Mack Wolford, a Pentecostal preacher and snake handler in West Virginia, died last week after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a snake handling service in West Virginia. (Read the story here.) Churches that practice such snake handling can be found in various places throughout Appalachia. They justify the practice from the so-called long ending of Mark's Gospel (16:9-20), which reads:
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. 11But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.
Jesus Appears to Two Disciples
12 After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.
Jesus Commissions the Disciples
14 Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. *15 And he said to them, 'Go into all the world and proclaim the good news* to the whole creation. 16The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18they will pick up snakes in their hands,* and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.'
The Ascension of Jesus
19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.
*The vast majority of scholars are of the opinion that this so-called "long ending" was not part of the original Gospel, but was added later as a way to finish the work which appears to end abruptly at 16:8. Some do suggest that there was no ending to lose as Mark intentionally ended his work at verse 8. But regardless of whether an original ending was lost or not, this vast majority agree that this "long ending" was not written by the evangelist himself, but was added later. It does need to be said that a minority of New Testament scholars dissent arguing that the long ending was indeed from Mark's hand and is the original ending.
I must say that I am not at all persuaded that the long ending is original, but is indeed a later addition. The arguments for this have been better made by others, but it is intriguing to ponder that the entire practice of snake handling is founded upon a passage of Scripture with a disputed status. Be that as it may, there are those accept these verses as authoritative, so it is best to look at the text itself and what it means in reference to the practice of snake handling.
The reference to picking up snakes in Mark may be intended to harken back to the story of St. Paul in the Book of Acts, who was unintentionally bitten by a poisonous snake while collecting kindling for a fire while shipwrecked on the island of Malta (28:1-6). When the Apostle did not swell up and die the residents started to proclaim him as a god.
Moreover, in attempting to make sense of what is happening in these verses, it is illuminating to look at the next sign that will "accompany those who believe." They will drink poison and not be harmed. This may be reminiscent of the tradition that an attempt was made to poison the Apostle John who survived or avoided the plot to kill him. Regardless of whether or not there is any truth to the story, it may well be that the writer of the long ending used these two examples of the Apostles Paul and John in general fashion to refer to signs believers will exhibit. These snake handlers take this latter sign seriously as well, as some preachers who handle snakes also consume strychnine and water.
But nowhere in Mark 16 are believers commanded to intentionally seek out these signs as practices. Indeed, if Jesus and the Apostles are to serve as examples for us, they did not intentionally look for opportunities to perform any of these signs, but rather they simply responded to events as they came upon them. Jesus never deliberately sought out people to heal, but did so when the opportunity presented itself. In the Book of Acts, no one deliberately sought the experience of speaking in tongues. The Spirit came upon them unexpectedly (2:1-4; 10:44-48; 19:1-7; 8:4-20?). And if Paul and John serve as reminders of surviving snake bites and drinking poison, they too did not willfully seek the experience.
And that, it seems to me, is what makes the practice of snake handling so biblically problematic. It is based on a gross misinterpretation of Mark 16:17-18, whether it is original or not. It is one thing to trust in God that God may indeed save us in our time of need. It is quite another thing to force God's hand into doing so.
Jesus did not perform his miracles-- his signs-- as a side show. It's unfortunate that some of his followers have concluded otherwise. The practice of snake handling is not a test of one's faith in God; it is a tempting of what will at some point become inevitable.
And that is tragic.