Test The Spirits – And Then...?
Prophecy, Channeling, and the Christian Paranormal
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. 1 John 4:1 NIV
I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified. 1 Corinthians 14:5
But the Pharisees said, "It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons." Matthew 9:34
The majority of “Bible-believing” Evangelical Protestant Christians today believe as a matter of course in the existence of a spiritual (non-material) world. That is one of the distinguishing factors between “believing” Christianity and liberal-modernist Christianity, which in the 20th century attempted to radically restructure itself to respect the rise of modernism and scientific materialism. The modernist project didn't go as expected; religious faith remains a vital force in world affairs in the early 21st century, as does faith in spirituality of various forms – not all of it compatible with Christianity.
Since the rise of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements it is widely accepted in the believing church that miraculous manifestations or “signs and wonders” such as faith-healing, glossolalia or “speaking in tongues”, limited clairvoyance or “words of knowledge”, “prophecy” and similar paranormal spiritual phenomena do occur and are legitimate in the context of Christian life and worship. Of these, healing and tongues are probably now the most familiar, and practiced by many.
The Toronto Blessing of the mid-1990s did much to propagate a model of Charismatic Evangelical Christianity which is open to prayer, healing, and somewhat anomalous but harmless phenomena such as “laughing”, “drunkenness” and “falling in the spirit”. The Charismatic-Evangelical publishing world also pays great homage to stories of angelic visitations and Near-Death Experiences which describe visits to heaven. Missionaries and evangelists commonly recount stories of prophetic or precognitive dreams and synchronistic coincidences, and these are considered valid Christian miracles. Some of the more extreme “prophetic movement” preachers also talk about visionary experiences where they literally “see” future events unfolding, although these are rare.
There remains however a hard line drawn in many Charismatic-Evangelical minds between “good” and “evil” forms of such manifest spirituality – most especially when it comes to the phenomenon of spirit communication, or “channeling”. Personal glossolalia or xenoglossy (speaking words in an unknown but real language) is good; speaking clear words about God in English conveyed from another personality is evil. Speaking intuitively perceived words or images from God as prophecy or “word of knowledge” is good; speaking intuitively perceived words or images from saints or spirits of the dead is necromancy, expressly forbidden in the strongest possible terms as “doctrines of demons” with complete disregard for the theological content of the messages themselves.
The Evangelical case against the paranormal beyond the small circle of “tongues, words and healings” is considered open-and-shut: Seances, mediumship, Spiritualism, Spiritism, ESP, clairvoyance, automatic writing – all of these are classed vaguely as “the Occult” and banned. Therefore no investigation is carried out as to what it is that the spirits are actually saying, and 1 John 4 never even gets a chance to be applied.
It would be wise to remember that “occult” merely means “hidden”, and that Jesus' Kingdom of Heaven is also hidden. If we throw away everything hidden and presently unseen as unsafe, we risk throwing out the King Himself.
(The Catholic church does not make quite the same blanket condemnation when it comes to communications from saints. There is a sizeable literature about Marian apparitions and appearances of other saints, some of which the Vatican accepts, some of which it neither endorses nor condemns. But the Protestant Evangelical world generally bans all of these – or at least refuses to discuss them.)
I myself have come from this standard Pentecostal-Charismatic theological background. However, after personal study of several spiritually communicated documents, and personal conversations with people involved in a “circle” held in New Zealand in the 1970s, I have found myself forced reluctantly to the conclusion, based on the evidence and on the 1 John 4 principle, that there exists a well-documented literature of spirit communication going back over a hundred years.
In this literature there are many sane and articulate messages from entities who do in fact preach the Christian gospel, hold Jesus in as high regard as we do, and teach some very important lessons for the Christian church at this point in time. These messages perhaps hold the key to unifying science and faith, or at least making Christianity understandable for a modern, scientifically literate generation who struggle to understand how to reconcile an often obscure faith with the sophisticated physics and metaphysics they have been taught in university.
In fact, I believe that by banning this entire literature and practice of spirit communication, we are quite possibly banning the very gift of prophecy which the Apostle Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 14. After Azuza street (although it was by no means an easy battle), the church finally legitimised speaking in unknown tongues. What we have yet to legitimise is speaking and studying clear, well-communicated theology received from paranormal sources in known tongues – perhaps literally “the tongues of men and angels”.
And it is worth remembering that at the heart of the Gospel story, Jesus' most grievous opposition came not from the Greek or Caananite mystics and seers outside Jerusalem, but from the innermost guardians of religious law and purity: from those who believed the Son of God Himself was speaking and performing miracles by demonic power.
Are there other witnesses to God who we have similarly cast outside the gates? I think there are, and I think it's well past time we looked at them. We have both the duty to ask the spirits “what do you think of Jesus” and the right to choose to discard those paranormal communications which do not regard Jesus as Lord.
But having discarded the spirit communications which are obviously not compatible with Christianity - what do we do with the ones that are? Or even might be? Do we have the courage to explore where this old, forgotten and perhaps dangerous, road will take us?
In this introductory essay I want to mention just a few of the books which so far I have found helpful in tracing out the outlines of a Christian theology seen “from the other side”, and which suggest to me, like outlines of a ruined mansion, some lost things which we have yet to dig up and fully understand.
The general outlines of the theology described by spirit communicants who share belief in Jesus Christ seems to be these:
The books or writers which have led me to this understanding of theology are many but some of the key ones are:
Reading these books is quite challenging and can be a very intimidating thing to do. It is extremely scary to have to come to grips with seeing my faith through a different angle, particularly if it is teaching something I find I'm not sure about. I find it useful to approach spiritually intense material with my intuition on full alert. If it 'feels right' to me then I read it. If it gives me a bad gut feeling or just leaves me confused then I back off. I don't think if we are reading with an open heart and mind and for the love of God that we can do permanent mental or spiritual damage by reading 'the wrong thing' but I do think that there are some spiritual communicators that I don't want to give any time to. I'm only personally interested in the ones who talk positively about Jesus or who seem to be saying the same things which Jesus taught (though that second group isn't necessarily limited to Christians).
Ultimately, I would like to see Protestant Christians from the Charismatic-Evangelical tradition read and wrestle with this material (and I expect this to happen first from the Emerging or Postmodern sub-group, as they are more open to experimenting and challenging faith taboos while still holding to an Evangelical high view of the divinity of Jesus). I know it will open up a lot of boxes marked “evil! do not touch!” that have been forcibly stamped closed since the dawn of the Modern Spiritualism movement in the 1850s, but I think coming to terms honestly with these communications will be very important in the near future.
If inspiration in its various forms – including the more overt forms of automatic writing and trance channelling – truly is related to the “gift of prophecy”, then it's high time for it to come in from the cold. My belief is that there was a needless split between Christian Science, Christian Spiritualism and the Pentecostal movement – and though those movements themselves had serious flaws, it may be time to heal a very deep wound by reconciling and recognising the Spirit in angels we have called strangers.