It is the time of the year again in which the subject of ghosts is, quite literally, a burning issue for those of us living in countries with people who observe the Hungry Ghost Festival in the seventh month of the lunar calendar. To be clear, as Christians, we do believe in ghosts, understood simply as the spirits of departed men whose bodies have died, but their souls are nevertheless conscious and are locatable, either in heaven or in hell. Of course, we don’t believe that they get a month of leave every year, which is probably more than what you get, to take a vacation and come back to haunt us. But there is one passage in Scripture that some have pointed to, that seems to suggest that disembodied human spirits can return to this earth, and maybe even talk to us, and that is 1 Samuel 28:3–19, the passage on Saul seeking the woman with a familiar spirit, often referred to as the witch of Endor, even though she is not so much a witch as she is a medium or a necromancer.
There are a number of ways to explain what was actually going on, but we can more or less boil it to two interpretations, the “it’s really Samuel” interpretation, and the “it’s not really Samuel” interpretation.
Those who hold that it was really Samuel’s spirit appearing make this assertion, as far as I can tell, for two main reasons. One is that the wording of the passage suggests that it is indeed him appearing to the woman and speaking, presumably through her voice. It is often noted how the woman seemed shocked at the appearance of Samuel, and thus it must have been something that she herself had not expected. Although it is not clear in the text itself that her crying out in verse 12 is actually in response to the apparition of Samuel, some have read it as her reaction to realizing the identity of Saul. Another reason for the “it’s really Samuel” interpretation is because of the accurate prophecy that was given of Saul and his sons’ death the next day.
Those who hold that it was not Samuel’s spirit, but an evil spirit in disguise, do so mostly for theological reasons that it would be highly problematic if a necromancer could actually summon the spirits of men back from wherever they go after we die, whether it be heaven or hell.
I think a good place to look for a resolution is perhaps 1 Kings 22:20, where the prophet Micaiah is telling King Ahab about how the Lord had appointed a lying spirit to persuade Ahab to go and fight against Syria so that he would die in battle. And this is similar also to how God could use Balaam, a false prophet, to speak a true prophecy in certain instances. So here in the case of Samuel, the Lord had also allowed an evil spirit to both impersonate Samuel and to speak a true prophecy on God’s behalf.
But I only mention all of that to bring us to the main lesson that we can learn from this passage as we think about this Hungry Ghost Festival. Whether or not it was really Samuel’s ghost, the really scary thing that we need to be afraid of is not ghosts coming back from the dead, but our own disobedient and rebellious hearts. Given the wickedness and cruelty that the living are capable of, which includes ourselves, we really don’t need to fear the dead. In fact, when Saul had earlier disobeyed the direct order of God to destroy all the Amalekites and their livestock back in chapter 14, Samuel, then still alive, had rebuked him and warned him in verse 23 of that chapter, that rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. And Saul might have thought, “That’s an exaggeration! I would never practice witchcraft. In fact, you know what, I am going to pass a law to put to death all who practice witchcraft in the land. How about that?” We often think so little of our own sins, don’t we? And we, like Saul, often end up doing the very things that we had condemned. That’s the deceitfulness of the sin that lies in our hearts. Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. If we have a rebellious heart against God, then we are not less foolish than those who think that burning paper is somehow going to benefit the dead.
We must understand then, that the real danger to our lives is not outside of us, but inside. That is what really destroyed Saul. That is the folly of sin: that Saul would fear the Philistines more than approaching the evil spirits, and even more foolishly, that he would fear them more than God. As the supposed Samuel would say to him, “If the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy, what do think I can do for you?” And that is also the message our unbelieving neighbours need to hear. If the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth has set himself against you to destroy you, then really the last thing you have to be worried about is whether there are such things as ghosts running around. And you’re not going to buy God’s favour with your offerings, whatever you think you can offer to him. They all belong to him! Everything on the earth he has made and he owns. Including yourself. Every breath you take, that is one more thing you owe to him.
And yet praise the Lord, that he has himself provided a perfect offering and sacrifice for the sins of his people, in the death of his own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Because who else but God himself can present anything that is acceptable to him? And if you believe in Christ, then God has promised that you will not perish but have everlasting life. And if the Almighty God has guaranteed your safety, then what do you have to fear, whether from men or from evil spirits? If God be for us, who can be against us?
That said, the Bible does warn us about evil spirits, not human spirits, but way more powerful and deadly demonic spirits. 2 Corinthians 2:11 tells us that we are not to be ignorant of his devices, and 1 Peter 5:8 tells us that we are to be sober and vigilant, to be on the lookout for our adversary who is like a lion, prowling around seeking to devour us, and not only one month out of the year, but every single day. And you can also be sure that no amount of joss paper or food offering is going to appease these evil spirits. You are not going to escape his attention no matter what you do. In every way, the situation the world is in is actually way worse than what the natural man imagines. This evil spirit is out not only to kill our bodies, but to damn our souls forever.
Again, we have no need to fear him if we fear the Lord. But what you must know how to do is to resist him. There is no magical formula for that and you don’t need a medium. You already have what you need, which is simply the whole armour of God according to Ephesians 6:14-17: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, all of which God has given to us in Christ and through the Holy Spirit. And not forgetting, of course, verse 18, prayer, “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.” This is what we are to do as the church militant in this spiritual battle for the souls of men. We must fight each day and each month of every year that the Lord would have us to remain here.
This article was written by a guest author, Au Yeong Hau Tzeng.
Au Yeong Hau Tzeng is a graduate of The Masters University (Santa Clarita, California) and Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), and an associate pastor at Pilgrim Covenant Church in Singapore, but ministering mostly across the border at Johor Bahru Covenant Fellowship in Malaysia.