In Atlanta in the early nineties I served on staff in one of the largest churches in America, with over 8000 members at the time. I was not a pastor but a fleet maintenance manager and technician. The church had over two hundred people on staff and, as with any large organization, had its share of drama both tragic and comic. Imagine five guys in uniforms chasing the Atlanta Passion Play’s starring donkey down a busy four-lane in rush hour traffic and you’ll get the picture. I always thought it would make a great sitcom.
Enter the Reality TV phenomenon and shows like “The Preachers of LA” and “Snake Salvation.” Now I’m not so sure making television out of church life, at least some church life, is such a good idea. When the theology on such shows is skewed it leads at best to confusion and at worst to derision of the Gospel. What happened last weekend is a case in point. Sadly, the lead character on “Snake Salvation,” Jamie Coots, died Saturday after refusing to be treated for a snake bite. He probably thought it would be a lack of faith to seek treatment. His theology was based at least in part on Mark 16:17-18 which reads:
“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.”
These verses are part of a larger passage, verses 9-20, that concludes Mark’s gospel. Historical and grammatical evidence indicate that Mark actually concluded his gospel at verse 8, and that this passage, while authentic to the history of the Church, was added sometime before 100 AD to round off the narrative. How are we to understand this passage and more importantly, how have people like Mr. Coots misunderstood it?
You’ve already noticed that it is verses 17-18 that cause the problems. Some believers take these verses in a woodenly literal fashion, as if every Christian was supposed to speak in tongues, every Christian was supposed to be invulnerable to snakebite, and so on. When they can’t speak in tongues, don’t see healings, or get bitten and die people become skeptical. It’s confusing, so let’s break it down a bit.
First, when you read Mark 16:9 -20 and recall the accounts in the other gospels and parts of Acts, you realize that the writer is giving a short summary of a number of different events that happened in the early Church. In verses 12-13 for example, he summarizes the Emmaus road experience in Luke 24:13-35. Verse 14 is a summary of John 20:19-29 and so on. All of these events are “historically authentic and are part of the New Testament canon.” In the same way, verses 17-18 of Mark 16 summarize some things that had already happened in the Church as the gospel spread across the Roman Empire. Paul was bitten by a snake and lived, people did speak in tongues, some laid hands on the sick and they got well, and demons were driven out of others. Nowhere in the NT is it reported that someone drank deadly poison and lived. But that doesn’t mean it never happened. Probably some Christian under persecution was forced to drink poison and, like Paul, didn’t die. It just happened too late to be reported in Acts. Looking at it that way there is nothing wrong with these verses and no reason to doubt what they say.
Second, the problem comes when someone wants to say that certain events and special signs are normal for every Christian, everywhere, for all time. All of us who lived through what was known as the Charismatic renewal movement of the 1960’s-80’s have seen the exercise, or the attempted exercise of the supernatural “sign” gifts, in ways that are outside the bounds which the Apostle Paul laid down for us in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Sometimes it’s harmless and well-meaning emotionalism. But I have seen these activities used by wicked men to manipulate gullible people. God will judge such people severely. (See Acts 8:18-24; Acts 13:4-12; Matt. 18:6).
Third, I believe God does still use miraculous “sign” gifts, but he gives them to glorify himself and authenticate the message, not to test our faith or to make a TV star out of a given messenger. Missionaries in remote places (and sometimes not so remote) report all kinds of marvelous things that we have no reason to doubt and that bring people struggling to believe to full and life-changing faith in Christ. But those gifts are given at God’s discretion, not upon our demand.
Finally, Mr. Coots and others failed to do proper exegesis and understand the Greek grammar in Mark 16:17-18. John D. Grassmick, Professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary explains. “In the Greek the first two clauses in Mark 16:18 may be understood as conditional clauses with the third clause as the conclusion. An interpretive rendering would be, ‘And if they be compelled to pick up snakes with their hands and if they should be compelled to drink deadly poison, it shall by no means harm them.” (From The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Emphasis mine).
We can draw two conclusions from this. First, no one has to authenticate their faith by picking up a deadly snake, drinking poison, speaking in tongues, or miraculously healing a sick person. And second, God has graciously provided us with all kinds of help to understand his Word and navigate this life, including medical doctors and Greek scholars. It’s a tragedy that Mr. Coots allowed himself to die when basic medical help was at hand. It’s even sadder that he ignored the basics of Biblical interpretation.