The Holy Catholic Church teaches that death is not the end of human existence. While the present corruptible human bodies decay after death, the immortal souls will be reunited with their glorified bodies in the fullness of time, i.e. on the day of the last judgment (CCC 1005). However, are there really spirits being trapped on earth after death?
The popular idea that the spirits of human souls who have died and are trapped in the realm of the living for some reason is absolutely impossible. The Church teaches that when a person dies, the soul separates from the body, and the corpse is going to be buried and returned to dust while the spirit goes back to its Creator. The Sacred Scripture is very clear on this. In Ecclesiastes 12:7, it reads: “For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” Then, the immortal soul receives its immediate retribution, in a particular judgment that refers its life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately, — or immediate and everlasting damnation in hell (cf. CCC 1022). As affirmed by the Holy Bible: “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). How can the spirits then still linger if they return immediately to God for the particular judgment? Therefore, the belief on lingering ghosts won’t really make any sense.
Instead, these so-called trapped-haunting ghosts are much more likely to be demons disguising themselves as ghosts or spirits of the dead for the purpose of leading people away from the true faith. In 2 Corinthians 11:14, it reads: “And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” For Satan “was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). That is why St. Paul warned the Church about this demonic modus operandi: “Put you on the armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places” (Ephesians 6:11).
However, the Holy Catholic Church teaches, in fact, the existence of a spiritual realm occupied by God and His angels and by those who revolted against Him. The souls of those who have died are also part of this realm (cf. CCC 325-327). But those souls, that are not yet in Heaven, are not allowed to contact the living without the express permission from Him who created them.
On the contrary, according to St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae (cf. ppl., 69, 3), the souls of the dead, which already are in Heaven, can indeed manifest themselves to the living on their own initiative, and such appearances are not to haunt or terrify people but, mostly to bring comfort, encouragement, and/or admonishment.
In fact, there are ghost stories in the Sacred Scripture that can prove that a ghost can possibly appear before a living for some hollistic reason. In 1 Samuel 28:8-20, the inspired writer shared how King Saul met with the ghost of the prophet Samuel; in 2 Maccabees 15:1-16, it narrated the encounter between Judas Maccabeus, the great Jewish patriot, and the ghost of Onias, the dead high priest; and in Matthew 17:3, the ghosts of the great prophets Moses and Elijah appeared before Jesus Christ in Mt. Thabor. Also, in Luke 16:19-31, it shows that, although he rejected the idea of souls passing between heaven and hell, Abraham didn’t directly reject the possibility that the spirit of Lazarus can return to the living realm to encourage the rich man’s family, as it reads: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). NOTE that the ghosts of these holy men, who were still in the Abraham’s bossom at that time, appeared to the living under the disposition of God’s will.
Therefore, it is not proper to believe that spirits of the dead can be trapped and still linger on earth before going back to God and appear to human for haunting, revenge, any unfinished business, etc. because they are already subject to the disposition of God’s Providence. Believing to such myth is denying God’s victory over death through the crucifixion of Christ. It is better, instead, to pray for the souls of the departed so that they may soon be rewarded with the eternal joy in Heaven.
A best reminder from the Lord Himself: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).