In the last few decades, there has been an increasing fascination with communing with the dead. The hit television shows Ghost Hunters, Beyond, and Crossing Over provide good examples. Through the stories told by the participants on these and other shows, the world is regaled with tales of contact with the spiritual world, some heartwarming and some horrific. Those who participate in these kinds of practices do not always understand or fully appreciate the considerable spiritual risks that they are taking.
Spiritualism is a pseudo-religious system of shared concepts in which a key feature is the belief that a soul survives after the death of the physical body and these disembodied spirits are both willing and able to communicate with living persons. Like Christians, spiritualists believe in a single God—whom they refer to as “infinite Intelligence”—and that God holds each soul accountable for his actions and life choices. Unlike Christians, however, spiritualists do not believe that death marks the final point of judgment for a spirit, but souls have the capacity to learn, grow, and evolve after death to progressively higher planes of knowledge and perfection. They do not believe that Jesus’ death paid the penalty for sin and that salvation comes by grace through faith in Christ, but rather souls gradually progress after death through a series of steps toward a state of spiritual perfection. It is, therefore, a works-based route to “salvation” after death.
Spiritualism had its heyday during the 1840s and at the turn of the century in North America and Western Europe. During these periods of wars and upheaval, people sought comfort by contact with their departed loved ones. Historians often point to March 31, 1948, as the birth date of the Spiritualism movement, when Margaret and Kate Fox, of Hydesville, New York, first made the astonishing announcement that they had contacted the spirit of a murdered peddler in their home. The peddler communicated with them by knocking on the table or wall. Thereafter, séances flourished among the upper middle class and the wealthy in America. Mediums, such as Paschal Beverly Randolph and Cora Scott, toured the country giving lectures and demonstrations. During this time, the writings of Franz Mesmer, from whom the term “mesmerism” is derived, particularly influenced the Spiritualist view of the afterlife and contact with the supernatural.
There were many famous devotees of spiritualism, including Mary Todd Lincoln (wife of Abraham Lincoln) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. During the late 1880s, investigators began to expose many of the well-known mediums as charlatans, proving that their demonstrations were contrived. Harry Houdini gained early popularity by his campaign to expose fraudulent mediums.
Spiritualism attracted many followers who were unhappy with the established churches and sought reform. Indeed, many of the early Abolitionists and women’s rights advocates were spiritualists. Spiritualist meetings provided some of the earliest venues for women to speak publicly and authoritatively in a male-dominated society. Radical Quakers, who were disenchanted with the established churches because of their failure to oppose slavery, used interest in spiritualism as an anti-slavery public forum. Although the movement culminated in necessary societal reforms, it resulted in many people moving to a secular spirituality, focused on personal experiences and unsubstantiated messages from beyond, and deemphasized a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Paul referred to religious belief systems that deny the truth of the gospel, the atonement for sins through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, as “having a form of godliness but denying its power”—Timothy 3:1-5. Although many spiritualists attend Sunday services, sing hymns, and worship a single God, spiritualism and Christianity are not compatible belief systems. In addition to their belief in an evolutionary movement of souls through progressively higher celestial planes, spiritualists seek their truth from contact with spirits through séances, Ouija boards, and mediums. Many spiritualists maintain that they have their own personal spirit guides, from whom they receive all kinds of information and direction for their lives. For spiritualists, the Bible is not the primary source of truth and knowledge about the afterlife and God.
The Bible, in fact, contains many stern warnings against spiritualism (Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, 21:8; Deuteronomy 18:9-13). The first king of Israel, King Saul, broke God’s commandment not to engage in spiritualism and ultimately lost his kingdom because of it (1 Samuel 15:23; 1 Chronicles 10:14). When the Apostles encountered people who had powers of divination from contact with spirits, they cast these spirits out as demons (Acts 16:16-18). Many scriptural references point out a chief reason that Christians should not seek contact nor counsel with spirits, namely, that spirits that are contacted may give unreliable or even deceptive information (1 John 4:1).
It is highly likely that many so-called encounters with departed loved ones through the use of Ouija boards, mediums, and séances have actually been encounters with demons, who intentionally deliver false information. One common lie that many people receive through supernatural contact is that there is no hell and no final judgment by God. But Hebrews 9:27 expressly states, however, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Death is inevitable, and so is judgment. Sin brings about that judgment, and all persons are guilty (Romans 3:23). The only way for any person to escape judgment is to receive an unmerited pardon from God by acknowledgment of sin, acceptance that Jesus died for that sin, and a willingness to submit his life to Christ before his death (John 3:16; Romans 3:24). The Bible clearly reveals that those who die apart from Christ will suffer an eternity in hell (Matthew 25:41). Believing in false teachings derived from “spirit guides” will lead many persons away from the sound doctrine of the Bible, which is the intent of Satan (1 Peter 5:8; 1 Timothy 4:1).
Those who dabble in activities that seem innocuous actually open the door for contact, harassment and even possession. Many followers have been traumatized and harmed psychologically, if not physically, by contacts that began with séances, Ouija boards, psychic consultations, Reiki healing, and encounters with mediums. For all those who seek the truth, Jesus unequivocally stated in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
The spiritual gift of prophecy is listed among the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:10 and Romans 12:6. The Greek word translated “prophesying” or “prophecy” in both passages properly means to “speak forth” or declare the divine will, to interpret the purposes of God, or to make known in any way the truth of God which is designed to influence people. Many people misunderstand the gift of prophecy to be the ability to predict the future. While knowing something about the future may sometimes have been an aspect of the gift of prophecy, it was primarily a gift of proclamation “forth-telling,” not prediction “fore-telling.”
A pastor/preacher who declares the Bible can be considered a “prophesier” in that he is speaking forth the counsel of God. With the completion of the New Testament canon, prophesying changed from declaring new revelation to declaring the completed revelation God has already given. Jude 3 speaks of “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (emphasis added). In other words, the faith to which we hold has been settled forever, and it does not need the addition or refinement that comes from extra-biblical revelations.
Also, note the transition from prophet to teacher in 2 Peter 2:1: “There were false prophets among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you” (emphasis added). Peter indicates that the Old Testament age had prophets, whereas the church will have teachers. The spiritual gift of prophecy, in the sense of receiving new revelations from God to be proclaimed to others, ceased with the completion of the Bible. During the time that prophecy was a revelatory gift, it was to be used for the edification, exhortation, and comfort of men (1 Corinthians 14:3). The gift of prophecy has the same purpose today, declaring the truth of God. What has changed is that the truth of God has already been fully revealed in His Word, while in the early church, it had not yet been fully revealed.
Christians are to be very wary of those who claim to have a “new” message from God. It is one thing to say, “I had an interesting dream last night.” However, it is quite another matter to say, “God gave me a dream last night, and you must obey it.” No utterance of man should be considered equal to or above the written Word. We must hold to the Word that God has already given and commit ourselves to sola scriptura — Scripture alone.