Joseph’s Dream, by Gaetano Gandalfi (1734-1802) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
This is a fascinating area of study. I was thinking about this a few days ago as a result of a letter I received from a woman who had recently lost her mother. She reported how she had had a dream that seemed so vivid and real and whether it was possible to think that she had some sort of authentic encounter with her mother. My wife Judy’s father recently passed away also, and both she and her mother have said that they have had such dreams, which were of considerable comfort to them.
So is this kind of thing in accord with what we know from biblical revelation? I say that there is nothing in the Bible which would rule it out or forbid it. Here is how I answered the woman who wrote, in my return letter (with some presently-added Scripture references):
Sure, communication is entirely possible. In the Bible, we even see examples of dead saints coming back to earth, such as Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration [Matthew 17:1-3], and the prophet Samuel, in one Old Testament passage [1 Samuel 28:12-15 with Sirach 46:20; cf. Matthew 27:50-53 and Revelation 11:3]
Your mother is still alive. It is quite possible, even likely (again, from what we know from the Bible) that she can see you and hear you (e.g., Hebrews 12:1 refers to dead saints observing us; we also see a lot of that in the book of Revelation [cf. Matthew 22:30, Luke 15:10, 1 Cor 4:9] ). You can talk to her. She’s still alive! We often make too much of the division between this earth and the afterlife. What we call “death” is only the temporary separation of the soul from the body.
[Dead saints intercede for those on earth: Jer 15:1-2, Maccabees 15:14, Rev 6:9-10, and act as intermediaries, presenting our prayers to God: Rev 5:8, as do angels, also: Tobit 12:12,15, Rev 8:3-4, cf. 5:8; for related general information, see the various papers on my Saints, Purgatory and Penance web page. It would seem reasonable to suppose that if all these more literal phenomena have occurred, that appearance in a dream of a dead person is just as plausible and possible, if not much more so]
. . . there is nothing contrary to it in the Bible. Christianity only forbids seances and things like that, which are based on occultic principles, not Christian, biblically-based ones.
We also know that legitimate communication can come through a dream, since we have the story of “an angel of the Lord” appearing “in a dream” to Joseph (step father of Jesus), to give him a message (Matthew 3:19-20). We also have the example of the patriarch Joseph interpreting dreams (Genesis 40-41). In Genesis 41:25, Joseph says that God was speaking to the Pharaoh of Egypt through a dream.
I hope this will be a comfort to you. Don’t despair. Grief is natural, but your mother is still alive and part of you, and you have your memories, and you’ll see her again one day. None of that can be taken away.
The Bible provides many examples of communication through dreams of God to man. This is indisputable. I would contend (based on the numerous biblical eindications cited above) that communication from dead persons (including relatives) is also entirely possible, though rare, and to be strictly discerned as to authenticity. Catholics (and many other non-Catholic Christians) believe in the reality of ghosts, after all. The popular Catholic philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft has written insightfully about ghosts:
. . . without our action or invitation, the dead often do appear to the living. There is enormous evidence of “ghosts” in all cultures. What are we to make of them? Surely we should not classify the appearances of the wives of C. S. Lewis and Sheldon Vanauken, just to take two Christian examples, as demonic?
We can distinguish three kinds of ghosts, I believe. First, the most familiar kind: the sad ones, the wispy ones. They seem to be working out some unfinished earthly business, or suffering some purgatorial purification until released from their earthly business. These ghosts would seem to be the ones who just barely made it to Purgatory, who feel little or no joy yet and who need to learn many painful lessons about their past life on earth.
Second, there are malicious and deceptive spirits – and since they are deceptive, they hardly ever appear malicious. These are probably the ones who respond to conjurings at seances. They probably come from Hell. Even the chance of that happening should be sufficient to terrify away all temptation to necromancy.
Third, there are bright, happy spirits of dead friends and family, especially spouses, who appear unbidden, at God’s will, not ours, with messages of hope and love. They seem to come from Heaven. Unlike the purgatorial ghosts who come back primarily for their own sakes, these bright spirits come back for the sake of us the living, to tell us all is well. They are aped by evil spirits who say the same, who speak “peace, peace, when there is no peace”. But the deception works only one way: the fake can deceive by appearing genuine, but the genuine never deceives by appearing fake. Heavenly spirits always convince us that they are genuinely good. Even the bright spirits appear ghostlike to us because a ghost of any type is one whose substance does not belong in or come from this world. In Heaven these spirits are not ghosts but real, solid and substantial because they are at home there: One can’t be a ghost in one’s own country.
That there are all three kinds of ghosts is enormously likely. Even taking into account our penchant to deceive and be deceived, our credulity and fakery, there remain so many trustworthy accounts of all three types of ghosts – trustworthy by every ordinary empirical and psychological standard – that only a dogmatic a priori prejudice against them could prevent us from believing they exist. As Chesterton says, “We believe an old apple woman when she says she ate an apple; but when she says she saw a ghost, we say ‘But she’s only an old apple woman.'” A most undemocratic and unscientific prejudice.
(Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990, 33-35)
There are some books which deal more extensively with the phenomenon of ghosts, from a Catholic perspective. One is Shane Leslie’s Ghost Book, by Sir Shane Leslie, published by Sheed & Ward in 1956 (run by the great lay Catholic apologist Frank Sheed and his wife Maisie Ward). It treats the subject of ghosts and hauntings, and includes patristic, medieval, and more modern Church teaching on ghosts, as well as many true ghost stories. Another, which is still available, is Occult Phenomena In the Light of Theology, by Alois Wiesinger, O.C.S.O. (Cistercian); 1957. One website which offers it for purchase, describes it as follows:
As the rapid spread of New Age beliefs and other forms of pagan superstition has led, in turn, to widespread fascination with the occult, some Catholics have mistakenly met the challenge by promoting a simplistic Protestant view of the subject, i.e., that all “paranormal” phenomena are either fraudulent or of the devil. But as Abbott Alois Wiesinger demonstrated half a century ago, Catholic teaching on the occult is far more complex and interesting than that . . . Abott Wiesinger, a Cistercian theologian who conducted extensive research into the paranormal, demonstrates that while many so-called psychic happenings can be dismissed, others can be explained by “vestigial” powers of the human soul left over from its pre-fallen state: “Theology teaches us that in Paradise man possessed powers which were afterwards lost to him. The question is, which powers were lost completely, which were merely weakened, and whether certain of these powers, which may have remained latent, might… be capable of revival.”
Wiesinger explores the entire range of paranormal phenomena, . . . Which of these phenomena are or may be genuine? How can they best be explained in the light of Catholic theology? How might they attest to the existence of God, and of other spiritual realities taught or implied by Catholic doctrine? Some of Abbott Wiesinger’s fascinating answers:
* Links between the action of pure spirits and the results of occult phenomena
* How the soul is organized. The relationship of its purely spiritual element to its other elements
* How abnormal states of mind can temporarily free the soul to act, and receive knowledge, after the manner of pure spirits
* St. Thomas on the higher powers of the soul when it is “partly freed” from the body
* Preternatural powers of knowledge and will possessed by our first parents, Adam and Eve. Similarities of these powers to those of pure (angelic) spirits
* How the soul’s vestigial powers can, in certain extraordinary circumstances, act directly on matter
* How dreams or visions may accurately foretell certain events. How this differs from genuine prophecy
* Powers and characteristics of the human soul after it has become separated from the body in death
* Why Catholics must admit the possibility of ghosts, but reject the claims of spiritualists to summon the spirits of the dead * Two characteristics of pure spirits that are also found in our subconscious
* How the Catholic concept of “spirit,” and Catholic explanations for occult phenomena, differs from those of pagan spiritualists
* False approaches to the spiritual — e.g., yoga and astrology
* How paranormal gifts differ from true mysticism. Why they should never be deliberately cultivated . . . Catholic reviewers in 1957 lauded Abbott Wiesinger for his sound theology, scrupulous logic, and exhaustive scientific research: “A satisfying account of the principal occult phenomena today … widely needed … provides a scrapbook, both Catholic and secular, of the unexplained in ordinary life.” The Month “Level-headed … [a] firm step forward into a field largely uncharted.” Theological Studies “A mine of information on occult phenomena.” The Clergy Review . . .
The Lewis anecdote mentioned in passing by Peter Kreeft above, is quite interesting. He reported “an instantaneous, unanswerable impression” of his deceased wife’s presence. Some years earlier, he had felt “the ubiquitous presence” of his dead friend and fellow Christian writer, Charles Williams. Here is how Lewis described his experience. It makes for extremely fascinating reading:
It’s the quality of last night’s experience – not what it proves but what it was – that makes it worth putting down. It was quite incredibly unemotional. Just the impression of her mind momentarily facing my own. Mind, not “soul” as we tend to think of soul. Certainly the reverse of what is called “soulful.” Not at all like a rapturous reunion of lovers. Much more like getting a telephone call or a wire from her about some practical arrangement. Not that there was any “message” – just intelligence and attention. No sense of joy or sorrow. No love even, in our ordinary sense. No un-love. I had never in any mood imagined the dead as being so – well, so business-like. Yet there was an extreme and cheerful intimacy. An intimacy that had not passed through the senses or the emotions at all.
. . . A Greek philosopher wouldn’t have been surprised at an experience like mine. He would have expected that if anything of us remained after death it would be just that. Up to now this always seemed to me a most arid and chilling idea. The absence of emotion repelled me. But in this contact (whether real or apparent) it didn’t do anything of the sort. One didn’t need emotion. The intimacy was complete – sharply bracing and restorative too – without it.
. . . Once very near the end I said, “If you can – if it is allowed – come to me when I too am on my death bed.” “Allowed!” she said. “Heaven would have a job to hold me; and as for Hell, I’d break it into bits.” She knew she was speaking a kind of mythological language, with even an element of comedy in it. There was a twinkle as well as a tear in her eye. But there was no myth and no joke about the will, deeper than any feeling, that flashed through her.
(A Grief Observed, Toronto: Bantam Books edition, 1961, 85-88)
It seems that Lewis himself may also have visited earth after his death. Lewis scholar Gilbert Meilaender writes: “J. B. Phillips [translator of the well-known New Testament paraphrase] thought that Lewis’s spirit had twice appeared to him after Lewis’s death.” In his book, The Newborn Christian, Phillips stated that C. S. Lewis appeared to him “large as life and twice as natural” and communicated to him a short message.
Christian writer Sheldon Vanauken wrote of his experience with his dead wife in his book A Severe Mercy. He gives a detailed recounting of an encounter with his wife while sleeping, including communication; what he describes as “a vision dream.”
Let us now examine the extensive biblical evidence for God Himself (and angels) using dreams as a means for communication (all biblical passages: NIV):
Genesis 20:3, 6 But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.” . . .  Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her.
Genesis 28:12-17 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
Genesis 31:10-13 “In breeding season I once had a dream in which I looked up and saw that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled or spotted. 11 The angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob.’ I answered, ‘Here I am.’ 12 And he said, ‘Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.’ ”
Genesis 31:24 Then God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”
Genesis 41:25 Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.
Numbers 12:6 he said, “Listen to my words: “When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams.
1 Kings 3:5-15 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” 6 Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day. 7 “Now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. 8 Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. 9 So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” 10 The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. 11 So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, 12 I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. 13 Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for both riches and honor so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. 14 And if you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” 15 Then Solomon awoke and he realized it had been a dream. . . .
Daniel 2:26-28, 45 The king asked Daniel (also called Belteshazzar), “Are you able to tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?” 27 Daniel replied, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, 28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come. Your dream and the visions that passed through your mind as you lay on your bed are these: . . . 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. “The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy.”
Matthew 1:20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 2:12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they [the wise men, or magi] returned to their country by another route.
Matthew 2:13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
Matthew 2:19-20 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
Matthew 2:22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee,
Matthew 27:19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
The Greek word in all these New Testament passages is onar (Strong’s word #3677). It is only translated as dream in the KJV, and appears in only these six passages in Matthew. I wondered if there was an overlap between dream and vision in biblical language, but apparently this is not the case. The word almost always translated as vision in the New Testament is horama (Strong’s word #3705); cognate horasis (#3706).
The same holds true for Old Testament Hebrew, where there is no linguistic overlap whatsoever (though there is some conceptual intersection in the Bible). Dream is usually the Hebrew word chalom (Strong’s #2472); also sometimes chalam (#2492) or chelem (#2493), whereas vision is the translation of the Hebrew words chazown (#2377), chazuwth (#2380), chizzayown (#2384), machazeh (#4236), or mareh (#4758). It appears, then, that the biblical notion of a dream is essentially the same as our own: the ordinary sense.
Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament offers a lot of helpful information on the biblical concept and interpretation of dreams. First, the Old Testament conception is summarized:
They do not come from the realm of the dead, which is in no sense an abode of God, but from God himself (Gen. 20:6; 28:10ff.; Judg 7:13ff.; Dan. 2:1ff.). They are not needed for revelation, but God can use them if he so chooses, and he alone can give the true interpretation to selected people (Gen. 40:8; Dan. 2:17ff.).On these conditions dreams are integrated into the history of God with his people (cf. Gen. 41:1ff.; Judg. 7:13ff.).
. . . Job and his friends all regard dreams as messages from God (cf. 4:13ff.; 7:14). Dreams are associated with shrines (Gen. 28:10ff.), and revelations are sought there (1 Sam. 3:1ff.). Prophecy is linked with dreams (Num. 12:6-7). Dreams will be a feature of the age of salvation when God pours out his Spirit (Joel 2:28). (p. 692 of one-volume edition)
And then Kittel provides a New Testament overview:
There are no allegorical dreams in the NT. God appears, or an angel, or a messenger, or a man, and gives plain directions about what is to happen or what is to be done (cf. Acts 27:23; Mt. 1:20, etc.). There is thus no interpretation of dreams in the NT. When God speaks through dreams, he does so unambiguously.
. . . They are not concerned with personal fate but with Christ and the Christian mission. They do not terrify, but by means of them God directs his people. The tension between superstition and enlightenment is resolved. (p. 693)
It is mentioned that sometimes men appear in dreams, giving some message. This is closest to our goal of finding biblical evidence for persons (as opposed to only God or angels) appearing in dreams. St. Paul has a “vision” (not a dream, but similar, and Kittel actually refers to it as a “dream”), described in Acts 16:9-10, where “a man of Macedonia” told him to “come over to Macedonia and help us.” St. Paul also describes an angel talking to him (Acts 27:23-24).
Now, could this man (in Acts 16) have been a real person, or for that matter a dead one? I don’t see how either scenario can be ruled out, provided it is by God’s supernatural power and not through magic or sorcery, where the power is supposedly a purely natural one which man can harness. Why couldn’t it be a dead person? Moses and Elijah actually came back to earth and were seen by the disciples at the Transfiguration. Samuel appeared, etc. Why couldn’t this also occur in a dream? If the more extraordinary occurrence is explicitly and matter-of-factly presented in Scripture, then certainly a relatively less spectacular occurrence would also be entirely possible, if not likely. Biblically-speaking, I don’t know how one could possibly eliminate the possibility. But sadly, there are plenty of false denominational predispositions which would rule out such a thing.
Actually, there is an explicit biblical proof of a dead man appearing in a dream or a vision, communicating a message. It occurs in the deuterocanonical books, which were accepted by the overwhelming majority of Christians through the centuries, but rejected by Protestantism (partially because, in fact, of doctrines clearly taught there, such as prayers for the dead). The proof occurs in 2 Maccabees 15:11-16 (a passage I noted in my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism). We have not only two dead men appearing and communicating (and one the prophet Jeremiah, at that), but also one (Onias) interceding for those on earth, as well as stating that Jeremiah also prays for his people, the Jews: an absolute biblical proof that the righteous dead pray for us on earth (along with biblical proofs that Protestants also accept: Jer 15:1-2, Rev 5:8, and 6:9-10).
Given the similar evidence from the Apostle Paul, in Acts 16:9-10), we may conclude that the notion here examined has been sufficiently proven from the Bible itself. Here is this entire striking passage, in the RSV version (with which I shall end):
2 Maccabees 15:11-16 He armed each of them not so much with confidence in shields and spears as with the inspiration of brave words, and he cheered them all by relating a dream, a sort of vision, which was worthy of belief. 12: What he saw was this: Onias, who had been high priest, a noble and good man, of modest bearing and gentle manner, one who spoke fittingly and had been trained from childhood in all that belongs to excellence, was praying with outstretched hands for the whole body of the Jews. 13: Then likewise a man appeared, distinguished by his gray hair and dignity, and of marvelous majesty and authority. 14: And Onias spoke, saying, “This is a man who loves the brethren and prays much for the people and the holy city, Jeremiah, the prophet of God.” 15: Jeremiah stretched out his right hand and gave to Judas a golden sword, and as he gave it he addressed him thus: 16: “Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with which you will strike down your adversaries.”