This passage is as much a misused passage as a difficult one. And its misuse can often be deadly. There have been a number of fringe Christians who have died because of its misuse and abuse. Often found in America’s south, they have managed to blow this text way out of proportion, and make it a major mark of the Christian life.
The passage is this: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
Some rather undiscerning and unbalanced Christians have managed to major in minors here. Thus there are a number of regular snake-handling services in some of these Southern churches. And of course many of these snake-handlers have been killed by playing with poisonous snakes.
Consider this very recent news story: “A ‘serpent-handling’ West Virginia pastor died after his rattlesnake bit him during a church ritual, just as the man had apparently watched a snake kill his father years before. Pentecostal pastor Mark Wolford, 44, hosted an outdoor service at the Panther Wildlife Management Area in West Virginia Sunday, which he touted on his Facebook page prior to the event….
“Robin Vanover, Wolford’s sister, told the Washington Post that 30 minutes into the outdoor service, Wolford passed around a poisonous timber rattlesnake, which eventually bit him. ‘He laid it on the ground,’ Vanover said in the interview, ‘and he sat down next to the snake, and it bit him on the thigh.’ Vanover said Wolford was then transported to a family member’s home in Bluefield about 80 miles away to recover. But as the situation worsened, he was taken to a hospital where he later died….
“Wolford told the Washington Post magazine in 2011 that he is carrying on the tradition of his ancestors by engaging in snake handling. ‘Anybody can do it that believes it,’ Wolford said. ‘Jesus said, “These signs shall follow them which believe.” This is a sign to show people that God has the power.’ Wolford said he watched his own father die at the age of 39 after a rattlesnake bit him during a similar service.”
So what are we to make of all this? More particularly, how are we to understand this passage? Several things can be stated. Perhaps most importantly, these verses are not even in the best New Testament manuscripts. We have in fact two questionable endings to Mark. One is a longer one (vv. 9-20) and one is quite short. Neither seems to be part of Mark’s original gospel.
Most good Bible translations will mention this fact, whether or not they actually run with these final dubious verses. The technical details are not something to be fully entered into here, but a few quick thoughts. The content of the longer ending seems to be a collection of bits and pieces from the resurrection narratives of Matthew and Luke.
Given that most scholars believe that Mark was written before these two other Synoptic gospels, then it does seem to be a later addition. And the various extant manuscripts have a number of differing arrangements of these suspect verses. Most good critical commentaries discuss the various bits of textual evidence and concur that the Gospel as we now have it ends at 16:8, and most therefore do not comment on the extra verses.
Thus most of modern textual scholarship is settled on this much: there is almost no scholarly debate about the textual reliability of either the shorter or longer endings. Genuine debate however does still exist over whether or not we should understand v. 8 to have been Mark’s intended final verse.
So it looks like this passage may not be part of the inspired original text. Thus we could end our discussion here. But let’s look at the passage anyway, and see how it lines up with the snake handlers’ claims. Even if it were part of the canonical Gospel of Mark, it is clear right away that this is not a command.
What Jesus says about poisonous drinks – “if they drink any deadly thing” (KJV) – would seem to also apply to the issue of handling snakes. It is not something we are to go out of our way seeking, but if it does occur, there may be healing power available in Christ.
Indeed, there are hardly any other passages which even speak of such things, let alone command believers to make this a vital part of the Christian life. We certainly have no New Testament account of drinking poisons. We do have one narrative account of a snakebite occurring accidentally – and not being sought after.
Paul was bitten by a serpent in Malta while tending a fire, but he flicked it off and was not harmed (Acts 28:1-6). He certainly did not go out of his way looking for dangerous serpents. Indeed, he did not devote entire church services to messing around with a bunch of deadly snakes.
The only other similar sort of text is Luke 10:18-20, where Jesus speaks of having authority over serpents and scorpions. It is mentioned in the context of the downfall of Satan. But both these passages can be taken metaphorically, given how Satan is portrayed as a serpent in Scripture, going back to Genesis 3.
As James Edwards says about the Markan passage, there is the question of “whether the image of ‘picking up snakes in their hands’ cannot be understood metaphorically, that is, that in the age of salvation the curse of the serpent has been overcome.”
Darrell Bock comments on the Lukan text: the disciples “have the right to overcome hostile creation as represented by serpents and scorpions, as well as overcome the enemy’s power, an allusion to Satan. . . . The point is not so much that such beings can be handled safely, as much as that such forces and what they represent can be opposed and crushed. The disciples are secure in God’s hands. Nothing can really hurt them.
“The picture is drawn from OT figurative language, which describes God’s protection in terms of trampling over created beings. . . . This emphasis on power is not the one Jesus wants the disciples to have. He wants them to focus on their gracious and secure standing before God. There is joy greater than their authority: their names are written in heaven.”
Or as David Garland says about the passage in Luke: “Jesus is using these as metaphors for God’s divine protection (Deut 8:15) and the crushing of evil; ‘the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet’ (Rom 16:20). Jesus is not giving clearance to handle snakes (Mark 16:18) to prove one’s invulnerability. The point is that ‘a powerful and resourceful enemy,’ including the forces of nature, will not be able to stop the success of the Christian mission.”
Many scholars take this metaphorical understanding as a valid option. But even if this is not the best way to proceed, surely the emphasis is on having victory over Satan in general, and not in spending time holding snake handling meetings. This is not only presumption and foolishness, but it is losing track of biblical priorities.
Church services are meant to be about worship, ministry of the word, and the sacraments. They are not about foolish displays of human bravado and unnecessarily tempting the Lord in this way. How some Christians can get their priorities so bent out of shape is quite remarkable.
We don’t need more gullible church leaders dying from snake bites to prove their faith. Simply dealing with a congregation with the problems and difficulties which that entails needs faith enough as is. That is where we prove our faith, in faithful service to the body of Christ, not in spectacular stunts and gimmicks.
To say all this of course is not to deny that God can and does heal. In any time of crisis, we pray and seek God’s healing power. But we are not to major in minors, nor spend our time playing with snakes when much more pressing needs, challenges and callings exist.