On Snake-handling churches

Who knew there was such a program as National Geographic’s “Snake Salvation”? I certainly didn’t until a couple days ago when I saw this video while checking The Weather Channel for the day’s forecast. The star of the show was Jamie Coots, pastor of the snake-handling Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name, located in Middlesboro, Kentucky. [UPDATE: the video at the link above is no longer available. Here is one from ABC News.]

I say Coots was the star of the show, not because the program was cancelled (although it was), but because Pastor Coots is no longer with us. He was bitten by a rattlesnake during a service last Saturday and died two hours later after refusing treatment. Seeking treatment would have been a violation of his beliefs.

As strange as it seems, there are people who believe that God commands them…yes commands them…to handle poisonous snakes as an expression of their faith in God.[1] Their belief is derived from a misreading of the King James Version of Mark 16:17-18, “These signs shall follow them that believe…They shall take up serpents.” Coots and his fellow snake-handling aficionados believe the “shall” indicates a positive command. The problem is that the word “shall” can be used either as an imperative or simply to denote the future. English usage can be ambiguous. Greek verbs, however, have built-in indicators of tense, voice, and mood. The verb in question (ajrou~sin arousin) is not in the imperative mood, which would have certainly indicated a command. It is rather a future indicative. And while the future indicative was sometimes used for a command, there are weighty reasons against taking it as such in Mark 16:18. First, as Wallace observes,

The future indicative is sometimes used for a command, almost always in OT quotations (due to a literal translation of the Hebrew). However, it was used in this manner even in classical Greek, though sparingly. Outside of Matthew, this usage is not common.[2]

It should be added that when the future indicative is used as a command, it is almost always in the second person, “You shall,” not the third person, “They shall.”

Second, there are five other verbs in the passage with the same construction that cannot possibly be taken as commands. They are highlighted in bold below.

And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover (Mk. 16:17-18).

Two of the activities mentioned in this passage, speaking in tongues and healing the sick, are gifts of the Spirit mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. Neither of these gifts are given to every believer. Paul asks rhetorically, “Do all possess the gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues?” (1 Cor. 12:30) The answer, obviously, is no. After all, he had said earlier, “To one is given through the Spirit…gifts of healing…to another various kinds of tongues” (vv. 7, 10). The Spirit, we are told, “apportions [gifts] to each one individually as he wills” (v. 11). It certainly cannot be a command to exercise gifts which God has not given. Is it not better to take the future indicatives of Mark 16, “they will speak in new tongues,” and “they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover,” as ordinary objective statements about the future rather than as commands?[3] The same is true regarding the casting out of demons and the picking up of serpents. Jesus is simply saying that these things will occur in the future ministry of the church.

Specifically with regard to picking up serpents, Jesus is not referring to intentional snake-handling, but to incidents like that recorded about Paul in Acts 28.

After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god (Acts 28:1-6).

Jesus’ statement in Mark 16 about picking up serpents was not a command, or even an invitation, to intentionally flirt with danger and simply “trust God” for protection. This is not faith, but presumption. How does it differ from the temptation the devil used against our Lord? Satan took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” But Jesus answered, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt. 4:5-7).

Many news reports speak of how sincere Pastor Coots was in his beliefs. All well and good. But sincerity is no guarantee of truth. His interpretation of Scripture was badly flawed and it cost him his life.



[1] Just a year and a half ago another minister was in the news when he died of a snake bit. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/01/death-of-snake-handling-preacher-shines-light-on-lethal-appalachian-tradition/  
[2] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics:  An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), p. 569
        [3] Besides is the future indicative, “they will recover,” a command too? Does God actually command the sick to recover?

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