Can the Living Communicate with the Dead?
In his informative book, Understanding the New Age, Russell Chandler notes that nearly half (42%) of America’s adult population believe they have been in contact with someone who has died (1988). This was up 15% from a survey conducted in 1977. Of course there is nothing new about necromancy (attempting to communicate with the dead); it is almost as old as death itself. It has, however, received a resurgence of interest lately with the advent of “New Age” philosophy under the influence of such notables as Shirley MacLaine (1983).
Necromancy was practiced in ancient Babylon and also in Egypt (which was known as the “mother of the occult”). There is considerable evidence in the Old Testament that even the Hebrews became involved in the practice. During the time of the wicked Manasseh’s reign over Judah, it is said that the king “practiced augury, and used enchantments, and dealt with them that had familiar spirits, and with wizards” (2 Kings 21:6).
One who sought to communicate with the dead was called a necromancer; hence, the term refers to one who attempts to obtain supernatural knowledge from beyond the grave. Such a person was said to have a “familiar spirit” (modern spirit mediums call them “controls”) who could convey the desired information. Thus, Moses wrote: “There shall not be found with you . . . a consulter with a familiar spirit, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whosoever doeth these things is an abomination unto Jehovah” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). Again: “Turn you not unto them that have familiar spirits” (Leviticus 19:31), for “the soul that turns unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards, to play the harlot after them, I will set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among the people” (20:6). That, of course, implied the death penalty (v. 27).
Could certain perverse persons actually communicate with the dead in those ancient times? And what of today? Some contend that during the Mosaic economy there were actually people who could contact the dead and thus, by supernatural knowledge obtained from them, they could predict the future. They argue that capital punishment would hardly have been legislated against mere pretenders.
We feel, however, that his argument is invalid. Baal and the other gods of ancient heathenism actually were “no gods” (Galatians 4:8; cf. 1 Corinthians 8:5, 6), yet there were laws (buttressed by capital punishment) against worshipping such. Even some today, who are strongly opposed to the practice of necromancy, feel that messages are being conveyed from the realm of the dead. Chandler remarks:
There seems to be convincing evidence that some accurate information has been transmitted from beyond the grave, and that the mediums through which it was communicated could not have otherwise known about it (84).
Others, who deny that anyone today can contact the dead, nevertheless believe that through spiritist “mediums” occultic forces (e.g., demons) are at
This writer believes that the best evidence indicates that no one, either in the past (unless by the interposition of God) or present can talk with the dead, and that demons are not manifesting themselves in today’s world.
It is interesting to note that the term “familiar spirit,” as employed in the Old Testament, was in the Septuagint (Greek Version of the Old Testament) rendered by the term
eggastrimuthos, meaning “to prophesy from the belly”—thus suggesting ventriloquism rather than actual conversation from the dead.
The Witch of Endor
The most notable case in the Old Testament is that of Saul’s consultation of the so-called witch of Endor, whereby Samuel is said to have been summoned from the dead (1 Samuel 28:3-25). Again, however, scholars are disagreed as to the meaning of this incident. Some contend that this event was merely a hoax perpetrated by that evil woman. James Orr suggested:
The whole transaction was a piece of feigning on the part of the woman. . . . It was she who saw Samuel and reported his words; the king himself saw and heard nothing. It required no great skill in a practiced diviner to forecast the general issue of the battle about to take place, and the disaster that would overtake Saul and his sons. . . . Saul, in fact, was not slain, but killed himself. The incident, therefore, may best be ranked in the same category as the feats of modern mediumship (1939, 944).
The most common view, however, is that this incident did involve a real appearance of Samuel from the dead, effected not by the woman, but by
Jehovah; hence, it was a unique event. This seems to be supported by the fact that the woman herself was terrified by the presence of Samuel. Davis and Whitcomb note: “This unusual act on the part of God was certainly designed to emphasize the doom of Saul and God’s displeasure for his coming to a necromancer” (1970, 257). The biblical record certainly indicates that this circumstance in the life of Saul was the crowning act of his apostasy (cf. 1 Chronicles 10:13).
Spiritism Is Sinful
Attempts to contact the dead are both sinful and futile. Spiritism is wrong because: (a) It reflects a paganistic departure from God. Isaiah once asked: “And when they say to you, ‘Consult the mediums and the wizards who whisper and mutter,’ should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?” (Isaiah 8:19 NASB). (b) Spiritism is a work of the flesh. One of the evils listed by Paul in Galatians 5:19ff is sorcery. The Greek term is
pharmakeia, which originally had to do with the use of drugs (compare our word “pharmacy”), but it came to be used in a more general way. James MacKnight says that it is employed of “those arts of incantation and charming, and all the pretended communications with invisible malignant powers, whereby heathen priests promoted the reverence and worship of their idol gods, and enriched themselves” (1954, 301).
Furthermore, efforts to communicate with the dead are useless. The dead cannot inform the living concerning the events of this earth because “the dead know not anything . . . under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6)—that is, they are not aware of what transpires on this planet. Deane comments: “What passes upon the earth affects them [the dead] not; the knowledge of it reaches them no longer” (1962, 226).
A Hebrew prayer, emphasizing the need to trust solely in Jehovah, declares that “Abraham knows us not” (Isaiah 63:16), i.e., he is unaware of earthly activity, hence, is unable to assist the Israelite people. The dead cannot reveal the secret counsels of God, for Jehovah’s righteous will is made known in his divine law (cf. Deuteronomy 29:29).
It is certain that the dead cannot bring spiritual admonitions from their abode as evidenced by the narrative concerning the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Here are the facts: The rich man had died and his spirit was in the hadean (unseen) realm. He remembered that his brothers who survived him on earth were unprepared to meet God; hence, he wanted them warned. It is obvious that he could not get a message to them, otherwise he would not have requested that Lazarus be sent. It is likewise revealed that Lazarus was not permitted to make the journey back to earthly environs. The testimony of the Scriptures is sufficient to prepare men for death.
The Quackery of Spiritism
Even though there is absolutely no evidence, biblical or otherwise, that men can contact the dead, due to the nature of humanity, hope springs eternal in the bosoms of many. Hence, an environment which facilitates fakery thrives. Dr. Robert E. D. Clark tells of a spiritist medium, Mrs. Blance Cooper, who “communicated” with a gentleman named Gordon Davies, who supposedly had been killed in battle. Davies’s voice was imitated, unusual features of the house were described, the future was predicted, etc. As it turned out, however, Davies was actually alive and had no interest in spiritism (1999, 501).
World famous magician Harry Houdini had a standing challenge to spirit-seekers. He claimed that there was no feat which a medium could perpetrate which he could not duplicate by innocent magic.
Let all of those who honor God shun the world of the occult, lest a “lying wonder” be believed resulting in damnation (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12). The Bible is plain: those who dabble in the mystic arts will not enter “into the gates of the city” above (Revelation 22:15). The words of Kipling are still appropriate:
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.
- Chandler, Russell. 1988. Understanding the New Age. Dallas, TX: Word.
- Clark, Robert E. D. 1999. Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Davis, John J. and John C. Whitcomb. 1970. A History of Israel. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Deane, W. J. 1962. Ecclesiastes. Pulpit Commentary. Vol. 9. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- MacKnight, James. 1954. Apostolic Epistles. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.
- MacLaine, Shirley. 1983. Out on a Limb. New York, NY: Bantam.
- Orr, James. 1939. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.