Ask Ivor

Hap asks:

"A group of radical Christians with whom I've been acquainted have begun supposedly receiving messages from people who have died. Among them, Marilyn Monroe, Vince Foster, Grace Kelly, John Candy, Richard Nixon, and the list is growing. What does the Bible say about dead people speaking?"

The Law of Moses instructs: "Do not practice divination or sorcery.... Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them." Israel was rubbing shoulders with the decadent civilization of the Canaanites, and consulting the dead was a common practice in Canaan. "Do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who... consults the dead." Some parts of the Law of Moses are meant for all people, at all times: for instance, "You shall not murder"; while other parts are obviously temporary regulations: "Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard." What are we to make of the prohibition on consulting the dead?

In the book of Revelation, the practice of magic is catalogued with other vices: "Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood." Is this a condemnation of all forms of magic, or only some? Consider that Joseph and Daniel interpreted dreams; the high priests of the Israelites consulted their Urim and Thummim; the apostles cast lots; the wise men from the East who visited the infant Jesus were astrologers; various prophets and disciples performed miraculous healings; Elijah parted the waters of the Jordan by striking it with his rolled-up cloak; Aaron turned a staff into a snake, water into blood, and summoned plagues of frogs and gnats; Moses caused festering boils to break out on the Egyptians, summoned a hailstorm, a plague of locusts, and three days of total darkness; and Elijah, Elisha, Peter, and Paul all raised dead people back to life.

There is a crucial difference between goety and theurgy. Black magic invokes the power of demons; white magic utilizes divine power. Is consulting the dead demonic, or divine? It depends. Your dead grandmother appearing to you in a dream and delivering words of comfort and promise to you, is one thing. Robbing a grave to obtain a piece of a corpse, then using the power of that grisly token to summon up the spirit of a dead person, against its will, so that it appears in the form of a raging slobbering beast wanting to destroy you, constrained only by the magic circles you have drawn on the ground, then compelling this phantom to reveal to you the location of buried treasure, is quite another thing.

Some use biblical verses—like Job's comment, "He who goes down to the grave does not return," or the psalmist's assertion, "The dead... go down to silence," or Solomon's claim, "The dead know nothing.... In the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom"—to suggest that communication with the dead is impossible. But such a suggestion clearly ignores the biblical accounts of King Saul, using the services of a medium to "bring up," and consult with, the recently deceased prophet Samuel; and of Jesus, speaking with those centuries-departed fellows, Moses and Elijah, on the Mount of Transfiguration.