I argued recently that the New Testament conceives of any life after death in terms of the resurrection of the body and does not entertain the notion that some immaterial part of a person—the “soul”—survives the destruction of the body to be either rewarded in heaven or punished in hell. See “Why you won’t go to heaven when you die” and “Resurrection from the dead”. In many ways this feels like a very un-Christian argument—and in a sense it is, because many layers of theological development need to be stripped away before we are able to discern the shape of the original Jewish conceptuality. So not surprisingly a number of biblical passages have been cited as evidence for a conscious intermediate state between death and resurrection. One of the passages is the curious story of Saul’s visit to the “medium of Endor” and his encounter with the dead Samuel (1 Sam. 28:3-24).
When Saul receives no word from the Lord before a battle against the Philistines at Gilboa, he disguises himself and visits a woman at En-dor who is a medium. The woman is reluctant to bring up anyone for him because the king had recently “cut off the mediums and necromancers from the land”. But Saul reassures her that she will not be harmed, and she brings up the recently deceased Samuel “out of the earth”. Samuel complains about having been disturbed. He tells Saul that “the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me”.
So what does this odd story tell us about the condition or location of the prophet Samuel after his death? Certainly not that he was in heaven or in some other blessed state. We can hardly hope to account for the incident from a modern rationalist perspective, but two things seem pretty clear.
First, Samuel is brought up from the earth—that is, from the grave, from the place of the dead, from Sheol. His ominous warning to Saul is that the next day he and his sons will be in the same place. They too will be dead. Far from being evidence of Jewish belief in an intermediate state the passage confirms the basic thought that the dead are just that—they are dead.
Secondly, he is brought up from the earth by necromancy. It takes an occult power to bring Samuel back to whatever form of life is indicated here. It is not the work of God.
The passage cannot, therefore, be adduced in support of the belief that the dead, whether righteous or otherwise, enjoy some sort of conscious existence between death and resurrection. So I reiterate my view that in the New Testament some of the dead—the martyrs—are resurrected prematurely and reign with the first martyr Christ in heaven throughout the coming ages. The rest of the dead are simply dead—though death may be conceived euphemistically and optimistically as sleeping—until the final resurrection.