that death is not the end. But she’s also among a significant number who say they have continued to experience visits from deceased loved ones here on earth.
In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 42 percent of self-identified evangelicals said they had been visited by a loved one who had passed away. Rates were even higher among Catholics and Black Protestants, two-thirds of whom reported such experiences.
Interactions with the dead fall into a precarious supernatural space. Staunch secularists will say they’re impossible and must be made up. Bible-believing Christians may be wary of the spiritual implications of calling on ghosts from beyond. Yet more than half of Americans believe a dead family member has come to them in a dream or some other form.
The survey didn’t clarify how people processed these interactions—whether they thought they were mystical or believed they could have had natural causes. Those who responded that loved ones visited them in a dream, for example, included those who may believe their loved ones were trying to send messages to them as well as those who might have simply dreamt about a favorite memory with their family member.
Experiencing these interactions is correlated with some sense of religious faith. Sixty-three percent of people with what Pew designates as “medium religious commitment”—who may not go to church every week or pray every day but still believe—say they have sensed their dead family members.
“People who are moderately religious seem to be more likely than other Americans to have these experiences,” Pew researchers said. “This is due in part to the fact that some of the most traditionally religious groups—such as evangelical Protestants—as well as some of the least religious parts of the population—such as atheists and agnostics—are less likely to report having interactions with deceased family members.”
Beville, who is now a hospice volunteer and a Stephen Ministries lay caregiver at her church, identified with the findings. “It’s people who have the room and the space to say, ‘There might be something more’ … versus people who have more of that fundamentalist or black-and-white background,” she said.
Beville was raised Baptist, and the profound experience of witnessing her sister’s death 17 years ago cemented her belief in God. It was her faith that got her through the overwhelming grief that followed. Seeing Jessica in dreams and sensing her presence brought comfort.
Not long after Jessica died, Beville dreamed of her sister sitting in a diner, in her healthy, pre-cancer body. When Beville was in labor, praying for a second daughter, she saw her sister in a rocking chair in the delivery room, shortly before giving birth to another girl. She teared up recounting the story, which she repeats to her daughter—Elizabeth Jessica—every year on her birthday.
“She’s in heaven … but I very much feel her presence, and the sense of it brings great comfort,” said Beville.
Researchers say most people who report “after-death communications” find the interactions to be comforting, not haunting or scary.
“They’re often very valuable for people. They give them hope that their loved one is still there and still connected to them,” said Julie Exline, a professor at Case Western Reserve University who studies the psychology of religion and spirituality. “These experiences help people, even if they don’t know what to make of them.”
There are several factors that come into play for a person to turn to supernatural explanations for what they’ve experienced.
A recent Religions article by doctoral student Kathleen Pait and Exline cites “prior belief in God, angels, spirits, or ghosts, combined with a belief that these beings actually do communicate with people in the world” as one condition. The relationship between a person and their loved one—“the need for relational closure” amid prolonged grief—can also be a factor. And women are more likely to report the phenomena.
Psychologists can come off as skeptical of such experiences, and clients may be afraid to disclose them, assuming it means they’re “crazy.” Religious settings may not be much better: Evangelicals and people with high religious commitment were less likely to report interactions with dead relatives in the Pew survey.
“I think a lot of Christians are maybe afraid to talk about this or do not know what to do with it. [They] could at least take some comfort in knowing a lot of people have these experiences,” said Exline. Coming out of a fundamentalist evangelical background, she knows that some religious traditions view these experiences as “demonic” or “kind of freaky.”
The Christian faith operates around the reality of the spiritual realm, even if some of today’s believers can be tempted to downplay it. Chris Pappalardo wrote for CT one Halloween:
Our holy book contains stories of spirits being called back from the dead (1 Sam. 28:8–19), of men who thought they were seeing ghosts (Matt. 14:26, Luke 24:37), and of demons who did tremendous damage, both spiritually and physically (Matt. 8:32–34, Mark 9:20–22, Acts 19:13–16).
In fact, Jesus’ ministry can be characterized as an extended battle between his Holy Spirit and the lesser spirits of darkness, a battle that finds its dramatic conclusion in the paradoxical defeat of those spirits on Calvary (cf. Col. 2:15).
When it comes to the question of a “portal to the other side,” one night a year might be too modest. If the New Testament is any indication, that portal is never completely closed (Eph. 6:10–18). Our world has far more spirits involved in its affairs than we realize.
Inside and outside the church, Christians refer to their late family members looking down on them or going with them as guardian angels. Whether that common imagining of the afterlife is actually theologically sound may depend on who you ask; many theologians say we can’t know for sure what the previously departed are doing while we are here on earth.
John Piper wrote that Hebrews 12:1, referencing running the race before a “great cloud of witnesses,” could indicate the saints watching down to cheer us on. Yet he warns, “We should be cautioned to beware of spending too much time thinking about the saints above so that we are tempted to interact with them … rather than focusing on Christ and the throne of grace that he has opened to us.”
The spiritual realm described in Scripture comes with strong warnings. The text repeatedly advises against calling on spirits outside of God himself, with several Old Testament verses specifically addressing interactions with the dead (“necromancy” in some translations). Deuteronomy 18, for example, decries anyone who “is a medium or spiritist or who consults with the dead” as “detestable to the Lord” (vv. 11, 12).
Evangelicals who believe they have seen deceased relatives in their dreams or sensed their presence can be hesitant to come to their pastors with their experience, because they’ve likely heard a leader decry communication with the dead. (Billy Graham called it an “occult practice.”)
Still, in the past year, 26 percent of evangelical Protestants reported feeling the presence of a family member who died, and 21 percent spoke to a dead family member about events in their life, Pew found. Just 10 percent of evangelicals said they had dead family members communicate with them.
Exline and fellow scholars also group near-death experiences, “after-death communications,” and similar spiritual phenomena among the “anomalous experiences” for their study.
Visions from near-death experiences, including reports of seeing departed relatives while “visiting heaven,” have drawn skepticism from evangelicals, particularly as such accounts became popular as bestselling books around a decade ago.
When Beville describes the dreams with her sister, she also brings up the moments right before Jessica’s death, when she went from being unconscious to seemingly speaking to God. In both, she said, “there is kind of like that thin barrier between heaven and earth.”