Should Christians handle snakes? I have to admit, I was somewhat shocked when my ministry partner David said he had never heard of this practice. I had just assumed it was common knowledge that certain Christians did this. Maybe it’s the fact that I have relatives living in these areas of the country that made me more in tune to the practice. In any case, I’ve been asked on a few occasions if Christians should handle snakes.
The practice of Christian snake handling was popularized in the united states by George Went Hensley (1880-1955). The idea behind it is that if you truly have the Holy Spirit, you should be able to handle serpents, and even drink poison without harm. The practice is mostly geographically centered in the south and the Appalachian Mountains.
Churches that practice snake handling are generally not part of the larger Christian denominations such as Baptists, Lutheran or Episcopal. They tend to be Charismatic or Pentecostal. These Churches tend to view denominations as evil, and avoid associations with them.
Ironically, (although not particularly surprising) Hensley died from a snake bite. When this happens, and it happens with regularity, it is never seen as a referendum on the handler’s faith. It is explained away as it was “their time to go”. Which certainly brings into question the purpose of the whole exercise.
Is There Biblical Grounds For This?
The Biblical justification for this practice comes from 3 verses of scripture, Mark 16:17-18, Luke 10:19 and Acts 28:1-6. Here are the two verses from Mark and Luke:
“And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” Mark 16:17-18
“Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” Luke 10:19
Are They Justified?
We’ve talked in other posts about the long ending of Mark’s Gospel. It is widely considered to be a late addition to the text. While there is nothing heretical or inconsistent contained in these verses, I would be hesitant to build a theological position based on them alone.
But what about the verse in Luke? In both the Mark verses, and the verse from Luke, Jesus is sending out his disciples. He is promising protection as they go out and spread His message. And he is also anointing the message they are giving. Taken in context, he is anointing and offering protection for a certain group of people at a specific time in history. This is not a command or promise to all people at all times. Nor should it be taken as such.
This just leaves the verses in Acts. This section of Scripture is retelling Paul’s journey to Rome. He is shipwrecked, and while a castaway on a small island, is bitten by a poisonous snake. No harm befalls him, and the natives believe he is a god.
Notice that this is a recounting of what happened to Paul. And what happened to him was not planned. He did not intentionally pick up a snake and start dancing around with it. He was simply protected from the venomous bite. This is not a command for others to intentionally handle snakes.
So no, Christians should not handle snakes. Outside of being extremely dangerous, it is unnecessary. All states currently outlaw the unlicensed use of venomous snakes, and for good reason. This is not a bold demonstration of God’s providence. It is a foolhardy practice to be avoided and discouraged.
We are warned in several places not to put God to the test. Christians should rely on God’s protection, but not to intentionally put ourselves in danger to try and get God to perform for us. We don’t jump in front of speeding vehicles and expect God to save us. And we shouldn’t put ourselves in harm’s way by doing something as foolish as picking up live venomous snakes.
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