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Occultism is a pervasive influence marked by the pursuit of hidden knowledge or power through divination (fortune-telling), spiritism (spirit-contact), and magic. It poses a special threat to the church because it doesn’t operate like mainline religion. Instead, it spreads like a fog, able to infiltrate most every cult, religion, and church. It’s a countercultural phenomenon that can reorient good ideas and faithful practices into tools of occultism. It’s too dangerous and too prevalent to ignore. But we can combat occultism first by recognizing its appeal (the promise of secret knowledge, power, and autonomy), and the signs of its influence, including wide-spread beliefs such as self-deification, depersonalization of God, and magickal thinking. Then, appreciating the different ways occultism leads practitioners astray from biblical faith and practice, we can respond with tactful discernment and devotion to God, demystifying the allure of occultism.
Occult forces are stirring. In the past year, Brooklyn area witches hexed Donald Trump and Brett Cavanaugh;1 Satanists erected a goat-headed idol on the Arkansas state capital;2 and the 2018 movie release of Wrinkle In Time — famed 1960’s children’s story — traded the Christian message of its author for the New Age teachings of the director.3 By some estimates there are as many witches in the U.S. as Presbyterians.4 And, apparently, there’s been an uptick in demon possession.5 Occultism is growing.
Occultism is big business too. Perhaps you’ve skimmed the booming library of streaming shows broadcasting dark arts like a badge of honor: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Charmed, The Craft, Grimm, Supernatural, Constantine, Van Helsing, Hemlock Grove, Practical Magic, American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful, Salem, Teen Witches, and many more. It’s downright fashionable. The cosmetics distributor Sephora, trying to capitalize on the female-focused trend in witchcraft, attempted to launch a “starter witch kit” before being shouted down by actual witches offended at the insincere commercialization of their craft.6
These things may be alarming, but occult influence in the church is even scarier. The good news is that most Americans still identify as Christian. Unfortunately, most Americans also blend Christianity with the occult. According to a recent poll from Pew Forum, as many as 61 percent of people interweave their religion with belief in psychics, horoscopes, crystal-energy, astral projection, and reincarnation.7
Currently, occultism is pervasive. But occult fascination infiltrates every era. The allure of the dark arts is as old as the Garden of Eden when the mother of humanity entertained demonic whispers about secret knowledge: “You will not surely die…when you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God“ (Gen. 3:6 ESV).
WHAT IS THE OCCULT?
Eve was tempted by forbidden knowledge. Since then, people have never outgrown the desire for hidden knowledge and power. The word “occult” comes from the Latin occultus, meaning secret, concealed, hidden. In religious studies, occult refers to secret or forbidden realms of knowledge and/or power often identified within three domains: divination, spiritism, and magick.8
Three Domains of Occult Practice
Divination. Also known as fortune-telling, divination is any attempt to gain knowledge of the future or any “information by reading hidden meanings in nature or patterns” through esoteric techniques (such as astrology or numerology) “or via supernatural means (for example, psychic powers).”9 Divination includes things like tarot cards, horoscopes, palm reading, and psychic reading.10 Divination contrasts sanctioned means of divine special revelation (the Bible and miraculous acts of God) and conventional modes of knowledge, such as math, observation, experiments, and rational inference (i.e., scientific method). Divination is prohibited in Leviticus 19:26 and Deuteronomy 18:10–12, as diviners represent lies and misdirection of false gods (Isa. 47:13).
Spiritism. Also known as spiritualism or spirit-contact, the term spiritism refers to “seeking information or guidance from disembodied beings, who are believed to be ghosts (dead people), aliens, ascended masters, angels or deities from non-Christian religions.”11 For example, Ouija boards, used to channel spirits, are a tool of spiritism. Spiritism can include prayer to disembodied humans, false gods, and other spirit beings, thus counterfeiting Christian prayer.12 It can include demonic possession counterfeiting the “filling of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4; 4:31; Eph. 5:8).13 Spiritism is prohibited at several places in Scripture (Lev. 19:31; 20:6, 27; Deut. 18:10–12; et al.).
Magick.14 Also known as sorcery, and sometimes spelled “magic,” magick is the “science and art of causing change…in conformity with will using means not currently understood by traditional Western science.”15 Additionally, it doesn’t include acts of Yahweh God (miracles and providence). Rather, the human will is thought to be a substantial force that can be harnessed and used to generate outcomes directly, without natural means (i.e., hermetic), or in ceremonial magick using spells, rituals, tools, or the aid of spirit beings. Magick is a counterfeit of spiritual gifts (sanctioned godly abilities), God’s will (substituting human will instead), and divine sovereignty (appealing to mystical world forces instead of God’s power).
HOW DO WE RECOGNIZE THE OCCULT?
We can better recognize the occult by understanding its appeal. It’s not complicated. Who doesn’t want to have more knowledge, more power, and be their own boss? Occultism promises all of that packaged in a trendy counterculture motif, so people can impress their friends with their newfound clarity and confidence. Fortune-telling puzzles can be amusing. Magick can feel empowering. And spiritism can feel communal. Add in exacerbating factors such as depression, anxiety disorder, family struggles, or addiction, and it’s easy to see how occult fascination might turn people away from Christian answers to short-cut solutions promised in the dark arts.16
The appeal can be obvious, but the downside is easy to hide. People can affirm agnosticism or atheism while dismissing the evils of occultism as “religious superstition,” yet in the next breath affirm occult pseudo-science, such as crystal energy and versions of holistic medicine, or testify about ghosts or aliens.17 They may even defend it saying, “magic is just science we don’t understand yet.”18 Growing occult fascination has less to do with science, however, and more to do with Christian decline.
The number of self-identified Christians in America is shrinking.19 For the dwindling remnant, Barna reports that only 17 percent have a Christian worldview.20 Occultism is an easier sell when people haven’t been raised to fear it. And it’s easier still if they’ve already traded organized religion for selective skepticism and vague spirituality. It’s axiomatic these days to say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”21 As one author puts it, “when God goes away superstition takes his place.”22 If you don’t believe that demons exist, you won’t bother to cloth yourself in “the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:10–18 ESV).
Occultists are deceived, but they still have the same basic human needs as anybody else. They’ve veered down a forbidden alley in search of the things we all seek: empowerment, belonging, meaning, and purpose. Don’t expect them to all look like black cape Satanists, either. Some are militant anti-Christians. But it’s more common for occult teaching to be masked in religious tolerance, framing its message as open-minded compassionate enlightenment.
There’s no singular worldview common across all occultism. But there are some tendencies worth noting:
- Feminism (in the sense of female-focused)
- Individualism (being one’s own authority; independent; self-styled)
- Humanism and self-deification (treating humans as the most important, or divine)
- Pantheism (belief that all is god and god is all)
- Mysticism (spiritual knowledge comes primarily by direct subjective experience)
- Depersonalizing God (interpreting God as an energy/force; God is an “it” not a “He”)
- Vague/pseudoscientific view of energy (e.g., chakras, lunar energy, the force, etc.)
- Spiritual (not “religious” per se but idealistic about and intrigued with the spiritual realm)
- Magickal thinking — belief that everything is related by some principle/force/element that can be manipulated by human will.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH OCCULTISM?
Deuteronomy 18:10–12 prohibits occult practice, listing it alongside child-sacrifice (“pass through the fire”), implying that it’s among the worst things people can do:
There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to the LORD; and because of these detestable things the LORD your God will drive them out before you. (NASB)
God so detests these things that He drove out and destroyed the Canaanites over them. Anyone else who reverts to these practices, whether ancient Israel, or you and me, risks the same fate. Occultism is sin even when we can’t see negative side-effects, and even if it happens to work. It’s still wrong. God is more important than anything occultism can offer.
Deliberate occultism is also demonic. Spiritism threatens contact with demons. Scripture teaches that demons are deceivers seeking to steal, kill, and destroy (1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Cor. 11:14; John 8:44; 10:10). It doesn’t matter whether someone is doing black or white magic. Either way, it’s an open door to malicious forces that they cannot control. There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to close the door later, no matter how much we may want to.
Occultism is also a powerful tool of deception, partly because it’s so widespread. Anyone in the habit of thoughtlessly absorbing culture will absorb occult influence. The cultural landscape is flooded with occult-friendly beliefs such as self-deification, depersonalization of God, and magickal thinking.23 Sometimes occult themes are obvious, as in death metal bands and paranormal horror movies. Or it may be subtle, in cartoons and comics, such as Full-Metal Alchemist or Last Airbender. Either way, occultism is paraded as entertainment.
Occult fascination is also distracting for turning man’s attention away from God (John 14:25–26; 16:13–15; 1 John 2:27). It nurtures a self-centered attitude rather than a God-centered posture of worship.24 Instead of seeking God’s will, submitting our lives and ambitions to Him, we are led to believe the witch’s reed, “Do what thou wilt!” — letting selfish pleasure and personal empowerment guide us.
Some Christians might still be wondering, “What’s the harm with checking your horoscope or having your palm read? Surely, a little dabbling isn’t hurting anybody?” But this question is confused. Dabbling in the occult is another way of saying “half-hearted occultist.” A half-hearted occultist cannot, at the same time, be a whole-hearted Christian. Does God want half your heart or your whole heart? We have to take occultism seriously.
I don’t mean to sound simplistic here. I’m referring to clear-cut cases like horoscopes and palm reading. Many times, occultism is clear cut. We don’t have to look hard to see occult teaching, for example, in Transcendental Meditation, A Course in Miracles (1975), Feng Shui, The Secret (2006), Enneagrams, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), Deepak Chopra, or The Magic of Catholicism (2015).25 If we’ve been studying God’s word, and we’re generally familiar with Christian teaching, it’s a lot easier to detect counterfeits.
We’re clearly forbidden from deliberate occult practice, even in small amounts, and even if it happens to work (cf. Deut. 13:1–5). It’s still out of bounds for indulging a non-Christian worldview, practicing elements of a false religion, and committing idolatry in open defiance of the living God.
Occultism, however, isn’t always clear cut. It won’t signal its arrival every time it enters the room. Just as Satan masquerades as an angel of light, we can expect occult influences to hide behind good intentions, ignorance, and pretty packaging (2 Cor. 11:14). Sometimes it’s even wrapped in fiction. On Netflix, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina might seem like innocent fun. The show depicts Sabrina’s departure from Satanism, but she’s still practicing witchcraft, the descriptions of Satanism and Wicca are fairly accurate, and the net result is a defense of Wicca.26
Even with biblical practices, it might not always be clear where the line divides them from occultism — for example, the Old Testament practices of “casting lots” and “trial by ordeal” (Num. 5) look similar to spell-casting and divination.27 We need discernment to recognize how the relevant power behind casting lots and the trial by ordeal was God, and not secret earthly powers, or to see how Christian meditation is God-ward focused not inward focused, and Christian mysticism affirms relational fellowship with God and not oneness with the universal soul.
It may be tempting to revert to strict legalism, banning all occult-themed media. But that’s practically impossible. Occultism is too prevalent, and we’d be sacrificing sources that expose the evils in occultism. Legalism tends to handicap discernment by replacing wisdom with simplistic rules and wooden-literal interpretations. It’s not healthy to swallow everything we’re fed or spit it all out. Instead we can chew our food, swallow the good, and spit out the bad.
As a final note, focus on God above all else with personal devotion, simple prayers, Bible study, Christian counsel, and regular fellowship in a reputable Christian church (Matt. 6:33). When God is first in our affections, He provides what we need, even when it comes to discerning occult influence. We should be aware of occultism, but not be consumed with fastidious avoidance. That’s idolatry. Walking daily with Christ helps demystify occult intrigue. Occultism is just another bag of tricks from the same old trickster. Instead of hyper-focusing on the occult, we should be aiming our devotion at God, and letting our love for Him fuel our desire to defend His name, protect His sheep, and declare His glory to the world.
John D. Ferrer (PhD, Philosophy of Religion, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) taught for six years with Texas Wesleyan University and Pantego Christianity Academy. He currently is a teaching fellow with the Equal Rights Institute.
Black magick: magick performed with malevolent intent.
Enneagrams: a spiritual personality profile system with roots in gnostic theology and occultism.
Esoteric: intended for, or understood by only a select few, initiates or elite.
Feng shui: a Chinese form of divinatory magic intended to align people with the energy lines of their environment.
Hermetic Magic: concentration-based magick without ritual tools or adornments.
Kabbalism: cult offshoot of Judaism noted for mystical-divinatory interpretation of the Bible.
Runes: ancient Germanic letters sometimes used in divination.
Scrying: divination using a reflective object/surface such as crystal balls, eyes, mirrors, or water.
Somatomancy: divination using the body, including the cranium, loose bones, or palm reading.
Sufism: mystical Islamic cult known for inducing religious euphoria by way of a spinning dance.
Superstition: a loose term referring to a magical view of the world typically involving luck; connotes ignorance, gullibility, and deception.
Tasseography: from the French word tasse (cup), divination using residue in a cup, whether tea leaves, coffee grounds, or wine sediment.
Theriomancy: divination by reading animal behavior.
White magick: magick performed with beneficial intent.
- Jenni Fink, “Witches Hex Brett Kavanaugh, Hope To Cause Suffering To GOP, Donald Trump,” Newsweek, October 22, 2018, https://www.newsweek.com/witches-hex-brett-kavanaugh-hope-cause-suffering-gop-donald-trump-1181543.
- Katie Clement, Marine Glisovic, “Satanic Temple Statue Unveiled at the Arkansas State Capital,” ABC News (Little Rock, AR: KATV, August 16, 2018).
- Writer-director Jennifer Lee expunged Christian elements from the book, A Wrinkle in Time (1962) by Madeleine L’Engle, to make the movie religiously “inclusive” reflecting “progress” in society. See Mike Ryan, “Jennifer Lee on Adapting A Wrinkle in Time and the Latest on Frozen 2” Uproxx (February 26, 2018). Movieguide notes a “[s]trong New Age pagan worldview, emphasizing being one with the universe and mind control to overcome the negative with references and quotes from Gandhi, Buddha, and Rumi…plus some occult elements” (“A Wrinkle In Time (2018): Old Time New Age,” Movieguide.org, March 9, 2018, para. 10, https://www.movieguide.org/reviews/a-wrinkle-in-time-2018.html).
Brandon Showalter, “Witches Outnumber Presbyterians in the US; Wicca, Paganism Growing ‘Astronomically,’” The Christian Post, October 10, 2018, https://www.christianpost.com/news/witches-outnumber-presbyterians-in-the-us-wicca-paganism-growing-astronomically.html
- Harriet Sherwood, “Vatican to Hold Exorcist Training Course after ‘Rise in Possessions,’” The Guardian, March 30, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/30/vatican-to-hold-exorcist-training-course-after-rise-in-possessions-exorcism-priests.
- Olivia Harvey, “A Real Witch Told Us Why She’s Glad Sephora Pulled It’s Problematic ‘Starter Witch Kit,’” Hello Giggles, September 11, 2018, https://hellogiggles.com/news/sephora-starter-witch-kit-pulled/.
Claire Cecewicz, “‘New Age’ Beliefs Common among Both Religious and Nonreligious Americans,” Pew Research Center, October 1, 2018, para. 2, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/01/new-age-beliefs-common-among-both-religious-and-nonreligious-americans/.
- Mysticism is also common to occultism. It inserts subjective experience as the preferred means of direct knowledge of spiritual truth or ultimate reality. Mysticism isn’t restricted to occultism. There’s a history of orthodox Christian mysticism. But it still has risks tending toward subjectivism (private subjective impressions is the standard for truth); relativism (truth is not absolute or independent of one’s mind), and experientialism (focusing on, and prioritizing experience as if it is the truth or more important than truth). For clarification and defense of Christian mysticism see Winn Corduan, Mysticism: An Evangelical Option? (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009).
- Marcia Montenegro, “What Christian Parents Need to Know About New Age and Occult Beliefs,” interview by Natasha Crain, CrossExamined, September 7, 2016, question 3, https://crossexamined.org/christian-parents-need-know-new-age-occult-beliefs/.
- Divination can be subcategorized according to the objects used to discern hidden knowledge: astrology (stars and planets), cleromancy (tarot cards, runes, arrows, divining rods, soil, numbers, letters), scrying (crystal balls, eyes, water, mirrors), tasseography (tea leaves, coffee grinds), somatomancy (bones, cranium, palms), theriomancy (animal movements), numerology (numbers), and so forth (see also Glossary).
- Montenegro, “What Christian Parents Need to Know About New Age and Occult Beliefs,” question 3. Subcategories of spiritism include necromancy (communication with the dead), channeling (relaying information from a spirit guide through one’s own meditative or trance state), mediumship (spirit-possession), automatic writing (a kind of channeling producing writing, symbols, pictures, etc.).
- Christian prayer refers to communication with God, using words (spoken, written, or thought), recognizing that God is the source of all supernatural prayer-answering power. Scripture describes prayer as addressed to the Father, mediated through Jesus the Son, and aided by the Holy Spirit (Matt 6:6; 1 Tim 2:5; Eph 6:18).
- The filling of the Holy Spirit refers to some endowment of the Holy Spirit variously believed to be “spiritual gifts,” a mark of salvation, or supernatural empowerment for things like miracles, prophecy, and speaking in heavenly languages (Eph 5:18; see also, Eph 4:30; Luke 1:15, 41, 67; John 4:26; Acts 2:4; 6:3; 7:55; 13:52; 1 Cor 6:19).
- Adding the “k” helps distinguish occult magick from performance magic (e.g., Lance Burton).
- GHFr. Pneuma Asteros, “Magick” in Dictionary/Glossary for the Grade of Aspirant (Georgetown, KY: Approved by the Executive Council The Summer Solstice, June 20, 1996).
- See, M. Rousselet, et. al., “Cult Membership: What Factors Contribute to Joining or Leaving,” Psychiatry Research 257 (Nov 2017), 26–33.
- Laveyan Satanists, for example, may consider themselves atheists, pragmatists, and hedonists. For example, see, Kashmira Gander, “A Satanist on Why Everything You Think You Know About His Religion is Wrong,” The Independent, June 2, 2017, para. 10–11, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/satanist-reverend-religions-everything-know-facts-devil-worship-church-ashley-s-palmer-a7767641.html.
- This is a popular paraphrase of Arthur C. Clark’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Arthur C. Clark, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of the Possible (New York: Harper and Rowe, 1962, rev. 1973), 14, 21, 36.
- Michael Lipka, “Why America’s Nones Left Religion Behind,” Pew Research Center, August 24, 2016, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/24/why-americas-nones-left-religion-behind/.
- Barna Research, “Competing Worldviews Influence Today’s Christians,” Barna Group, May 9, 2017, para. 1, https://www.barna.com/research/competing-worldviews-influence-todays-christians/.
- The expression “I’m spiritual but not religious” could refer to trading organized religion for self-styled spirituality. But often the phrase translates into: “I won’t submit to any religious authority,” “I like to get romantic with religion, but I’m not the marrying type,” “I’m inventing my own religion as I go,” or “I want my faith to have all the flavor and none of the calories.”
- Walter Russell Mead, “When God Goes Away Superstition Takes His Place,” The American Interest, October 25, 2015, https://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/10/25/when-god-goes-away-superstition-takes-his-place/.
- I explain these occult-friendly beliefs in John David Ferrer, “Occultism in the Church, Part 1,” Midwest Christian Outreach Journal, December 27, 2017, https://midwestoutreach.org/2017/12/27/occultism-in-the-church-part-1/.
- This self-focus is driven, in part, by pantheism (all is god and god is all) common in New Age, Wicca, and Eastern Religions, and by pleasure-seeking in Satanism, Sex magick, and Dark magick. Norman Geisler and J. Yutaka Amano point out that “Self-deification is the Gospel of the New Age,” but the same could be said for Wicca, Mind Sciences, Eastern Religions, and a host of other occult worldviews (J. Yutaka Amano and Norman Geisler, The Infiltration of the New Age [Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1989], 51).
- On enneagrams see, Mitchell Pacwa, S.J., “Tell Me Who I Am O Enneagram” Christian Research Institute, June 9, 2009, https://www.equip.org/article/tell-me-who-i-am-o-enneagram/. On feng shui, see Marcia Montenegro, “Feng Shui Decorating,” Christian Research Journal, 26, no. 1 (2003), https://www.equip.org/article/feng-shui-decorating/.
- The protagonists in the show even start a club/coven called Women’s Intersectional Creative Cultural Association (W.I.C.C.A.). The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, directed by Lee Toland Krieger (Warner Brothers, 2018), episode 1. For discussion, see John D. Ferrer, “Sabrina the Teenage Anti-Christ,” Christian Research Institute, July 11, 2019, https://www.equip.org/article/sabrina-the-teenage-anti-christ/.
- I address lots and trial by ordeal along with the Witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28), and the Urim and Thumim (Exod. 28:30; Lev. 8:8; Numb 27:21; Deut 33:8; 1 Sam 28:6; Ezra 2:63; Neh 7:65). I argue that they do not constitute occultism though they come close. The key difference between these biblical scenes and occultism is that the relevant power rests in a personal, immanently knowable God, not in magical forces, unseen impersonal energies, or conjured spells. (See John D. Ferrer, Biblical Occultism: Does Scripture Advocate Occultism? Chris