Talking with Dead People
Roman Catholics talk to: i.e., communicate with,-- deceased persons noted
for their sanctity in this life. They do this in a religious setting,
for example in church. Is this practice Biblical?
The Lord forbade communicating with the dead to His people: "There
shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass
through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or
one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one
who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD, and because
of these abominations the LORD your God drives them out from before you."
(Deuteronomy 18:10-12 NKJV).
The Catholic Church agrees: "There is a sect called spiritism, whose members try to call back
the souls of their departed friends by superstitious practices; these deluded people say they hold
communication with the dead. But such communication, whether it really be with the dead or with evil
spirits, is forbidden to Catholics." (Religion, Doctrine and Practice, Francis B. Cassilly, S.J., p. 362).
But wait a minute -- what is prayer but "communication"?
Perhaps it isn't what you are doing but how you are
doing it that is the problem. If so it would be helpful to see where the
Bible makes any such distinction between the 'good way' and the 'bad
way' of calling up the dead.
Entreating deceased friends and relations for assistance was common pagan practice
in the ancient world:
"For some time a woman known as Dedi, the wife of a priest living
in the region of Memphis about the 20th century BC, had been worrying over
the prolonged illness of her serving maid, Imiu. She could not run her
household properly without assistance, and the apparent indifference of
her husband, Intef, only sharpened her anxiety..When she could no longer
tolerate the situation, Dedi sat down and wrote a letter to her negligent
husband, taking him to task for his insensitivity to her suffering. 'Why
do you want your threshold to be made desolate?' Dedi asked. 'If there's
no help from you, your house will be destroyed; don't you know that it
is this serving maid who maintans your house among men?'...Although Dedi
had accused him of being insensitive to her concerns, Intef had a fairly
good reason for keeping silent: He had died some time earlier. In Dedi's
view, a common one, death did not necessarily preclude her husband from
helping out around the house. Indeed, in this particular instance, Intef
would be of more use to Dedi in the Realm of the Dead....Only by the intervention
of her dead husband could Dedi hope to have the serving woman restored
to health. 'Can you not fight for her day and night?' Dedi asked. 'Fight
for her! Watch over her! Save her from all those doing her harm! Then your
house and your children shall be maintained....Fight for her,' she urged.
'Now!' Having finished her letter, Dedi filled the bowl with food and left
it in Intef's tomb." (What Life was Like on the Banks of the Nile, pp. 137-138).
Entreating deceased persons for favors is by no means a universal pagan custom, but neither is
it in any way uncommon or unusual. The first century Gentiles among whom
the gospel went forth no doubt included many who found it natural to
reach out to deceased persons and solicit help from that quarter in the
trials of life. Another example, from Crete:
"Minos’ sons, they say, were Deucalion and Molus, and to
Deucalion was born Idomeneus and to Molus was born Meriones. These
two joined with Agamemnon in the expedition against Ilium with
ninety ships, when they had returned in safety to their fatherland
they died and were accorded a notable burial and immortal honours.
And the Cretans point out their tomb at Cnosus, which bears the
following inscription: 'Behold Idomeneus the Cnosian’s tomb, and by
his side am I, Meriones, the son of Molus.' These two the Cretans
hold in special honour as heroes of renown, offering up sacrifices
to them and calling upon them to come to their aid in the perils
which arise in war."
(Siculus, Diodorus. Complete Works of
Diodorus Siculus (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 32)
(Kindle Locations 7835-7841).)
These distinguished gentlemen fought at Troy. Roman Catholics seem sometimes to be under the impression there
is something unique or out of the ordinary in invoking deceased
persons for assistance, as if Christianity must have invented that.
Christianity didn't invent it. Therefore caution should be
exercised, what if this is just pagans being pagans?
As the Romans Do
Nor was communion with the dead a preoccupation only of exotic peoples; many
Roman families maintained a domestic gallery of death-masks and sculpted
busts of departed, but still active, family members. These ancestors
were revered, next after the gods: "'Having now performed for you
the duty I owe to our family, I protest by the gods, whose temples
and altars we who carry on the succession of the Appian family honor
with common sacrifices, and by the genii of our ancestors, to whom
after the gods we pay the next honors and gratitude in common, and,
above all these, by the earth, which holds your father and my
brother, that I have put at your disposal both my mind and my voice
to give you the best advice.'" (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, quoting
the speech of Gaius Claudius against Appius, Roman Antiquities, Book
XI, Chapter 14).
The first century Latin poet Statius takes it for granted that his friend's deceased wife
Priscilla will make it her business, upon her demise, to intercede for her
surviving husband with the powers that be:
"Moreover, whenever a shade approaches that has won the
praise of a loving spouse, Proserpine bids summon joyful torches,
and the heroines of old to come forth from hallowed bowers and
scatter the shades of gloom in radiant light, and strew garlands and
Elysian flowers before her. Thus doth Priscilla enter the kingdom of
the dead; there with suppliant hand she prays the Fates for thee,
and placates the lords of grim Avernus, that having fulfilled the
term of human life thou in old age mayst leave thy prince still
giving peace to the world and still young! The unfailing Sisters
take oath to grant her prayers. (Statius, Silvae, Book V, I, lines
258-262, p. 287 Loeb edition)
Those Romans, newly come to Christianity, who expected deceased
persons to intercede on their behalf were continuing a normal
cultural expectation. It is not a Biblical expectation however. Is this
one of those cases where Rome conquered Christianity? It cannot be a
case where Christianity conquered Rome, because New Testament
Christianity follows no such custom.
The world of classical antiquity was much like our own; wildly
contradictory views co-existed in the population. But despite the
cultured despisers of traditional Roman ideas about the afterlife,
the bulk of the population likely continued with the older ideas,
amounting nearly to ancestor worship. While some Romans were open to
foreign imports including Epicurean materialism, for which
persistence of the soul post-mortem was problematical, competing
foreign imports like the philosophical tradition of Pythagoras and Plato, or the
mystery religions with their promise of everlasting life, were able to find an abundant place for the
traditional expectation that deceased persons might be powerful
allies, or enemies. It is jarring to realize that the Roman Senate continued to
enroll deceased emperors into the empyrean, even after these
emperors had become Christians: "Constantine the Great died in 337
A.D. He has met with rare and deep appreciation from many different
points of view. The Roman senate, according to the historian of the
fourth century, Eutropius, enrolled Constantine among the gods;
history has named him 'the Great;' and the church has proclaimed him
a saint and equal of the Apostles." (History of the Byzantine
Empire, Alexander Vasiliev, Kindle location 502). The expectation
that such a person could become a powerful protector posthumously
was already embedded in pagan practice and belief, it owes nothing
to Christianity. Constantine's Arianizing son, Constantius, was accorded
like honors: "Constantius died during the Persian campaign in
Cilicia. . .The Senate enrolled the deceased emperor among the
gods." (History of the Byzantine Empire, Alexander Vasiliev, Kindle
location 561). The pagan Romans did not 'learn' from Christianity that
'saints' could be powerful advocates, they already believed that; in
fact it is more likely the information transfer ran the other way, that Christianity 'learned' this information
It is interesting to realize another people group, the Chinese,
worshipped their ancestors much as did the Romans. Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci 'went native' in reaching out to the Chinese, stirring
up controversy in his tolerance for Chinese ancestor worship. But it
seems they do that anyway.
Joan of Arc
Some Roman Catholics report establishing two-way communication with the dead. Joan
of Arc claimed to be in communication with Saints Catherine and Margaret,
deceased at the time:
"It was at the age of thirteen and a half, in the summer
of 1425, that Joan first became conscious of that manifestation,
whose supernatural character it would now be rash to question, which
she afterwards came to call her "voices" or her "counsel." It was at
first simply a voice, as if someone had spoken quite close to her,
but it seems also clear that a blaze of light accompanied it, and
that later on she clearly discerned in some way the appearance of
those who spoke to her, recognizing them individually as St. Michael
(who was accompanied by other angels), St. Margaret, St. Catherine,
and others. Joan was always reluctant to speak of her voices. She
said nothing about them to her confessor, and constantly refused, at
her trial, to be inveigled into descriptions of the appearance of
the saints and to explain how she recognized them. None the less,
she told her judges: 'I saw them with these very eyes, as well as I
see you.'" (Catholic Encyclopedia, Article Joan of Arc).
These two deceased ladies revealed to Joan, among other things, future events.
They remonstrated with her: "She agreed to sign a recantation, and was
condemned to life imprisonment. But then she said that Saints Catherine
and Margaret had spoken to her again, and rebuked her for her
recantation, which she now withdrew. In consequence, she was taken to
the Old Market Square in Rouen, and burned alive." (Justo L. Gonzalez,
The Story of Christianity, p. 390). It's odd that these deceased ladies
should turn out to be French patriots, but in any event they were
The Witch of Endor
The Biblical grounds for criminalizing calling up the dead does
not appear to be the futility of the practice, because it is not in
all cases impossible:
"Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city. And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land.
And the Philistines gathered themselves together, and came and pitched in Shunem: and Saul gathered all Israel together, and they pitched in Gilboa.
And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart greatly trembled.
And when Saul enquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.
"Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at Endor.
And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night: and he said, I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee.
And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?
And Saul sware to her by the LORD, saying, As the LORD liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing.
Then said the woman, Whom shall I bring up unto thee? And he said, Bring me up Samuel.
And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice: and the woman spake to Saul, saying, Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul.
And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth.
And he said unto her, What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself."
(1 Samuel 28:3-14).
Many other things forbidden in the law of Moses are also
possible, such as murder and adultery. But God said not to do it!