Talking to the dead

Photo by  Stefano Pollio
The king said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid. What do you see?’ The woman said, ‘I see a ghostly figure coming up out of the earth.’ ‘What does he look like?’ he asked. ‘An old man wearing a robe is coming up,’ she said. Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.
— 1 Samuel 28:13-14

Of all the weird passages in Scripture, this is one of the weirdest. Saul, king of Israel, gets a medium to call upon the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 28:3-25).

Except that Samuel is already dead?!

Passages like this are strange and hard to understand; they beg the question, “Why is this even in here?” However, this is also one of those cool Scripture verses that brings me face to face with the fact that Christianity involves belief in the supernatural. So often I get stuck on things I can see, feel, hear, taste and touch. Knowable, measurable facts.

True, so much of Christianity can be understood within the scope of fact and logic. But there has and always will be an element of faith in what we cannot see.

This post falls within that category because here we have Samuel, who is no longer alive on earth, telling Saul what will happen in the future. This isn’t a normal, everyday life kind of story.

What do we do with this?

First of all, it’s clear this is possible. If we couldn’t contact people after they stopped living on earth, this wouldn’t be addressed in Scripture (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).

Secondly, this not what God intends.

When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?” Isaiah 8:19 

Doing so indicates not trusting in God; it means seeking guidance from something other than the Lord. Long before this story, Saul had begun to stop trusting in the Lord. Now, an enemy army has come against Israel and Saul is afraid. He inquired of the Lord but received no answer (1 Samuel 28:6). It seems that God has stopped replying to him because of his continued disobedience. 

Saul becomes desperate. He is actually willing to risk the Lord’s anger further by consulting the medium of Endor. Samuel appears, saying that Saul’s search for guidance is pointless. “Why do you consult me now that the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy?” Samuel then predicts the death of Saul and his sons the next day (1 Samuel 28:16-19).

There is much discussion about whether or not the entity who appears is actually Samuel, or if the medium brought up a demonic spirit who impersonated Samuel. Either option is possible, although I personally find it more likely that the spirit was actually Samuel, since he, as a prophet of God, has the capability of predicting the future with accuracy.

Regardless, in the record of Saul’s actions, it is clear that his choice to find guidance from a source other than God was sinful and wrong, leading to his death (1 Chronicles 10:13). However, Samuel also says that when Saul and his sons die, they will be with him.

This brings up the age-old question of what happens after we die. I don't pretend to understand the afterlife, but from what I see in Scripture, when we die we continue to exist, waiting for Christ to judge the living and the dead (Revelation 20:11-15). 

It also seems as though there are two places we could go after death, before the final judgement. Samuel indicated that Saul and his sons would "be with him," presumably in the place Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses are. 

In the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus says that Lazarus is carried by angels to be with Abraham while the rich man goes to Hades (Mark 16:19-31). Interestingly, the rich man also puts store in someone speaking from the dead. He thinks that if Lazarus goes back to earth to visit his family it will convince them to turn to God and escape Hades. But Abraham replies that if they won't listen to God's prophets, they won't listen to someone from the dead either. 

Earlier on in Mark, Jesus further reinforces this idea of people still being alive after earthly death. The Pharisees ask him whose wife a woman a will be at the resurrection if she marries multiple times on earth (Mark 12:18-27). As I was reading this recently, it occurred to me that Jesus’s response is essentially to tell them they're missing the point.

He says, "Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob?' He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!" The Israelite forefathers were long dead during Moses’s lifetime. But God uses the present tense, saying "I am," not "I was," their God.

I find the Bible's mysterious hints at the afterlife fascinating, tantalizing, confusing and of course scary. There are so many unanswered questions. How can Samuel know what is going to happen in earth’s future after he’s dead? Do humans like the medium Saul consulted actually have the ability to conjure up the spirit of someone who died?

But to me, these questions are far less relevant than letting the fact sink in that all the people the world has ever known still exist right now at this very moment. Isn’t that crazy to think about? This fact alone has huge ramifications on how we live our lives.

God makes it clear in both the New and the Old Testaments that we are to trust and seek him before all other sources of guidance—be they living or dead. There is no power greater than the Lord, who has dominion over heaven, earth and hell. 

My main takeaway from this is the exciting, intriguing reminder that we have a future that extends far beyond our days on earth. It’s yet again a reminder that our choice to follow Jesus or reject him now has a far a greater outcome than we’ll ever see on earth.

FURTHER READING:

If you want to dig deeper, here are a few other voices who’ve weighed in on this topic.

Did the Witch of Endor call up a ghost?

What’s up with the Witch of Endor?