Sabbath School

Spiritualism Exposed

Reflections on The Great Controversy chapters 31-34

Clinton Wahlen
Spiritualism Exposed
Photo by FETHI BOUHAOUCHINE on Unsplash

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Here I was, a sixteen-year-old atheist listening to a radio interview with someone claiming to help people revisit their past lives. I was intrigued and decided to try it out. So I wrote down the address and drove to where this interesting opportunity awaited. I quickly realized I had gotten into something much deeper than I had anticipated. I walked up to the door of an impressive-looking Victorian mansion and, after explaining the purpose of my visit, was warmly greeted by a middle-aged woman and welcomed inside. After a brief orientation, the excursion to my past lives began. I closed my eyes and soon was supposedly led back to a time before I was born. I felt myself entering a dark, icy location and suddenly began shivering uncontrollably. My guide tried to assist me, but I told her I felt paralyzed, unable to open my eyes, and so frozen I could no longer move my arms or legs. It seemed to me the lady guiding me began to feel a little nervous too and immediately sought to retrieve me back to “the present.” The experience lasted far too long for me, but I politely thanked the woman and quickly left.

That was my first experience with spiritualism and the world of the supernatural. Later, after my conversion to Christ and the Seventh-day Adventist message, I realized how dangerous that first encounter with the forces of darkness really was. Note this vivid description in The Great Controversy:

“There are few who have any just conception of the deceptive power of spiritualism and the danger of coming under its influence. Many tamper with it merely to gratify their curiosity. [That was me!] They have no real faith in it and would be filled with horror at the thought of yielding themselves to the spirits’ control. But they venture upon the forbidden ground, and the mighty destroyer exercises his power upon them against their will. Let them once be induced to submit their minds to his direction, and he [Satan] holds them captive” (p. 558).

I firmly believe God rescued me, even though, at the time, I did not know Him.

I firmly believe God rescued me, even though, at the time, I did not know Him. He protected me in my ignorance and preserved me through this harrowing experience so I would be able to serve Him with a healthy awareness of the unseen spiritual powers battling for the control of every human heart. Truly, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

The devil’s deceptions have been perfected over the course of thousands of years of practice with human beings. His arsenal has tailor-made tools for different types of people. Some will be dissuaded from religion with sneers and ridicule, while others are met with sophisticated objections to the existence of God and faith in the Bible. Here are some of the most common ways in which Satan seeks to derail a vibrant walk with God:

Occupy the Mind with Less Important Things. Sometimes we’re just so busy we hardly have time to pray, let alone read the Bible, listen for His voice, and wait on God’s direction. Complicating matters is the deluge of information constantly coming our way through news channels, social media, and a myriad of voices clamoring for our attention.

Convince People that Doctrine Does Not Matter. Satan is always ready to suggest doubts and questions about the teachings of the Bible because he knows that the more confusion he can create in the church, the less people are inclined to seek to know the truth which sets us free from the fables and falsehoods that enslave our minds.

Enlist False Teachers. The apostles and prophets frequently had to contend with those who were causing division by turning people away from Bible truth. Peter speaks of them as “wells without water” (2 Pet. 2:17) and Paul warns against “giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). Sometimes the most winsome and persuasive speakers are actually the devil’s deceivers in disguise.

Exalt Supposed “Facts” of Science. While many wonderful scientific discoveries in the natural world, in medicine, and many other fields have enriched our lives, “the greatest minds, if not guided by the word of God in their research, become bewildered in their attempts to investigate the relations of science and revelation” (p. 522).

Encourage People to Doubt God’s Word. From the beginning, this approach has been one of Satan’s most successful strategies. In Eden, the serpent raised the question, “Has God really said . . . ?” (Gen. 3:1, NASB2020), which led to strange new thoughts flooding Eve’s mind. God never removes all reasons for doubt or unbelief. “Those who refuse to accept and obey God’s word until every objection has been removed, and there is no longer an opportunity for doubt, will never come to the light” (p. 527).

Counterfeits Closely Resembling the Truth. Without careful study of the Bible, it will be difficult to discern truth from error. All who are willing to be deceived will be. It is important not to rely on what sounds right or what a person’s pastor or teacher says is right. We must search the Scriptures for ourselves, “test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).

It’s surprising to consider how many faithful Christians are derailed and deceived by one or more of these strategies. Consider, for example, what most Christians believe about death. Frequently we hear someone say a dear friend or relative is now in heaven. There’s even a television series called “Going Home” about Christian nurses who help their patients along what they call “the ultimate journey” to their “forever home.” It sounds nice, at first. On the other hand, how many of us would like our dead relatives looking down on us from heaven, aware of all our sorrows and struggles, but apparently helpless to intervene?

Understanding the Bible’s description of what constitutes human life, the nature of death and the spirit world is a powerful safeguard from Satan’s deceptions.

The Equation of Life

First, the Bible teaches we are all made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28) as whole persons.[i] In Genesis 2:7 we read, “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” This is the equation of life: dust + the breath of life = a living being. Physical, mental, and spiritual aspects are combined to form a whole person.

This is the equation of life: dust + the breath of life = a living being.

The Hebrew word for “being” is nephesh and the Greek word is psychē, words generally translated “soul” throughout the Scriptures. But the Bible never speaks of humans having an immortal soul that can exist independently from the body. In fact, it teaches quite the opposite, that God “alone has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16). Separate the spiritual or life-giving aspect (“the breath of life”) from the material aspect (“the dust of the ground”) and human life ceases. In a similar way, the Bible describes the “spirit” or life leaving a person at the moment of death (Gen. 35:18; Ps. 31:6; 146:4). According to James 2:26, “the body without the spirit is dead.” Resurrection is the moment when God imparts life to the person again (1 Kings 17:21; Luke 8:55). So the biblical understanding of death is closely associated with the resurrection.

An Unconscious Sleep

Scripture “consistently depicts human death as an unconscious sleep” until the resurrection.[ii] Many passages in both the Old and New Testaments call death a sleep (e.g., 1 Kings 2:10; 2 Chron. 14:1; Job 14:10-12; Ps. 13:3; Jer. 51:57; Matt. 9:24; 2 Pet. 3:3, 4). Notice how much like sleep is the Bible’s description of death:

There Is No Conscious Awareness and No Feelings.“For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing. . . . their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished” (Eccl. 9:5).

There Is No Activity. “. . . there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave” (Eccl. 9:10).

Death Is a Realm of Silence. “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence” (Ps. 115:17).

There Is a Separation from Those Who Are Alive. “Nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun” (Eccl. 9:6).

There Will Be an Awakening. “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2).[iii]

As John Peckham beautifully points out in his newly released textbook, God With Us,

“The fact that death is a sleep (an unconscious state) is good news, for it means saved persons who die are not aware of the struggles and suffering of loved ones here on earth. They are not consciously waiting for ages to reunite with loved ones. . . . Instead, they rest in perfect, unconscious peace (spared from awareness of this world’s ongoing evils), and the very next thing they know, they will see Jesus in the resurrection.”[iv]

After Lazarus died, Jesus spoke of him as being asleep and that He was going to “wake him up” (John 11:11). Clearly, Lazarus didn’t go anywhere at the moment of death, nor did he know anything more about the afterlife once he was raised from the dead (see John 11:41-44), except that he had died and was now alive again—like waking from a dreamless sleep. Because Jesus conquered sin and death as shown by His own resurrection from the dead, He could assure John on Patmos, “I hold the keys of death and the grave” (Rev. 1:18, NLT).

If death is an unconscious sleep, then it is impossible to communicate with those who have died. Spiritualism teaches just the opposite, that it is possible to communicate with the spirits or souls of those who have died. God wants to protect us from deception, which is why He prohibited such attempts in the strongest possible way (Lev. 20:6), commanding that mediums and spiritists be stoned to death (verse 27). Note also Isaiah’s counsel in this regard: “And when they say to you, ‘Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter,’ should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:19, 20).

End-time Deceptions

Jesus specifically warns that, in the future, there would be “signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24). Similarly, Paul speaks of an end-time deception that “is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders” (2 Thess. 2:9). If confronted with supernatural manifestations, how would we relate to them? Ellen White warns that “many will be confronted by the spirits of devils personating beloved relatives or friends and declaring the most dangerous heresies. These visitants will appeal to our tenderest sympathies and will work miracles to sustain their pretensions.” How would you feel if a being who appeared to be a deceased loved one, such as a parent or child, came to you, spoke words of love, and described in beautiful and vivid detail the heavenly world they now enjoy? What would you think if they added that it was not necessary for you to keep the Sabbath holy? We are not left in doubt as to what our reaction should be to spiritualistic manifestations like these: “We must be prepared to withstand them with the Bible truth that the dead know not anything and that they who thus appear are the spirits of devils” (p. 560).

Ellen White goes on to describe that “fearful sights of a supernatural character will soon be revealed in the heavens, in token of the power of miracle-working demons. . . . Persons will arise pretending to be Christ Himself, and claiming the title and worship which belong to the world’s Redeemer. They will perform wonderful miracles of healing and will profess to have revelations from heaven contradicting the testimony of the Scriptures. . . . As the crowning act in the great drama of deception, Satan himself will personate Christ.” She goes on to say he will appear “as a majestic being of dazzling brightness, resembling the description of the Son of God given by John in the Revelation” (p. 560; cf. Rev. 13-15). Millions will proclaim, “Christ has come!” and bow before him as he pronounces a blessing on them and heals the sick. “But the people of God will not be misled,” because “the teachings of this false Christ are not in accordance with the Scriptures” (pp. 624, 625).

When I was an atheist, one huge obstacle preventing me from believing in God was the idea of an eternally burning hell. I could never imagine wishing on anyone such a punishment that made even the horrors of the holocaust seem tame and merciful by comparison.

When I was an atheist, one huge obstacle preventing me from believing in God was the idea of an eternally burning hell. I could never imagine wishing on anyone such a punishment that made even the horrors of the holocaust seem tame and merciful by comparison. Although I knew almost nothing about the Bible at that time, I had some well-meaning Christian friends who told me that I should believe in Jesus or else I would be forever tormented in hell. Imagine my surprise when I discovered what Jesus actually said about hell: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). What? I had been told the soul was immortal. But if that were true, how could it be destroyed?

The idea of an immortal soul is a pagan idea that seeped into the church as Christians sought “bridges” for outreach to the wider Greco-Roman world. It is “one of those false doctrines that Rome, borrowing from paganism, incorporated into the religion of Christendom” (p. 549). But it has no basis in Scripture. Paul says human beings “seek for glory, honor, and immortality” (Rom. 2:7). If immortality is something we seek, then it cannot be inherent. In fact, he also says God “alone has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16). I came to realize that the idea of the soul’s immortality goes back to the devil himself when he told Eve, “You will certainly not die!” (Gen. 3:5, CSB).

This false doctrine of an eternally burning hell has done incalculable harm to people’s view of God and the Bible. “When we consider in what false colors Satan has painted the character of God, can we wonder that our merciful Creator is feared, dreaded, and even hated?” (p. 536). If “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16), how could He instigate such monstrous suffering? What just basis could there possibly be for eternal torment? God Himself says, “‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die. . . ?” (Eze. 33:11). The alternative to eternal life is not eternal torment but eternal death: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). 

Death Cannot Separate Us From God

When Jesus met with His disciples just before His crucifixion, He told them, “I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3). Paul elaborates on this in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.” Death cannot separate us from God because He has an intimate knowledge of every aspect of our individual human nature. As Jesus said, “the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matt. 10:30).       God is able to restore us in the resurrection morning: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. . . . Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’” (1 Cor. 15:51-55).

Paul also points out that “the natural body” (which is mortal and subject to death because of sin) will put on “the spiritual body,” using an agricultural metaphor: “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42-44). As his analogy clearly shows, this happens not at death but at the resurrection.

“Never Have to Say Goodbye Again”

Despite what might be considered a somewhat theoretical explanation of death, our hope as Christians is, ultimately, very personal. When my wife’s grandfather was diagnosed with cancer many years ago, she was devastated. He had been like a father to her, rock solid. He was her foundation growing up. So, when the time came to say goodbye to him, she wept. With tears pouring down her cheeks, she said, “Grandpa, when Jesus comes, you’re going to be the first person that I find, and I’m going to give you a great big hug!” And her grandfather replied, “Yes. And we’ll never have to say goodbye again!”

No doubt many of you have had similar experiences—perhaps it was a parent, a child, or other family member, or a close friend. And what a wonderful hope we have of seeing them again when Jesus comes! What a comfort it is to know they’re simply asleep, waiting peacefully for Jesus to come and awaken them and clothe them with immortality. Not looking down on us with pity or worry, but peacefully sleeping in hope, awaiting the moment when we will all see Jesus face to face and can be with Him and with each other, forever!            

“Even so, come Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:30).

[i] A portion of what follows was previously published in Clinton Wahlen, “What Happens When We Die? State of the Dead,” in Committed to Our Identity: Message, Mission, Unity, ed. Artur Stele (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute/Review and Herald, 2024), p. 63-68.

[ii] John Peckham, God With Us: An Introduction to Adventist Theology, (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2023), p. 399.

[iii] See also Seventh-day Adventists Believe (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 2018),p. 394-395.

[iv] Peckham, p. 405.

Clinton Wahlen

Clinton Wahlen is an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute (BRI) at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.