To Believe or Not to Believe: A Procedure for Testing Spirit Communications

A paper delivered at the Second International Conference on Paranormal Research, Fort Collins, Colorado, 1989

By James A. Scarborough, Ph.D., Professor of Physics, retired, Delta State University, Cleveland, MS, 38733

Spirits, good or evil, from God or from Satan, can produce similar effects in the physical world.  Both classes of spirits can produce "paranormal" phenomena, engage in communication with humankind, and manifest what appear to be "miracles."  This is recorded in biblical narratives, both in the Old and New Testaments.  One of the greatest strengths of the evil spirits is that of mimicry, of counterfeit; the ability to copy what the holy spirits do (up to a point) and sometimes say.  By doing so, their deception is disguised in a quite stealthy manner, even as Paul once stated, "Satan masquerades as angel of light."  The challenge for the Christian is to discern which spirit is at work, a holy spirit or an evil spirit.  How can one tell between the two?  Sometimes what might be construed as that of a holy spirit by one group may be seen as the workings of, rather, an evil spirit by another group.  How can one tell if the manifestation is, in fact, "a spirit" at all and not a hoax or of purely human derivation?  The following paper is a guideline that addresses these questions.


At the present time there is a flood of "channeled" material coming into print.*  Therefore, a method is needed whereby one might decide upon the relative reliability of communications thought to be from spirit sources.  This problem of discernment, "the ability to distinguish between spirits" (1 Cor 12:10, NIV), is an old one.  Even prophets and apostles faced this same question, although the evidence pointing to the source and validity of their spirit communications was frequently much better than what is available to us today.  Even so, there were occasions when they were unsure about the source and nature of the spirit influences upon them.  A sample case involves Paul, the Apostle, who wrote detailed advice to the Corinthians regarding marriage (1 Cor 7).  In chapter seven of his first letter, he remarks once that a certain admonition was from the Lord (verse 10), but points out five other times that much of the advice was from Paul himself (verses 8,12,25,26,29).  Curiously, Paul was not certain whether he was inspired, although he suspected that he might have been: ". . . and I think also that I have the Spirit of God" (verse 40).

In this paper, we will follow Paul's advice to test all spirit communications and believe only those which pass scrutiny (1 Thess 5:21).  This paper presents a procedure for judging the credibility of such messages.  This determination more resembles a jury trial than a mathematically rigorous test.  As a starting point, we assume that spirits exist and can communicate in various ways.  It is self-evident that fraud, hoax, or other human deceptions must first be ruled out.  We will proceed stepwise, applying such criteria as are available at each step.

STEP 1: Determine if communication is in fact from a spirit.

The first step is to determine if the communication is in fact from a spirit or entity other than the human instrument.  If the determination is in the negative, then we disregard the alleged communication and proceed no further with these tests.  If the result is positive, then we proceed to Step 2.

1. Materialization

The materialization, or partial materialization, of an entity to the degree that an audible voice emanates from the air, or that a mechanical effect is noted (e.g., a pencil writes of its own accord with no human agent touching it), will be taken as prima facia evidence that the communication is from a spirit.  (The point mentioned above, that fraud or hoax must first be ruled out, need not be belabored).  If the answer is YES, go to Step 2.  If the answer is NO, then we continue the testing.

2. Deep-Trance Medium

The term "deep-trance" means that the person appears unconscious, comatose, or sound asleep, and has no awareness upon awakening of anything that transpired during the experience.  In this case, the medium's own spirit presumably has little or no control over his body, but another voice may speak by using the medium's own voice box.  Such spirit manifestations were well known in Biblical times.  Evidence is required that the speaker is not, in fact, the medium in an altered state of consciousness (including the fraudulent or self-deceived states).  There are several varieties of such evidence, as in the following.

A. Languages and other Capabilities

The voice may speak in a translatable foreign language, a language unknown to the medium.  (Preferably, the language is also unknown to any of the audience so that the possibility of thought transference can be ruled out).  The communication shall not be limited to simple popular phrases that could have been buried in the medium's subconscious via movies, television, books, and so on.  If the language is untranslatable (e.g., an alleged dead language, or "tongues of angels"), then it does not qualify as satisfying this criterion.

Demonstration of capabilities beyond those of the medium is the issue here.  Some judgment must be applied.  An example of a negative result, or at the very least an inconclusive result, would be a "past life reading" or some other unverifiable message, since the possibility exists that the medium is remembering events that happened in a previous incarnation.  Further, it is becoming clear from modern evidence that we must also consider that the medium is in an out-of-body state, so that the information can presumably come from his own spirit rather than another one.  Detailed discussions of these possibilities are beyond the space and time limitations of this brief presentation. 

A positive result could be obtained, for example, if the medium (while still in trance) reads a prescribed page of an unfamiliar book with eyes closed, or without opening the book, or if the medium plays the organ or piano with great skill (assuming the medium is not an organist or pianist), or if the medium is trance has perfect hearing and vision, while when not in trance hearing and vision are certifiably impaired.  (It is apparent that we immediately touch upon the field of multiple personality disorder and the attendant psychological controversy).  If the judgment here is YES, go to Step 2.  If NO, then these requirements might simply be beyond the skill of the spirit, even if it is in fact a real spirit, and the test is inconclusive.

B. Knowledge Beyond that of the Medium

Minor facts, such as personal data about a person present, could be acceptable evidence, but the question of fraud then applies if the medium has access to any information about the subject of the message.  In addition, there is the possibility of thought transference that would also have to be ruled out.  Especially valuable would be previously unknown, but verifiable, facts about a person present or about the spirit itself.  In particular, facts unknown to historians, or at variance with historical beliefs, but which could be verified, would be positive indicators here.

It is not rare that an alleged spirit identifies itself as a well-known historical person.  In that case, it would be indicative of the reliability of the message if the spirit could demonstrate its identity in some way.  For instance, it would be fair to expect Einstein, Marconi, or Tesla, to be able to relate several of his equations, and to give cogent explanations of his work, even though the medium has no mathematical skills.  Beethoven, Liszt, or Mozart could dictate a few bars of music through a medium who doesn't read music.  Gabriel, Michael, or Raphael could be expected to recall their materializations in Biblical times, and to give details which could be checked against scriptural, and other, recollections.  Yeats, Shelley, or Shakespeare could produce a few quatrains.  This last case would be less definitive than the previous examples, however, since the medium can speak English, whereas in the earlier examples he could not "speak" mathematical or musical notation.

Vague, general homilies and flattering statements are fairly common through mediums, and these should be viewed as warning flags.  Even a more ordinary departed spirit could give street addresses, telephone numbers, or social security numbers used during life, verifiable dates of birth and death, names and locations of surviving friends and some personal experiences they had shared, which could be compared against the memories of those friends for verification.  Verifications such as these have been given, for example, by spirits in the electronic experiments of George Meek (MetaScience Foundation, Franklin, NC), the experiences of Johannes Greber (see references).

However, the possibility seems real that a person who had normal intelligence as a human might, in certain situations, find himself with limited memory and mental capabilities after physical death, in which case he might not satisfy these criteria, but still be an actual spirit.

If the alleged spirit passes the above tests, then it qualifies as a  real spirit.  This is not to say that certain inspirations, automatic writing, part-trance channeling, and so on, are not from spirits.  On the contrary, some of them might be.  However, it is to say that the messages so obtained are not necessarily from spirit sources.

STEP 2: Determine if the spirit is good or bad.

Once it has been determined that an authentic spirit is the source of the message, one must then determine whether that spirit is, in simplest terms, a good spirit or a bad one.  We are postulating here that spirits may be either benevolent or malevolent, or of any gradation in between.  If it can be demonstrated that a spirit does not originate from the higher levels, then caution dictates that we disregard the message, even if parts of it seem true.  The idea here is that we can be outsmarted, deceived thereby, and caused harm.

Statements by the spirit indicating hate, greed, jealousy, malice, and so on, on its part, disqualify that spirit from being a totally good one.  Accordingly, caution is indicated.

Messages without testable content, such as uplifting generalities, may or may not derive from a higher source.  Unfortunately, a large portion of channeled literature is comprised of unverifiable messages, primarily because their content is vague, indefinite, general, and frequently replete with undefined terms which convey the illusion of having meaning only because they are so often used in "new age" vocabularies.

For example, let us look at the following fictitious message, a composite drawn from several sources.  "Be that which it is which is within thee, I say, thy heritage, thine own divine destiny.  Yea, be that, I say, which you came upon this plane to be, that ye may have the power to endure, yea, prevail in the tribulations to come."  One asks, what is it that is "within thee," and what is your heritage and divine destiny, if any?  Were the obsolete forms "thee" and "thou" used merely to impress the audience?  What, in clear detail, is a "plane of being," and what sort of tribulations are referred to?  Tribulations may range from a catastrophic pole shift of the planet Earth to a cross word from a spouse.  In short, this message has essentially no information content as it stands by itself, nor any verifiable truths.  We cannot accept it out of context as it stands, nor do we necessarily reject it.  It can be held in reserve awaiting confirmation and clarification.

1. Biblical Tests

Two tests of the validity of spirit messages are found in the Bible.  The Old Testament states that if the predictions of the spirit come to pass, the recipient can then know that the spirit was of God.  The New Testament provides a test that allows this determination without waiting for hindsight.  In 1 John 4:1-2, the readers are admonished to stop believing every spirit, but to test the spirits to see if they are from God.  The reality of contact with a multiplicity of spirits is explicit here.  It is stated therein that any spirit who will swear that Jesus is the Christ (the Messiah) and that he came in the flesh is from God, and that a spirit who will not take this oath is against Christ.  If the spirit refuses to take this oath, he is therefore unqualified to receive an audience.

On the other hand, there is reason to believe that this Biblical test, even if passed, does not necessarily suffice.  In 1 Cor 12:3 we see a similar test for spirits emphasizing the Lordship of Jesus: "no one speaking by a spirit of God can say 'Jesus is accursed,' and only someone speaking by a holy spirit can say 'Jesus is Lord.'"  Both 1 John 4:1-2 and 1 Cor 12:3 give us testable information content: "Jesus is Lord;" "Jesus is the Christ;" and "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh;" but they do not help with the procedure for unmasking a deceptive spirit.  Might not a lying spirit say "Jesus is Lord" or "Jesus is the Messiah who has come in the flesh?"  Doesn't Satan masquerade as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14)?  Moreover, there are cases in both Old and New Testaments where spirits spoke "in the name of the Lord," but the Scriptures themselves state that these were lying prophets (i.e., mediums or channels) (Matt 7:15-23), which is to say that either the prophets themselves were lying, or that they were perhaps honest men through whom lying spirits spoke.  We are left, then, with the Bible furnishing only a negative, or disqualifying, procedure for discerning spirits.

STEP 3: Discernment of transcribed spirit messages.

Often we are not present when a transmission from a spirit arrives, and we are therefore in no position to apply any of the active tests in real time.  Discernment of the written message as we find it is then the critical issue, and it is a much more difficult decision.

1. Independent Corroboration

Corroboration of the message from one or more entirely independent sources is a positive indicator that the message is from the spirit world, but does not determine whether it is from the good, or the bad, side.  In addition, it might be quite difficult to establish that the independent sources were truly without knowledge of each other, or of the subject of the message.  Several of the criteria of verifiability used above still apply.  Confirmation of the message by other means, from other sources, is a positive indicator here.

An interesting example of independent confirmation occurred to Jeremiah in the Old Testament (Jer 32:6-8).  Jeremiah had received a message when "the word of the Lord" came to him.  (He did not divulge the method of transmission whether by automatic writing, channeling, or other means.)  The message instructed Jeremiah to buy a field belonging to Hanameel, and further predicted that Hanameel would approach Jeremiah with these same instructions.  When that did, in fact, happen, Jeremiah noted that, "Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord."

2. Content of the Message

A frequently used test of a message, and probably the least reliable, is by examining the content of what was given.  Thus, a message that seems good might be viewed as good, while if it seems bad, for whatever reason, it may be rejected.  In the absence of statements that may be checked externally, there is a problem with the logic of this method of discernment.  Judging the content of the message in this way limits us to accepting messages only if they agree with what we already believe to be true, even if they are in fact valid.  If our preconceptions are in error, then we will, by this test, accept only those messages which propagate and reinforce our misconceptions, thus leading us further into error.

Accordingly, a staunch Jew might well discard any message proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah, as would a devout Muslim, because the content of the message would not fit his preconceptions.  A devoted Christian, on the other hand, would discard a communication from an actual spirit if it proclaimed that Jesus was not the Messiah.  One can invent many examples less obvious than these to show that discernment based only upon the content of the message relies very much upon our own experiences, beliefs, and intellectual powers, and very little upon logic and external verification.

Another biblical example illustrates the ease with which we can misjudge.  During Jesus' incarnation, His own family (John 7:5) and most of His followers (John 6:66) rejected the content of His messages, despite the many supernatural signs He performed as proofs of His identity.  Indeed, at one time His family believed He had lost His mind (Mark 3:21).  Accordingly, the content of a message can serve only as an indicator, suggestive of its reliability but ultimately inconclusive.

3. Internal Contradictions

A channeled message, like a message from another human, needs to be free of internal and external contradictions if it is to be believed in its entirety.  If one statement in the message contradicts another statement made therein, the entire message is cast into a doubtful light.  If a statement in the message contradicts what can be observed external to the message, then that situation likewise casts doubt upon what was said.

If a claim is made which can be tested outside of the context of the channeled transmission, and if the claim can be shown to be either true or false, then this bit of data serves as an indicator for the rest of the message.

For example, a recent alleged communication consisted of several paragraphs of exhortations toward noble thoughts, followed by references to a previous existence and karma to be worked out.  Then an explanation followed which purported to explain how the spirits instilled their thoughts in the medium.  The explanation branched into the topic of electricity, during which the spirit stated that electrons were created at the moment an electrical current is turned on.  This concept is in direct contradiction to a vast body of experimental evidence to the contrary, and is demonstrably false by any number of laboratory tests.  Therefore, the one part of the message which was amenable to external verification failed utterly, implying that the remainder of the message is untrustworthy.

It is interesting that mixtures of truth and falsehood have historically been routinely used in military and espionage endeavors for the purpose of inducing an adversity into believing the false part of the transmission.

4. Inner Voice

Another widely used criterion for deciding whether a channeled message can be believed is to "go within" and find out how we feel about it.  This is shaky ground indeed, for our feelings, our emotions, are the very playthings of spirit forces, being influenced even more easily than our thoughts.  Expressed less metaphysically, our emotions are influenced by barometric pressure, atmospheric ion and pollen concentrations, food allergies, hangovers, inaudible background noises, and a myriad of other subtle factors.

Almost anyone experienced in psychic phenomena has had experiences when a negative, cold, frightening feeling came over him at times, or when he experienced an uplifting, warm, comfortable feeling at other times.  Occasionally it happens that an event or message can be demonstrated true or false, only to discover later on that it was opposite to the feeling (or sensation) that one had about it at the time of disclosure.  It may be that we have little else to go on other than this feeling, in which case it might be wise simply to hold the entire message in abeyance and await confirmation.

5. Results of the Message

We can also take note of the "fruit of the spirit."  If the contents of the message produce the usual list of positive attributes, such as patience, peace, love, and forgiveness, then "by their fruit shall ye know them" (Gal 5:22-23) applies.  Or at least it applies to some extent, for we know that all of these attributes can be stimulated by Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or New Age teachings, although these belief systems cannot all be completely true since many aspects of them are in contradiction to one another.  On the other hand, apparently holy words have been given which have provoked men to anger, hate, and rage, leading, for example, to the crucifixion of one leader and the persecution and deaths of his apostles.  We therefore take this criterion as a suggestive indicator of the validity of a transmission, but not as a proof of it.

6. Character of the Medium

It is a widely held belief that, among the spirits, "like attracts like."  If so, we can use this as an indicator of the source of spirit influence by paying attention to the life and thoughts of the channel.  If this person lives and acts in accordance with the highest principles, then this behavior suggests that any spirit communication through him as an instrument might be from above.  The converse is also suggested.  Again, however, we can take this only as a suggestive indicator, not as a proof, for it is clear that good people can be influenced by evil forces (Jesus told Peter, "Get thee behind me, Satan"), and that fallen men can be approached by the good spirits (the Old Testament case of Saul falling into a trance naked for a few days is one example.)

In addition, if the medium has used his gift for acquiring fame, large amounts of money and other worldly possessions, some caution seems advisable.  The medium is not necessarily fraudulent, for the biblical mediums Moses, Solomon, and David were all famous and affluent.  On the other hand, the absence of contemporary acclaim and possessions was generally one of the characteristics of the prophets and apostles.  Nevertheless, the character and lifestyle of the medium appears to be an indicator worth considering.

There are probably very few, if any, spirit communications -- real or suspected -- that pass more than a few of the above criteria.  The only one known to this writer that seems to satisfy all of the criteria listed in this paper is that communication given to the former priest Johannes Greber in the earlier part of the last century, which he subsequently wrote into a book entitled Communication with the Spirit World of God: Its Laws and Purpose (1932).

7. Specific Predictions

On rare occasions, spirit communications contain specific predictions of events along with the time when they are to occur.  The example given earlier from the life of Jeremiah illustrates this.  If the events do occur, then we may assume that the message came from spirit sources.  (A complication here is the possibility that the medium might have unusually good precognitive abilities.)  If the events do not occur as predicted, then negative possibilities suggest themselves.  The prediction might have arisen from the mind of the medium, or it might have come from a lower spirit.  It sometimes happens that predictions that do not come to pass are later brought to the attention of the spirit in another encounter, a typical response being that free-will actions of man himself produced results other than those predicted.  This response would appear, from our experience with humans, at least, to hint of excuses, flimflam, or evasiveness.  On the other side of the coin, we recall certain biblical predictions that did not occur due to actions taken by people (e.g., among other examples, Moses persuaded God not to destroy the Hebrews.)

The results of this quandary are that if the predictions transpire, then we have a positive indicator.  If they do not, then we have a negative indicator, or at least the suggestion that caution is in order.



We find no foolproof method by which one may conclude that a given spirit communication is valid.  We find, instead, a set of criteria which establish, by the preponderance of the evidence (in legal terms), the likelihood that a particular communication is valid or invalid.  A person needs to weigh all the evidence he can gather, and only then to make a decision as to the truth of the channeled message.  Even then, he might not reach the correct verdict.  Even the application of these simple tests, however, could result in much better data and information concerning psychic powers, mediumship, and the world of spirits.


*See Brooks Alexander, Spirit Channeling: Evaluating the Latest Fad in New Age Spiritism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988); and John Ankerberg and John Weldon, The Facts on Channeling (Chattanooga, TN: John Ankerberg Evangelistic Association, 1988).  Note that these texts appeared just a year before the writing and presentation of this paper in 1989.

Holy Bible: New International Version (1978). 

Johannes Greber, Communication with the Spirit World of God: Its Laws and Purpose (Teaneck, NJ: Johannes Greber Memorial Foundation, 1932).

Addendum 1

One way that spirits may be tested for their holiness and for their origin with God is if they will say the following:

"Jesus of Nazareth was born the Christ incarnate, the Son of God come to earth, and that this Jesus Christ defeated Satan to free the fallen spirits from Satan."

Low spirits cannot say this and lost Christians do not know to say this.  Sometimes, spirits who are not necessarily evil but who have not advanced very far may say this, but simply because they have heard highly advanced holy spirits say it.


Addendum 2

This is an experience with "a golden light."  On one occasion, the golden light was produced by holy spirits.  On the other occasion, it was produced by evil spirits meant to deceive.  This is a narrative recorded by Dr. James Scarborough.

An Angel of Light

When I first began teaching college science courses long ago, I was not much older than most of the students.  Every semester presented well over a hundred new faces as the classes cycled.  It was normal for a few coeds every semester to lobby for better grades.   They did that by acting extra charming, smiling a little too much, and in general being a little flirty.  This was a well-known stratagem that was to be expected and it was not a particular temptation.   The young ladies soon discovered that their grades would be based solely on how well they did on their tests, so they gained no advantage by their charades.

One afternoon as I was closing up the physics lab, a particularly attractive young divorcee in her late twenties lingered after the class was over and began flirting with me.  She had been a beauty queen and was still in her prime.  She had stayed after class just to talk, she said.  Her smile was too radiant and enticing, her eye contact too slow and sensual.  It was clear that this was not the usual lobbying for grade improvement.  This was much more serious.

As we stood talking, a golden glow emerged from within her like a balloon expanding. The glow was easily visible but was transparent.   It quickly swelled outward from her body to a foot or more, completely enclosing her in a cocoon of light from head to toe.  At the same time, I was immersed in almost overwhelming feelings of joy, love, and immense attraction.  Stunned and disoriented, I blurted out, “Are you an angel?” without thinking.   I don’t know where that question came from, because at that time in my spiritual growth, I did not yet believe in angels.   She beamed her radiant smile at me and said that she was not an angel.   She giggled and asked if I wanted to see her navel for proof.  I declined.  Moments after that, the golden aura retreated to within her body, leaving her appearing as an ordinary person.  I left the physics lab quite shaken by this encounter.

In this context, I note that four years earlier I had experienced a golden light when I had a serious form of cancer.  On that occasion, it appeared that I might not have had a long time to live.  A bright golden light beamed down upon me one afternoon, filling me with an over- whelming  joy and love that brought involuntary tears rolling down my cheeks and spontaneous singing from my lips.  Now here was the golden light again, filling me with very similar emotions as when it brought my healing.   But the context was wrong.

Not too long afterwards, my wife and I ended a tiring day by putting our three little children to bed one night in their habitual way.  We gave our children their baths, read a story to each one, sang lullabies, kissed them and tucked them contented and safe into their beds for the night.  Presently my dear wife and I retired to our own bedroom and climbed into bed.

As we lay there on our backs in the darkness drifting off to sleep, she suddenly rolled to me and buried her face in my shoulder, saying, “I see faces at the foot of the bed.”   She is a very practical person not at all given to the paranormal, so this was highly unusual for her.  It was a unique situation in her life and very frightening.  I held my dear trembling wife and opened my eyes.  I looked toward the foot of the bed and saw three faces floating in the darkness about three feet above the foot of the bed.  I didn’t tell her that I also saw them, believing that it would be too terrifying for her to deal with at that moment.

The three faces were two males and one very pretty female.  They were faces only: no necks or shoulders.  The two male faces were on either side of the female face sandwiched between them.  All three were very close together.  The two men appeared in psychedelic colors, more like some sort of computer generated animation than real entities.   I didn’t pay much attention to them, as my gaze was riveted on the undistorted face of the lady in the middle.   It was the girl who had flirted with me after physics lab.  She was looking lovely and smiling her radiant smile at me in the dark.  Then her face began to melt.  It ran downward and sagged off her chin, leaving only the skull with its empty eye sockets and gaping mouth.  At that moment the entire vision vanished.  I took the display as a clear warning that the glowing girl in physics lab was fraudulent and that low spirits were involved.  

Many years later, I saw an eerily similar effect in a movie called “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.  In that movie, an evil-doer had opened the Ark of the Covenant when a radiance shone from within the ark as he was peering into it.  The man’s face had quickly melted and run down onto his neck like molten wax.  I had already seen a similar effect floating in the darkness above our bed years earlier without having to wait for the movie.

Thus, two golden light experiences had happened to me.   Each one was accompanied by overwhelming feelings of joy and attraction.   One was a cancer healing.   The other was revealed by the vision as being a deception disguised as something good.  From these experiences I found a new and literal meaning to the Biblical verse, “Know ye not that Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light” (see II Cor 11:14).


Discernment is crucial in fighting the spiritual battles in life.  Sometimes we have to ignore our feelings and powerful emotions and follow our heads, not our hearts.