We serve an international audience on APJ. Listeners join us from across the globe, whether through our English episodes or in the dozen or so languages that this podcast gets translated into. Some of our questions might not make sense to our listeners in the States. That’s likely true today. Here’s our email.
“Hello, Pastor John and Tony. This is Thokozani from the Gauteng region of South Africa. I have listened to Ask Pastor John for two years and grown a lot spiritually over that time. My question stems from a popular belief that we have here in South Africa. People believe in ancestral consultation. When a person dies, their spirit or soul doesn’t go to God immediately; it roams around where they died. The family must go to that spot and fetch the spirit using a tree.
This is a popular belief, and several Christians here hold to these superstitions. Once the spirit is fetched, the body can be buried, and only then does the spirit go to God and can the person finally ‘rest in peace.’ Later, relatives will visit the grave, or set up a shrine in their home, where they consult with these dead parents or grandparents — not to worship them, but to periodically establish communication to receive from them messages through dreams or visions. Pastor John, what does the Bible say about communicating with ancestors?”
What the Bible says may be summed up like this: Don’t pursue communication with the dead, because pursuing messages from the dead is evidence that biblical truth about God is either not understood or not believed. And in either case, God is dishonored by the practice of seeking messages from the dead. Therefore, Christians should not do it, and they should be taught from the Bible why this practice dishonors God, and they should be encouraged to believe what the Bible teaches about God so that their practices honor him, glorify him.
So, what’s the biblical teaching about God that I have in mind when I say that if you seek these messages from the dead, you either don’t know those teachings or you don’t believe them? Here are four things about God that need to be taught and known.
When a person dies, God takes his soul out of the world immediately, either to himself or to a place of torment. No soul separated from the body is allowed to remain on earth and roam about after death. Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43) — no intermediate state, no roaming around Jerusalem. Luke 16 describes the death of the poor man Lazarus and the rich man. Immediately, one goes to Abraham’s presence in heaven and the other to a place of torment, and a great gulf is fixed between them. Their souls are not left on earth.
In Philippians 1, Paul says that his death puts him in the presence of Christ. In 2 Corinthians 5, perhaps the clearest text of all, he says, “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) — no gap. It does not say, “apart from the body at home in the neighborhood for a few days.” So, that part of the practice in South Africa is based on a misunderstanding of God’s action in dealing with the dead.
2. God forbids us to consult with the dead.
God explicitly forbids consulting with the dead. “When they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living?” (Isaiah 8:19). And the answer is clearly no. So, we don’t need to wonder what God thinks of this practice. He says, “Don’t do it.”
And behind the prohibition is the rationale about God’s sufficiency and his honor in communicating to us what we need. “Should not a people inquire of their God?” That’s the second point about God that is misunderstood or disbelieved by those who seek messages from the dead. So, let’s go to number three. Number two was just an explicit prohibition.
3. God has already spoken lavishly.
God has shown that he himself — not ancestors, not angels, not mediums, but he himself — is the one who provides us with what we need to know in order to live a fruitful, God-honoring, Christian life. That’s the point when the prophet says, “Should not a people inquire of their God?” (Isaiah 8:19). He knows that he’s enough; he’s wise; he’s willing.
You can hear in that question that it’s unthinkable that you would treat your living God as somehow unwilling to tell you what you need to know in order to live for his glory — that God would be so unable or unwilling to give his people what they need that they are forced to communicate with the dead, as if dead, sinful, finite, fallible creatures could be more useful than God who made heaven and earth and knows all things and is all-wise and rules all things and loves his children.
The New Testament tells us at least three things about the generosity of God’s communication with his children:
1. “[God] has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2). Jesus Christ is the decisive word of God. “All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are in him (Colossians 2:3), and he is gloriously portrayed in the New Testament for our understanding and our enjoyment and our following.
2. God told the apostles that he would guide them into all truth when they taught the church what to believe and how to live (John 16:13). And then he called their teaching “the foundation” of the church (Ephesians 2:20), and he called their faith “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We have the fullness of the apostolic teaching in the New Testament.
3. God told us that all the Scriptures are his inspired word and that they are profitable to equip the man of God “for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Through the Scriptures, God has given us the revelation we need to do the good works he calls us to do.
So, seeking messages from ancestors, the Bible teaches, is a dishonor to God, who has communicated so lavishly with us about all the things we need to live the way he wants us to live.
4. God’s providence governs all for our good.
Seeking messages from ancestors implies an unbelief in the glorious implications for God’s children that God’s providence is all-controlling and all-pervasive — namely, that he works all things by that providence for our good as we trust him.
The apostle Paul taught us that since God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all,” he will certainly “give us all things” with him (Romans 8:32) — all the things we need to know, all the things we need to have in order to honor God and do his will. And the whole Bible teaches us that God is absolutely in control of all demons and all spirits and all locusts and worms and viruses and bacteria and plants and fish and lions and witch doctors and drought and famine and rain and floods and wind and earthquakes and diseases and life and death.
God’s providence, his purposeful sovereignty, is absolutely, pervasively in control of all things. So, there’s nothing that messages from the ancestors can do that would make it safer or better than what our heavenly Father is pledged to do for us because Jesus died for us.
So, the biblical position is this: Don’t pursue communication with the dead, because pursuing messages from the dead is evidence that biblical truth about God is either not understood or not believed. And in either case, God is dishonored. And here are four truths we need to know:
- God takes the dead immediately out of the world.
- God explicitly forbids communication with the dead.
- God has shown that he himself is the one who provides us what we need to know.
- God’s providence governs everything for our good.