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The Witch of Endor: 1 Samuel 28


In the Old Testament, tucked away in first Samuel, lies the incident in which Saul (the first king of Israel) asked a witch to bring up the prophet Samuel from the dead in order to get advice on what to do. This account is sometimes used to teach that dead people are really conscious in the grave. What follows is Dr. John Roller’s response to this objection. Dr. Roller is an expert on the doctrine of Conditional Immortality (also called “the sleep of the dead” or “soul sleep”). His impassioned defense of the importance of this doctrine can be watched or listened to on our Death is Sleep resource site. More information about Dr. John Roller, including some articles, may be found on his website.


Q: What’s your take on 1 Samuel 28?

A: The account of Saul and the witch of Endor is often cited as an objection to my teaching on the sleep of the dead. Many people believe that it somehow refutes the idea (taught in Ecclesiastes 9:5, John 11:11, 1 Thessalonians 15:18 and hundreds of other scriptures) that the dead are unconscious and inactive. I don’t believe for a minute that it does any such thing.

Unable to obtain a message from the Lord by the means that were accepted in his time (dreams, Urim and prophets), King Saul went to see “a woman who has a familiar spirit” (a witch, or, more exactly, what would nowadays be called a “psychic”). He asked the woman to “bring up” Samuel (“Samuel was dead” according to 1 Samuel 28:3).

Following a procedure similar to what would nowadays be called a “séance,” the woman went through her usual “hocus-pocus” nonsense (I believe that she was a charlatan, who didn’t really have any “connections” with the spirit world, but who pretended to, in order to deceive gullible “customers”). Then something that totally shocked her happened: her “magic” actually “worked”! (How else can you explain the statement in 1 Samuel 28:12 that “when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice”? Obviously, she wasn’t expecting to see anyone!)

Startled by what she saw (which, I believe, was a demon, appearing in human form), she suddenly “realized” that her customer was King Saul, who had banished “those that had familiar spirits” from Israel (1 Samuel 28:3). How did she reach such an illogical conclusion? The only explanation, in my opinion, is that the demon revealed it to her. So she told Saul that she knew who he was, and wanted to know why he had come to her in disguise.

Receiving Saul’s assurance that she wouldn’t be punished, the witch regained her composure and went back into her normal mode of operating. I can imagine her deep, dreamy voice, as she said, “I saw a spirit ascending out of the earth.” (By the way, if this was supposedly Samuel, why would he be coming up from below? Shouldn’t he be coming down from “heaven” according to the beliefs of those who disparage my understanding of the intermediate state?)

Saul asked, “What does it look like?” The witch replied, “An old man is coming up, and he is covered with a mantle.” Saul immediately “perceived that it was Samuel” (1 Samuel 28:14) – well, of course! There’s only ONE “old man covered with a mantle” down there, right? (Give me a break!) “Samuel” proceeded to ask why Saul had “brought him up” and Saul explained his predicament (he needed advice on his upcoming battle, and God wouldn’t answer his requests for guidance). So “Samuel” gave him a “prophecy” (just like the real Samuel would have done if he had still been alive – except that the real Samuel had once told Saul that he would never speak to him again).

Think about this: if God didn’t want a message communicated to Saul by the accepted means, why would He allow His spokesman, Samuel, to deliver a message by means that He had forbidden? This wasn’t God, speaking to Saul through Samuel. This was the Devil, speaking to Saul through a demon that was “impersonating” Samuel.

Finally, what “Samuel” predicted was that the next day, Saul and his sons would be killed in battle and would “be with me.” My dear friend, if you believe that I’m wrong about the sleep of the dead, and that people go immediately (and consciously) to Heaven or Hell when they die, which way do you want to interpret this statement? Did Saul, the wicked sinner, go to Heaven when he died, so that he could be where Samuel, the righteous prophet, was? Or did Samuel, the righteous prophet, go to Hell when he died, so that Saul, the wicked sinner, could join him there? The right answer is that Samuel, Saul and all other dead people don’t go anywhere. They sleep in their graves until called forth by the resurrection.

1 Samuel 28 simply doesn’t “work” as a proof that my doctrine of the sleep of the dead is wrong.

If you have a question that you’d like me to answer in a future issue of the Roller Update, please send it (right away!) to johnroller@faithbiblechristian.com.

19 Responses to “The Witch of Endor: 1 Samuel 28”

  1. on 09 Dec 2008 at 5:42 amJaco

    I really enjoyed this article.

    Not all in history accepted this account in itself as proof of post-mortal spiritual life. Although Martin Luther believed in the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, he nevertheless believed that God would not permit an insolent woman to disturb the souls of His Saints he has kept in His care. From his theological vantage point it’s a plausible conclusion.

    From a purely Biblical viewpoint, as was ably shown in the above article, the account is no proof of the soul’s immortality either. A point I would like to make in addition to the above-mentioned points has to do with what the Hebrew text calls the apparition:

    And HaMelech [the king] said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the isha [woman] said unto Sha’ul, I see elohim olim (spirits, ones ascending, a spirit ascending) from HaAretz [the earth]. (1 Samuel 28:13,Tanakh)

    Firstly, the woman was asked to call up, not a ruach or a nephesh of Samuel, but as a person with a familiar spirit (ba’alat ov), she was asked to call up Samuel with the assistance of her familiar spirit (her ov). As the possessor of this ov only she would be able to see it.
    Secondly, as the scripture above shows, what came up were elohim, or mighty spirits/demons. From the text itself, as well as Hebrew demonology, it is self-evident that this apparition was not that of the prophet Samuel himself, but, as was shown in your article, it was that of an unclean spirit or demon.

    Thank you for a great article.

  2. on 30 Jan 2009 at 9:51 pmElliott

    I’m not going to say too much but I appreciate your effort but the only major problem that I see is that the author/editor/narrator of 1 Samuel calls this character Samuel. The author does not say that this was Satan pretending to be Samuel. Surely the author knows which through him is how we know anything about this story in the first place and the author calls this character Samuel.
    I noticed how you put Samuel in quotation marks but in the hebrew script nor in our english translations is there any such markings. The author says that this was indeed Samuel. Some people like to reference the girl who had the demon which Paul rebuked but the author (Luke) lets the reader know that this was a demon. The author of 1 Samuel makes no such suggestion. I understand that this is a hard text to deal with and sometimes its hard to fit everything into our theological box but we can not force a text to say something that its not.

  3. on 31 Jan 2009 at 12:45 amRay

    I believe God is able to do anything. If he wanted Samuel to
    reprove Saul through a witch he could do it. It was judgment
    against Saul. One way or another, God gave him the fruit of his own ways.

    Is it possible that this was the only time ever in the life of this
    witch that she was given a message from heaven?

    I think it’s possible. Saul was among the prophets wasn’t he?
    I think about Balaam in Numbers 22.

  4. on 31 Jan 2009 at 12:54 amRay

    I didn’t used to think so, but now I think it really was Samuel.

  5. on 31 Jan 2009 at 5:35 amWolfgang

    Hi Ray,

    since you think it was the prophet Samuel himself, I suppose you have some thoughts on the following, for example:
    Would that mean that Samuel had not really died as of yet?
    Would that mean that Samuel was already resurrected?

    Would the whole situation have to harmonize with what other scriptures declare concerning matters such as (a) the state of the dead, (b) corruption of the physical body after a person dies, (c) resurrection, etc ….


  6. on 31 Jan 2009 at 10:32 amJohn Paul

    Can we also safely say that this is a similar event to the transfiguration, in the sense that we have a vision of dead people being alive?

  7. on 31 Jan 2009 at 12:36 pmJohnO

    I don’t think it is similar to the transfiguration at all. The transfiguration is labeled as a vision. Here a medium is sought out to contact Samuel. Moreover Samuel speaks here, and neither Moses nor Elijah speak in the transfiguration.

  8. on 31 Jan 2009 at 6:40 pmRay

    Since God is not the God of the dead but of the living,
    it seems to me that there are many who walked with God
    on this earth by the spirit which was available to them at
    the time, whether the spirit of wisdom in the fear of the Lord,
    or the more fully given spirit of God after Pentecost, who very
    well may be present with him by Jesus Christ, in the spiritual
    realm, though not yet having received the resurrection of their

    It’s their spirits that are with him in glory. They are with God in
    the spirit, not in the flesh.

    I had thought of Abraham as the friend of God forever, and God
    is not the friend of the dead but of the living.

    I believe Abraham is with God in heaven, as well as Elijah, Moses,
    and Samuel, David and many many others, a very great cloud
    in fact.

  9. on 31 Jan 2009 at 6:58 pmJohnE


    the only major problem that I see is that the author/editor/narrator of 1 Samuel calls this character Samuel

    why do you think the author does not describe this as viewed by the medium?

    The author does not say that this was Satan pretending to be Samuel.

    If it was obvious for the writer and the readers of his time that this was the case, it would have been superfluous for him to do so.

    The author says that this was indeed Samuel.

    No he doesn’t.

    Some people like to reference the girl who had the demon which Paul rebuked but the author (Luke) lets the reader know that this was a demon. The author of 1 Samuel makes no such suggestion.

    If they were one and the same author, this would be relevant. But they’re not.

    I understand that this is a hard text to deal with and sometimes its hard to fit everything into our theological box but we can not force a text to say something that its not.

    Yes of course, we cannot force a text to say what we want. But we can understand a text correctly or not. I was reading something somewhere in the Bible, and the writer was conveying the point of view of the actors taking part in the scene without explicitly saying so. I remember immediately saying to myself “hey, this could be like episode of Saul and the medium of En-Dor!”

    Unfortunately I didn’t write it down. But I’ll find it. I say this for you to realize that drawing hasty conclusions when you don’t have a whole picture, is bound to make those conclusions wrong.

  10. on 31 Jan 2009 at 7:01 pmJohnE

    Ray, would you care to document your belief? You believe what you do based on what exactly?

  11. on 31 Jan 2009 at 9:54 pmJohnO

    Elliot I think your observations are spot on.

  12. on 31 Jan 2009 at 9:59 pmRay

    Let’s consider the conditon of a man named Lazarus from John chapter 11.

    Now this man died and after four days was ministered to by the Lord and raised back to life.

    Now let’s suppose the man was a God fearing man walking in
    goodness and by faith in the things of God, and upon his death
    he in the spirit came into the presence of God and all those whose
    spirits of just men were gathered together in heaven in the bosom
    of Abraham as the Lazarus of Luke 16.

    Now in the spirit he would be aware of heavenly things, but upon
    his return into his soul and body, let’s suppose his mind was not
    remembering those things of the spirit, and for what reason?

    Well, because the mind is in the soul part of man, but the spirit
    is of the spirit of God.

    Does this fit what we know from scripture?

  13. on 31 Jan 2009 at 10:28 pmJohnE

    As far as I know, no.

  14. on 01 Feb 2009 at 11:43 amRay

    When I speak in tongues my spirit prayeth, but my understanding
    in unfruitful.

  15. on 26 Jan 2010 at 11:48 pmAndrew Patrick

    King James actually wrote a book that covered this subject under the topic of witchcraft. The following is from a the fictional dialogue from the teacher to the student (thus demonstrates the intent of the author) and it occurs at the very start of the exchange.

    [if the English is hard to read, just remember that it was pronounced phonetically, and that the concept of one set of strict standardized spelling did not exist at the time]

    “… as to the next, that it was not the spirit of Samuel, I grant: In the proving whereof ye neede not to insist, since all Christians of whatso-ever Religion agrees upon that: and none but either mere ignorants, or Necromanciers or Witches doubtes thereof. And that the Divel is permitted at som-times to put himself in the likness of the Saintes, it is plaine in the Scriptures, where it is said, that (2) Sathan can trans-forme himselfe into an Angell of light. Neither could that bring any inconvenient with the visiones of the Prophets, since it is most certaine, that God will not permit him so to deceive his own: but only such as wilfully deceives them-selves, by running unto him, whome God then suffers to fall in their owne snares, and justlie permittes them to be illuded with great efficacy of deceit, because they would not beleeve the trueth (as Paul sayeth).”

    [Daemonology by King James VI of Scotland, 1597]

    As for the Hebrew text saying that Samuel spoke, which is easier to write, “Samuel” or “the apparition of Samuel pretending to be the risen dead?” Ecclesiastes 9:6 says that the dead know nothing, and this “dead” certainly pretended to know something.

  16. on 05 Oct 2011 at 12:45 pmAmos37

    Why would there need to be a ressurection if we are already in heaven? didn’t God state He would give us a new body and that all the old things would pass away? Or that David was in the grave until this day? You basically are teaching an immediate rapture when God’s Word says that the Spirit returns to Him who gave it. That’s not man’s spirit, but the Spirit of life that God blew into man in order to make him a living soul. duh

  17. on 01 Dec 2014 at 1:14 pmElle

    King Saul didn’t see anything. He perceived by the description given by the witch that what she saw was Samuel. Funny how people miss this part:

    1 Samuel 28:14 – And he said unto her, What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with HIS FACE TO THE GROUND, and bowed himself.

    Saul has his face to the ground, he didn’t see anything which strengthens the Septuagint. I found this on Blue Letter Bible:


    “Woman Called A Ventriloquist

    The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, uses the word eggastrimuthos (ventriloquist) to describe the woman (verse 9) and those who practice the same type of divination. This indicates that she had the ability to deceive people into thinking there was some other personage present by the throwing of her voice.”

    Conclusion: Saul saw nothing, the witch saw nothing and threw her voice. All she did was reiterate what was already known among the people of Israel. She said pretty much the same thing Samuel said to Saul in 1 Samuel 15. Since she knew the kingdom was being rent from him, it doesn’t take much to realize that tragedy would befall Saul and his sons. Can’t have any heir’s left to threaten David from becoming king. Plus the Philistines were far greater in number. The dead sleep until the resurrection. One last thing, she knew it was Saul when he declared to her in 1 Samuel 28:10 that there would be no punishment. Only a king could declare that.

  18. on 11 Feb 2015 at 1:21 pmdennis

    1Sa 28:19 Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with thee into the hand of the Philistines: and to morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me: the LORD also shall deliver the host of Israel into the hand of the Philistines. WHO IS SAYING to morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me: Be with who and where? Does this include Johnathan saul,s son

  19. on 27 Oct 2017 at 4:35 amKevin

    Unfortunately Dr Roller does not understand the view that many Christians believe and that is that up until Christs atoning work on the cross, all who died had conscious existence in hades. Those whom Christ delivers to heaven after The cross are in Abraham’s bosom in Hades (refer to Larurus and the rich man).
    God allowed a lying spirit to work for His purposes 1 Kings 22.
    God is God. He is 100% righteous but He is not bound by our evil limitations. We can’t try to put Him in a box.
    Soul sleep is dangerous doctrine that leads to a slippery slope of heresy regarding the deity of Christ.


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