Modern Christianity and Its Problems With Spiritism
As early as the second century, Christians have been more than a little suspicious and wary of receiving messages and communication from the spirit world. For centuries divine possession (possession by a holy spirit) and demonic possession (possession by an evil spirit) have coexisted, but at some point divine possession always becomes an untenable prospect because its effects are too similar to demonic possession and the two are easily confused. This similarity is further complicated by two factors: 1) invisible sentient beings are elusive to empirical verification (unless one is clairvoyant or clairaudient, but even then discernment is not foolproof); and 2) deceptive invisible sentient beings can masquerade as true invisible sentient beings (even among those who are clairvoyant and/or clairaudient). Early Christian texts attest to this complication. For instance, Clement of Alexandria states that “it is possible that he [a spirit] be an evil demon or a deceptive spirit pretending in his speeches to be what he is not” (Homilies 17.14). Clement’s observation defines one of the major problems faced by Christians in the field of spirit communication: deception through imitation, an observation that conservative Christians use as their trump card against solicited contact with spirits.
The initial coexistence of divine and demonic possession gives way to the eventual demise of a belief in divine possession while demonic possession remains; a scenario that is repeated throughout western history, most notably during the third century A.D.,1 during the late Medieval to Early Modern period among Jews and Catholics,2 and most recently during the rise of New Age spiritism. The portrait of possession in the gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles usually comes to serve as the standard model for defining what it means, then and now, for a spirit to enter into a person and speak: “. . . the man in whom was the evil spirit . . .” (Acts 19:16). Evil spirits possess from within while good spirits (be they angels or the Holy Spirit) impress from without. Hence, any notion of divine possession eventually collapses into the category of demonic possession. And so it is today: according to Christian theology, the comings and goings of invisible sentient beings called “spirits” that possess are restricted to that of evil spirits only; good spirits do not possess. Among New Age circles, spirits that enter into mediums to speak are “channeled” and the mediums are “channelers” who are “channeling” the spirits. Among conservative Christians these spirits are usually believed to be evil or deceptive, reminiscent of ancient “paganism.”3
Spirits, spirit communication, and spirit possession occur on the outer fringes of contemporary Christianity (e.g., studies on exorcism, occultism, etc.) and are not topics usually considered by the typical devout, church-going Christian. But when these topics are considered they are seen as forms of demonic activity and dismissed as “spooky” or “weird” and sometimes even “dangerous.” The term “occult” (from Latin occultus meaning “hidden”) is always used in popular culture as a word that denotes practices and ideas that are non- or antichristian, Satanic, evil, dark, sinister, murderous, and cult or sect oriented. Nowadays, whenever Christian authors write topics about spirits, spiritism, mediumship, and channeling, these topics are almost always stated in an antithetical contrast to biblical prophecy and revelation and the theology of the Holy Spirit.4 Christian authors who study and write about the occult see in the terms “spiritism,” “medium,” and “clairvoyance” demonic counterparts to the biblical “gifts of the Holy Spirit,” “prophecy,” and “God’s word.” Kurt E. Koch, a German Evangelical scholar, distinguished mediumistic faculties from charismatic gifts and argued that “mediumistic gifts are the devil’s counterparts to the gifts of the Holy Spirit,” and “it can be quite catastrophic when a person with mediumistic powers only discovers them after he or she has become a Christian then mistakes them for genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit.”5 Koch makes the following contrasts6 : messages from God’s world vs. spiritism; prophecy vs. clairvoyance; and testing of spirits vs. mediumistic abilities.
Conservative Christian authors do not deny the existence of spirits and the spirit world. They further state that all religions, including Christianity, believe in a world of good spirits and evil spirits that may interact with human beings. But this is qualified in the following way:
Orthodox Christianity and Judaism are almost alone in the universal condemnation of seeking to contact the spirit world. The practice is accepted, variously, among Hindus, Buddhists, Sufis, Sikhs, Muslims, Kabbalists, Taoists, Animists, etc.7
In the case of good spirits, these are usually called “angels.” In contemporary Christianity, angels are believed to act only in angelic interventions that are meant to aid humans in times of peril or distress with needed protection from danger. Good angels are not to be contacted through mediums or channelers, for the spirits who operate here are only evil spirits impersonating “angels of light.”8
This state of affairs is fueled mainly by five points: 1) the kind of messages that are spoken by various spirits channeled among New Age groups; 2) the condemnation of consulting spirits and mediums in the Old Testament; 3) biblical prophecy and revelation comes from God while spiritism and channeling are from other entities, some hostile to God; 4) the depository of Apostolic Tradition; and 5) the Bible as the source for Christian revelation. Firstly, the spirit messages channeled among many New Age groups are often hostile toward Christianity, speak nothing of God, relate extra-biblical and fanciful stories about Jesus’ mission and ministry, and focus, primarily, on one’s “godhood” or “Christ consciousness.” While these types of messages might appeal to those who have become disenchanted with orthodoxy, they do little in the way of encouraging anything of a Christian nature. Secondly, English versions of certain anti-divinatory laws in the Old Testament condemn, outright, the trafficking and communicating with spirits through mediums as “an abomination to the Lord” as we see in Deuteronomy 18:10–12. Communication with spirits is depicted as “necromancy” or “divination by the dead” in 1 Samuel 28, and communication with the dead is explicitly shunned in the Bible (see Isa ). The anti-divinatory laws dominate the contemporary Christian definition of “consulting the spirit world.” The Bible states that “mediums” and “spiritists” were banned from the
Most Protestants adopt the first, second, third, and fifth positions while Catholics are inclined toward the fourth position with consent to the other positions. Furthermore, the idea of “spirits” as personal powers tends to evoke only negative and non-Christian forms of demonology–spirits are spooks, ghosts, dead people, phantoms, apparitions, demons, devils, and all manner of negative theology. Theological Christian pneumatology is centered around “the Holy Spirit” who is a Deity of the Triune Godhead. If the Holy Spirit is allegedly evoked as a communicating spirit within a circle during a prayer meeting, then Christian doctrine has been compromised and redefined by mixing it with the occult practice of spiritism (Pentecostals and Charismatics would argue otherwise, although, in most of their cases, speaking in tongues is the only sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit). Likewise, if there are many holy spirits then the whole of Christian pneumatology is compromised, for there is only one Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not some generic spirit that speaks through a medium in a trance like so many other will-o’-the-wisps spirits. This theology has its origin, not in the earliest Christian communities, but rather among fourth-century church fathers who debated the nature of the Holy Spirit. See in the Menu on this website, "The Spirit (World) and the (Holy) Spirits."
Christians, indeed, are correct in being wary about communicating with spirits, for not all spirits speak of God or speak highly of Christ and those that do might still be deceptive. The printed spirit communications that come under the banner of “channeling” express a range of opinions about God, Christ, and Satan, most of which do not square with the New Testament and early Christian thought. For instance, the Catholic author Mitch Pacwa, S.J., writes that spirits who speak through channelers “are absolutely consistent in teaching falsehoods about Jesus Christ and God.”9 His examples include the channeled messages from the spirits “Seth,” channeled through Jane Roberts, “Lilly,” channeled through Ruth Montgomery, Edgar Cayce, known as “the sleeping prophet,” and “Ramtha,” a spirit channeled through J. Z. Knight.10 Their messages about Christ are, indeed, bizarre and not a little non-Christian.11
The spirits Seth, Lilly, and Ramtha do not masquerade as someone else, e.g., Jesus,
Sometimes, theologians recognize the power of deceptive spirits who can masquerade as good spirits. For instance, John Ankerberg, a conservative evangelical church historian and Theologian, rightly observes:
Scripture states clearly that ‘Satan disguises himself as angel of light’ (2 Corinthians ); that is, that he and his demons can imitate a good spirit or entity merely to suit their own evil purpose. Is it then logical or wise for those who contact the spirits to uncritically accept the spirits’ claim to be divine entities, or to believe them when they claim that their true motives are to help humanity spiritually?12
The answer, of course, is “No.” Ankerberg makes a poignant and correct observation here: no communicating spirit should be trusted uncritically and unquestionably. Elsewhere, Ankerberg states:
Can spirits speaking through channelers be trusted? If evil spirits do exist, and occultists tell us it is impossible for them to distinguish the good spirits from the evil ones, who is safe? They need some objective standard by which to test them. Channelers admit that they do not have an objective standard. Therefore, their trust in the spirits is blind. Furthermore, if these spirits are demons, they could mask their intent for years and no one would be the wiser.13
Again, Ankerberg correctly assesses certain phenomena of spirit communication here. Objective standards or criteria are, indeed, needed if human beings communicate with invisible sentient beings who are otherwise elusive to much empirical verification. Ankerberg’s conclusion, however, leads the Christian to an erroneous assessment about spirit communication: all spirits operate deceptively; all spirits who communicate through mediums during prayer seances are deceptive demons, thereby any contact with spirits and the spirit world is unadvisable or even Satanic. From this limited perspective on spirit communication, it becomes virtually impossible to consider that early Christians purposefully communicated with the spirit world. Modern Christian authors, although sincere and not a little informed, nevertheless, stand in the way of the reality of the relationship between spirits and the earliest Christians who communicated with them; a reality we find in the early Christian texts.
During the earliest Christian centuries prophecy and speaking “in a spirit” were common practices among Christians who met for worship. Early Christian prophecy can be defined in the light of Paul’s polemic in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 wherein he contrasts unintelligible inspired speech, or glossolalia (speaking in tongues), with intelligible inspired speech, or prophecy, both of which are forms of speech spoken “in a holy spirit” (1 Cor 12:3 and 14:2,16). Unlike the early Christian practices of baptism, the Lord’s supper, hymnody, prayer services, and gathering for the reading of Scripture, the early Christian pneumatology and the early Christian practice of spirit communication have not survived to this day among the majority of God-fearing, Christ-following Christians; instead, spirit communication ceded to both the taboo, i.e., only evil spirits speak through mediums, and to the authority and administration of the ecclesiastical office during the third and fourth centuries–early Christian pneumatology ceded to the fourth-century Christian theology of the Holy Spirit. Many of the practices of the early Christians that have survived to the present day, however, e.g., baptism, the reading of Scripture, singing hymns, and sharing the Lord’s supper, were incorporated into the early Christian gatherings that were devoted to communicating with the spirit world (see 1 Cor 10:21, 1 Cor 12:13, and 1 Cor 14:15,26).
Early Christians who communicated with the spirit world would also agree with Ankerberg’s observations but with one qualification that, although biblical through and through, is not noted by Ankerberg. Since deceptive spirits had the ability to masquerade as holy spirits, early Christians instituted Christological criteria that might aid in discerning when a deceptive spirit was operating in order to sift the bona fide holy spirits from the counterfeit holy spirits. Early Christians were taught to “test the spirits” and “discern the spirits.” These two pithy phrases denote solicited contact with the spirit world, for if one is admonished to “test” or “discern” spirit beings, then one must be engaged with spirit beings and be communicating with them. This is denoted in the New Testament. In 1 John 4:1–3, the test was a verbal test whereby the spirit had to confess (homologeo) that “Jesus Christ had come in the flesh.” Apparently, some spirits could pass this test, for the author of 1 John states that “every spirit” who confesses this “is from God.” A similar confession is found in 1 Cor 12:3 where “only a holy spirit speaking through someone can say ‘Jesus is Lord.’” By calling Jesus “Lord,” for both humans and spirits could make this confession (Rom 10:9 and here), one recognized his status as risen from the dead (1 Cor 15:1–11) and as Lord over all under God (Eph 1:20–23). This confession occurred during prayer services devoted to worshiping God and communicating with His spirits as we find in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 and other Christian texts.
Ankerberg’s position is a good example of the kind of problem that arises among sincere Christians who dismiss all of spirit communication as a demonically deceptive masquerade with support from Scripture. While a part of his position is true and Scripturally sound, it does not, however, nullify all communication with the spirit world. The earliest Christians, like Ankerberg, were fully aware of deceptive and impostor spirits as 2 Thess 2:2 clearly shows, “do not be shaken in mind or excited by a spirit . . . allegedly from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come,” and 1 Thess 4:1, “. . . some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits . . .” The reality of the presence of deceitful spirits, however, did not discourage the earliest Christians from communicating with the spirit world, for they were in the habit of putting the spirits with whom they communicated to the test; they did not “uncritically accept the spirits’ claim to be divine entities,” i.e., to be holy spirits. Rather, the earliest Christians tested the spirits during their communication with the spirit world, and this, too, is Scripturally sound as seen above.
Early Christians who communicated with the spirit world would be wary, like Ankerberg, of those who did not provide some kind of objective test for the spirits. Early Christians would agree that communicating with spirits without discernment and tests is unsafe and blind. Early Christian mediums, however, could not be described in the same manner that Ankerberg describes many New Age mediums: “Channelers admit that they do not have an objective standard” for testing the spirits. As seen above, this does not fit the earliest Christian practices that incorporated tests and discernment in their spirit communication. Ankerberg’s assessment of certain phenomena relating to spirit communication is correct: some deceptive spirits have the power to masquerade as good spirits (see 2 Cor ). His conclusion, however, is wrong: all spirits who communicate through mediums are deceptive demons, thus, all of spiritism should be condemned (but see 1 Thess ,20 and 1 Cor 12:3 and 1 Cor ,32).
Christians should not dismiss out of hand the whole of spirit communication. Despite the majority of non- or anti-Christian channeled messages, channeling and spiritism do show the contemporary Christian the way in which early Christians practiced speaking “in a spirit” or being “filled with a holy spirit.” The main problem is that Christians lack the reason for spirit communication and a knowledge of two points: 1) the reality of spirit dimensions that are populated by holy spirits who are under the direct rule of Christ; and 2) the ambiguity among spirits and the need for discernment in order to circumvent this ambiguity, for a spirit of falsehood might claim to be a spirit of truth. If it is possible that contemporary terms such as “seance,” “medium,” “spiritism,” and “holy spirits” carry the same import as the earliest Christian position on prophets, prophecy, glossolalia, spirits, and speaking in a spirit, then why are such terms stigmatized today by Christians? Part of the answer can be found in the five points mentioned above. Also, the terms “seance,” “channeling,” “medium,” and “spiritism” frequently come under the categories of “occultism” and “the New Age,” categories that Christian authors are reluctant to identify with “biblical” prophecy and revelation or with Protestant and Catholic theology.14
A discerning, inquisitive Christian finds him or herself in a room full of similar and contrasting viewpoints on the matter of spirits, spiritism, and the spirit world: New Agers on one end, conservative Christians on the other, and a variety of positions in between. Which way is one to go? One may conclude that early Christians communicated with the spirit world, but with greater discernment than the New Age channelers of today: only those spirits who confessed through a medium that “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” were admitted among the earliest Christian prayer gatherings. From a Christian perspective, many New Age channelers set a very bad example in the field of spirit communication when they do not test the spirits who stand near them ready to speak through them and when the spirits who do speak through them speak despairingly of God and Christ as seen above (p. 4 n. 11). Unfortunately, the lot of well-intentioned Christian authors use the bad examples to describe all of spirit communication as “occult” or akin to divination in the Bible, thereby discouraging Christians from looking any further into the matter and, ultimately, driving them away from spirit communication altogether. Those Christians who do show an interest in spirit communication are usually branded as nonchristian:
Spiritism has unfortunately influenced the church. Many professing Christians fail to see anything wrong or unchristian in channeling. . . . The most obvious reason for Christian acceptance of such material is the fact that Biblical ignorance and worldliness are common among Christians. The church is failing to educate her people properly in these areas.15
From the foregoing, we can make two observations: the New Agers are both right and wrong and the conservative Christians are both right and wrong. The New Age channelers are right in that they speak “in a spirit” as did the earliest Christians. What New Agers lack, however, is the Christian gospel that, at one time, was, in fact, proclaimed in the same manner as channeled messages are proclaimed in New Age circles of today, except with greater discernment for what is spoken specifically by holy spirits: those “who preached the good news in a holy spirit sent from heaven” (1 Pet 1:12, see the Greek text). Hence, the New Agers are wrong in that they lack the practice of discernment; there is no “testing of the spirits” and no worship of God and no commitment to His Son as Lord as was done among the earliest spiritist Christians. The Christians are right in that they maintain the basic gospel of Jesus Christ, that Jesus is the Messiah, and a belief in God. The Christians, however, are wrong in that they brand all of spirit communication as exclusively demonic or evil or condemned in the Bible; the contemporary Christian position on spirits and spirit communication (both lay and academic) needs better nuance from a study of early Christian texts. New Age channelers need to return to the Christian gospel. Christians need to study what mediums and channeling mean in the context of early Christianity and how this understanding can facilitate contemporary Christian teaching, practice, and prayer service.
1 See Origen, De princip. 3.3.4: “Now, of wicked spirits there is a twofold mode of operation: when they either take complete and entire possession of the mind . . . as is the case with those commonly called possessed . . . or when . . . they deprave a sentient and intelligent soul with thoughts of various kinds, persuading it to do evil, of which Judas is an illustration . . . But a man receives the energy, i.e., the working, of a good spirit, when he is stirred and incited to good, and is inspired to heavenly or divine things; . . . it is seen how the soul is moved by the presence of a better spirit, i.e., if it encounter no perturbation or alienation of mind whatever from the impending inspiration, nor lose the free control of its will.”
2 See J. H. Chajes, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003); Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003): “When medieval people attempted to decide whether an individual was divinely or demonically possessed, they were responding to a congeries of ambiguous behaviors that could signify either state,” and “Possessed behaviors and the attendant claims to have incorporated the Spirit of God were simply too ambivalent, too close to manifestations of possession by unclean spirits, to be sustained. . . . The fifteenth century, however, saw a negative shift in the understanding of these behaviors, . . . immoderate possessed behaviors increasingly came to be seen as demonic in character” (pp. 32, 314); and Moshe Sluhovsky, Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007).
3 See Brooks Alexander, Spirit Channeling: Evaluating the Latest in New Age Spiritism (Viewpoint Pamphlets; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1988) 22–31.
4 For example, see John P. Newport, “Spiritism and Channeling vs. Biblical Revelation and Prophecy,” in idem, The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 145–211.
5 Kurt E. Koch, Christian Counseling and Occultism (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994; originally published as Seelsorge und Okkultismus, 1972) 16–17.
6 Ibid., 273.
7 John Ankerberg and John Weldon, The Facts on Channeling (Chattanooga, TN: JAE Association, 1988) p. 36 n. 23. By “orthodox” Ankerberg and Weldon mean “conservative evangelical” and not “Greek Orthodox” or “Eastern Orthodox” which are entirely different forms of Christianity.
8 See John Ankerberg and John Weldon, The Facts on Angels: Who They Are, Where They Are From, and What They do Today (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1995) 14–15 (guardians), 27–28 (channeling). This position is a variation of the scenario described earlier wherein divine possession disappears from the cultural psyche and all that remains of possession is demonic possession.
9 Mitch Pacwa, Catholics and the New Age (Cincinnati, OH: Servant Books, 1992) 158. See further, Phillip C. Lucas, “Spiritualism and Channeling,” in Odd Gods: New Religions and the Cult Controversy (James R. Lewis, ed.; Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2001) 337–51, who states, “New Age channels rarely claim to be delivering messages directly from God, nor do they usually rail against the sins of society as did the Hebrew prophets. Most often their communications consist of some form of New Age philosophy, which they explain to their listeners” (p. 343).
10 Pacwa, Catholics, 156–64.
11 See Pacwa, Catholics, 158–61, who recounts the Seth messages that Christ did not exist as one historic person but rather as three men whose lives became confused in history and merged; that the Crucifixion did not occur in physical time but in a “dream” time; and from Montgomery and Cayce who wrote that Jesus was the reincarnation of Amelius; and from Ramtha through the channeler Knight that everyone is God and everyone has the Christ consciousness within them and that we can all be Christ. See further Tony Caputo, Channeling: Listen to What the Spirits are Saying (Wheatridge, CO: n.p., [ca. 1989]) who states, “Whereas Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all concur that God is a personal transcendent entity that is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, this however is not the picture that is presented by the multiplicity of channels”; and “one finds as many differing opinions [on Lucifer] as there are channels. These opinions range from a total denial of the existence of Lucifer, Satan, and evil, to a deification of the same” (pp. 12, 21).
12 John Ankerberg and John Weldon, The Facts on the Occult: Answers to Tough Questions about Spiritism, Occult Phenomena, and Psychic Powers (The Anker Series; Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1991) 16.
13 John Ankerberg and John Weldon, The Facts on Spirit Guides: How to Avoid the Seduction of the Spirit World and Demonic Powers (The Anker Series; Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988) 12.
14 See Douglas Groothius, Confronting the New Age (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1988); and Pacwa, Catholics, 192–97.
15 John Ankerberg and John Weldon, The Facts on the New Age Movement (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988) 16, 17.