February 19, 2005

Testing the spirits

Here is a question I recently fielded on my website:

Our Sunday School class has been doing some apologetic studies and last week we discussed psychics, channelers, mediums, etc... We talk a little about each and then find biblical responses so we can be better informed and answer any questions about the subject, hopefully. So we were all talking about that and all and came across evil spirits. We know that they exist and the Bible forbids contact with them. So we got onto ghosts and are they evil and do they exist? I was wondering what your response would be about ghosts, or "non evil" spirits. Are all apparitions necessarily evil? I know in 1 John 4:1-3 we are to question each spirit as to whether or not they will confess Jesus. But not everyone is brave enough to do so. Anyways, just looking for a little insight or other ideas. Thanks for your help.

Sounds like an interesting class. I teach youth Sunday School and the kids have often taken the discussion in this particular direction.

We live in a strange age which is as much "spiritual" as it is secular. Many non-Christians seem comfortable with the idea of "angels" and disembodied souls, but they don't have any tools for sorting out where such things fit in and what potential harms might be associated with interactions between our two worlds. For the New Ager, anything from the spirit world seems to automatically have authority and credibility. After all, they are from "the other side," so they ought to know all about spiritual truth. If you ask them about the possibility of being deceived, they will shrug this off by claiming that the bad spirits can be detected simply by the dark or evil "feelings" that they elicit. What they don't seem to understand (or accept) is that evil spirits could be just like evil people, only more insipid; if we can be fooled by con-men, how much more can we be fooled by powerful and ancient spirit-beings! Just as a con-man may seem a friend until we later count our money, so too might a fallen angel seem a helpful guide until we face the final reckoning.

It would certainly be fun to sit down and have a conversation with an angel, but, unfortunately, the only angels that seem to be loitering about hoping for such company are of the fallen variety. The heavenly angels seem to be on a tighter schedule, and they don't go in for special appearances unless they have their orders and objectives in hand. For this reason, a Christian may safely assume that idle (or conjured) encounters with spirit-beings are a recipe for trouble. We are discouraged from meddling in the occult not so much because it is superstitious nonsense but because of the danger and error that we invite, as well as the fact that the things of God cannot be manipulated or pried with incantation or divination.

Scripture seems to give us no reason to suspect that our souls are free to mill about the ether after our death. All we ever see in example are persons being "taken" away to specific places after their death: Sheol, Abraham's Bosom, into the presence of Jesus, etc. And, not that parables are intended to hold analogous truths in their every minutia, but the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) seems to make a special point of saying that the lost are stuck in place and the redeemed are either not permitted to return or they find no purpose in doing so. Even where we do see an example of someone coming back to communicate with the living it is taken to be an exceptional event (1 Samuel 28:12). Note that the witch of Endor is alarmed when Samuel (whom she was supposedly conjuring) actually shows up. This can be taken as a special dispensation by God to send Samuel to judge Saul for his disobedience.

And while near-death experiences may be genuine metaphysical events, we must remember that little can be concluded about the after-life from these (other than that there does appear to be a soul). This is because they are near death experience, not death experiences.

The most probable explanations for "ghosts" and dead relatives being "channeled" by mediums (assuming authenticity here) is that they are demonic manifestations. It takes little imagination to see how a powerful spirit-being with ready access to knowledge about person's lives and personalities could fool gullible and hopeful human minds. And there's no reason to think that they do so only in the form of ghosts. Whatever is most plausible to a person, time, or society would do quite nicely: angels bearing another gospel, ascended masters, or even aliens.

The "testing" we are enjoined to perform would be in relation to the known and clear existing revelation of God. Any prophecies made should be 100% on target, and any theological claims should not be contrary to Scripture. Most (perhaps Christians even less than pagans) would never get a chance at a personal, corporeal visit from a demon in order to subject it to a theological pop-quiz. However, we are constantly being bombarded with second and third-hand "doctrines of demons." Ideas such as moral relativism, religious pluralism, and liberal theology may not have come from a visible encounter with Satan by your local university staff, but the demonic realm is certainly in the mix. We are not only to test such ideas for Biblical compatibility but, according to 2 Corinthians 10:4, we are to "demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ."

Let's turn to your cited passage now (1 John 4:1-3):

"Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But every spirit who does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist; you have heard that he is coming, and he is already in the world now."

Let me also bring verse 6 into the discussion:

"We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error."

Note that the Greek word for "spirit" at all points is the same, and in verse 6 it looks more like it could be taken as an "attitude," "disposition," or "confession." Perhaps if we are talking about spirit-beings here they need not necessarily be first-person encounters, but perhaps only the drivers and inventors of ungodly ideas, religions, and worldviews.

Also notice that in verse 4:1 it closely links "spirit" and "false prophets," which may be the real carriers (as far as we see with our eyes) of the antichrist virus. John's command is in line with that of Moses, who said that prophets are to be tested to see whether they are of God. Moses provides tests for prophets in Deuteronomy. In the context in which John was writing, some teachers were denying that God had come in the flesh. Their view was that matter was evil and spirit good (a Gnostic heresy), therefore God, being good, could not take on matter. John calls these teachers antichrists. For John, the key test here was what and who the teacher understood Jesus to be.

We should take care not to try to make this "test" do too much work for us. Remember that James (2:19) points out that the demons have good doctrinal knowledge, and Satan quoted the Scriptures to Jesus in the desert. Even though someone or some religion may claim to believe in Jesus and many of the core claims of Biblical Christianity, it is in how one defines those beliefs when pressed for clarification, and how one puts it all into practice, that is the true test for God's active hand.



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