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Questions on the Afterlife: "How do we respond to claims of communicating with the dead?"

When we look at the Bible, we see clearly that those who participate in necromancy are in violation to God’s Law (Leviticus 20:6, 27). The idea of seeking guidance from the spiritual world apart from God is something that God’s covenant community should have nothing to do with, and one of the most admirable parts of King Saul’s brief reign is that he cast the necromancers out of the nation of Israel (1 Samuel 28:3).

Yet while the Bible clearly condemns the thought of seeking guidance from the dead, it doesn’t tell us the validity of those who claim to communicate with the dead. Perhaps the most well-known and helpful passage for addressing this question is 1 Samuel 28, where Saul meets with the “witch of En-dor,” to conjure up the spirit of Samuel.

1 Samuel 28 takes place the day before Saul’s death at the hands of the Philistines and shows us clearly the demise and fall of the king. Before you continue reading this post, I encourage you to take a few moments to read through 1 Samuel 28 and familiarize yourself with this passage.

1 Samuel 28 starts out not by talking of Saul’s visit to a medium, but instead with a bind that David finds himself in. David has gone to live among the Philistines for 16 months (1 Samuel 27:7) to escape the constant threat of Saul. During this time, David continually raids the pagan nations surrounding Israel, but the Philistines think that he is raiding his own people.

Here in 1 Samuel 28, David is confronted with a difficult situation: the Philistines are headed to battle the Israelites, and David’s presence is requested for the battle. What will David do? He is the anointed one, but if he travels with the Philistines and attacks Israel, he will surely lose his place as the heir to the throne.

The chapter doesn’t answer the question, and the reader is left wondering what will take place until chapter 29. For the rest of chapter 28, we turn our attention to the current king who is also in a bind: the people of Philistia are coming to attack Israel but God has utterly forsaken him.

Desperate for some guidance, Saul travels through the Philistine camp to visit a necromancer. The emphasis in verse 3 on Saul’s expulsion of the necromancers at the beginning of his reign shows how far he has fallen on the eve before his death; this is a man who has not followed God faithfully for some time and is about to lose the kingdom completely.

When Saul asks the woman to conjure up Samuel for him, we may be surprised that Samuel does indeed appear (1 Samuel 28:8–19). This leaves us with two possible interpretations of what has taken place:

  1. The woman is actually capable of summoning the dead.
  2. This is an “exception to the rule” so to speak, where God allows this to take place to affirm Saul’s impending doom.

So which is it? If it is the first, then that doesn’t mean that it is therefore “permissible” in God’s eyes. Indeed, the Bible tells us that Satan is able to perform “signs and lying wonders” (2 Thessalonians 2:9). 

But it is more likely that the second explanation is the correct one, because the woman responds with great surprise in verse 12. It seems like the woman has been living as a “fraud” this entire time, and she is shocked when she actually does conjure up the spirit of Samuel! It seems as though God has “allowed” this abominable practice to take place to further affirm Saul’s fate.

So how should we respond to those who claim to be able to communicate with the dead? For one, we should respond with a heavy dose of skepticism; it is far more likely that this person is communicating with evil spirits rather than than with the dead. But even more importantly, we should remember the prohibitions of Scripture and not place our hope in a place other than God (Isaiah 8:19).

Remember Jesus’s words in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus:

“And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”” (Luke 16:30–31 ESV)