Jamie Coots, the snake-handling Kentucky pastor who starred in the National Geographic reality show “Snake Salvation,” died this past weekend after refusing treatment for a snakebite. Snake-handlers tend to be an embarrassment to most other Christians. But here’s the problem: they’re following exactly what the Bible says in Mark 16:16-18: “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they 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.”
There really isn’t any fudge room in this passage in Mark. They way to determine whether you “believe” in the form of believing that means that you’re “saved” is to check for five signs: 1) casting out demons, 2) speaking in tongues, 3) snake-handling, 4) poison-drinking, and 5) faith-healing. It says plainly that “these signs will accompany those who believe.” So the Biblical inerrantists have a bit of an awkward situation on their hands with this text. Recent Biblical scholars have raised questions about the legitimacy of Mark 16:9-20, pointing out that many manuscripts have Mark ending at Mark 16:8. But in the King James Version, Mark 16 goes through verse 20 without any bracketing or questions raised, so why should you trust modern secular scholars to tell you what belongs in the Bible and what doesn’t?
My question for the Biblical inerrantists is this: on what basis do you exclude this passage from being authoritative scripture? Because if you don’t, you’d better find some snakes to handle and poison to drink if you’re truly a believer. Is there really any basis for not handling snakes other than to appeal to common sense and scientific knowledge that doesn’t come from the Bible? If you say this verse doesn’t apply to your life just because it’s difficult and counter-cultural, then what will stop you from throwing the whole Bible out on that same basis?
I feel safe not applying these five supernatural signs as a test of my own faith because I interpret the Bible according to the “love hermeneutic” introduced by Augustine in his De Doctrina Christiana. This love hermeneutic is based on Jesus’ statement that “all the law and the prophets hang on [the] commandments” to love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:40). Unless I can show how a Biblical teaching contributes to increasing my love for God or love for my neighbor, then it can’t be applied prescriptively to my life. This is true not only of snake-handling, but everything else in the Bible.