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Snake handling: A good Christian witness?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Andrew Hamblin preaches while holding snake above head (Credit: NGT via National Geographic)

“Snake Salvation” will debut September 10 on the National Geographic Channel.  The reality series will feature two churches, one in Tennessee and the other in Kentucky, which handle snakes as part of their worship services.  Sixteen episodes are planned so far.  Titles include “Casting out Demons,” “Bitten in Church” and “Venom in the Vein.”  One of the pastors says the show will demonstrate the power faith can have in our lives: “If one person sees it and it converts them or causes them to go to church, then it will be worth it.”

According to The Christian Post, there may be as many as 1,000 serpent-handling Christians from about 125 churches scattered throughout Appalachia.  One pastor explained: “My job as pastor is to kindly keep myself and my flock in line, and to do what we feel is right according to the word of God.  To me it’s as much a commandment from God when He said ‘they shall take up serpents,’ as it was when he said ‘thou shalt not commit adultery.'”

This well-intentioned pastor is wrong.  Snake handling is commended once in the Bible: “They shall take up serpents” (Mark 16:18, King James Version).  However, the vast majority of biblical scholars believe that these words were not in the original version of Mark’s Gospel.

They appeared in the medieval Greek New Testaments which were used by the King James Version translators in 1611.  However, since that time scholars have found manuscripts which are much older and more accurate.  Mark 16:9-20 does not appear in the oldest complete Greek manuscripts of Mark we now possess.  In addition, the verses use vocabulary which is not found anywhere else in Mark’s Gospel.  It seems that a later writer added the verses to the Gospel; nearly all biblical scholars warn against building theology on them.  While Paul was spared the effects of a venomous snake bite (Acts 28:1-6), nowhere in Scripture are we taught to handle snakes as a sign of faith.

Websites antagonistic to Christianity are already picking up the “Snake Salvation” story with delight.  “The Friendly Atheist” says it “makes Christians look even weirder” while “Doubtful News” satirizes, “Great, we need more people buying into such dangerous nonsense.”

Jesus commanded us to love God “with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).  Well-intentioned but misguided faith can do more harm than good to our lives and witness, while biblical scholars can be used by the Lord to help us understand and apply his word more effectively.  As one of my mentors told me, “The Holy Spirit has a strange affinity for the trained mind.”

Your Father wants you to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).  How submitted are your thoughts to the word and wisdom of God today?