The Bible’s Viewpoint
Does the Bible Condone Snake Handling?
IN SMALL churches, the faithful gather. They play electric guitars and sing gospel music. They offer prayers for healings. They listen to homespun sermons and babble ecstatically in what they call the “new tongues.” In all of this, they are not too different from any number of Pentecostal or charismatic groups in Christendom. Then they get out the poison, the fire, and the snakes.
The poison is usually strychnine, dissolved in water. The fire might be that of a flaming kerosene-soaked cloth or an acetylene torch, and the snakes could be rattlesnakes or copperheads, not too hard to find in the Appalachian Mountains of the United States, where these groups are the most common. When they feel called by “the spirit” to do so, they will drink the poison and hold their hands in the fire. They may also handle the snakes, draping them over their arms and shoulders, holding them against their bodies, passing them from one to another. Why?
“I handle serpents because it’s in the Bible, like a commandment,” says Dewey, the leader of a small West Virginia church.* Dewey claims to have been bitten 106 times, and he has scars to prove it. Does the Bible really command such things?
“Thou Shall Not Tempt the Lord”
“He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love,” says the Bible at 1 John 4:8, King James Version. Would a God of love require his worshipers to inflict needless pain on themselves? “A bite hurts,” says Dewey. “It’s a pain about 100 times worse than a toothache . . . You feel like you’re on fire.” Although most snakebite victims survive, scores of deaths have been documented, including the death of Dewey’s sister in 1961.
Of course, Christians have always been ready to die for their faith, but their deaths have usually been inflicted by others because of refusal to compromise Bible principles. On the other hand, when Satan invited Jesus Christ to endanger his life needlessly and deliberately by jumping off the battlement of Jerusalem’s temple, “Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” (Matthew 4:7, KJ) Is it not tempting God, or presumptuously challenging him, to play with snakes, fire, or poison? Does not such testing indicate a gross lack of faith on the part of the worshiper, an attempt to force God to prove himself true to his Word by spectacular deeds?
What Do the Scriptures Command?
Members of snake-handling groups claim that their practices are commanded by God’s Word, and they cite Mark 16:17, 18 as proof. According to the King James Version, these verses read: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”
First, it should be noted that almost all Bible scholars agree that these verses were not originally part of Mark’s Gospel. “The doubtful genuineness of Mk 16 verses 9-20 makes it unwise to build a doctrine or base an experience on them (especially vv. Mk 16:16-18),” points out noted commentator Charles Ryrie.
However, those who handle snakes in their worship are not often impressed by what Bible scholars think of the genuineness of Mark 16:9-20. The verses are in the King James Bible, which is the only Bible most of them trust, and for them that is the end of the matter.
But even if these verses were authentic, they do not command the handling of serpents or the drinking of poison, and they say nothing of fire. So they cannot be read as a requirement for worship. In fact, the apostle Paul did encounter a serpent on the island of Malta (Melita, KJ) but only by accident because it was in a bundle of sticks he was laying on a fire. Although Paul was bitten and was divinely protected from harm, he did not pass the viper around for others to hold. Instead, he “shook off the beast into the fire.” Far from feeling a burning pain as modern snake handlers do, he “felt no harm.”—Acts 28:3-6, KJ.
A Test of Faith?
According to The Encyclopaedia of American Religions, snake handling is a relatively recent phenomenon. “In 1909,” it says, “George Went Hensley, a young resident of rural Grasshopper Valley, Tennessee, became convinced that the references in Mark 16:17-18 to snakes and poison were, in fact, a command. He captured a rattlesnake and a few days later at nearby Sale Creek, in the midst of a worship service, he brought out the snake for participants to handle as a test of their faith.” But there is no evidence, Scriptural or historical, that early Christians required any such ‘tests of their faith.’
In addition, consider this: Paul was used by God to resurrect the dead; yet he took reasonable precautions regarding his own health and the health of his companions. (1 Timothy 5:23; 2 Timothy 4:13) Paul did not try to create opportunities to resurrect people.
Thus, rather than having bodies racked with pain or scarred from snakebites, Christians are exhorted to ‘present their bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is their reasonable service.’ (Romans 12:1, KJ) Instead of commanding that Christians test their faith by reckless acts, the apostle’s reasonable counsel is: “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves.” (2 Corinthians 13:5, KJ) Test your beliefs against God’s Word. Honest self-examination, comparing your beliefs with the Scriptures, will help you determine if your faith will pass the all-important test of God’s approval.
People magazine, May 1, 1989, issue.