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Handle a Poisonous Snake, Get Bit, Die. Big Surprise.

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My good friend Jeff Haws, as well as Rev. Dan from OutChurched and VJack from Atheist Revolution have posted on this little news item about Christians handling snakes. With this seemingly insignificant news item gathering a firestorm of attention from atheists, I thought it would be a good idea to address the issue from a Biblical perspective.

I consider myself a reasonable man of faith.  I believe in God’s Word as it espoused in the Bible.  I ascribe inerrancy only to the autographs–that is, the original manuscripts.  I believe that the Bible is written in clear, everyday language and doesn’t require a Master’s degree from seminary to interpret the myriad of passages within it.  This clear, everyday language must be considered for the use of literary devices–such as similes, metaphors, hyperbole, and others–as well as for context.

Part of context would be understanding that “you” in a direct quotation would apply in a general sense only to those people present when the quotation was uttered.

As a reasonable man of faith, I believe that if I were to handle a poisonous snake, that it would bite me, and without proper medical attention, I would die.  No big surprise there.  I believe that despite this promise in the Bible:

Go everywhere in the world, and tell the Good News to everyone. Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved, but anyone who does not believe will be punished. And those who believe will be able to do these things as proof: They will use my name to force out demons. They will speak in new languages. They will pick up snakes and drink poison without being hurt. They will touch the sick, and the sick will be healed.  (Mk 16:15-18, emphasis added)

Earlier I spoke of context.  In context, Jesus said this to the eleven apostles (v. 14).  He did not give this statement as a general instruction to all of His followers.  That means that these are signs and wonders that accompany apostles.

Elsewhere, I’ve defended this passage by saying that promises made to the apostles are fulfilled by the church.  The church is guided by the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit disseminates spiritual gifts to people as He sees fit (1 Cor 12:11).  This means that gifts such as those are given to the church, not to individuals.  Among the gifts mentioned by the Apostle Paul in the the entire passage from Corinthians 12 (vv. 7-11), snake charming and poison drinking are conspicuous by absence.

I’m not going back on that stance.  But, I am going back on one thing: Mark 16:9-20 is not found in the early Greek MSS.  That means that this promise was likely not part of the autograph–which means that I cannot wholeheartedly ascribe inerrancy to it.

All said, I too can marvel with my atheist friends at the sheer stupidity of someone who would handle a poisonous snake as part of a worship service.  Even if I believed that the signs and wonders that accompanied apostles would be apportioned by the Holy Spirit to every Christian and was able to ascribe inerrancy to Mark 16:9-20, I still wouldn’t be surprised if this happened.  Ultimately, we should follow Jesus’ example and not test God (Mat 4:1-11; cf. Deut 6:16).

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About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on November 12, 2007, in Apologetics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Interesting post, Cory. I always find different Christian interpretations of the Bible to be compelling reading.

    If all Christians read the Bible with a clear and rational mind, I think Christianity would be an almost universally good thing for people. Part of the problem ends up being that some people aren’t smart enough or are too easily persuaded or are simply hateful people or whatever, and they end up using the Bible as their excuse to hurt others or to actually reject rationality. This is when it can become a problem.

    Anyway, thanks for the ping, Cory. And excellent post.

  2. My general take on the passage cited is/has been that it wasn’t applicable to all believers through all time. This story is a rather good example of the kind of uninformed literalism that does a massive disservice to Christianity, Christianism, and ultimately Humanity.

    I have a field day with articles like these because they’re a great example of the destructive power of morons enabled by external justification (“believers” enabled by “scripture”). It’s also an outstanding example of the fact that the Bible is a collection of assorted literature and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to interpret every passage (ie.- it’s not all literal truth).
    I’ve seen relatively few people who I’d describe as being Christians (based on their actions, not a declaration of faith [ie.- “good math”]), but the perspective these “Christians” offer is generally reasonable and balanced (even though I disagree that their source text is) and almost impossible to disagree with. Loving people, treating others as one would have themselves treated, y’know, all the same ethics and morality that atheists can scaffold without having to reference an over-literal magical book or a resurrected savior.

    It seems to me to be quite dangerous to base your life ’round some ancient inapplicable texts, and especially dangerous to pick one obscure reference to doing dangerous things and decide that it’s the literal truth.

    The precedent for doing dangerous stuff because God will save you (ie.- “testing God”) was set by the Jesus being tempted by Satan story. Jesus essentially said “yeah, so what if I can do this stuff… why should I have to prove it to you?” It’d have been in that woman’s best interest to have considered more than one verse in her favorite mythological book.

  3. God can perform and does perform miracles in our lives. People are cured from diseases that doctors don’t understand. People are saved from dissasters without a human/scientific explanation all the time. But you are absolutely right–testing God in while living in this broken world is foolish. God gives us commands for living but does not promise that the consequences of living will be kept from us. Many devout Christians have horrible things happen to them–not because God isn’t involved–but because we live in a broken world. It is clear that Jesus was discussing examples of things that would happen in his name that would glorify his name and convert others–much like his miracles did during his life.

    There is NO command there for us to grab poisonous snakes and tempt them to bite us to test God’s miracle-making ability. If you hurl yourself from a mountain top to see if God will catch you–you will certainly be caught–not by God but by the rocks below.

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