There are a few examples of people in the Bible who seek to talk to the dead. Whenever the topic of talking to the dead appears in the Bible, the biblical teaching on the subject clearly forbids the people of God from attempting to talk to the dead. The primary reason given in the Bible is that communicating with the dead is always associated with the pagan practices of those outside of the people of God.
People today seek to speak with the dead for various reasons, many of which we could understand and empathize with. While it is impossible to know or cover all of the reasons a person tries to speak with someone who has died, it is likely not overreaching to claim that the Bible already provides the answers to the deepest human needs that people often seek out when trying to talk to the dead.
- Some seek solace. Everyone wants peace. We want to know our loved ones are happy, that our relationships have been mended, and that everything will be okay.
The Bible declares that God is our comfort and peace in the midst of distress (2 Corinthians 13:11; Philippians 4:7; 2 Thessalonians 5:23). Only the Holy Spirit can bring true and eternal peace in the middle of bitterness and grief.
- Some seek answers. Similar to the desire for peace, which is perhaps a deeper desire than the answers themselves, some people just want answers to the “why” questions they can’t get rid of. They want to know why a person did what they did, if there’s any hope in death, if the dead really have conscious existence, if all the relational mess was ever forgiven.
The Bible provides truth and wisdom for all of life, though it does not seek to answer all of our questions with the specificity we sometimes want. Nor could it. Nor is it intended to do so. However, the truth and wisdom of the Bible can be aptly applied to all of our biggest questions in life.
- Some seek power. The desire to have power and know its source is strong in some people, and understandably so. It is a terrible thing to be powerless, subjected to the sinful desires of those with more power. Some people think talking with the dead may give them access to a source of power beyond what life in the physical realm can bring, such as knowing the future or understanding hidden mysteries.
The Bible declares that the gospel itself is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” And while much of the power we seek is selfish and temporal, to wield power over others for some kind of gain, the counterintuitive power of God in the gospel is found when we yield ourselves to Christ (Matthew 11:28-30).
- Some seek thrill. Curiosity and intrigue at times lead people down the road of seeking spiritual encounters. Similar to seeking power but from a different perspective, people who seek the thrill of spiritualism may consult mediums to experience the thrill of spiritual power.
Over against the desires for thrill in spiritual powers that are not intended to be within our grasp, the Bible speaks the truth of contentment in the present life, giving us a Spiritual, God-given purpose in the here and now. Moreover, the Bible declares that the demonic spiritual powers that promise communication with the dead will be destroyed by God.
Talking with the dead is most commonly associated in modern and biblical times with mediums or necromancy. Other similar terms employed in English bibles include “familiar spirits” (especially in the KJV), diviners, wizards, and charmers.
What Does the Bible Say About Talking to Dead Loved Ones?
The Bible does not give any clear examples of people trying to talk with dead loved ones. In one of Jesus’ parables, often called “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” the rich man dies and goes to hell, while a poor man named Lazarus goes to heaven and is with Abraham. The two men can see and speak with one another, which provokes the rich man in hell to ask Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn the rich man’s family about the tortures of hell. Abraham’s response in the parable is that the whole of the Old Testament bears witness to the truth of the gospel. They need no other warnings, not even from the dead.
It is important to remember that this is a parable, which is, in essence, a type of story. The story teaches truth, but it is not intended to do more than teach the point that Jesus is trying to communicate, such as giving us the details of what is possible after a person dies. What is helpful and relevant from this parable is the guiding principle that Jesus is trying to show his listeners: that the Bible contains the true, authoritative, and life-giving witness needed to know and love and follow God. Even if someone resurrected from the dead to warn others about the dangers of hell, the person’s witness would in the end be construed as irrelevant and even an imitation. Seeking to talk with dead loved ones is contrary to the overall witness of Scripture and logic found therein of seeking God alone for what only he can provide.
From a biblical perspective, if a believer is seeking to talk with dead loved ones, a few questions may be raised:
- Why do I want to speak with a dead loved one?
- What purpose would speaking with dead loved ones serve?
- How would I live differently after talking with the dead?
- What need am I seeking to fulfill through talking with the dead that God has already provided through his Word and in the life of the Church?
Many of the desires a person seeks in talking with ancestors are understandably important. People ask for:
- Blessings, happiness, good luck
- Provision, material good fortune
- For ancestors to “watch over” or protect in some measure or form
As valid as these desires are, the truth of the Bible gets at the source of these desires. God is the only one who can provide true, lasting, even eternal blessing, provision, and protection. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, why would we seek the dead on behalf of the living (Isaiah 8:19)? Why not seek out the living God instead of the dead (Jeremiah 10:10)?
In the gospel of John, Jesus teaches about death and judgment and eternal life. In one place, Jesus even describes the dead as being able to hear the authoritative, divine voice of “the Son of God,” who is none other than Jesus himself.
It would seem, then, that the dead can hear in some respect, but that this is a phenomenon that is related specifically to the end of time when Jesus will speak and call out the dead from the graves to everlasting life: some to the glories of heaven and others to everlasting torment in hell. Otherwise, the notion of the dead hearing and raising in response to the voice of Jesus would not have been an issue to the original hearers of this statement, which it certainly was.
Whether or not the dead can hear us, there is no systematic teaching in the Bible on the subject. Apart from demonic spiritual powers that may seek to manipulate or misconstrue spiritual realities (promising actual communication with the dead but likely providing a demonic imitation), there is little reason to assume from the Bible that the dead can hear us.
In the Bible, praying is always understood to be an act of worship.
The idea of prayer itself in the Bible seems to speak to the idea of an intervening or interposition between the physical and the spiritual. Prayer is often associated with entreaty or earnest plea to God. (The Hebrew verb ꜥāṯar in the Bible, meaning “to pray” or “entreat” is only used to speak of praying to God. As a noun instead of a verb, the word carries with it the idea of the worshiper, the one who prays to God.)
Thus prayer should only be directed to God, who alone has the authority and power to intervene and act in our lives according to his goodness and his promises. The Bible does not support praying to anyone or anything other than God alone, including the dead (Isaiah 44:17; 45:20; 1 Kings 18).