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Probe Ministries > Cults and World Religions > Communicating with the Dead


Communicating with the Dead - A Christian Perspective on It's Reality Print E-mail


Michael Gleghorn

Written by Michael Gleghorn

This article is also available in Spanish.

Michael Gleghorn considers the phenomenon of people who claim to communicate with the dead. He looks at some of the techniques these people use to make their claims seem plausible. Bringing in a biblical worldview, he considers two Biblical events: Saul seeking out a medium to talk to Samuel, and Jesus telling of Lazarus and rich man. He points out that these events are extremely rare and were recorded in the Bible to communicate God's truth. He concludes that those who claim to communicate on a regular basis are most likely charlatans.

Mediums and the Media

Both John Edward and James Van Praagh are highly sought-after mediums who claim to possess the ability to communicate with the dead. Each has his own Web site and hit television show. They have both authored best-selling books, been interviewed by television personalities and news journalists, and each has about a three-year waiting list for personal readings.

"According to a recent Gallup Poll, 38 percent of Americans believe ghosts or spirits can come back in certain situations. In 1990, it was 25 percent. Today, 28 percent think some people can hear from or 'mentally' talk to the dead, compared with 18 percent 11 years ago."{1} Some believe that the increased interest in after-death communication is a "spillover from the growing interest in alternative medicine and Eastern spirituality."{2} But whatever the cause, the popularity of self-proclaimed mediums like Edward and Van Praagh has soared in recent years.

John Edward was 15 when he first learned of his life's work.{3} He received a reading from a psychic who told him that he would help bring comfort to the living by reuniting them with those who had crossed over to the other side. Since then, John has gone from doing private readings in his home to making appearances on popular radio and television shows. He has been a guest on Entertainment Tonight, The Crier Report, and The Maury Povich Show, just to name a few. He's also been interviewed by The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and others. He's authored three books, produced a series of audio tapes that explain how to communicate with the other side, and, since June 2000, he's had his own television show, Crossing Over with John Edward.

James Van PraaghThe story of James Van Praagh is similar. On his Web site we learn that James was 24 when a medium told him that he would be in the same line of work within just two years.{4} Although James was initially skeptical, he soon realized that he indeed had the ability to communicate with the dead. Since that time, James has gone from doing psychic readings for friends, to making television appearances on such shows as NBC's The Other Side, Oprah, and 20/20. In addition to writing four books, he's produced two meditation tapes and a video about psychic development. The popular CBS mini-series, Living with the Dead, was based on his life and work. And since September 2002, he's been the star of his own television show, Beyond with James Van Praagh.

What are Christians to make of all this? Is there good evidence that Edward and Van Praagh can really communicate with the dead? And what, if anything, does the Bible say about such matters? These are just a few of the questions that we will wrestle with in this article.

The Tricks of the Trade

Both John Edward and James Van Praagh claim the mediumistic ability to communicate with the dead. And thousands of adoring fans believe these claims are true. One reporter tells the story of Sally Morrison, who visited Edward after the death of her husband.{5} During the reading, Edward reportedly asked her, "I'm getting a screwdriver; what does that mean to you?" Ms. Morrison remembered that the day before she had spent an hour looking for a screwdriver in her late husband's tool box. Afterward she told the reporter, "It was such an everyday thing to bring up. But to me, it was incredibly comforting, a sign that Paul had been there." Apparently, Ms. Morrison was persuaded that Edward had really made contact with her late husband. Similar stories could also be told of James Van Praagh's apparent successes.

But if this is so, why haven't Edward and Van Praagh managed to convince the skeptics? Michael Shermer, who I must point out is also skeptical of Christianity, observes that there are three techniques commonly used by mediums to convince people of their alleged paranormal powers: cold reading, warm reading, and hot reading.{6} These techniques might be thought of as the tricks of the trade, so to speak.

In cold reading, mediums make use of methods that help them "read" a person who was unknown to them in advance. Such methods may include observing body language, asking questions, and inviting the subject to interpret vague statements.{7} For instance, by carefully observing body language and facial expressions, the medium can often get a good idea of whether or not he's on the right track. Also, by asking questions and inviting the subject to interpret vague statements, the medium can gain valuable information. This information can then be used later in the reading to make what appear to be stunningly precise revelations from the spirit world. Indeed, Shermer contends that by effectively applying these techniques, the medium actually gets the subject to do the reading for him!{8} Skeptics hold that both Edward and Van Praagh make use of such methods.

Warm reading involves making statements that tend to apply to most anyone. For example, many people carry a piece of jewelry that belonged to their dead loved one. By asking if the subject is carrying such jewelry, the medium has a good chance of making a "hit." This can give the impression that the information was divined from a paranormal source. In reality, of course, it may have been nothing more than a highly probable guess.

The last technique, hot reading, actually involves getting information about a subject before the reading begins! But surely Edward and Van Praagh have not availed themselves of such methods. Not according to the skeptics! It appears that both mediums have apparently been caught red-handed using "hot reading" techniques.

Caught in the Act

Skeptics contend that self-proclaimed mediums John Edward and James Van Praagh have both been caught red-handed using "hot reading" techniques. "Hot reading" involves gathering information about a subject prior to doing the reading. Although most skeptics agree that such techniques are probably not used as much now as they were by spiritists in the past, there seem to be strong indications that both Edward and Van Praagh have, on occasion, attempted to obtain information about their subjects in advance.

In an article written for the Skeptical Inquirer, Joe Nickell describes one such episode involving John Edward.{9} The incident occurred on a Dateline special. During a group reading, Edward indicated that the spirits were telling him to acknowledge someone named Anthony. The cameraman signaled Edward that that was his name. Edward appeared surprised and asked, "Had you not seen Dad before he passed?" John Hockenberry, the Dateline reporter, was initially quite impressed with this revelation. The cameraman's name was Anthony and his father was dead. Hockenberry later learned what really happened.

Earlier in the day, Anthony "had been the cameraman on another Edward shoot."{10} The two men had talked and Edward had learned of the death of Anthony's father. When confronted by Hockenberry in a later interview, Edward reluctantly admitted as much. Of course, Edward still maintained that he got this information from the spirits as well. But can anyone blame the skeptic for being suspicious?

Michael Shermer relates a similar incident, this one involving James Van Praagh, which occurred on 20/20.{11} While relaxing during a break, Van Praagh asked a young woman, "Did your mother pass on?" The woman shook her head, but said that her grandmother had died. Unfortunately for Van Praagh, the cameras had accidentally been left rolling during the break. The entire episode was caught on tape! Unaware of this, Van Praagh later turned to the woman during his reading and said, "I want to tell you, there is a lady sitting behind you. She feels like a grandmother to me." Afterward, when confronted by 20/20's Bill Ritter with the video evidence captured during the break, Van Praagh insisted, "I don't cheat. I don't have to prove . . . I don't cheat. I don't cheat. I mean, come on. . . . " Shermer concludes, "Interesting. No one said anything about cheating. The gentleman doth protest too much."{12}

The fact that both Edward and Van Praagh have been caught using information in their readings that they gained beforehand ought to alert us to the possibility that these men may not really be what they claim. Still, to be fair, we must at least admit the possibility that these men not only had advanced information about their subjects, but that they also received such information later through a spiritistic revelation. But is this really possible? Let's see what the Bible says about after-death communication.

Saul and the Spirit Medium

In 1 Samuel 28, we read that Israel and the Philistines were preparing to make war with one another. When Saul, the king of Israel, saw the Philistine army, he was filled with fear. Desperate for a word from God, he inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him. Hoping for guidance by another means, Saul told his servants to find him a medium. At this point in Israel's history this may not have been an easy task, for "Saul had put the mediums and the spiritists out of the land" (1 Sam. 28:3). But why had he done this?

It was actually an act of obedience to the Word of God. In Deuteronomy 18 the Lord had said, "There shall not be found among youa medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord" (vv. 10-12). The Lord had also told His people that they were not to seek out mediums (Lev. 19:31), that the person who did so was to be cut off from his people (Lev. 20:6), and that mediums were also to be put to death (Lev. 20:27). In spite of all these prohibitions against turning to mediums, Saul was apparently so desperate for guidance that he ordered his servants to find him one. They did, and he disguised himself and went to her by night.

Although initially hesitant to practice her art, the medium, not recognizing her client as Saul, eventually agreed to call up the prophet Samuel who had died some time before. "When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice," suddenly realizing that her client was Saul! (1 Sam. 28:12)

Samuel's message to Saul was both tragic and prophetic: "The Lord will . . . deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines. And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me" (1 Sam. 28:19). Reflecting on these events, the author of Chronicles wrote, "So Saul died for his unfaithfulness . . . against the Lord, because he did not keep the word of the Lord, and also because he consulted a medium for guidance" (1 Chron. 10:13). Whatever truths we may glean from the story of Saul and the medium, it clearly does not sanction man's attempt to communicate with the dead.{13}

But does it confirm that after-death communication is really possible? Although some have speculated that the spirit of Samuel was actually a demonic spirit, the text repeatedly identifies the spirit as Samuel (vv. 12, 14, 15-16) and nowhere even hints that it might be a demon. Thus, we are forced to conclude that after-death communication is not intrinsically impossible. But here we must be careful. Possibility does not suggest probability. The text seems to imply that God allowed Samuel's special return in order to pronounce judgment against Saul (vv. 16-19). And as we'll see, there are good reasons to believe that this was, in fact, an exceptional event.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) clearly suggests the immense improbability of the dead communicating with the living. Both the rich man and Lazarus died. Lazarus went to "Abraham's bosom," a place of paradise for the righteous dead (Luke 16:22). The rich man went to Hades, a place of conscious torment for the unrighteous. Though separated by a great chasm, the rich man could still see and speak with those dwelling in paradise. He called out to Abraham, asking that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers, lest they share his torment in the afterlife. But Abraham refused, saying that if they would not listen to the Word of God, they also would not listen if someone rose from the dead.

But why didn't the rich man just go and warn his brothers himself? After all, if it were a simple matter for the dead to communicate with the living, then why did the rich man ask that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers? Apparently, the rich man was not able to warn his brothers. He could not escape his place of punishment to do so.

But wouldn't it also, then, be impossible for Lazarus to warn them? Not necessarily. Although it seems to be a rare occurrence, it appears that the righteous dead are, on occasion, permitted by God to communicate with those still alive on earth. The Old Testament records the appearance of Samuel to Saul (1 Samuel 28), and the New Testament records the appearance of Elijah and Moses to Jesus and some of his disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17). Nevertheless, the biblical evidence indicates that after-death communication is extremely rare.

Does this mean that mediums like John Edward and James Van Praagh are charlatans? Skeptics certainly think so, and the skeptics may be right. But the Bible allows for another possibility; namely, that the spirits with whom Edward and Van Praagh claim to communicate are not human at all, but demonic. Consider the following.

The Bible indicates that messages from the human dead are extremely rare. It's therefore unlikely that Edward and Van Praagh should receive such messages all the time. In addition, listen to what the spirits are alleged to say. Do any of them, like the rich man, strive to warn their relatives about a place of conscious torment? Do they urge repentance for sin or the need for personal faith in Christ? On the contrary, such important Christian doctrines are typically either ignored or denied. But if the Bible is truly God's Word, and the spirits deny its teachings, then who are these spirits likely to be?

Of course, maybe Edward and Van Praagh aren't really communicating with spirits at all. But if at times they are, I fear it's probably with demonic spirits -- not spirits of the human dead.

Notes

1. Bill Hendrick, "Higher Communication," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 31 October 2001, sect. C; Greg Barrett, "Can the Living Talk to the Dead?" USA Today, 20 June 2001, sect. D; cited in Marcia Montenegro, "The Resurging Interest in After-Death Communication," Christian Research Journal, Vol. 25, No. 01, 2002, 12.
2. Ruth La Ferla, "A Voice from the Other Side," New York Times on the Web, 29 October 2000 (http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/29/living/29/DEAD.html).
3. See the information about John at http://www.scifi.com/johnedward/aboutjohn/ and his official Web site at http://www.johnedward.net/about_John_Edward.htm.
4. See the information about James on his Web site at http://www.vanpraagh.com/bio.cfm.
5. La Ferla.
6. See Michael Shermer, "Deconstructing the Dead: Cross Over One Last Time to Expose Medium John Edward," http://www.skeptic.com/newsworthy13.html. I have relied heavily on Shermer's article in the following discussion.
7. See Joe Nickell, "John Edward: Hustling the Bereaved," Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2001, Vol. 25, No. 6, p. 20. I have relied on some of Nickell's observations in what follows.
8. Shermer.
9. Nickell.
10. Ibid.
11. See Michael Shermer, "How Psychics and Mediums Work: A Case Study of James Van Praagh," http://www.skeptic.com/. See also Michael Shermer, "Does James Van Praagh Talk To The Dead? Nope! Fraud! - Parts 1" at http://www.holysmoke.org/praagh1.htm and "Does James Van Praagh Talk To The Dead? Nope! Fraud! - Part 2" at http://www.holysmoke.org/praagh2.htm.
12. Shermer, "How Psychics and Mediums Work: A Case Study of James Van Praagh."
13. Montenegro, p. 16.

© 2003 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Michael GleghornMichael Gleghorn is a research associate with Probe Ministries. He earned a B.A. in psychology from Baylor University and a Th.M. in systematic theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. Before coming on staff with Probe, Michael taught history and theology at Christway Academy in Duncanville, Texas. Michael and his wife Hannah have two children. His personal website is michaelgleghorn.com.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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