The belief or doctrine that the spirits of the human dead, surviving the death of the physical body, can and do communicate with the living, especially through a person (a medium) particularly susceptible to their influence. Both the Bible and secular history reveal that spiritism existed from very early times. Egypt’s religion was permeated with it. (Isa 19:3) And the religion of Babylon (which city was also the chief religious center for Assyria) was spiritistic.
The Greek word for “spiritism” is phar·ma·kiʹa. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (1981, Vol. 4, pp. 51, 52) says of the word: “(Eng., pharmacy etc.) primarily signified the use of medicine, drugs, spells; then, poisoning; then, sorcery, Gal. 5:20, R.V., ‘sorcery’ (A.V., ‘witchcraft’), mentioned as one of ‘the works of the flesh.’ See also Rev. 9:21; 18:23. In the Sept[uagint], Ex. 7:11, 22; 8:7, 18; Isa. 47:9, 12. In sorcery, the use of drugs, whether simple or potent, was generally accompanied by incantations and appeals to occult powers, with the provision of various charms, amulets, etc., professedly designed to keep the applicant or patient from the attention and power of demons, but actually to impress the applicant with the mysterious resources and powers of the sorcerer.”
Its Source. A major feature of spiritism is claimed communication with the dead. Since the dead “are conscious of nothing at all,” communication with such dead persons is actually impossible. (Ec 9:5) God’s law to Israel forbade anyone’s inquiring of the dead and made the practice of spiritism a capital offense. (Le 19:31; 20:6, 27; De 18:9-12; compare Isa 8:19.) And in the Christian Greek Scriptures the statement is made that those who practice spiritism “will not inherit God’s kingdom.” (Ga 5:20, 21; Re 21:8) It, therefore, logically follows that any claimed communication with dead persons, if not a deliberate lie on the part of the claimant, must be from an evil source, a source that stands in opposition to Jehovah God.
The Bible clearly indicates that wicked spirits, demons, are this evil source. (See DEMON; DEMON POSSESSION.) A case in point is “a certain servant girl” in the city of Philippi. She used to furnish her masters with much gain by practicing “the art of prediction,” one of the things related to spiritism. (De 18:11) The account plainly says that the source of her predictions was, not God, but “a demon of divination,” a wicked spirit. Hence, when the apostle Paul expelled the wicked spirit, this girl lost her powers of prediction. (Ac 16:16-19) Regarding the Greek expression pyʹtho·na, here rendered “a demon of divination,” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Vol. 1, p. 328) says: “Python, in Greek mythology was the name of the Pythian serpent or dragon, dwelling in Pytho, at the foot of mount Parnassus, guarding the oracle of Delphi, and slain by Apollo. Thence the name was transferred to Apollo himself. Later the word was applied to diviners or soothsayers, regarded as inspired by Apollo. Since demons are the agents inspiring idolatry, I Cor. 10:20, the young woman in Acts 16:16 was possessed by a demon instigating the cult of Apollo, and thus had ‘a spirit of divination.’”
In Israel. Even though God had legislated strictly against spiritism, spirit mediums appeared from time to time in the land of Israel. These were probably foreigners who came into the land or some of those who had been spared from destruction by the Israelites. King Saul removed them from the land during his reign, but evidently toward the end of his rule some spirit mediums again began their practice. Saul demonstrated how far he had removed himself from God when he went to consult the “mistress of spirit mediumship in En-dor.”
King Saul’s visit to a medium. When Saul went to the medium, Jehovah’s spirit had for some time been removed from him, and in fact, God would not answer his inquiries by means of dreams or by the Urim (used by the high priest) or by the prophets. (1Sa 28:6) God would have no more to do with him; and God’s prophet Samuel had not seen Saul for a long period of time, from before David’s being anointed to be king. So it would be unreasonable to think that Samuel, even if still alive, would now come to give Saul advice. And God would certainly not cause Samuel, whom he had not sent to Saul before his death, to come back from the dead to talk to Saul.
That Jehovah would in no way approve of or cooperate with Saul’s action is shown by his later statement through Isaiah: “And in case they should say to you people: ‘Apply to the spiritistic mediums or to those having a spirit of prediction who are chirping and making utterances in low tones,’ is it not to its God that any people should apply? Should there be application to dead persons in behalf of living persons? To the law and to the attestation!”
Therefore, when the account reads: “When the woman saw ‘Samuel’ she began crying out at the top of her voice,” it obviously recounts the event as viewed by the medium, who was deceived by the spirit that impersonated Samuel. (1Sa 28:12) As for Saul himself, the principle stated by the apostle Paul applied: “Just as they did not approve of holding God in accurate knowledge, God gave them up to a disapproved mental state, to do the things not fitting . . . Although these know full well the righteous decree of God, that those practicing such things are deserving of death, they not only keep on doing them but also consent with those practicing them.”
The Commentary on the Old Testament, by C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch (1973, Vol. II, First Samuel, p. 265), refers to the Greek Septuagint at 1 Chronicles 10:13, which has added the words “and Samuel the prophet answered him.” (Bagster) The Commentary supports the view that is implied by these uninspired words in the Septuagint, but it adds: “Nevertheless the fathers, reformers, and earlier Christian theologians, with very few exceptions, assumed that there was not a real appearance of Samuel, but only an imaginary one. According to the explanation given by Ephraem Syrus, an apparent image of Samuel was presented to the eye of Saul through demoniacal arts. Luther and Calvin adopted the same view, and the earlier Protestant theologians followed them in regarding the apparition as nothing but a diabolical spectre, a phantasm, or diabolical spectre in the form of Samuel, and Samuel’s announcement as nothing but a diabolical revelation made by divine permission, in which truth is mixed with falsehood.”
In a footnote (First Samuel, pp. 265, 266), this Commentary says: “Thus Luther says . . . ‘The raising of Samuel by a soothsayer or witch, in 1 Sam. xxviii. 11, 12, was certainly merely a spectre of the devil; not only because the Scriptures state that it was effected by a woman who was full of devils (for who could believe that the souls of believers, who are in the hand of God, . . . were under the power of the devil, and of simple men?), but also because it was evidently in opposition to the command of God that Saul and the woman inquired of the dead. The Holy Ghost cannot do anything against this himself, nor can He help those who act in opposition to it.’ Calvin also regards the apparition as only a spectre . . . : ‘It is certain,’ he says, ‘that it was not really Samuel, for God would never have allowed His prophets to be subjected to such diabolical conjuring. For here is a sorceress calling up the dead from the grave. Does any one imagine that God wished His prophet to be exposed to such ignominy; as if the devil had power over the bodies and souls of the saints which are in His keeping? The souls of the saints are said to rest . . . in God, waiting for their happy resurrection. Besides, are we to believe that Samuel took his cloak with him into the grave? For all these reasons, it appears evident that the apparition was nothing more than a spectre, and that the senses of the woman herself were so deceived, that she thought she saw Samuel, whereas it really was not he.’ The earlier orthodox theologians also disputed the reality of the appearance of the departed Samuel on just the same grounds.”
Jesus’ Power Over the Demons. When Jesus was on earth, he proved that he was the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, by expelling the demons from possessed persons. This he did without special ritual or séance or any form of magic. He simply commanded the demons to come out, and they obeyed his voice. Even though unwillingly, the demons were forced to recognize his authority (Mt 8:29-34; Mr 5:7-13; Lu 8:28-33), just as Satan recognized Jehovah’s authority when Jehovah permitted him to afflict Job for a test but commanded Satan not to kill Job. (Job 2:6, 7) Also, Jesus performed this work without cost.
Refutes Pharisees’ false charge. After one of such cures by Jesus, his enemies, the Pharisees, charged: “This fellow does not expel the demons except by means of Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.” But, says the account: “Knowing their thoughts, he said to them: ‘Every kingdom divided against itself comes to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. In the same way, if Satan expels Satan, he has become divided against himself; how, then, will his kingdom stand? Moreover, if I expel the demons by means of Beelzebub, by means of whom do your sons expel them? This is why they will be judges of you.’”
The Pharisees were forced to concede that superhuman power was needed to expel the demons. Yet they wanted to keep the people from believing in Jesus. Therefore they attributed his power to the Devil. Jesus then enforced the consequences of their argument by showing what the logical outcome of such an argument would mean. He answered that if he were an agent of the Devil, undoing what Satan did, then Satan was indeed working against himself (which no human king would do) and would soon fall. Moreover, he called attention to their “sons,” or disciples, who also claimed to expel demons. If the Pharisees’ argument was true, that the one expelling demons did so by the power of Satan, then their own disciples were acting under this power, a thing that the Pharisees were, of course, unwilling to acknowledge. Jesus said that therefore their own “sons” were judges condemning them and their argument. Then Jesus said: “But if it is by means of God’s spirit that I expel the demons, the kingdom of God has really overtaken you.”
Jesus followed up his argument by pointing out that no one could enter a strong man’s (Satan’s) house and seize his goods unless he had the power to bind the strong man. The false charge on the part of the Pharisees prompted the warning about sin against the holy spirit, since it was by God’s spirit that Jesus expelled the demons, and in speaking against this work, the Pharisees were not merely expressing hatred of Jesus but were speaking against the evident demonstration of God’s holy spirit.
What Jesus Christ said about expelling demons should not be understood to signify that the “sons” of the Pharisees and all others who claimed to cast out demons were necessarily God’s instruments. Jesus mentioned persons who would ask: “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and expel demons in your name, and perform many powerful works in your name?” But his reply to them would be: “I never knew you! Get away from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Mt 7:22, 23) Not being true disciples of Jesus Christ, such workers of lawlessness would be children of the Devil. (Compare Joh 8:44; 1Jo 3:10.) So, any claimed expelling of demons on their part would be, not as instruments of God, but as agents of the Devil. In using persons as exorcists, even doing so in Jesus’ name (compare the attempt of the seven sons of Sceva at Ac 19:13-16), Satan would not be divided against himself. Rather, by this seemingly good work of undoing the case of demon obsession, Satan would be transforming himself into “an angel of light,” thereby advancing his power and influence over the deceived.
“He that is not against us is for us.” On one occasion the apostle John said to Jesus: “Teacher, we saw a certain man expelling demons by the use of your name and we tried to prevent him, because he was not accompanying us.” This man was evidently successful in expelling demons, for Jesus said: “There is no one that will do a powerful work on the basis of my name that will quickly be able to revile me.” Therefore Jesus ordered that they not try to prevent him, “for he that is not against us is for us.” (Mr 9:38-40) Not all who believed in Jesus personally accompanied him and his apostles in their ministry. During this time the Law covenant was in force, by God’s will, and God through Jesus Christ had not yet inaugurated the new covenant and the beginning of the Christian congregation of called ones. Only from Pentecost of 33 C.E. onward, after Jesus by his sacrifice had brought about the removal of the Law, was it necessary for anyone serving in the name of Christ to associate with this congregation, the members of which were baptized into Christ. (Ac 2:38-42, 47; Ro 6:3) Then, instead of dealing with the fleshly nation of Israel as he had done until that time, God recognized the Christian congregation as his “holy nation.”
A Work of the Flesh. While it might be thought by the practicers of spiritism that it is a ‘spiritual practice,’ God’s Word calls it, not a work of the spirit or part of its fruitage, but a work of the flesh. Note the detestable things with which it is classified: “fornication, uncleanness, loose conduct, idolatry, practice of spiritism [literally, druggery], enmities, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, contentions, divisions, sects, envies, drunken bouts, revelries, and things like these.” It appeals to the desires of the sinful flesh, not to the things of the spirit, and the apostle warns that “those who practice such things will not inherit God’s kingdom.”
Will bring its practicers eternal destruction. As for Babylon the Great, which is to be hurled into the sea, never to be found again, one of the sins charged against her is stated in the Revelation: “By your spiritistic practice all the nations were misled.” (Re 18:23) Concerning the everlasting destruction of those who practice spiritism, the Revelation says: “As for the cowards and those without faith and those who are disgusting in their filth and murderers and fornicators and those practicing spiritism [literally, druggers] and idolaters and all the liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur. This means the second death.”
Magical Art, a Related Practice. Related to spiritism is magical art. In Ephesus many believed the preaching of Paul, and “quite a number of those who practiced magical arts brought their books together and burned them up before everybody.” (Ac 19:19) The Greek word for “magical arts” is pe·riʹer·ga, “curiosities,” literally, “things that are around work,” and thus superfluous, that is, the arts of those who pry into forbidden things, with the aid of evil spirits.
A Prophecy Against Jerusalem. In a pronouncement against Jerusalem for her unfaithfulness, Jehovah said: “And you must become low so that you will speak from the very earth, and as from the dust your saying will sound low. And like a spirit medium your voice must become even from the earth, and from the dust your own saying will chirp.” (Isa 29:4) This pointed to the time when enemies would come up against Jerusalem and reduce her to a very low state, crushed to the earth, as it were. Accordingly, what utterance Jerusalem’s inhabitants made would come from low down in their abasement. It would be as if a spirit medium were talking in such a way as to make it appear that a soft, dull, low, hushed, and weak sound were coming from the dust of the earth. However, as Isaiah 29:5-8 shows, Jerusalem was to be delivered.