(1 Sam. 28:7ff) How could the spirit of Samuel appear to Saul?

CLAIM: Saul is about to fight the Philistines, and he is terribly afraid. He tries to get wisdom from God, but God won’t speak to him (1 Sam. 28:6). He disguises himself and visits a witch in Endor. This spiritist calls Samuel—the prophet—back from the dead in a spiritual form. Saul cannot see the spirit of Samuel, so he talks to Samuel through the medium (1 Sam. 28:13-14). This raises a legion of questions (no pun intended). How could the dead spirit of Samuel be conjured back to Earth through an occult witch? And 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 death is final (Heb. 9:27), the dead do not return to the living (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). Some commentators hold this view. The plain reading of Scripture indicates that this actually was Samuel—not merely a vision (v.15). The text doesn’t merely say that Saul had a vision of Samuel. Rather, the narrator tells us that this is actually Samuel appearing to Saul. The text states, “The woman saw Samuel… Then Samuel said to Saul… Samuel said… the words of Samuel.”

OPTION #2: This is the actual spirit of Samuel

We hold to this latter view. Consider a number of observations:

First, God has allowed the dead to return to Earth to accomplish his purposes before. For example, even though Moses and Elijah are dead, he allowed them to return to visit Jesus and the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt. 17; Mk. 9; Lk. 9; Mal. 4:5). So, it isn’t as though it is impossible for God to send someone to return to Earth after death. If God chooses to break the normal rules, that is his prerogative.

Second, this miracle wasn’t 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 occult power, but by the power of God.

Third, 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, “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).