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All of us sense our need for some life-giving truth. We have a hunger for something certain and something solid that we can embrace. We need a proper object in which to put our trust in life and in death, in joy and in suffering. We especially feel this during times of crisis, such as job loss, the death of a relative, or when we face turning points in life like moving, marriage, divorce, or the birth of a child. We may turn to God’s revelation or to counterfeits. As Scripture says, “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction” (Prov. 29:18).1
Christians find this “pearl of great price” in the triune God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Bible.2 As Francis Schaeffer put it, “the infinite-personal God” is our “sufficient integration point” for all of life.3He has revealed what we need to know in order to be redeemed and to love Him and our neighbor as we ought (Matt. 22:37–40). Truly, Christianity is a “knowledge tradition,” as J. P. Moreland has emphasized.4 Christianity is not a matter of blind faith, but of rationally trusting in the truth that God has made known.
But counterfeits of divine revelation abound in a fallen world. Humans desire and seek out revelations for their lives that are not authorized by God Himself. Thus, the Bible warns of false disciples (Matt. 7: 21–23), false gospels (Gal. 1:6–11), false prophets (Deut. 13:1–5; 18:15–22), false angels (2 Cor. 11:14), false teachers (2 Tim. 4:3–4; 1 John 4:1–6), and even false Christs (Matt. 24:24). One such source for false revelation is known as channeling.
Channeling is a New Age practice in which someone serves as a channel, conduit, or medium for communication from the dead or from some other disembodied spiritual being or realm of knowledge. These communications are taken to be special and beyond the normal human ken. Thus, they are taken as authoritative and suitable for guidance.
The older words for channeling are mediumship or Spiritism. For example, Edgar Cayce (1877–1945) claimed to be a medium for spiritual revelations about Jesus, salvation, and the afterlife. He was also called the “sleeping prophet,” since he would go into a sleeplike trance while giving his purported revelations, which included unbiblical stories about Jesus and unconventional health remedies.5 The word Spiritism is also used for contacting the dead. This movement began in the nineteenth century in America and taught that the dead communicate with the living through various means, such as knocking, moving tables, spirit photography, and more.
More recently, the three-volume set called A Course in Miracles (1965) was said to be channeled by Helen Schucman who was writing what Jesus Himself dictated to her. The popular New Age teacher and Democratic presidential candidate, Marianne Williamson, takes these teachings to be the basis of her worldview. She recounts this in her book, A Return to Love (1992).6
A more intellectually sophisticated worldview was received by the occult German philosopher, Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), a Goethe scholar, prolific writer, and founder of Waldorf education. Steiner called himself a “clairvoyant” and claimed to fetch his esoteric information from “the akashic records” — a kind of celestial hard drive that contained the record of everything that ever happened.7
Traditional or indigenous religions — formerly called primitive religions — always involve some form of shamanism, in which a shaman contacts spirits in order to fend off evil or bring good for his tribe. The spirit or spirits take possession of the shaman, who serves as an intermediary between the spirit world and the human world. In this sense, traditional religion relies on a kind of shamanism as well. With the rise of Neopaganism, this form of channeling becomes attractive to many desiring contact with the spirit realm.8
I could go on about the various instances of channeling. In all cases, people claim to gain access to knowledge through their ability to listen to spiritual beings or consult spiritual sources of otherwise unavailable facts. Some specially gifted person is taken to be mediator of these communications. The messages may be given to particular people in one-off situations or published in books or distributed through other media.
What should we make of this phenomenon? There are only three possibilities to explain what is going on. First, people may fake contact with spirits or spiritual realms for financial or other purposes. Fraud is just as common in religion as elsewhere — perhaps more common. Second, channelers may suffer from mental illness that makes them think they are conduits of other entities when, in fact, they suffer from a schizoid disorder in which one part of the personality breaks off from the other parts and thinks itself separate from the whole person. Third, channelers may be in contact with objectively real entities who are neither human nor divine. This category is made up of angels, fallen or unfallen.
While unfallen angels appear and communicate with people throughout Scripture, they do not require a human mediator to speak or act. For example, the angel Gabriel spoke to Zechariah in the temple about his son, John the Baptist (Luke 1:8–20). Angels ministered to Jesus after He was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, but we don’t know what they said (Matt. 4:11). In light of this, the idea of anyone “channeling an angel” (which was a trend about twenty years ago) makes no sense biblically and should, thus, be rejected. Channeling and angelic activity are two different categories.
Fallen angels are demons or evil spirits; they follow Satan himself, who is “the father of lies” (John 8:44). Jesus frequently cast them out of people throughout His earthly ministry and out-argued the devil himself when He was tempted in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). Jude tells us something about them: “The angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling — these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day” (Jude 6; see also 2 Pet. 2:4). Nevertheless, the devil and demons are active in the world today, as Paul warns us when writing about false leaders. “For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve” (2 Cor. 11:13–15; see also 1 John 4:1–6).
The Bible condemns communicating with the dead, which is known as necromancy. This covers some kinds of channeling. God says this through Isaiah, the prophet: “When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn” (Isa. 8:19–20).
In the Mosaic Law, God said, “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:31). In sinful desperation, King Saul solicited the witch of Endor to conjure up the spirit of the deceased Samuel in order to ask the prophet about Saul’s fate in battle. Samuel appeared and condemned Saul once again, since he had turned away from the Lord (see 1 Sam. 18:16–19). As Stephen Dempster writes, “The depths to which Saul had sunk in seeking counsel from a witch prove Samuel’s prophetic words when he was alive and first condemned Saul because of disobedience: ‘Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry [1 Sam. 15:23].’”49
The most comprehensive prohibition of occult activities in the Bible is placed in a warning to the Israelites not to be like the pagan nations they were displacing. All forms of occultism, including communicating with the dead or other spirits, are strictly and sternly banned. It is worth quoting in full:
When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God. (Deut. 18:9–13)
The Prophet Jeremiah warned of false revelations as well: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 29:8–9).
When the apostle John writes of the final state of the redeemed and unredeemed, he has strong words to say about any occult practice, which includes channeling: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22:14–15).
Fallen mortals need a sure and trustworthy revelation beyond themselves in order to navigate life properly. We are not sufficient unto ourselves, and we make very poor gods and goddesses. The sixty-six books of the Bible are God’s communication to us about what matters most, for time and eternity. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “the
Holy Scriptures…are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15–17).
Why settle for the counterfeit of channeled deceptions when God Himself has made His truth known to us by His Word?
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of twelve books, including Unmasking the New Age (IVP, 1986), Confronting the New Age (IVP, 1988), and Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Harvest House, 1996).
- Bible quotations are taken from the New International Version.
- The quotation is from Matthew 13:45–46 KJV.
- See, e.g., Francis A. Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1972, 2001), 1, 11–12.
- See Douglas Groothuis, “Christianity as a Knowledge Tradition,” in Loving God with Your Mind: Essays in Honor of J. P. Moreland, ed. Paul Gould and Richard Brian David (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2013).
- For more on Cayce’s claims as a medium, see Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1996), 195–99.
- Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love (New York: HarperCollins, 1992). For more on A Course in Miracles, see “A Course in Miracles: ‘Christian’-Glossed Hinduism for the Masses,” CRI Statement DC720, http://www.equip.org/PDF/DC720.pdf. See also Douglas Groothuis, “What Is This Thing Called Love? Marianne Williamson Runs for President,” Juicy Ecumenism, September 13, 2109, https://juicyecumenism.com/2019/09/13/marianne-williamson/.
- For more on Steiner’s claims as a channeler, see Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy, 81, 201–202.
- On traditional religion, see “Traditional Religions: Introduction and African Religions,” Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, second edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
- Stephen Dempster, “What’s Up with the Witch of Endor?” Perplexing Passages, June 15, 2015, Gospel Coalition, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/whats-up-with-the-witch-of-endor.