The Man Who Debunked the Supernatural

By Mark A. Kellner | Posted November 03, 2020

James Randi, whose professional name was “The Amazing Randi,” died recently at age 92. In his earlier years, he won fame as an escape artist who had broken one of Harry Houdini’s records—breaking free from an underwater coffin.

In the later years of his life, Randi turned his attention to debunking—“disproving” was his preferred word—those he believed were deceiving people through claims of paranormal or supernatural power. Alleged psychic Uri Geller and faith healer Peter Popoff were Randi’s chief targets.

“People who are stealing money from the public, cheating them and misinforming them—that’s the kind of thing that I’ve been fighting all my life,” Randi explained in An Honest Liar, a documentary made about him in 2014 by Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein. “Magicians are the most honest people in the world: They tell you they’re going to fool you, and then they do it,” he added.

A Lifelong Skeptic

Randi’s skepticism came early in life, The New York Times reported: “They started to read to me from the Bible,” he said of his childhood. “And I interrupted and said: ‘Excuse me, how do you know that’s true? It sounds strange.’”

Disproving the faith-healing claims of Popoff was one of the investigations that put Randi on the map. Determining that Popoff’s wife Elizabeth “fed” information to the evangelist via a special radio channel and a hidden radio receiver led to a very public reveal on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson—one of Randi’s most avid advocates.

“Popoff says God tells him these things. Maybe he does. But I didn’t realize God used a frequency of 39.17 megahertz and had a voice exactly like Elizabeth Popoff’s,” said the former escapologist. Randi’s detective work forced Popoff into filing for bankruptcy, although the preacher later returned to the “sawdust trail.”

Uri Geller, whose “mentalist” abilities included allegedly bending spoons with his mind, met his downfall when Randi, again on The Tonight Show, had producers place their own props for Geller’s interview. Consequently, the illusionist’s “powers” failed spectacularly. Unlike Popoff, however, Geller continued his career without missing a beat, toting Randi as “[his] best unpaid publicist.”

But Randi kept at his mission of applying his rationalist view to various subjects. Despite facing what the newspaper called “a string of defamation suits” during his career, even one from a Japanese court, Randi claimed he never once paid anything to anyone who had sued him. As the article noted, “He cast a wide condemnatory net, speaking out against alternative medicine, chiropractic and religion itself, which he called ‘the biggest scam of them all.’”

What Is Truth?

There’s no denying that James Randi exposed those who defrauded the public. In so doing, he saw himself as a devotee of truth. But in the end, he very well might have been hoodwinked after all.

The Bible warns against spiritualism: “Give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them” (Leviticus 19:31). The Word of God predicts “that in latter times,” these “deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy” will be used to turn people “from the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1, 2).

But Scripture also reveals that “false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Mark 13:22); “by covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words” (2 Peter 2:3).

By this, we know that there will continue to be those like Geller, who charm with occult practices, and then there will also be those like Popoff, who infiltrate the Christian faith under the guise of goodness. There is real wickedness out there—people who lie, who cheat, who commit the most horrible acts against humanity for their own gain. But there is also a real God, One in whom “there is no unrighteousness” (Psalm 92:15), One who loves each of us and desires to save our very souls. He is the only miracle worker. Ever since before the beginning of our world, these two sides have been at war.

In the days of the early church, “God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them” (Acts 19:11, 12). But there were also those who falsely claimed to be servants of God and to be imbued with the power to heal. Their deceptions were uncovered by the very man they were attempting to exorcise and, as a result, “the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified” (v. 17).

Some of the most miraculous escapes have been recorded in the Bible too, those at which perhaps even the skeptical Randi would have marveled—had he accepted their authenticity. Take the account of the apostle Peter, who was delivered from prison by an angel who caused “his chains [to fall] off his hands” (Acts 12:7) and “the iron gate … [to open] of its own accord” (v. 10).

Sadly, there are not a few who choose to focus on the false Christian instead of on Christ Himself. Do not dismiss the Savior when rightly condemning those who act deceitfully in His name (Deuteronomy 18:20). “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6), said Jesus.

It’s imperative that believers discern the true from the fake. Pastor Doug Batchelor, in his Revelation Now! series, devoted a presentation to the subject of “Bewitching Spirits” to help you do just that. While you’re at it, why not join us for the entire series? Learn about the everlasting truth that outlasts even death.

Mark Kellner
Mark A. Kellner is a staff writer for Amazing Facts International. He is a veteran journalist whose work has been published in Religion News Service, The Washington Times, and numerous computer magazines.

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