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).