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Is it true that some churches believe
in handling snakes and drinking poison?

As shocking as this sounds, there are indeed such churches. Years ago I conducted revival meetings in a small church, located in a remote, mountainous community called "Snake Holler." The name was derived from the fact that virtually all churches in the area (except the one I was preaching in!) believed in snake handling.

Such churches are few in number, and are mainly concentrated in the southern U.S. They believe and teach that handling venomous snakes (such as rattlers) and drinking poison is a part of their Christian faith. They get this idea from a misinterpretation of a passage in the 16th chapter of Mark, where Jesus expressed His great commission to take the Gospel to the world. He remarked, "And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover" (Mark 16:17-18).

"Snake handling churches," as they are called, generally identify themselves of Pentecostal origin, although they are disassociated from other mainstream Pentecostal groups and are viewed as a "Christian cult." They believe snake handling to be consistent with other supernatural gifts such as speaking in tongues or healing the sick. They interpret that they are supposed to literally "take up" or handle deadly snakes and drink poison to prove the anointing and power of God at work in their lives.

This belief, of course, is erroneous and would not be consistent with God's Word that warns us against testing Him by deliberately placing ourselves in danger (Matt. 4:7). However, it is possible Jesus was describing special powers of protection from the natural conditions of that period, as they went forth to preach the Gospel. Deadly snakes were abundant and a very real natural danger to those who would travel, and it was the custom for a stranger to accept the hospitality of food and drink offered to him, regardless of its purity.

Also, while we usually seek to interpret God's Word literally, there are those exceptions where it is obviously symbolic, as may be the case here. The scriptures frequently describe Satan as a serpent, who masqueraded in this form to appear to Adam and Eve. Therefore, it's likely that Jesus' reference to serpents here, as it was elsewhere (Luke 10:19), was only symbolic of the subtle, creeping nature of the devil — perhaps referring to those wicked things which Satan hides behind or uses as weapons against us. Furthermore, in the Greek, the term "take up" can as easily be translated "put away," and it is believed that since Jesus had already referred to casting out demons, He was possibly saying His believers would have power to "put away" those instruments or forms used by Satan (perhaps such things in our society like drugs, alcohol, or so forth).

Still, another controversy surrounds these verses in Mark. Some of the newer Bible versions suggest that verses 9-20 of Mark 16 should be omitted because of a dispute about their inclusion in the original. It seems that a few of the oldest manuscripts do not contain these verses.

However, such an omission would be presumptuous since there remains much evidence to support the genuineness of these verses. Even the "codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus," most often cited for leaving out the passage, have a blank space between Mark 16:8 and the book of Luke, as if the scribe was not sure whether he should include it in his copy or not.

With few exceptions, all of the Unical manuscripts retain these twelve verses, and the Cursive manuscripts unanimously recognize the passage as genuine. Besides inclusion in the Textus Receptus, the Vulgate version which was translated from the original by Jerome in the fourth century, also includes the disputed verses, and many of the early church fathers, such as Iraneus in the second century, quote from the verses in writings, giving further weight to their authenticity.

Although Jesus' reference to tongues, healing, and demon exorcism may be troubling to those who oppose supernatural gifts, and His reference to serpents and poison may be an issue of controversy and misunderstanding, yet the verses in Mark 16:9-20 cannot be excluded from the text of God's Word without more conclusive evidence than what has been suggested.

This article is from the book, What People Ask About the Church, authored and copyrighted © by Dr. Dale A. Robbins, 1990-2015, and is a publication of Victorious Publications, Grass Valley, CA - Nashville, TN. Unless otherwise stated, all scripture references were taken from The New King James Bible, © Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982. You may download this article for personal use as long as you retain credit to the author. Obtain permission before reproducing copies for any reason, by filling out our simple permission form. Many of our writings are also available as free pdf tri-fold pamphlets, which can be downloaded for reproduction from our Online Catalog. For media reproduction rights, or to obtain quantities of this title in other formats, email us.