Spirit Communication in Biblical and Modern Times
Paper given at the Fifth International Forum on New Science, September 13-18, 1995, Fort Collins, Colorado 80524
By James A. Scarborough, Ph.D.
Both Biblical and historical records show that spirit communication was common in Old and New Testament times. The terms "prophet" and "seer" have been replaced in modern times by the terms "channel" or "medium," but the phenomenon of spirit communication appears to have remained the same. Throughout history trances, gems, precious metals, spices, and herbs have been employed to facilitate contact between humans and spirits. Prophets were common in ancient Judaic and Christian traditions. Trance mediumship was especially desired among these groups. The messages received by this means were taken seriously, to the extent of sometimes being recorded in written form, later to be taken as Biblical prophecy, but the question of which messages were authentic was difficult to answer. Various tests of authenticity were applied in Biblical times.
Belief in the reality of communication with spirits is apparently as old as mankind, certainly as old as humanity's recorded history. Primitive and advanced cultures worldwide have long traditions of spirit communication for both good and evil purposes. The reported phenomena involved in these instances include voluntary or involuntary speaking by a person either in a trance state or in the conscious state, occasional presence of lights, motion of objects without human contact, and visions, both internally and externally sensed. The sensations and experiences seem to have been the same during the past three to four thousand years, encompassing the Old and New Testament periods, and including the present era. If we assume that spirits exist and can interact with people, then the constancy of the reported phenomena suggests that natural laws apply to spirit communication, and that these laws have not changed with time.
A Confusion of Concepts and Words
In attempting to discuss the topic of spirit communication in biblical and modern times, we immediately find that various belief systems have introduced a large variety of terms and interpretations for what are apparently the same, or very similar, thing. This inevitably leads to confusion and misunderstanding among interested parties who have different backgrounds. For instance, Bruce Yocum in his book Prophecy: Exercising the Prophetic Gifts of the Spirit in the Church Today (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1976; rev. ed. 1993) states the following: "One of the most popular understandings of prophecy features the 'ecstatic' prophet who whirls around in a sort of fit or sits in a trance-like state uttering oracles. That is not Christian prophecy" (p. 35). Yocum supports this position with Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 14:32-33, "the spirits of the prophets are under the prophets' control, since God is a God, not of confusion but of peace," and with Eusebius' contrast of Christian prophets who are not in a trance with the Montanists Christian prophets who did speak in trance. Yocum then summarizes: "(The) objection to Montanist prophecy is that the Montanists claimed to have the gift of prophecy, but their ecstatic prophets were not behaving like Christian prophets. All the authorities of the early church, from the apostle Paul onward, clearly state that prophets among Christians have full control of themselves, and do not prophesy in trances and ecstasies" (p. 36). The identities and contrasts that Yocum gives is very misleading: whirling fits = trance or ecstatic state, thus speaking in a trance is frenzied, babbling nonsense. This is not necessarily true. Firstly, 1 Cor 14:32-33 has nothing to do with distinguishing trance states from non-trance states. Paul is simply saying that the spirits who are speaking through the prophets will yield to the prophets' wish as to whether the prophet wants the spirit to speak through him or her. Holy spirits did not haphazardly jump in a prophet and start speaking at random. There was an orderly process in communicating with holy spirits during early Christian times, hence "God is a God of peace, not of confusion." Secondly, the Eusebian text on Montanist prophecy is simply an opinion of a religious opponent regarding the perceived lifestyle of Montanus and Montanist prophets. The earliest Christian prophets DID speak in trance states, during which time a spirit would enter into the prophet's body and speak. Montanist prophecy was, in fact, the way in which the earliest Christians experienced spirit communication [see this website].
Let us now look at the following words that can be a source of confusion for some: Spirit = soul, angel, discarnate, demon. The term "spirit," in biblical writings, referred to a conscious entity, not to a mood or an emotion. The word spirit "is never used in the New Testament of temper or disposition" (Vincent, Vol 3, p. 387). Early manuscript fragments from Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) indicate that "angels can themselves be called 'holy spirits' or spirits 'of truth' or 'of knowledge'" (Ellis, p. 70). The word "spirit" can also refer to a spirit guide, guardian spirit (angel), departed ancestor, or any entity from another space-time dimension (possibly an extraterrestrial or space being). Unseen beings have often been referred to as "gods," which term was also meant to indicate a spirit; Odic Energy = life force, bioplasm, kundalini, prana, qi, chi, ectoplasm, power of the holy spirit, other. This is the postulated force which is claimed to mediate spirit experiences and effects (see Karl von Reichenbach, Odic Force or Letters on Od and Magnetism [New York: University Books, 1968]); Channel or Channeler = prophet, sorcerer, magician, wizard, diviner, seer, man of God (Old Testament names), pneumatic and charismatic (New Testament and early church names), psychic. The specific mechanism of the spirit influences varies, but the human participant is generally known by one of these descriptions; Channeling = prophecy, speaking in tongues, glossolalia, xenolalia, speaking by inspiration, speaking as moved by the power of the holy spirit (or holy ghost), other. Note that the Scriptural term "prophecy" did not imply prediction of the future. While that happened on occasion, "prophecy" simply meant that the spirit spoke in the native language of the audience. Spirit-caused speech in a foreign language, "tongue," was a less desirable matter, as the message would be unintelligible and therefore useless (see 1 Corinthians 14:13-19). Several popular books that have been written on "channeling" describe modern-day phenomena that Old and New Testament persons, both "pagan" and Christian, would have been very familiar with: Jon Klimo, Channeling: Investigations on Receiving Information from Paranormal Sources (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1987); and Michael F. Brown, The Channeling Zone: American Spirituality in an Anxious Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
Spirit Communication Devices: The Ark of the Covenant
In the two millennia before the Christian era, the idea of making contact with entities not from this world was common. The contact was also frequenly desired. Various preparations were made in order to set the stage for it to happen, suggesting the operation of certain laws of nature unknown to us. For example, the Old Testament (OT) book of Exodus gives specific and detailed instructions for constructing the "Tent of Meeting" where Moses and the wandering Hebrews could contact the Highest Spirit. These instructions were quite clear, specifying the physical dimensions of the Ark of the Covenant and all other aspects of the mobile tabernacle. The Ark itself was covered with gold. One effect of this is to isolate its interior from any external electrical or magnetic disturbances. What other effects the electrical shielding had in this context is unclear.
Inside the Tabernacle were placed prescribed items of gold and silver, along with brass (probably bronze) basins containing fresh water. Certain herbs and spices were also specified to be included. Similar ingredients were employed by groups not devoted to the God of Israel (Dodds, p. 292). Incense was to be burned, along with selected parts of certain animals. A great deal of blood from these animals was also spread. We recognize in these preparations activities similar to what was done by pagan societies at the time. Quite a number of replicas of the Ark were built, both by other clans of the Jews and by their adversaries, and the sacrifices, including sometimes even the blood of their children, were also used. Apart from the sacrificial animals, many of these aspects for facilitating communication with the highest spirit or His agents are still used to some degree today. For example, seances commonly employ incense and crystals.
On rare occasion, powerful manifestations of spirits occurred. In some events, the spirit entity was condensed enough that its odic energy emitted visible light. This light was generally a dull orange-red in color, and, on those rare occasions when it occurred at all, it was most readily visible under darkened conditions (Greber, p. 98-100). Thus, in the famous "burning bush" experience of Moses, the Voice spoke from the cloud of condensed odic energy which had been concentrated (read, "condensed," or "beamed down") sufficiently to produce audible vibrations in the air so that Moses could hear words. It is therefore not at all surprising that the bush was not scorched, as this energy was not actual fire. Further, when the Highest Spirit condensed enough on Mount Sinai to speak with Moses and convey the Ten Commandments, the mountain top was reported to be covered with a mysterious flame and smoke. In the New Testament (NT), the Apostles noticed that when holy spirits came upon them with powerful influence at the Pentecost event, the people observed "tongues of flame" on the men. They were, of course, not burned. This visible manifestation of spirit energy is called a "fire theophany" by theologians, meaning an appearance or manifestation of God in the form of fire. This is incorrect, in the opinion of this writer, because in the first place, it isnt' fire, and in the second place, the spirit(s) producing it do not have to be God at all. Indeed, on certain occasions when the glowing cloudlet formed between the wings of the statues of cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant and audible words came from the cloudlet, the Bible (OT) simply refers to the source of the words as "the voice" (Numbers 7:89). Moreover, the "tongues of flame" upon the Apostles at Pentecost were reported as spirits, not God. Even pagans reported spirits as flame-like in appearance (Dodds, pp. 298-299).
Spirit Communication Devices: The Breastplate of Judgment
An example of a physical instrument being used for spirit communication is found in the Biblical accound of David's inquiry of God through Abiathar, the priest. Abiathar operated the breastplate attached to a garment called the ephod. "But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God. Then David said to Abiathar, 'Please bring me the ephod' (with the attached breastplate). And David inquired of the Lord" (1 Samuel 30:6-8 NAS). As Abiathar used the breastplate to spell out an answer from God, the Scripture figuratively states that "the Lord said" (see 1 Sam 23:9-12), although there was not literally a voice at all.
The breastplate was a golden planchette inlaid with jewels, each gemstone representing both a letter of the Hebrew alphabet and one of the tribes of Israel. (In the OT, the breastplate is sometimes referred to as a "graven image" [Greber, p. 158]). These engraved stones were arranged in four rows of three stones each on the gold plate. Words were then spelled out using the Urim and the Thummim. The comparison with a modern Ouija board is obvious. Once again we find the recurring theme that communication with both high and low spirit entities follows the same natural laws, exhibits the same phenomena, and can use the same devices.
The method of inquiring of God was in common use for centuries. It first began when God gave Moses detailed instructions for constructing the ephod and its attached breastplate (Exodus 28:6-30). Moses consecrated Aaron and his sons as priests (Exodus 28:41) with the special mediumistic ability to operate the breastplate as the means of making decisions for the Israelites. Moses personally placed the breastplate on Aaron and put the Urim and Thummim in the breastplate (Leviticus 8:8). Long after Moses, Micah "made and ephod and a breastplate of divination, and consecrated one of his sons, who became his priest" (Judges 17:5). At another time, Gideon made an ephod with its golden breastplate and placed it in his city so that the people could receive Divine guidance by using it. Unfortunately, "all Israel played the harlot with it there" (Judges 8:27) by consulting with the lower spirits.
When the people strayed from divine guidance, communcation from the higher forces was likely to be denied. "And word from the Lord was rare in those days, visions were infrequent" (1 Sam 3:1 NAS). The cause of the Lord's silence was explained by the usual reasons: "these men have set up their idols in their heart, and put the stumbling block of their iniquity before their face: should I be inquired of at all by them?" (Ezekiel 14:3).
A Multitude of Spirits
According to the Scriptural record, spirits sent from above communicated to the early church. We see clearly in 1 Peter 1:12 that "a holy spirit sent from heaven" was responsible for speaking the gospel: ". . those who preached the good news (= 'gospel') with a holy spirit sent from heaven . . ." The construction of the Greek in this verse indicates that a holy spirit (and not "the Holy Spirit") communicated "the good news" through those who were mediumistically inclined to receive such a spirit influence. It is instructive to read expanded translations of some of the references made to spirit communication elsewhere in the New Testament. Many spirits were believed to be available for communication. "Thus also, as for yourselves, since you are those who are most eagerly desirous of spirits (spiritual powers), by desiring them in order that you may abound in them with a view to the building up of the local assembly (1 Cor 14:12, Wuest NT). Wuest erroneously inserts his own parenthetical interpretation "spiritual powers" here. Part of Paul's original meaning is translated away in, "So also you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church (1 Cor 14:12 NAS). The Apostle's original intent is restored by observing that the word translated "spiritual gifts" literally said "spirits": "Paul treats the different spiritual manifestations as if they represented a variety of spirits. To an observer of the unseemly revelries it would appear as if not one spirit, but different spirits, were the object of their zeal" (Vincent, Vol 3, p. 269). We submit that Paul knew what he was talking about and chose the correct words. In that case, his readers were familiar with communicating with a variety of different spirits bringing information from above.
John makes it clear that "the Spirit of God" refers to any one of the multitudes of spirits sent from God. We notice the plurality of spirits of God in 1 John 4:1,2 (NAS): "Beloved, do not believe EVERY spirit, but test the SPIRITS to see whether THEY are from God. By this you know THE Spirit of God: EVERY spirit that CONFESSES that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God." Hence, THE Spirit of God is EVERY spirit sent from Him. (Grammatically, a simple case of the singular used in place of the plural, not unlike elsewheres in the NT, for example, "the good person," "the evil person," and "the wife"). Paul makes the same point when he writes of "the ability to distinguish between spirits" (1 Cor 12:10 NIV). He also identifies any spirit who declares "Jesus is Lord" as "a spirit of God" or as "a holy spirit" in the Greek text of 1 Corinthians 12:3; the indefinite "'a' holy spirit" implies one of many such holy spirits. The world of evil spirits, too, could be identified as "THE spirit of deceit" and "THE spirit of antichrist" (see 1 John 4:3,6). An individual evil spirit could also be called "THE evil spirit" (Acts 19:15). This did not mean that there was literally only ONE evil spirit. The phrase "THE holy spirit" as used in the New Testament then designated either the world of holy spirits (singular used in place of the plural) or a certain holy spirit present at a given time.
Prophecy and Channeling
The modern term "channeling" refers to the speaking of another entity through the vocal organs of a human, the "channel" or "channeler." Other means of receiving the message are also, at times, called channeling. The general idea, of course, is that another spirit is in control of what is being said. In ancient times, if the foreign spirit spoke in the language of the audience, then the speech was referred to as "prophecy." If the speech was in a different language, then the medium was said to be "speaking in tongues," whether human languages or the languages of angels (1 Cor 13:1). This was distinguished from aimless babbling, which was held in low esteem in both Old and New Testament times (Menzies, p. 20), even though many people today believe that this is what qualifies as speaking in tongues. Both men and women displayed this gift.
What did the early Israelites do to inquire of the highest Spirit? Frequently they used channelers. "Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he used to say, 'Come, let us go to the seer'; for he who is called a prophet now was formerly called a seer" (1 Samuel 9:9 NAS). Many times we read of the widespread dependence Israelites placed on their prophets for inquiring of God. "Is there not here a prophet of the Lord, that we may inquire of the Lord by him?" (2 Kings 3:11).
In the Old Testament, priests who were also channels, i.e., prophets or seers, were not rare. Samuel was a seer (1 Sam 9:19; 1 Chron 9:22). Zadok, the priest, was a seer (2 Sam 15), along with Nathan and Gad (1 Chron 29:29). Lesser known channels were plentiful (see 2 Kings 17:13). An Edomite slew eighty-five such men in the town of Nob alone (see 1 Sam 22:18). Only Abiathar escaped, fleeing with his ephod to take refuge with King David (see 1 Sam 22:20-23). It is this same Abiathar whom David summons to himself later when he wishes to ask for guidance from on high.
In the New Testament, we read of Peter, Paul, and other men of God going into trances and prophesying (see Acts 10:10 et seq.; Acts 22:17; OT, see Num 24:4). At least two early centers of Christianity, Antioch and Jerusalem, contained influential practicing prophets, and Caesarea and its environs had a prophet and four prophetesses (Ash, p. 231). This illustrates how widely known and esteemed that phenomenon was in their day. The early literature describing the process largely perished during the early first few centuries, leaving us with a badly slanted view of spirit communication in the early part of the Christian era (Burgess, p. 8). For example, Tertullian's On Ecstasy was a Latin treatise in six (or seven) volumes on Christian ecstatic (trance) prophecy that has disappeared. Our knowledge of its existence comes from the writings of Saint Jerome in his On Illustrious Men.
Communication with divine spirits waned soon after the Apostles. Toward the end of the first century the Jewish historian Josephus was convinced that spirit-inspired prophecy was a thing of the past (Menzies, p. 59). Even so, there were men wandering about as traveling missionaries, starting churches and carrying the gift of "revealing spiritual truths while in trances or ecstasies" (Staniforth, p. 236). The Jewish-Christian second-century text The Shepherd of Hermas "demonstrated the continuing importance of ecstatic (trance) prophecy" among practicing Christians during that era (Ash, p. 233).
Schools for Prophets
The development of the ability to contact spirits was known in ancient Israel. In the schools for the prophets, the student developing his mediumistic abilities could learn divination by means of the breastplate. He sought to be able to enter a trance, in which he might hear words from the Lord or see visions (see Num 24:4; 24:15-16). The aspiring prophet learned meditative techniques with the goal of being able to vacate his body so that a different spirit could enter and control the vocal apparatus. If the spirit was a friendly one, the aspirant was then said to be "filled with the spirit," quite a literal description, which meant a great deal more than the present day usage of the phrase. If the spirit was an adversary, then this was a case of possession, which may or may not have been temporary. In either case, the mechanism was the same. The manner of the prophet may remain calm and pleasant, or it could become frenetic and agitated, depending upon the nature of the spirit in control. In either case, the interaction with the spirit was less diluted by the mind of the medium if he was entirely absent from the body, rather than simply having relinquished control. This is called an "out of body" state today. In the early days (NT), it was referred to as a state of ecstasy. Unfortunately for our understanding of the subject, the meaning of "ecstasy" has changed over the centuries. Today it typically refers to feeling very good, whereas it originally meant "ek-stasis," which was literally "outside of, or beside oneself," or even "displaced" (Ash, p. 229). The channel may be either amnesiac or not, depending primarily upon the degree of separation of his own spirit during the delivery of the message. This is the "ecstatic utterance" which we were exhorted to permit (1 Thess 5:20; 1 Cor 14:39). "Also be eager, of course, to enter into communication with God's spirits. Above all, strive to become instruments through which God's spirits speak to you in your mother tongue" (1 Cor 14:1 GNT). It occasionally happens that the person is not in an ecstatic state at all, but the message may be delivered to him in other ways, e.g., clairaudiently.
Women such as Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Deborah (Judges 4:4), and Miriam (Exodus 15:20) were seers, or channels. Before he was ever born, Jeremiah was ordained to become a prophet (Jer 1:5). Such men and women were believed to be capable of receiving communications from God, as brought by His spirits, using any of several methods. Their special talents usually needed development, however. Schools for the prophets existed for that purpose. The prophetess Huldah ran a school for prophets in Jerusalem (2 Kings 22:14). Samuel was head of a school for prophets in Ramah. Schools for prophets were also located in Bethel and Jericho (2 Kings 2). Ezekiel headed a school for channelers (prophets), which attatracted more students than he could accommodate (2 Kings 6:1-2). Nevertheless, voice prophecy from a trance was not accepted by every group in Israel. Some groups evaluated it negatively, as a sign of mental illness (Wilson, p. 337). The very word for prophet in Hebrew, nabi, was occasionally identified with a "madman" as in Hosea 9:7, "The prophet is a fool, the man of the spirit is mad!" This probably relates to the sometimes frenzied behavior when lesser spirits take over the body, a much more frequent occurrence than high-spirit contact. The prophets of Baal, in their confrontation with Elijah, behaved in this manner, to the point of slashing themselves (1 Kings 28). Exaggerated, frantic, spastic behavior is part of spiritistic proceedings in numerous cultures today. The behavior of the medium appears to be strongly influenced by the expectations of his culture (Parker, p. 279). This behavior, however, was interpreted to mean a negative spirit was in control. One of the early church fathers, Origen, wrote that "it is not the part of a divine spirit to drive the prophetess into such a state of ecstasy and madness that she loses control of herself" (Roberts and Donaldson, p. 612). An anthropologist will typically use the word "trance" merely to refer to a type of behavior, which is almost always stereotypical within a given society (Wilson, pp. 324-326). Certain unscrupulous people would at times pretend ecstatic behavior in order to pass themselves off as genuine (Ash, p. 229).
The demise of ecstatic prophecy accompanied the institutionalization of the early church (Ash, p. 227). The acceptance of communication with the authorized holy spirits was replaced by the growing idea that there was only one such spirit, "the Holy Spirit." The doctrine of THE Holy Spirit was still undeveloped in the fourth century (Burgess, p. 167). The are of communicating with holy spirits evaporated, leaving only remnants which were quietly passed down from generation to generation in certain families (Dodds, p. 50). The church so forming had to recognize the practice as supernatural and Divinely sanctioned, for not to have done so "would have been catastrophic" (Robinson, p. 50) since that would have destroyed their own Scriptural authority and theology. However, little by littly, the spirit was quenched.
The Scriptures reveal little about the details of the training that took place in a school for prophets, just as they are also silent about many other day-to-day matters already familiar to the people of that time. At the same time, we are told that spiritual gifts, such as the gift of prophecy, were widely distributed among believers. These ways by which God communicated to man in Biblical times are held in low esteem when they occur today. It is as though modern people pray for guidance, but insist that it be invisible and intangible.
False Prophets and the Problem of Discernment
From the Biblical and the modern examples of spirit activity, one observation stands out conspicuously: whether the activity is from the holy or the unholy spirits, the phenomena are the same. Consequently, we cannot necessarily discern the source of the input by relying upon the presence of voices, lights, tingling in the palms, a chill down the back, any of which may occur during seances, or the presumed character of the channel. Much testing is required.
Let us recall the great display of good and evil powers in the confrontation between Moses and the Pharaoh's magicians. The works done by both the good and evil forces were virtually identical. It appears that the same laws of the paranormal aspect of nature apply to all entities, so that the same methods are necessarily used by both sides. The situation is similar to the laws of electricity in that someone may telecast either truth or lies over our TV sets, but exactly the same natural laws of electricity must be obeyed in either case.
We cannot distinguish between spirits from above or from below simply on the basis of the phenomena they cause when contacting us. Both sides can induce dreams, visions, thoughts, desires, emotions, and attitudes. Both factions can spell out words using a breastplate (or a Ouija board). Both can speak through a person in full or partial trance. Both can cause audible voices or materializations at times. This situation makes it quite difficult to determine the source of the inspiration. In the case of a human channel, it is usually uncertain whether the message is due to spirit influence at all, since we must also include such possibilities as the subconscious, unconscious, or preconscious mind, wishful thinking, and self-deception, in addition to outright fraud.
An opportunistic charlatan could exploit the gullibility of the listeners and profit financially. Unfortunately, this happens today, as well as historically. The Jewish-Christian second-century text, the Didache (also called The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles), instructed the listeners to disregard messages delivered in the channel asked for money, if he requested food and shelter for more than a couple of days, or if his conduct was inconsistent with what he preached (see this website). Many false prophets were thieves. However, the phrase "false prophet" is somewhat ambiguous. If the spirit in control of the channel was one of the lower spirits, the Bible calls that person a false prophet, e.g., 1 Kings 18:22; 1 Kings 22:23-24; Micah 3:5,11). The phrase "false prophet" is not limited to intentionally dishonest people who make money and gain attention and glorification from their followers. A false prophet can also be an honest, conscientious, well-intended person through whom a false spirit is speaking.
This latter situation is more insidious than the former. Considerable discernment is required. To this end, special instructions were given (only briefly so in 1 Cor 12:10) for "distinguishing between the different prophetic utterances, whether they proceed from true or false spirits" (Vincent, Vol 3, p. 256). The popular Bible translations of today lose much of the impact of the tests for discerning of spirits. Therefore, we quote from an expanded translation: "Divinely-loved ones, stop believing every spirit. But put the spirits to the test for the purpose of approving them, and finding that they meet the specifications laid down, put your approval upon them, because many false prophets are gone out into the world. In this you know experientially the Spirit of God. Every spirit who agrees that Jesus Christ in the sphere of the flesh is come, is of God; and every spirit who does not confess this aforementioned Jesus (agree to the above teaching concerning Him), is not of God" (1 John 4:1-3, Wuest, pp. 160-161).
Finally, the hearer of a channeled message may suspect fraud or simply require more proof that the message is genuine. In that event, early Christians had another test in their arsenal. As evidence that the words were not coming from some level of the mind of the channel, the spirit in control could speak in another language, a tongue unknown to the channel. This was, then, a sign to the unbeliever in spirit communication that the message did not originate from within the prophet (1 Cor 14:21-22). Speaking in this way, in "tongues of men and angels" (1 Cor 13:1), was a common occurrence among the Apostolic congregations, especially those encouraged by Paul. The present day glossolalia, which is frequently nothing more than aimless babbling, serves as a poor shadow of the gift of tongues present in the New Testament. In this weak degree of spirit control, there may be no detectable message, no reliable way of separating spirit influence from human-induced words, and, above all, no way to test the spirit (as was recommended in 1 John 4:1-2). Both the listener and the channel are unable to verify the source of utterance.
The variety of ways which spirits used in communicating with humankind many years ago seem virtually endless. Generally we are not told the means by which the communications came, simply that they did. For example, Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, had the following experience: "Twins were struggling in her womb and she said, 'Why has this befallen me?' So she went to consult Jehovah" (Gen 25:22). Where did she go? And what transpired to give her Jehovah's response? We are not told the details. Here are some of the Biblically recognized possibilities.
Divination. The book of Leviticus prohibits "divination," whatever is exactly meant by that term, for contacting evil spirits. Yet, in contrast, it was used by Samuel, Joseph, and other prophets of God (see Micah 3:7) for contacting holy spirits. The righteous Daniel could not be forced into idolatry even at the risk of his life, yet Daniel was chief of the diviners, soothsayers, conjurers, and magicians, himself being especially gifted in those areas (see Dan 2:48; 4:9; 5:11). Also, careful reading of the story of Joseph reveals that he "divined" by means of a silver cup, and it was common knowledge throughout all Egypt that he heard from God in this way (Gen 44:5 et seq.). Note further that the Hebrew verb nahash, "to practice divination," is both accepted by God (Gen 30:27; 44:5) and condemned (Deut 18:10; 2 Kings 21:6). Apparently, divination for purposes of communicating with the holy spirits was acceptable, even sanctioned by God.
Casting Lots. Casting lots was possibly some form of drawing straws or rolling dice. The details are unclear. Nevertheless, lots were cast by servants inquiring of God. This method of finding the answer to prayer was used by the remaining Apostles to select a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:26), and by the sailors who decided to throw Johah overboard (Jonah 1:7-12). Joshua located and executed the thief Achan by means of lots, implying that the method was believed reliable to the point of deciding capital punishment. Lots were used to communicate with both higher and lower spirits. Accordingly, lots were cast by people opposed to God in the story of Haman in the book of Esther, and by the Roman guards who divided up the garments of Jesus.
Visions and Dreams. There is a wide range of psychological opinion as to the meaning of dreams, or whether they even have meaning. In Biblical days, however, at least some of the dreams were taken as containing messages from above. Daniel is probably the best known interpreter of dreams in the Bible, but there were predictions that meaningful dreams would become ever more common in the present day in which we live. As foretold through Joel, "I will pour out My Spirit (spirits) on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy (channel), your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions . . . I will pour out My Spirit in those days" (Joel 2:28-29 NAS). Dreams and visions can be induced by either positive or negative spirit energies. If the contents were believed to come from on High, then they were sometimes quoted in what has become our Bibles as words from God, saying "thus saith Jehovah." The book of Revelation is almost entirely the result of such a vision, as is much of the book of Daniel. Dreams, visions, and their interpretations were usually received by a man or woman especially gifted for that purpose. Such persons were variously referred to as seers, prophets, soothsayers, priests, conjurers, diviners, or other titles, depending mostly on the Bible translators.
Clairvoyance. A person with this gift was believed to be able to see events happening at a distance. The clairvoyant Elisha told the Israelites the secret battle plans of the warring King of Syria, who concluded that he must have an Israelite spy in his household (2 Kings 6:8-12). Elijah knew that his servant had overtaken Naaman and received a reward for Elijah's curing of Naaman's leprosy (2 Kings 5:25-26). Jesus saw Nathanael by this same gift of distant sight while Nathanael was lying beneath the fig tree outside of Jesus' physical view (John 1:48). A person with the gift of clairvoyance was often called a "seer"; clairvoyance is Latin for "clear seeing." In the present decade, the art of distant seeing is also called "Remote Viewing." Experimental work has been done which suggests the reality of the RV ability, e.g., the work of Stanford Research Institute and others. Further, at least two companies, Multi-Resources International (MRI) and PsiTech, have training programs to develop remote viewing abilities, which are then utilized under commercial contract.
Materialization. On rare occasion, messages were delivered via an angel, i.e., a spirit agent, in materialized form. The materialization might involve only a part of the spirit body, such as the finger which wrote a message on the wall for King Belshazzar. "Suddenly the fingers of a man's hand emerged and began writing opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king's palace" (Dan 5:5 NAS). This was not the hand of God, as is commonly said, but the hand of one of His angelic (spirit) agents, for we read on that "the hand was sent from Him" (Dan 5:24 NAS).
The Archangel Gabriel materialized before Daniel and was referred to as "the man Gabriel" (Dan 8:15-17; 9:21). Peter, John, and James all witnessed Moses and Elijah talking with Christ (Matt 17:3). A spirit of the Lord, in solid form, spoke with Gideon (Judges 6:11-18), and another one talked to Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15). The most frequent materializations of a high Spirit are those of Christ Himself, Who appeared by this technique several times after His earthly death (Luke 24:15-31; John 20:14,19; 21:4). There were also angelic visitations to Abraham, who fed these spirits, and also to Lot, and to others.
Audible Voice. According to television and movies, God spoke to the people of old by using a resonant male voice coming from the air. The Scriptures do not, however, support Hollywood's theology. On the contrary, communication by means of an audible voice rarely occurred. God almost never communicated in person, but as a matter of course, sent messages via spirit messengers called angels, or holy spirits. "Are not all angels simply ministering spirits sent out to help those who are to regain the salvation that is theirs by inheritance?" (Hebrews 1:14 GNT). This verse includes the mathematical statement: angel = spirit.
A rare occurrence of an audible voice was reported by John, who heard a voice from Heaven that some hearers thought was thunder (John 12:28-29). Similarly, a voice from Heaven spoke to Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 4:31). That voice came not from the empty air, however, but from a small cloudlet, or small foggy region. In this regard, recall Moses and Aaron in the book of Exodus, especially regarding the cloud between the wings of the cherubim over the Ark in the Tent of Meeting. The voice speaking to Christ at the transfiguration experience likewise came from a cloudlet (Matt 17:5).
The writers of the Old Testament do not carefully distinguish as to who spoke from the cloudlets, whether it was God, Christ, or an angel. Sometimes the writers confuse the matter by saying it was God, then a few verses later saying that it was an angel (Exodus 13:21; 14:19). On another occasion, we first read that an angel is speaking, only to have subsequent verse begin stating it is in fact God (Exodus 3). Sometimes we are not told who the speaker is at all, just that an unidentified voice spoke (Numbers 7:89). In any event, if the message was delivered by an authorized spirit agent of God, perhaps the witnesses were truthful enough in reporting that "God said," especially in view of their ignorance of whose voice they had actually heard.
Other. Communication with spirits takes on many and varied forms (Hebrews 1:1). A person might simply receive an inner urging. Possibly the answer to a problem simply occurs in our minds. However, it is difficult to know where these vague feelings or fully developed ideas originate in every case, even less can we put exact words to them and claim that we were given words by God, Christ, Sananda, Ashtar, our spirit guides, et cetera. Crediting higher beings, ascended masters, space brothers, and so on as having instilled our thoughts requires a great deal more evidence than is provided by the usual channel in our lifetimes.
Another method of contact is inspirational writing, wherein a person is caused to hear, or see in a vision, the words he is to write. The person then writes of his own volition, being fully aware of what he is writing. It can also occur that he knows only that he is writing, but not what he is writing. It may also be that he is not conscious at all, but is in a trance state. Upon awakening he learns the contents of what he has written. This situation is likely to be called "automatic writing," but there is no uniformity of terms in the paranormal area.
The entire basis of both Jewish and Christian beliefs rests on communications received from spirits, whether from the Highest Spirit or from the multitudes of spirit agents available for that purpose. The descriptions of paranormal experiences in both the Old and New Testaments correspond exactly with those reported from the first century up to the present. This suggests that natural laws are in force in this domain, analogous to the way that electrical laws govern electrical phenomena. These laws are unknown to us.
Although spirit communication by channeling and various other means is as possible today as it was in Biblical times, great care and judgment is required in order to determine what is authentic and valid from what is not. This was also the case in the days of the Prophets and, later, the Apostles. Certain Biblical tests were given for the express purpose of discerning between true and false channeling. Nevertheless, the problems of deception by spirits and of exploitation of the gullible still remain.
These previously mentioned ways of receiving answers from higher realms of existence, while in wide evidence in the Scriptures, are unacceptable to almost all Christians and Jews of today. Such spirit manifestations are generally viewed as Satanic exhibitions or, at the very least, delusions. Curiously, the ways in which the words of God came, which we find in the Scriptures today, are unacceptable to the very people who believe those Scriptures.
Ash, James L., "The Decline of Ecstatic Prophecy in the Early Church" Theological Studies 37 (1976) 227-252.
Burgess, Stanley M., The Holy Spirit: Ancient Church Traditions (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1984).
Dodds, Eric R., The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1951).
Ellis, E. Earle, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993).
Greber, Johannes, Communication with the Spirit World of God (6th ed.; Teaneck, NJ: Johannes Greber Memorial Foundation, 1979).
Menzies, Robert P., The Development of Early Christian Pneumatology with special reference to Luke-Acts (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991).
Parker, Simon, "Possession Trance and Prophecy in Pre-Exilic Israel," Vetus Testamentum 28 (1978) 271-285.
Roberts, Alexander, and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 volumes (Vol. 4; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994).
Robinson, D. W. B., "Charismata versus Pneumatika: Paul's Method of Discussion," Reformed Theological Review 31 (1972) 49-55.
Scarborough, James A., The Steppingstones (Merigold, MS: Merigold Spiritual Center, 1986).
Staniforth, Maxwell, Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (New York: Penguin, 1968).
Vincent, Marvin R., Word Studies in the New Testament, 4 volumes (Vol. 3; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977).
Wilson, Robert R., "Prophecy and Ecstasy: A Reexamination," Journal of Biblical Literature 98 (1979) 321-337.
Wuest, Kenneth S., The New Testament: An Expanded Translation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1961).
_____, In These Last Days: II Peter, I, II, III John, and Jude in the Greek New Testament for the English Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1954).
Other references not used in this paper but useful for the interested reader:
Dureen J. Hughes, "Blending with an Other: An Analysis of Trance Channeling in the United States," Ethos 19, no. 2 (1991) 161-84.
_____, "Differences Between Trance Channeling and Multiple Personality Disorder on Structured Interview," Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 24, no. 2 (1992) 181-92.
_____, and Norbert T. Melville, "Changes in Brainwave Activity During Trance Channeling: A Pilot Study," Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 22, no. 2 (1990) 175-89.
Michael G. Kenny, "Multiple Personality and Spirit Possession," Psychiatry 44 (1981) 337-58.
Rayna L. Rogers, "Multiple Personality and Channeling," Jefferson Journal of Psychiatry 9, no. 1 (1991) 3-13.