The “New Age” phenomenon of recent years has provided fresh impetus to the occult concept that the living, somehow, are able to communicate with those who have died. This quasi-religious movement is believed to have more than 70 million adherents around the world. Television “talk shows” parade a variety of “spiritualists” before the public; these are people who claim to be able to “channel” through from the earth to the realm of the dead. They are willing to provide their services to folks who would like to contact their deceased loved ones — for an appropriate “fee” of course!
The practice of “spiritualism” (not to be confused with the biblical use of the term “spiritual”) reaches far back into antiquity. It was voguish in both Babylon and Egypt (the latter country being known as “the mother of the occult”). There is considerable evidence that even the Hebrews, during the Old Testament era, became entangled in this mysticism on occasion. Of the wicked king Manasseh it was said:
“And he made his son to pass through the fire, and practiced augury, and used enchantments, and dealt with them that had familiar spirits, and with wizards: he wrought much evil in the sight of Jehovah, to provoke him to anger” (2 Kings 21:6).
The inspired prophets were clear in their denunciation of this evil ritualism. The person who sought to contact the dead was called a “necromancer” (Deuteronomy 18:11). The Hebrew term seems to mean “one who inquires of the dead.” Such an individual attempted to obtain information from the dead, and was believed to possess that ability. The necromancer claimed to have access to a “familiar spirit” (modern “mediums” call them “controls”) who could access and convey the desired information.
Moses wrote that there shall not be found among Israel any one who is a consulter with a familiar spirit, or a wizard, or a necromancer. Whoever practiced these things would be an abomination unto Jehovah (see: Deuteronomy 18:10-12). Again: “Turn not to them who have familiar spirits” (Leviticus 19:31), the reason being, “the soul that turns unto them that have familiar spirits, unto the wizards, to play the harlot after them, I will set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among the people” (Leviticus 20:6). To be “cut off” was the equivalent of being subject to the death penalty (20:27).
Contacting the Dead
The expression “familiar spirit” (16 times in the KJV) renders the Hebrew term ’ob, the precise meaning of which is disputed. Some associate the word with a “hole,” e.g., a hole in the ground,or perhaps the idea of “hollowness,” e.g., hollow like a “leather bottle” or a “wineskin” (cf. Job 32:19). Initially, the term may have hinted of a “hole” from which dead spirits ascended from the spirit-world to earth’s environment to communicate with the living, with the word eventually being used for the spirits themselves (Hoffner, 385-401). Others think the expression may have suggested the “hollow tone” of the spirit’s voice as it issued from the hole in the ground (cf. Unger, 344).
Many subscribe to the notion that in ancient times there were some people who actually had the power (satanically imposed) to summon spirits from Hades. Some believe that devilish influences operate in this manner even today, though there is no genuine evidence for this idea.
Some scholars argue that no one could actually contact the dead, even in the antique world, and that claims of such were false. They appeal, for instance, to the Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX), which usually renders the expression ’ob, (“familiar spirit”) by the Greek term engastrimuthos, a word that signifies “to prophecy from the belly.” This would suggest that the “voices of the dead” were merely the result of ventriloquism on the part of tricksters who feigned communication with the dead (Brown, et al., 15; cf. McClintock, 477). Some, with minimal force, have thought to negate this position by arguing that the death penalty likely would not have been imposed against mere tricksters.
One thing is clear. God’s people were strictly forbidden to attempt any contact with those in the realm of the dead. Such was considered to be a substitution of other counsel in the place of that provided by Jehovah himself, and so in a measure was a form of idolatry.
The “Witch of Endor” Case
One Old Testament incident that has occasioned considerable controversy involves king Saul’s consultation with the “witch of Endor” (1 Samuel 28; the “witch of Endor” expression is common in literature, though not found in the Bible). In this instance, Samuel is represented as having been summoned from the dead. But was he?
Some scholars contend that Samuel did not return from the dead to communicate with Saul; rather, the record in 1 Samuel 28 reflects the chicanery of the woman of Endor. The situation depicted was only what Saul “perceived” it to be, under the influence of this evil woman. It is argued, for instance, that this woman had no power over Samuel, and since the Lord already had refused to communicate with Saul (v. 6), it is unlikely God would have orchestrated the affair.
It is probably safe to say that a majority of Old Testament students believe that, in the Saul/Samuel episode, something actually happened that the woman of Endor did not anticipate. For instance, the text indicates that “when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice” (28:12), with seeming surprise and alarm. Too, she apparently only related what was happening; she said, “I see...,” while Saul “perceived” that the mysterious figure was Samuel, based upon her description. But twice the text affirms that, “Samuel said...” (vv. 15-16).
Additionally, the message from Samuel was extremely negative regarding the king — a circumstance quite unlikely if the woman was manufacturing the communication on her own, for she had a great dread of what Saul might do to her (v. 9), in spite of his pledge concerning her safety. “The most prevalent view among orthodox commentators is that there was a genuine appearance of Samuel brought about by God himself” (Kaiser, 217). For a balanced presentation of arguments representing both viewpoints, see Van Baalen, 40ff.
To say that the “spiritualist” movement is “haunted” by fraud is a tremendous understatement. Before his death, the renowned magician Harry Houdini, a vigorous opponent of necromancy, pledged to his wife that if it were at all possible to contact her from the post-mortem realm, he would do so. Though she anxiously awaited a message for years, it never came and ultimately she abandoned hope.
Dr. Robert E.D. Clark noted that “sometimes the presence of the dead seems convincing but the evidence is valueless; all spiritualists admit widespread impersonation and heartless fraud.” Clark told of a medium, Blanch Cooler, who communicated with Gordon Davies, a military man supposedly killed in battle. “His voice was imitated, unusual features of a house were described, the future was seen, statements, unknown to sitters, were verified. But it transpired that Davies was alive and had no interest in Spiritualism” (501).
The Futility of Spiritualism
The claims of spiritualists are as useless as they are sinful. As Job might describe these religious con artists, they are “forgers of lies” and “physicians of no value” (Job 13:4). The following points are well worth considering.
The dead cannot analyze the complexity of earth’s events on behalf of the living, because the dead “know not anything ... under the sun,” i.e., upon the earth (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6; cf. Isaiah 63:16).
The dead cannot reveal the secret counsels of God because “the secret things belong unto Jehovah our God: but the things that are revealed belong unto us and our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
The dead cannot inform the living of their own plight, nor send messages regarding after-death experiences. The rich man, referenced by Christ in Luke, chapter 16, recognized his inability to communicate with his brothers on earth, for he pled with Abraham to send someone to them with a message of warning. The rich man was informed, however, that his brothers had “Moses and the prophets,” i.e., the Old Testament scriptures, and those documents were sufficient for their preparation for eternity.
Let all who honor God shun the occult, lest a “lying wonder” be believed, resulting in condemnation (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12). The Bible is “crystal” clear; those who dabble in the “mystic arts” will not enter “into the gates of the city” celestial. Rather, the “sorcerers” will be outside, with the dogs, fornicators, murderers, idolaters, and all who love and tell lies (Revelation 22:14-15). The famous lines from Kipling are a “cryptic” warning for occultists.
Oh, the road to En-dor is the oldest road, And the craziest road of all, Straight it runs to the witch's abode, As it did in the days of Saul. And nothing has changed of the sorrow in store, For such as go down on the road to En-dor.