This tragic story in I Samuel 28 raises thorny questions for all Christians – whether you believe in the immortality of the soul or in “soul sleep.” Saul, who has long flouted the Lord’s instructions given through Samuel, now faces military annihilation. Ironically, this same Bible chapter describes how Saul, in an earlier rare moment of obedience to God, had expelled all wizards and demonic fortune-tellers from Israel.
Knowing defeat is imminent, Saul belatedly inquires of the Lord, but heaven chooses not to respond: the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim (Exodus 28:30) or prophets. So the king, traveling in disguise, discreetly seeks out a spirit medium, this “Witch of Endor.” She conjures up a spirit wearing a cloak, and Saul and Samuel have a brief conversation, where the apparition tells the king that Israel will be defeated by the Philistines and that he and his sons will die in battle.
At least one point is immediately plain. It is inconceivable that God, after sternly forbidding His chosen people, under pain of death, to attempt communication with the dead via spiritualism (Lev. 20:27) he would now stoop to honoring this wicked deed and replying to King Saul through a heathen witch.
We also note that this apparition or ghost came up out of the ground (v. 13); if the soul of Samuel had gone to heaven when he died, a more likely expression would have been that he descended or “came down.”
It’s also telling that this spirit being says to the dazed and distraught king: Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The following day, after being wounded, King Saul chose to fall on his sword and take his own life. It is troubling to think that a saint like Samuel would have promised Saul eternal life in heaven after a long career of rebellion culminating in suicide.
So what is the answer? The most likely explanation is that this witch, by employing demonic powers, was able to summon an evil spirit who impersonated the prophet Samuel. Satan and his fallen angels knew that Saul was a rebel king, and that his army faced overwhelming odds the next day; predicting defeat and death required no great divine insight on their part. In fact, commentators of many faith groups, regardless of their theological position on death and the soul, have concluded that fallen angel powers are responsible for this dark story. The NIV text notes, written by an interfaith team of scholars, concludes with this possibility: “The woman had contact with an evil or devilish spirit in the form of Samuel by whom she was deceived and controlled.”
Here’s one final thought. It’s true that the Bible states this being was Samuel. Verse 15: Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” We have to understand that Bible writers employed what is called in literature “the language of appearance.” Because to the two principal players in this sin-stained drama, the demon appeared to be Samuel, and they made that supposition, it is described in those terms. One commentary observes that Bible writers join us in describing the sun rising and setting, even though we know instead that the earth rotates.
The lesson for God’s people is to place their trust in Him for answers to the deep challenges of life, and to seek communication only through the avenues heaven has promised to both bless and safeguard: prayer, the Holy Spirit, and God’s Word.