CLAIM: Saul is about to fight the Philistines, and he is afraid. He tries to get wisdom from God, but God won’t speak to him (28:6). He disguises himself to go to a spiritist—a witch of Endor. She calls Samuel—the prophet—back from the dead as a spirit. It doesn’t seem that Saul can see the spirit of Samuel. He is talking to him through the woman (28:13-14). This raises a legion of questions (no pun intended). How could the dead Samuel be conjured through an occult witch? Why would God speak a message through an occult practice like this?
RESPONSE: It is clear that God bans contact with the dead. There are a number of passages that teach this (Ex. 22:18; Lev. 20:6, 27; Deut. 18:9–12; Isa. 8:19). In fact, when Saul was in his right mind, he apparently ordered the extinction of this practice (1 Sam. 28:3). Moreover, the Bible teaches that the dead do not return to the living. The Bible does teach that death is final (Heb. 9:27), the dead do not return (2 Sam. 12:23), and God fixes a chasm between the dead and the living (Lk. 16:24ff). And yet, the difficulty with this passage is that God uses this ungodly act to bring about divine revelation (1 Sam. 28:16-19). How can this be the case?
OPTION #1: This is not the actual spirit of Samuel—just a demonic deception
Satan can appear as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). We are told to test the spirits, because they can appear in multifaceted ways (1 Jn. 4:1-2; 1 Thess. 5:21-22).
However, against this view, the plain reading of Scripture indicates that this actually was Samuel—not just a vision (v.15). That is, Saul doesn’t just see a vision of Samuel. Instead, the narrator tells us that this is actually Samuel appearing to Saul.
OPTION #2: This is the actual spirit of Samuel
Advocates of this view point out that God has allowed the dead to return to Earth to accomplish his purposes before (e.g. Elijah and Moses at the transfiguration; Mt. 17; Mk. 9; Lk. 9; Mal. 4:5). In this case, the miracle was not performed through the witch, but in spite of the witch. In fact, even the occult witch was surprised when Samuel actually appeared (v.13). This communicates that Samuel was not raised by the occult power, but by the power of God.
God gave Saul an evil spirit (1 Sam. 18:10), so it is clear that Saul was controlled by some demonic activity. It isn’t surprising that we would find him going to demonic sources for special knowledge. Of course, demons (or unbelievers) have the power to perform miracles on occasion (Mt. 7:22; 2 Cor. 11:14; 2 Thess. 2:9–10; Rev. 16:14), and Saul was being plagued by a demon. It is clear that demons can tell the truth (Acts 16:17ff; Jas. 2:19), so it isn’t impossible for God to work through these means.
While God works through this event, he does not condone this event. It’s important to recognize that Saul doesn’t get special revelation from Samuel; instead, he only gets judgment (28:19). Chronicles gives commentary on this passage, saying that God took away Saul’s kingdom precisely because he did this! Chronicles says, “So Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord. He failed to obey the Lord’s command, and he even consulted a medium 14 instead of asking the Lord for guidance. So the Lord killed him and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse” (1 Chron. 10:13-14 NLT).