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Challenges Bible Authority
Two hundred years ago education was almost totally in the hands of the established church. Its message was authoritative and rarely, if ever, challenged. On questions about life and death, the church taught that a man or woman's innermost self survives bodily death, and continues to exist in a spirit world either of blissful reward or eternal punishment.
As the nineteenth century progressed and the age of rationalism opened up, these long cherished beliefs were subjected to intellectual enquiry and scientific testing. Only those things that attracted concrete proof passed these tests. The belief that death is simply the gateway to a new but different conscious experience was a theory that could not be reproduced in the laboratory. Where was the evidence that man's essential being survived death? It only existed by virtue of the authority claimed by the church.
This teaching was not supported by the Bible, as we shall see later in this booklet. But through all the preceding centuries, the scriptures were not available to the greater part of the population. And, from 1859 when Charles Darwin wrote his book The Origin of Species challenging the Bible account of Creation, the Bible itself was rejected by many people who no longer accepted it as the wholly inspired Word of God.
As the girls' alleged communication with the spirit world first occurred on March 31, 1848, this date is taken as the birth of Modern Spiritualism. When news of the events in Hydesville began to circulate, the girls' claims were subjected to various tests, and eminent scientists quickly took sides; some claimed that a supernatural event had occurred, and others suggested it was all an elaborate deception. But so much attention was focused on the claims, that many gatherings were held elsewhere in America and then in Europe in an attempt to communicate with the spirits of the dead.
Acceptance of Spiritualism
A great stimulus to the general acceptance of modern spiritualism was provided by Queen Victoria's interest – an interest generated by the loss of her husband Prince Albert. Shortly afterwards, with the enormous loss of life in the great wars of the twentieth century, men and women bereaved of their loved ones tried to get in touch with those who died in order to obtain messages of comfort and advice, just as they did when their relative or friend was alive. This is perfectly understandable. Human relationships form an important part of each person's life, and when death intervenes, those who are left alone naturally feel the need to continue the communication they previously enjoyed, if at all possible.
Spiritualism offers to answer that need, for it claims that death is not the complete end of consciousness. At the moment of what we call death, spiritualists believe that a person's essential being merely transfers from the material realm to the realm of the spirit. There is, so they claim, no loss of consciousness, just the transition to a higher and better plane of existence. Added to this is the further claim that communication can occur between the material world and the spiritual world, but normally this needs to be facilitated by an intermediary - or medium - who can only assist if the conditions are favourable.
Concepts of Spiritualism
These concepts were expressed most succinctly during 1948, the centenary year of Modern Spiritualism, when Spiritualists adopted the following brief description of their beliefs:
"The Proof of Survival"
From this it is apparent that great emphasis is placed on the communications that occur through the assistance of mediums. Without these, there would be no proof of survival, and the ability to survive death and unconsciousness would be just an unproven theory. Much rests, therefore, on the nature of the communications that take place, and whether they provide sound, reliable and incontrovertible evidence.
The Hydesville evidence was not accepted universally. For each person who was convinced that communication had occurred with the spirit world, there was another who was equally convinced that some form of deception was involved. Unlike the evidence for gravity or the boiling point of water, the "proof of survival" did not convince everybody.
But at about the same time, two of the Fox sisters confessed to trickery, agreeing with the conclusion of one investigator who discovered that the "spirit's rappings" were silenced when the girls' knee joints were firmly held. Subsequently these confessions were withdrawn, and it is now impossible to know if the girls were involved in a complicated web of deception or if something remarkable actually happened.
How is it possible to know whether Spiritualism is soundly based? If eminent scientists cannot agree on the evidence, where does it leave the ordinary man or woman who wishes to learn the truth? For those who believe that God is the Supreme Being, the Creator of heaven and earth, claims about life and death are resolved by turning to His revealed Word. What then does the Bible have to say about the claims of Spiritualism? How does it describe death? and What does it have to say about life after death?
As the children of Israel were being led by Moses out of Egypt towards the land God promised to them, He warned them strongly about the dangers of involvement with other nations: You shalt not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you" (Leviticus 18:3). These are uncompromising words. According to God, both the Egyptian and the Canaanite societies were corrupt in various ways. In this context, God said in the next two chapters: "Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God" (19:31); and: "A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their blood shall be upon them" (20:27).
The message is clear. God warned His people in ancient times not to engage in spiritualism: according to His law given through Moses, involvement in spiritualism is personally defiling, and those who promoted it were to be stoned.
This message is confirmed in a later passage, first given to Israel by Moses as the nation stood on the threshold of the land of Canaan:
"When you come into the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD, and because of these abominations the LORD your God drives them out from before you. You shall be blameless before the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 18:9-13)
This adds to the information given in Leviticus. Not only does Moses say that involvement in spiritualism is morally defiling, and that its promoters were to be executed, he explains that the practice in all its forms is an abomination to God. He further explained that there is no need to turn to such sources for information about life and death. In a prophecy about the Lord Jesus Christ, Moses spoke these words on God's behalf: "I (God) will raise up for them (Israel) a Prophet like you (Moses) from among their brethren, and will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him" (verse 18).
If answers to mankind's questions about life and death are answered by God's gift of the Lord Jesus Christ, there is no need to turn to those who claim to communicate with the dead.
"You shall be blameless..."
Now these are strong words. God describes spiritualism as practiced in ancient times as deceptive, and not at all suitable for His people. How did these commands translate into practice? Is there any indication in the Bible of how God's people responded?
The Slave Girl in Philippi
We must note two things about this girl. First, as the above passage make clear, this was a lucrative business, if not for the girl, then certainly for her masters. Secondly, she had an unusual gift, a "spirit of divination", and it was claimed that this allowed her to act as an intermediary between this world and the spirit world.
The Oracle of Delphi
The girl in Philippi was similar. The messages she uttered were alleged to come from another realm – the realm of the dead or of the gods. And like Pythia, she was supposedly controlled by Python the guardian of the oracle.
She followed Paul and his companions as they went about Philippi, crying after them: 'These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation" (Acts 16:17). For a time, nothing happened. The slave masters must have been content, for they did not complain. And Paul and his companions also took no action, presumably hoping that the girl's attention would soon be diverted elsewhere. But she continued for "many days".
A True Message
Why then was Paul "greatly annoyed" (Acts 16:18)? Why did he take action to ensure that the girl would never again act as a medium? The only answer is that he knew her life was a sham, and that she was being mercilessly exploited by her slave masters.
We noted that these men were content for her to talk about Paul being a servant of God, and took no action to stop her, even though she continued to follow the apostle for "many days". They only took notice when Paul commanded her to stop her spiritualist practices. This was cutting oft a lucrative source of income, so "when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities" (verse 19).
This is an important Bible passage about spiritualism, and it is worth reiterating some of the main points it teaches:
Ventriloquism, Sleight of Hand, etc.
These methods of seeking answers and information from the spirit world are only successful when the conditions are right. Spiritualists say that they cannot make contact on behalf of anyone who denies that communication is possible. This suggests that a person's mind has to be conditioned to accept the messages it will be given. Seances and consultations are thus often held in darkened rooms, and the minds of those who attend are relaxed by the use of music, chanting and other means to be receptive and compliant. But if Spiritualism can really provide "Proof of Survival", it must do so both for the skeptic, and for the person who firmly believes that such contact is possible.
This not to say that all spiritualists set out to deceive. It is certain that most, if not all, are sincerely convinced that they are able to communicate with the spirits of dead persons. Some of the techniques that are used, like telepathy and hypnotism probably use unexplored parts of the human mind, and this can lead to some strange results that are hard to ignore or dismiss. These must not be confused with sleight of hand, conjuring and other practices. The question to be asked is whether it is possible - whatever means are used - to communicate with those who have died. An Old Testament example will help here.
The Woman with a Familiar Spirit
The king felt completely alone, especially when the country was attacked by the Philistine army. Where could he turn for help? He decided to approach "a woman with a familiar spirit", and the night before Israel's army was due to face the enemy he traveled in deep disguise to Endor where his servants told him there was such a woman. She knew her position was precarious, for early in his reign "Saul had put the mediums and the spiritists out of the land" (1 Samuel 28:3). Without revealing exactly who he was, Saul told her not to worry, and asked her to "Bring up Samuel".
The woman described "(gods) ascending out of the earth ... an old man coming up, covered with a mantle". From this description, Saul was convinced it was Samuel, and explained, "I am deeply distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God has departed from me and does not answer me any more, neither by prophets nor by dreams. Therefore I have called you, that you may reveal to me what I should do" (verse 15).
He receives the answer that the position is hopeless. The kingdom will be taken from Saul and given to David, because of Saul's faithlessness. And in the battle against the Philistines, Israel will be defeated and Saul and his sons will lose their lives.
Did She Communicate with Samuel?
We can answer these questions by looking at the message Saul received. Was he told anything that only 'the spirit of Samuel' could reveal? When we examine the incident carefully, we learn how much the woman knew, and how much she was able to discover from Saul himself. It is also apparent that Saul did not see anything, he had to ask the woman what she saw. All he heard was a voice, and he was prepared in a variety of ways to believe it was Samuel's.
The woman knew five things:
Each of these items of information occurs in the message the king received through the medium. Like the Philippian slave girl's description of Paul, there did not need to be any communication with the dead for the woman at Endor to tell Saul of the impending disaster. She made skilful use of the information Saul unconsciously revealed, and then deceived the king into thinking he could hear Samuel's voice.
Saul wanted to get in contact with Samuel. He traveled under difficult circumstances to contact the spiritualist medium and obtain her help. He was convinced by her reaction that she could actually see the dead prophet, even though Saul himself saw nothing at all. Everything combined to condition Saul to receive a message from Samuel.
This is the common link in all the cases we have considered. Queen Victoria wanted to get in touch with Prince Albert, the parents of dead soldiers were desperate for some kind of contact. And king Saul had nowhere else to turn. All of these were prepared to interpret favourably any sign they received as the answer they desired.
But if it is really possible to communicate with the dead it should not require special conditions or a prepared atmosphere. Far from confirming the claims about communicating with the dead, the Bible examples we have considered show why God's people were told not to become involved in the practice - it is not upright or sincere. Compared with the clear teaching of the Bible, that is often specific in its detail when it prophesies future events, messages that are claimed to come from the dead are confused, difficult to apply and often ambiguous.
Death is Unconsciousness
Isaiah the prophet, speaking in an age when God's people were turning away from Him to worship other gods, said: "When they say to you, 'Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter', should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isaiah 8:19,20). Why should those who are alive seek information from those who are dead? If the dead are unconscious, they have no information about what is happening to the living. The only source of reliable information about the future is in God's word, like a light in a dark place.
No consciousness ... no communication ... no share in the living. This is God's explanation about death, and it is completely at variance with spiritualist claims. It is also different from the teaching of many churches down through the centuries, who have used the ideas of heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment to instill a religion of fear into the minds of many people. A verse we considered earlier from Deuteronomy now assumes a much greater importance. After telling His people not to get involved in the spiritualist practices of the surrounding nations, God explained that He was providing a Prophet – Jesus – and they must listen to him.
The Good News about Jesus Christ
But because he obeyed God faithfully in everything he did, Jesus was raised by God from the unconsciousness of the grave and granted everlasting life. He is the only person who has survived the corruption of death to be raised to immortality. He promises all who faithfully accept him that they too can be released from the grave and have hope of sharing eternity with him. This is the great Christian hope of resurrection, of which the apostle Paul wrote to believers in Corinth:
"As in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at his coming." (1 Corinthians 15:22,23)
God asks us to trust His word. We must have faith in God that what He has promised He is also able to perform. This faith is based on the historical evidence of the resurrection of Christ. Jesus is "the firstfruits". Naturally speaking, the first produce from the ground promises a rich harvest to come. Jesus' resurrection promises the raising to life of many, many more to share the glories of the coming age.
Put aside all the conflicting messages claiming to come from the dead, and listen instead to the message of the living Lord Jesus.
Quotations taken from the New King James Version
Reproduced with the kind permission of The Christadelphian Magazine and Publishing Association Ltd (UK), by whom all rights are reserved.