When I was growing up, I regularly witnessed the dead being consulted. It is a reality of my background. This practice has been going on for centuries, sadly even in African Christian circles. This is what prompted me to write this article. Many questions around this tradition need answering: Do the dead influence the living? Can they speak to God in an intermediary role, or on our behalf? Do they have the power to protect us if worshiped? Will they punish us when not worshiped or appeased? But there is one major question I have come across that brings everything together: As Christians, whom should we consult or go to for protection and guidance?
3 Misconceptions That Lead to Consulting the Dead
People believe that the departed remain part of the family. Thus they remain active in the life of the living
In my home area, and many other parts of Africa, people believe that the departed remain part of the family. Thus they remain active in the life of the living, impacting their descendants. Death is not the end of human life. Below are three areas in which the dead are said to be active in the life of the living. These then lead to the pressure of consulting them.
1. The Dead Protect, Guide & Bless their Descendants
It is believed that the dead live on after death. They are responsible for protecting their descendants from harm, witchcraft, and other human predicaments. On the other hand, they are also said to bring blessings such as employment, a bumper harvest, and guidance to their descendants. As a result, the living will consult the dead through the ‘spirit medium’ (Svikiro in Shona). They seek advice from mediums on how best they can appease the dead. At the same time, they ask what must be done to attain blessings, guidance, and protection.
2. The Dead Will Avenge their Death
Then there are ‘avenging spirits’ (Mweya weNgozi in Shona). This is one of the most serious and scary matters, making many consult the dead. It rests on the notion that there is no such thing as a natural death. There is always a suspect. Therefore the spirit of the dead will come back and seek vengeance. This vengeance will come in different forms including mysterious deaths, bad luck, and family troubles. Avenging spirits seek to harm others in response to their own death. Therefore many are trapped by fear and the need to appease malicious spirits. So they consult the dead through the spirit mediums, looking for ways to pay back or atone the deceased.
3. God is Unapproachable
It is also believed that the living cannot approach God directly. He is unapproachable. He is very far, too strong, and much too superior to entertain mere humans. As such, he cannot be seen and can only be approached through a spirit medium. These spirit mediums claim have some spiritual or magical powers. They can transfer information from the living to the dead, and from the dead to the living. Therefore, the dead are consulted in order to hear from God, or take requests to him.
What the Bible says About Consulting the Dead
These three misconceptions need to be scrutinised and uprooted by the gospel. Satan, being “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4), deceives us in his attempts to wrest control from God. He does this through the misconceptions above, which are foundational to the practise of consulting the dead. Below I will argue that whenever this is practiced, it is no more than disobedient idolatry.
“There is One God and One Mediator” (1 Timothy 2:5)
Consulting the dead is not God’s idea. Nowhere in the Bible do we see God commanding his people to do so. In fact, he expressly forbids it (Deuteronomy 18:9-14). To speak with the spirit of the dead is prohibited and the punishment for such practices was death (Leviticus 20:27). Whenever we practice this, we should bear in mind that we are not worshiping God but evil spirits.
So, when we need mediation between us and God, in times of trouble or when seeking protection, turn to Jesus. For he is our perfect mediator (Hebrews 9:15). He can sympathise with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15) during the times of suffering, anxieties, fears, and the pressures of this life. Therefore, let us draw near to God with great confidence in Christ (Hebrews 10:19-22). Only Christ continues after death because he lives forever to intercede (Hebrews 7:25).
“The Dead Know Nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5)
Consulting the dead is contrary to biblical teaching about the dead. While it is true that there is existence after death for both the believers and non-believers, there is no relationship between the living and the dead. Those who die in Christ will be in the presence of God. They will live on with God eternally (Luke 23:43, Philippians 1:21-23). On the other hand, non-believers will be separated from God (Luke 16:22-26), awaiting their final judgment. Besides, Job 7:7-10 says “he who goes down to the grave does not return. He will never come back to his house again.” Thus, death is final, and after death no one can return to this life.
Death is final, and after death no one can return to this life
Therefore there is no way in which the dead can communicate the needs of the living to God. Nor can they reach the living. Luke 16:19-31 presents a story from which we might draw some truths about life after death. Humanity is divided into two groups at death. The dead cannot come back to the living for a great chasm is fixed between them. In the case where we have wronged someone, and that person dies, as Christians I think it is proper and consistent with the Bible to humbly seek peace by asking forgiveness of the departed’s family. But we have no need to fear the dead.
“You Shall Not Make for Yourself an Idol” (Exodus 20:4)
Consulting the dead is disobeying God. In my conversation with some people about this issue, some cite 1 Samuel 28 to support the view that the dead can speak to the living. In that narrative, the spirit of Samuel speaks to the living Saul. But this can be treated as an exception, not a common practice. Furthermore, we should not miss the point of the text, found in its context: Saul was spiralling into increasing rebellion against God.
Consulting the dead is one of the weapons Satan can use to attack our faith
As I said above, evil spirits can find ways to manipulate us into disobedience. Saul was supposed to seek advice from God, but God refused because of his mounting disobedience. The consequences were disastrous (1 Chronicles 10:13-14). We must not allow Satan to take charge. For every time we sin we do not only disobey God but give Satan a foothold to gain power over us. We should therefore be aware that consulting the dead is one of the weapons Satan can use to attack our faith.
You Don’t Need the Dead To Reach God
There is nothing wrong in seeking guidance, blessings, relationships, and protection in our day to day life. But the means in seeking these things must be proper; corrected and informed by God’s word. We approach our heavenly Father through the one and only mediator, Jesus Christ. God commands his people not to consult the dead, regardless of the circumstances. We are instead invited to consult God himself. He really is approachable and relational.
God covenants with man. As Michael Horton writes, in The Christian Faith, “God is personal not an abstract principle”. God desires fellowship with us. This is why he came to dwell among us through his Son Jesus. So when we are in need we are able to freely consult him. Christ mediates, so too does the Spirit, presenting us to our Father.