“Holy Ghost Fire”: A Misunderstood Concept?

By Ejike Valentine C.


The Gospel of St. John in a most eloquent manner drives home the centrality of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. At the verge of his leaving the world, Jesus Christ promised his apostles the Paraclete which, from the Greek word Parakletos, means counsellor, intercessor or advocate (cf. Jn 14: 16 ff). This Paraclete will continue the work of salvation in guiding the apostles into all truth, while making clearer the teachings of Jesus Christ in the midst of the changing conditions and circumstances of the world.  To be sure, the Church describes the Holy Spirit as the one “who proceeds from the Father and the Son; with the Father and Son he is adored and glorified; a divine Person, he is at the center of the Christian Faith and is the source and dynamic power of the Church’s renewal”(Lumen Gentium, 4).

This promise of the Paraclete, was fulfilled, as it were, on the evening of the resurrection when Jesus Christ appeared to his apostles amidst shut doors and breathed the Holy Spirit on them (cf. Jn 20:19-23).But more dramatically, we see the fulfillment of this promise in Acts of the Apostles on the Pentecost day. Here, the Holy Spirit visited the apostles in a setting of a violent wind as a tongue of fire which rested on each of the Apostles’ head. Thenceforward, they preached the Gospel with courage and zeal (Acts 2: 1-4).

Therefore, we see fire here as one of the visible manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Contrariwise, the phrase, HolyGhostfire has become a controversial phrase which basically springs from its usage in recent times by some Christians. This usage seems to be incongruous with the scenario of divine love.

In this paper, we shall therefore, look at the usages of the fire from the Holy Spirit. We shall use the bible, the church’s documents and various liturgical prayers and rituals of the Church as our sources.We shall also look at the present usage by various groups and persons in the Church and thereupon sieve, through extrapolative thinking, the abuses of the phrase, Holy Ghost Fire. Finally, we shall make a recommendation on the way out in case of abuses.

Between Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost: A Problem of Translation

In his article, From Holy Spirit to Holy Ghost, Paul Sumner made it clear that the biblical nuance in the usage of Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit is based on the translations given to the Greek origin of the word “pneuma” or its Hebrew equivalent “ruah” which primarily means breath or air. Basically, however, both of them refer to the third person of the Triune God.

The Holy Spirit in the Trinity

Earlier, we have noted that the Holy Spirit is one of the three persons of the Triune God who is also identified in the salvation history. The redemption accomplished by the Son in the dimensions of the earthly history of humanity through his cross and resurrection is, at the same time, in its entire salvific power, transmitted to the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 16:14). Again, the biblical concept of the Holy Ghost includes the Spirit of God which was moving over the waters at the beginning of time (cf. Gen. 1:2). This Spirit which God breathed unto man during creation foreshadows the assurance of the new creation which Christ promised at the verge of his departure from earth. Therefore, “in the Holy Spirit the intimate life of the Triune God becomes totally a gift, an exchange of mutuallove between the divine persons … and also the personal expression of this self-giving, of this being-love”(Dominum et Vivificantem, 10). And principally, the “Holy Spirit is the first to awaken faith in us and to communicate to us the new life which is to know the Father and one whom he has sent, Jesus Christ”(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 684; cf. Jn 17:3).

Fire as one of the Symbols of the Holy Ghost: Some Traces of Holy Ghost Fire in the Biblical Tradition of the Church and their Uses

In the Book of Isiah (Is 6:6-7), an angel touched a burning coal from the altar of God to Isiah’smouth and his guilt was removed so that he was able to prophecy unto the house of Israel. He proclaimed that the Spirit of God was on him for he has anointed him to bring good news to the afflicted, to soothe the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to those in prison, and to proclaim the year of favor from God (cf. Is 61:1ff). This shows the transforming and soothing power of the HolyGhostfire.

Likewise, Ezekiel saw the vision of a great cloud with flashing fire and brilliant light round it. This spirit lifted him up and he proclaimed a new covenant: “I shall give them a single heart and I shall put in them a new spirit” (Ez 11:19, 36:26), a spirit that will enable them to keep the laws and observances of the Lord. Here is manifested the strengthening power of the HolyGhostfire.

In the Book of Exodus (Ex 3:1ff), the angel of God appeared to Moses in a burning bush. There in the burning bush, God revealed his presence. Also, in Ex: 13: 21-22, God manifested his presence and showed his divine protection to his people in a cloud of fire during the Great Exodus. This shows the divine presence and guidance of the Holy Ghost fire

God’s consuming power of the Holy Ghost fire is contained in 1Kgs: 18:38, when Elijah called down the fire of the Lord to consume the offerings in order to show his supremacy over Baal and his prophets.

In Matthew 3:11-12, John the Baptist proclaimed a new baptism which shall be a baptism of Holy Spirit and fire. Here, Holy Ghost fire takes the position of a purifying agent. The Holy Spirit, therefore, produces the purity of God in our lives. God’s purpose is to purify us (cf. Titus 2:14), and the spirit is the agent of our sanctification (cf. 1Cor 6:11, 1 Pet 1:2). As the silversmith uses fire to purge the dross from the precious metal, so God uses the spirit to remove our sins from us (Ps 66:10, Pr 17:3). His fire cleanses and refines. It dispels the shades of darkness, ignorance and timidity (1Jn 2:27). It spurs conversion as in the case of Saul’s experience (cf. Acts 9:1-9).


…fire symbolizes the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions. The prayer of the prophet Elijah, who “arose like fire” and whose “word burned like a torch,” brought down fire from heaven on the sacrifice on Mount Carmel. This event was a “figure” of the fire of the Holy Spirit, who transforms what he touches. John the Baptist, who goes “before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah,” proclaims Christ as the one who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Jesus will say of the Spirit: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” In the form of tongues “as of fire,” the Holy Spirit rests on the disciples on the morning of Pentecost and fills them with himself. The spiritual tradition has retained this symbolism of fire as one of the most expressive images of the Holy Spirit’s actions (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 696).

In line with the above, we still see the Church in her traditional prayers calling upon the fire of the Holy Ghost for guidance, enlightenment, illumination, inspiration, courage, zeal, purification, conversion and transformation. Hence, we pray, come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love and various other hymns to the Holy Spirit. The fire of the Holy Spirit is also called upon during baptism, confirmation, ordination and the votive mass of the Holy Spirit.

Abuses of the Holy Ghost Fire

From our discussions above, we have seen how the mission of the Holy Spirit is linked to the mission of the Father and the Son. We have also seen how fire symbolizes the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. However, the phrase, HolyGhostFire, has suffered a lot of abuses in the hands of some Churches, religious groups and individuals during prayer sessions e.g. ministration, deliverance etc. Some of these abuses include the following:

Firstly, some people tend to use the HolyGhostfire for vengeance on others perceived as enemies or obstacles. Here, we immediately recourse to the Gospel of St. Luke 9:55 where Jesus rebuked James and John who wanted to call down fire on the Samaritan village that refused to make way for the Lord in his journey to Jerusalem. Holy Ghost fire rather makes one worthy for God.

Again, in prayer sessions, we see people commanding the HolyGhostfire as a puppet forgetting that they are addressing God. Rev. Fr. Benedict Agbo calls this “reification of God” which means thinking that we can make God to obey our whims and caprices.

Furthermore, some people think that the more they shout HolyGhostfire, the more the Spirit works. It serves for them here as an emotional release.

We can also deduce that the careless outcry of Holy Ghost fire on others breaks down the communion and love that should be in the church, rather than promote it. This form of prayer is individualistic. It is at the first instance, a claim of perfection. The humble man who knows that himself, at some points or the other, deserves punishment from God but is pardoned, does not go about praying death on the one who has offended him. Rather, he tries to extend this story of mercy he has enjoyed.

Recommendation and Conclusion

The Church is concerned about the fact that there are some abuses in her basic traditional prayers and liturgy. Hence, in the Communique,Religion as Instrument for Peace and Integral Human Development, released by the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) in their Second Plenary 2016, they expressed their concern about the growing misguided sense of creativity and adaptation during liturgical worship. The Universal Church knows her duty in this condition.

The Church recognizes the need to respond to certain deep desires which she believes she can discern in people’s hearts today: a fresh discovery of God in his transcendent reality as the infinite Spirit, just as Jesus presents him to the Samaritan woman; the need to adore him “in Spirit and truth”, the hope of finding in him the secret of love and the power of a new creation; yes, precisely the giver of life (DominumetVivificantem, 2*4).

However, even though the Church is aware of the deep spiritual and psychological yearning of her members to worship God in Spirit and in truth, it is her duty to direct her members to appreciate the rich avenue she has provided for this spiritual connection. There is need, therefore, for adequate catechesis in order to correct the wrong notion many people have about the Holy Ghost fire.

The Catholic Bishop of Nsukka, Most. Rev. Godffrey Onah, for instance, said in his inaugural speech during the Inauguration of the Academic Year in Bigard in 2014 that in some of his Pastoral visits, he asks the faithful to call down the fire of the Holy Ghost on him. This is to show them that this fire endows one with the good attributes of a Christian life.  The HolyGhostfire should be a fire which manifests God’s presence, purifies, consummates, loves, encourages, illuminates and teaches. The HolyGhostfire makes a Christian to burn with zeal for God’s work.

In the final analysis, Holy Ghost fire transforms one into the new image of Christ through truth and love. According to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, fire has two qualities: light and heat. Light is the symbol of truth and heat is the symbol of love.

Ejike Valentine wrote from Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu.

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