Consulting the dead

I Chronicles 10:13,14

“Saul died because he was unfaithful to the LORD; he did not keep the word of the LORD and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not enquire of the LORD. So the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.”

Strong words of condemnation for a man who achieved much and was, surely, ‘only doing his best.’ The full story (I Samuel 28) tells how Saul, desperate for advice from God on the eve of what he feared would be his last battle, went in secret to consult the dead prophet Samuel via a medium. The séance was ‘successful’ in the sense that Samuel’s spirit seemed to appear – but Saul learned nothing that he did not already know. The following day, the Philistines made mincemeat of the Israelite army, and Saul was killed along with all but one of his sons.

The Law (Deuteronomy 18:9-14)

The term ‘occult’ covers a number of practices that have been going on since the dawn of human history. There is nothing new in astrology, spiritism, or witchcraft. It is perhaps more surprising that they are still widely practised even in supposedly ‘advanced’, scientifically literate societies.

But in every age, this is one area in which the people of God (whether Jewish or Christian) have always been expected to differ from the rest of the world. Our friends and neighbours may read their horoscopes or play with ouija boards (a craze that was very fashionable when I was in my teens and twenties, although one hears much less about them now). There may be a spiritualist ‘church’ down your road. But for Christians, these are no-go areas.

The reason (Isaiah 8:19,20)

What drives people to attempt to contact the dead? Sometimes it is grief (the pain of being parted from a loved one, cut off with no further possibility of communication). Sometimes, as in Saul’s case, it is fear – fear of the future, or of the unknown. (Although why the dead should be better informed than we are is open to question).

Such emotions are perfectly natural, so why should we not try to alleviate them? The issue is not our need for solace or for encouragement, but the place where we go to find them. “Should not a people enquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning!” We should draw our hope from God, and our guidance from His word – not from the underworld. Comforting though it may be to think that your dead relatives are ‘watching over you’, in reality we have Someone much greater and kinder to watch over us (Psalm 121). Do we not trust Him?

The challenge (Acts 19:13-20)

Ancient Ephesus was a hotbed of occultism, witchcraft and other magical practices. In such an environment, there were apparently some Christians who found it hard to break away from their old pagan habits. But once their consciences were awakened, they took decisive action (verse 19). The destruction of all their occult paraphernalia involved substantial financial cost – but the benefit, both to the individuals concerned and to the church, was enormous.

There are many grey areas in Christian ethics; but this is not one of them. Occultism amounts to idolatry – it is a defiant rejection of God’s way in favour of an alternative – and Christians must make no compromise with idolatry (I Corinthians 10:21,22). Some things are mutually exclusive, even (or especially) in the spiritual realm. You cannot make contact with the spirit world and at the same time remain on good terms with the Lord of heaven and earth; you cannot hold the hand of a ‘spirit guide’ and simultaneously hold the hand of God (Psalm 73:23). You have to choose between them, so it makes sense to choose the more powerful of the two: the living God.

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