Snake handling, as practiced by some misguided churches, is not a biblical endeavor. Mark 16:17–18 is used by some as a basis for handling snakes: “These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will . . . pick up snakes with their hands.” Churches that practice snake handling have special services in which people actually handle venomous snakes, supposedly giving evidence that the church members are true believers who are empowered and protected by God. It’s true that Mark 16:17–18 says Jesus’ followers will “pick up snakes,” but there are several problems with the modern practice of snake handling.
First, the practice of handling snakes for the purpose of “proving” one’s faith (or proving God’s protection) is a violation of God’s command not to put Him to the test: “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:7; cf. Deuteronomy 6:16). Trying to force God’s hand by requiring that He perform an obvious miracle is more than foolish; it is sinful. To test God’s presence and power by purposely placing oneself in an unsafe situation is expressly forbidden in Scripture. Daniel did not seek out the lions, but when he found himself surrounded by them, through no fault of his own, he found God was there. Likewise, we trust God in dangerous situations, but we never purposely seek out danger.
Second, it is important to remember that there are serious questions regarding whether verses 9–20 of Mark 16 belong in the Bible. The evidence suggests that these verses were not originally part of the Gospel of Mark. Some of the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts do not contain verses 9–20. Other manuscripts contain verses 9–20 but set them apart from the rest of the Gospel. The most likely explanation is that Mark 16:9–20 is an interpolation. As a result, it is unwise to use anything from Mark 16:9–20 as the sole basis for any doctrine or practice. Snake handling is one such example of a dubious concept drawn from Mark 16:9–20. For more information, please see our article “Should Mark 16:9–20 be in the Bible?”
If we assume, despite the evidence to the contrary, that Mark 16:17–18 does belong in Scripture, does it teach that we should be handling snakes in church? Absolutely not. Mark 16:17–18 contains no imperatives. The verse does not say, “Go out and handle snakes”; it says, “They will pick up snakes with their hands.” It is a declaration that something will occur, not a command that someone make it occur.
Again assuming that the snake-handling passage belongs in Scripture, we could say that Jesus’ words were fulfilled by the apostle Paul in Acts 28:3–5: “Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. . . . But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.” Notice that Paul was not seeking out snakes to handle. He was handling firewood and was bitten by a snake against his wishes. God intervened and miraculously protected Paul from the effects of the snake bite. Jesus’ words in Mark 16:17–18 gave His apostles the assurance that, as they faithfully served God in the spread of the gospel, He could protect them from anything that crossed their paths.
If the snake-handling churches were consistent, they would also observe the second part of Mark 16:18: “And when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.” Why not drink a vial of strychnine or arsenic and “prove” one’s faith that way? Why stop with the snakes?
God can and will protect us, according to His will, as we are serving Him. But we are not to put the Lord to the test. Just as Jesus refused to jump off the pinnacle of the temple and just as Daniel did not go lion-hunting, so are we not to intentionally seek out situations that require God’s miraculous intervention. While not speaking directly of snake handling in churches, 1 Corinthians 10:9 could apply: “We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes.”