The supernatural is hot right now. The evidence is all around us: TV psychics want to be your friend, witches get their own shows, and Ouija boards move off the shelves (not of their own accord, but don’t rule it out!). These occult phenomena, which broadly encompass their “modern” cousin, the New Age movement, attract many people. What is the draw, and what—if anything—is the danger?
The draw is evident: supernatural ability to know, to do, to get what we can’t seem to know, do, or get on our own. We are promised superhero abilities—to see into the future, read minds, control events—or at least to benefit from those far enough advanced in occult practices to do these things for us. Who wouldn’t be intrigued?
The dangers, however, are many. We make a big mistake when we think these practices are harmless games or we believe in their power but assume it comes from benign spiritual forces under human control. There is spiritual power operating in the occult, but it’s not human and it’s not holy.
Many people simply don’t believe that. Even Catholics to whom I’ve mentioned the dangers of the occult refuse to accept the idea that there’s any harm in playing with a Ouija board or consulting a fortune teller. Why should they think otherwise? Many members of their families have dabbled in such things. And the media often promotes occult spiritualities. So who am I to come along and tell them they’ve been playing in the devil’s playground when they thought they were only having fun?
But what if it wasn’t just the over-zealous Christian next door warning you to beware of the occult? What if we could know what God thought about all this? Would we listen to him? You don’t need a physical apparition or an audible voice to know what he thinks. He’s already told us in his Word. If you’re Catholic, you know his Word consists of Scripture along with the official teaching of his Church, that is, sacred tradition. Both flow “from the same divine wellspring,” with sacred tradition enabling us to have God’s Word in its “full purity” (Dei Verbum 9).
Let’s listen, first to Scripture:
“There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or daughter as an offering, any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is abomination to the Lord; . . . You shall be blameless before the Lord your God. For these nations, which you are about to dispossess, give heed to soothsayers and diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do so” (Deut. 18:10–14).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is also powerfully clear on the topic:
“All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ’unveil’ the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomenon of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.
“All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others—even if this were for the sake of restoring their health—are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it” (CCC 2116–2117).
The heart of the error of these things is that they involve turning away from God to a source of spiritual power opposed to God. “For rebellion is as the sin of divination” (1 Sam. 15:23)—and, we can safely assume, vice versa.
Obviously, the occult is not part of God’s work. And, in the spiritual realm, things really are black and white—if something is not of God, there can be only one other source. Still, Satan, the author of deception, never tires of trying to confuse the issue. Have these questions ever occurred to you? “How can it be wrong if it’s used for good?” “I can’t really be harmed if I don’t take it seriously, can I?”
Or what if people with good motives use the power of the occult for a good end? To find a lost child. To try to bring healing. Then it must be okay, right?
Many in the occult are well intentioned, but they aren’t the real power behind what they do and often aren’t aware of the forces influencing them. The very Word of God tells us the powers working through the occult are evil. Nothing can change that reality—even, as the Catechism says, if these forces are used for the sake of restoring health.
Our mind stumbles on this. How could an evil power, a demon, do good, like heal someone? The key question isn’t how but why would an evil power do good for people.
Corrie ten Boom, a Protestant Dutch evangelist who often encountered evil in her ministry in the years after World War II, tells the story of a little girl in Germany who was constantly ill. The girl was given a charm (amulet), a little box to be worn around her neck that she was warned never to open.
It worked. After receiving the charm her health was perfect. But her heart wasn’t. She became depressed and even tried to commit suicide. Eventually a Christian who was called to help convinced the girl to give him the amulet. In the box he found a piece of paper with these words on it: “I command you, Satan, to keep this body healthy till you get the soul to hell!” (Corrie ten Boom, Defeated Enemies , 22).
It is naive and dangerous to assume that if something is beyond natural explanation it must be attributable to God. Scripture warns us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1). For Satan can, and sometimes does, use “signs and wonders” to deceive (cf. Mark 13:22; 2 Thess. 2:9–10).
The devil doesn’t mind giving you the “good things” of this world as long as he can hinder, or break, your relationship with God. He will offer you the world if it will gain him your soul (cf. Matt.4:8–9).
But who would knowingly make a deal with the devil? Almost no one. That’s why he disguises himself and his message as something positive. Scripture warns us of this: “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). He’s not going to show up at your door with a “Prince of Darkness” name tag. He knows he has to deceive you into accepting his methods—as harmless games or maybe useful ways to maximize your potential.
A former “white witch” I spoke with told me his initial experiences with the occult were satisfying. The powers of witchcraft seemed to be at his service. But the more involved he became, the more he had unwittingly given himself over to the forces behind it. One day those “forces” came to greet him, and it was not pleasant. He described manifestations to rival a horror movie—and how he made a narrow escape by calling on Jesus. He learned a valuable lesson: There’s no such thing as “white”—i.e., good—witchcraft.
It’s understandable that the true believers in the occult like our “white witch” might get in over their heads. But does that mean those who don’t really believe are safe? If we occasionally toy with the occult for entertainment—a call to a psychic for laughs, looking at our horoscope in the newspaper—does our carefree attitude exempt us from harm?
An illustration borrowed from Corrie ten Boom answers the question. Suppose you were a soldier scouting a certain area. Without realizing it, you crossed into enemy territory. The fact that you didn’t mean to enter their land certainly wouldn’t stop enemy troops from attacking or taking you prisoner. When we willingly engage in occult activity, we put ourselves on the devil’s terrain, whether we mean to or not.
“But,” some argue, “I haven’t noticed any ill effects from my experiences with the occult.” Often, though, the effects are subtler than what our white witch encountered: unexplained anxiety, a drifting away from the Church, an acceptance of immorality, passing thoughts of suicide. Nothing good can come from an evil source—not even harmless fun (cf. Matt. 7:17–18).
To those who would defend their “minor” occult involvement as benign entertainment, I would suggest to them one bad fruit that may already be evident: preferring their own opinion to the clear Word of God and teaching of the Church.
We might think, “It hardly seems fair. If I have no intention of treading on the devil’s turf, how is it I can wander onto it unwittingly? Shouldn’t there be some signs along the way so I’d know how to avoid his traps?”
We’ve already pointed out one huge sign—a billboard, you might say: the Church’s teaching. It’s a clear marker often disregarded. If we willfully or casually ignore this teaching without giving it thoughtful consideration, we are left without a map on a dark and dangerous road.
Assuming we accept Church teaching, there are still some murky waters to navigate. Not every occult practice or false spirituality is listed in the Catechism, and it seems there are new ones popping up almost daily. Keeping alert for a few key “signals” can help us discern if something springs from the pure truth of the gospel or is coming from some other source.
Among the teachings to avoid are those we may not think of as strictly occult but that are nevertheless at odds with authentic Christianity. How can we look past the appealing surface of the latest spiritual master’s plan for life and know if there’s danger ahead?
Often, one question is enough to expose the pitfall of error: Is this new spirituality or teacher encouraging me to seek God’s will or my own? Christianity says, “Not my will but thine be done” (cf. Mark 14:36; Matt. 6:10). Many of today’s spiritual gurus want to teach you how to make sure your will is done—a course in rebellion.
Another illuminating question to ask: “Who’s got the power?” The occult and other erroneous spiritualities tell you either that you already have all the power you need or that they can teach you how to get the power—over your life, the lives of others, and even reality itself.
Christianity, on the other hand, proclaims only the Lord God has all power, and we are dependent upon Him for all things: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). A Christian wants God to be in control of his life. Thinking that we are the source of spiritual power and can use that power to impose our will on reality is contrary to authentic Christianity and, frankly, more in line with witchcraft.
Notice too that these false teachings are primarily concerned with this world. The values sought are rarely eternal. At first glance, this is sometimes hard to spot because they often talk about spiritual things. But on closer examination we see that the spiritual is viewed as a power to be used to get what you desire in this earthly life. How does that line up with John 12:25: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”?
We can also “discern by dogma.” Consider the basic gospel truths and how they’d fit—or fail to fit—the latest spiritual craze. Is God a personal God who knows and loves us or is he merely a force that we can learn to manipulate? Can we find “spiritual fulfillment” without forgiveness of sin, without Jesus Christ? The occult and New Age will say you can. Who do you think would be delighted with that idea?
You may be wondering, “What can I do if I’ve already missed the signs? If I’ve already opened myself up to the enemy through occult involvement or gotten off track into false spiritualities?”
Begin by realizing that the message about the danger and sin of the occult is not a personal opinion but the revelation of God. Be very clear about the fact that anything to do with the occult is incompatible with Christianity. If we attempt to combine the two in any way, we are “of double-mind” (James 4:8).
Instead, we need to acknowledge that God’s Word is true and no longer defend the occult or our connection with it. Having done this, we’re ready to ask God to forgive us for our participation in occult practices. Acting on our repentance, we should then renounce all of these activities and get rid of any occult material we may have.
If you’re Catholic, there’s no substitute for confession, the sacrament Jesus instituted (cf. John 20:22–23) to apply the healing power of his blood directly to our souls. And it’s important to repent, not just of occult sins, but of whatever sin may be in our lives, for any sin is an alignment of sorts with the enemy.
Then once the “house” is clean, we should fill it with what is good (cf. Matt. 12:43–45). “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8). You can do this through the means provided by our Lord and his Church: the sacraments—especially Mass and confession—regular prayer, Scripture and spiritual reading, and sound Christian support and counsel. As you fill the “house” with light, the darkness will vanish.
If you’ve never allowed the occult to touch your life, thank God. If you have, know that, through Jesus, you can be forgiven and set free of its effects. “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Contrary to its promises, the occult will bring darkness, unrest, and spiritual emptiness into your life. Jesus, on the other hand, is the “light of the world” (John 8:12). Peace and true spiritual fulfillment will come to all who follow the Light.