Question: "What is spiritualism?"

Answer: In the last few decades, there has been an increasing fascination with communing with the dead. The hit television shows Ghost Hunters, Beyond, and Crossing Over provide good examples. Through the stories told by the participants on these and other shows, the world is regaled with tales of contact with the spiritual world, some heartwarming and some horrific. Those who participate in these kinds of practices do not always understand or fully appreciate the considerable spiritual risks they are taking.

Spiritualism is a pseudo-religious system of shared concepts in which a key feature is the belief that a soul survives after the death of the physical body and these disembodied spirits are both willing and able to communicate with living persons. Like Christians, spiritualists believe in a single God—whom they refer to as “infinite Intelligence”—and that God holds each soul accountable for his actions and life choices. Unlike Christians, however, spiritualists do not believe that death marks the final point of judgment for a spirit, but souls have the capacity to learn, grow, and evolve after death to progressively higher planes of knowledge and perfection. They do not believe that Jesus’ death paid the penalty for sin and that salvation comes by grace through faith in Christ, but rather souls gradually progress after death through a series of steps toward a state of spiritual perfection. It is, therefore, a works-based route to “salvation” after death.

Spiritualism had its heyday during the 1840s and at the turn of the century in North America and Western Europe. During these periods of wars and upheaval, people sought comfort by contact with their departed loved ones. Historians often point to March 31, 1848, as the birth date of the spiritualism movement, when Margaret and Kate Fox, of Hydesville, New York, first made the astonishing announcement that they had contacted the spirit of a murdered peddler in their home. The peddler communicated with them by knocking on the table or wall. Thereafter, séances flourished among the upper middle class and the wealthy in America. Mediums such as Paschal Beverly Randolph and Cora Scott toured the country giving lectures and demonstrations. During this time, the writings of Franz Mesmer, from whose name the term mesmerism is derived, particularly influenced the spiritualist view of the afterlife and contact with the supernatural.

There were many famous devotees of spiritualism, including Mary Todd Lincoln (wife of Abraham Lincoln) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. During the late 1880s, investigators began to expose many of the well-known mediums as charlatans, proving that their demonstrations were contrived. Harry Houdini gained early popularity by his campaign to expose fraudulent mediums.

Spiritualism attracted many followers who were unhappy with the established churches and sought reform. Indeed, many of the early Abolitionists and women’s rights advocates were spiritualists. Spiritualist meetings provided some of the earliest venues for women to speak publicly and authoritatively in a male-dominated society. Radical Quakers, who were disenchanted with the established churches because of their failure to oppose slavery, used interest in spiritualism as an anti-slavery public forum. Although the movement culminated in necessary societal reforms, it resulted in many people moving to a secular spirituality, focused on personal experiences and unsubstantiated messages from beyond, and deemphasized a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Paul referred to religious belief systems that deny the truth of the gospel, the atonement for sins through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, as “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:1–5). Although many spiritualists attend Sunday services, sing hymns, and worship a single God, spiritualism and Christianity are not compatible belief systems. In addition to their belief in an evolutionary movement of souls through progressively higher celestial planes, spiritualists seek their truth from contact with spirits through séances, Ouija boards, and mediums. Many spiritualists maintain that they have their own personal spirit guides, from whom they receive all kinds of information and direction for their lives. For spiritualists, the Bible is not the primary source of truth and knowledge about the afterlife and God.

The Bible, in fact, contains many stern warnings against spiritualism (Leviticus 19:31; 20:6; Deuteronomy 18:9–13). The first king of Israel, King Saul, broke God’s commandment not to engage in spiritualism and ultimately lost his kingdom because of it (1 Samuel 15:23; 1 Chronicles 10:14). When the apostles encountered people who had powers of divination from contact with spirits, they cast these spirits out as demons (Acts 16:16–18). Many scriptural references point out a chief reason that Christians should not seek contact or counsel with spirits, namely, that the spirits contacted are demonic and may give unreliable and deceptive information (1 John 4:1).

It is highly likely that many contacts with the dead through spiritualism are simply faked. Other so-called encounters with departed loved ones through the use of Ouija boards, mediums, and séances are actually encounters with demons who intentionally deliver false information. One common lie that many people receive through supernatural contact is that there is no hell and no final judgment by God. But Hebrews 9:27 expressly states, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Death is inevitable, and so is judgment. Sin brings about that judgment, and all persons are guilty (Romans 3:23). The only way for any person to escape judgment is to receive an unmerited pardon from God by acknowledgment of sin, acceptance that Jesus died for that sin, and a willingness to submit his life to Christ before his death (John 3:16; Romans 3:24). The Bible clearly reveals that those who die apart from Christ will suffer an eternity in hell (Matthew 25:41). Believing in false teachings derived from “spirit guides” will lead many persons away from the sound doctrine of the Bible, which is the intent of Satan (1 Peter 5:8; 1 Timothy 4:1).

Those who dabble in spiritualism engage in activities that seem innocuous but actually open the door for demonic contact, harassment and even possession. Many followers of spiritualism have been traumatized and harmed psychologically, if not physically, by contacts with demons that began with séances, Ouija boards, psychic consultations, Reiki healing, and encounters with mediums. For all those who seek the truth, Jesus unequivocally states in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”