About ten years ago my friend Ryan and I took a trip to remove some damaged signs and do a little fishing. It all started out with call from a realtor that had a listing a couple hours south of where I lived. It was explained to me that someone had spray painted something vulgar on one of the signs advertising the property. To make matters worse the incident made discussion on a local radio show due to the high visibility. The sign panels were only three feet by four feet in size and mounted about six feet up on posts so a local citizen removed the damaged panel and left it on the ground. No longer being a matter of urgency we planned our trip weeks later at a convenient time.
Arriving at the site we found the sign to be in knee high grass. We walked over to the sign and I picked up the removed panel to see what had caused all the fuss. I noticed a few things simultaneously: The sign panel had been laying there long enough to kill all the grass beneath it leaving a rectangular bare spot on the ground. The graffiti was very graphic. There was a snake on the ground looking up at me.
Surprised by this I exclaimed there’s a snake here. At this point Ryan proceeded back to the truck and admittedly I thought he was being a bit cowardly. I was bent down holding the sign up with one hand and studying the snake that seemed to be fascinated with me. This thing was perhaps three feet in length and somewhere in my mind was a memory of a similar snake. There was a time that I was outdoorsman enough to identify a snake at a good distance. Years of living in the city had stripped me of such knowledge. With complete wonder I told Ryan that this snake is so familiar. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was having a staring contest with a water moccasin.
The facts of what happened next are a matter of memory. Perhaps I calmly stated this is a poisonous snake, laid the sign down and walked away. That is how my brain wants to remember it anyway. Ryan has a different memory. According to him I let out a high pitched, girly-like scream, and shouted “that’s a poisonous snake!”, dropped the sign and ran to the truck. Even if his version is correct he walked away first. That shows some bravado on my part, right? Either way we were now distanced from the insidious reptile.
After some discussion, fueled by the desire to have a manly story of facing nature, we decided the snake had to be eradicated. Choosing a shovel and a heavy blunt force object from the tools in the truck we bravely walked the forty feet back through the tall grass. With a quick motion we moved the sign panel. At first the snake was not in sight, and then it was. It kept disappearing into the grass and then returned to the bare rectangular patch. Ryan stood on the sign panel and I stood on the bare spot. For some reason this instinct driven, slithering symbol of evil refused to stop long enough for me to kill it. Suddenly a second snake appeared from the grass. Simultaneously Ryan and I decided the sign, posts, and snakes were meant to be left on site. After all, a man has to know when to fight and when to walk (or run) away.
Ignoring the basic instinct to leave a poisonous snake alone has caused more than a few deaths. Ignoring common sense and placing oneself into harms way has caused even more injuries and death. Misusing scripture in an attempt to fulfill a self-centered desire has also lead to mental anguish, injury, and death. One passage that has been used rather foolishly is Mark 16:17-18 These miraculous signs will accompany those who believe: They will cast out demons in my name, and they will speak in new languages. They will be able to handle snakes with safety, and if they drink anything poisonous, it won’t hurt them. They will be able to place their hands on the sick, and they will be healed.” Some have taken the view that Mark 16:17-18 is an allegory of being able to defeat evil through faith in Christ. Others have taken a literal approach and have snake handling services. It is easy to find documentation of deaths directly related to snake handling, poison drinking, radical church services.
First, this passage from Mark is not found in early manuscripts that were not available when the King James version was written. Most translations of the bible make note that Mark may have ended abruptly at Mark 16:8. This is not indicative that the bible is errant. The original manuscripts were God-breathed and inerrant. For reasons unknown some manuscripts were altered over time and has caused some confusion.
Second, this passage does not fit in the entirety of scripture. There is no indication that being a follower of Christ will give you super human ability to overcome poison or avoid physical harm. The Apostles endured incredible hardships and most of them died very unpleasantly.
My recommendation for handling scripture is the same for handling dangerous situations. Know when to admit you do not have an answer to the problem. Do not allow pride or selfish desire to lead to rash decisions, especially about spiritual matters. Run from poisonous snakes and poisonous teaching as fast as possible.
Rev. Burt Schwab