“But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened itself on his hand…he shook the creature off into the fire and suffered no harm.” Acts 28:3-5
This post is the seventh in a series that addresses a list of “40 harmful effects of Christianity” that originated on the American Atheists Facebook page and has since made its way around the internet. In this post, I examine the following “harmful effect” from the list:
Harmful Effect #7: People dying because they believe their faith makes them immune to snake venom, or other lethal aspects of reality.
This particular criticism appears to be levied against the very small percentage of churches that practice snake handling as part of their worship services. Snake Handling is barely a footnote in the history of Christianity. Yet, it made this (contrived) list from the American Atheists. The practice of snake handling did not appear until 1910, approximately 1,877 years after the resurrection of Christ. For many years, the church operated without any notion of snake handling. The practice began in the rural town of Birchwood, TN and today is almost entirely limited to the most rural areas of Appalachia. Snake handlers, attempting to provide biblical justification for their activity, base their practice on the words of Jesus at the end of the gospel of Mark.
In the earliest manuscripts of the book available, the gospel of Mark ends quite abruptly. After Jesus’ crucifixion, two of His women followers enter His tomb in order to anoint His body with spices in accordance with the burial customs of the day. However, Jesus’ body is not there. An angelic figure informs the women that Jesus has risen and instructs them to go and tell his disciples. The women flee the tomb in astonishment and say nothing to anyone out of fear. The story ends thusly, Mark 16:8 being the last verse.
This ending apparently didn’t sit well with somebody in antiquity. Later manuscripts add (after verse 16:8) post-resurrection appearances of Jesus that seem congruent with such appearances in Matthew, John, Luke and Acts. The material after 16:8 is known as “The Long Ending of Mark.” In the long ending, Jesus makes the following remarks:
“These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:17-18)
Even if one grants that the long ending of Mark is authentic, there is no hermeneutical reason to believe that handling snakes and drinking poison are prescribed church ordinances. In other words, in Mark’s long ending, Jesus is speaking descriptively, not prescriptively. Jesus is not ordering practices, such as taking communion and undergoing baptism. He is merely prophesying acts that His disciples will perform. A survey of the book of Acts shows that Jesus’ disciples did cast out demons and miraculously heal. However, these miracles were not performed as an official practice of church order.
Snake Handlers are a tiny group which twists a dubitable text in order to justify its aberrant practices. The American Atheists apparently fail to take notice of this situation and, quite uncharitably (or ignorantly), include the activities of snake handlers are a harmful effect of Christianity. Snake handing as a part of a worship service is hardly Christian.
In my next post in this series, I’ll address the following:
Harmful Effect #8: People dying – and letting their children die – because their religion forbids accepting medical help.
*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.
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