What is Pentecostal snake handling?

by Luke Wayne

Pentecostal "snake handling" is practiced by a very small branch of the Pentecostal movement that developed in the late 19th/early 20th century. Snake handling is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It is the handling of live, venomous snakes during worship and is intended as an act and expression of faith. The practice exists almost exclusively in North America and is primarily isolated to the Appalachian region of the United States. Snake handling is derived from a misuse of one small clause in a verse at the end of the Gospel of Mark, with another passage or two occasionally garnered as secondary support. The New Testament, however, does not actually command or in any way support the idea that Christians should pick up poisonous snakes as an act of worship or an expression of faith. The practice is a man-made tradition created through a simplistic misapplication of one questionable verse.

Mark 16:18

The doctrine of Pentecostal snake handling is built entirely on the reading of one clause in Mark 16:18. Laying aside disputes about how the ending of Mark originally read, there is simply no basis in any reading of this passage (original or otherwise) for snake handling as an act of worship or a test of faith. The section takes place after Jesus' resurrection, and reads:

"And He said to them, 'Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. 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 16:15-18).

This small offshoot movement within Pentecostalism latched on to the phrase "they will pick up serpents" and from this created the novel practice of picking up venomous snakes purposefully in worship. For this same reason, some snake handling congregations also take sips of strychnine, a potentially deadly poison. But is that at all what these words mean? Was Jesus instituting snake handling and poison drinking as intentional acts of worship? No, and there are several reasons we can be sure of that.

First of all, follow the pronouns. Many simple blunders in biblical interpretation come from ignoring something as basic as the pronouns in the sentences. Here, we see that the passage starts by saying "He who believes and is Baptized will be saved." That is a clear, individual promise. Every single person who believes will be saved. Likewise, the passage says "he who has disbelieved shall be condemned." Every single disbeliever is condemned. Again, we have a clear individual promise. But then the pronouns change. No longer speaking in the singular, it shifts and says "These signs will accompany THOSE who have believed..." The passage could have easily said, "these signs will accompany HE who has believed..." and, just as in the series of individual "he who" promises before, it would have meant that it was another promise to every single individual person who believes. By shifting from the singular to the plural, however, the promise is now being made to a group. These various signs will accompany believers as a whole, but they are not all promised equally to every individual believer.

Thus, God promised that there would be believers who would cast out demons, but he did not promise that every single believer would cast out demons. He promised that there would be believers who would speak in new languages, but he didn't promise that ALL believers would speak in new languages. Likewise, he promised that there would be believers who would handle snakes or drink poisons and not be harmed, but this was not a promise to every single individual believer. These things certainly did happen among the early Christians as a group, but not to each individual within. The Book of Acts records numerous stories of the Apostles and others healing and casting out demons,1 while other believers did not do the healing but brought the sick and demon-possessed to the ones who did. Various people spoke in tongues upon coming to faith and receiving the Holy Spirit,2 but this is not true in every instance.  Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake and did not die,3 though he stumbled on the snake by mistake while throwing wood in a fire. He didn't seek it out and pick it up on purpose nor bring it with him into a church gathering. If the testimony of the earliest Christian writers is to be believed, the early Church father, Papias, reported that Justus Barsabbas (a disciple mentioned in Acts 1:23) swallowed deadly poison and was unharmed.4 but this was reported as a "wonderful" miracle precisely because it was uncommon. It didn't happen to most believers. All of this shows that the community of believers, collectively, experienced the signs promised in Mark 16:18, but no one individual possessed them all.

What's more, these were not commands for how we are to worship, but rather signs by which Jesus would confirm and testify to the message of the gospel that was preached and believed. The passage tells us as much, stating just two verses later:

"And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed," (Mark 16:20).

So it would not be faithful, but indeed presumptuous for believers to intentionally provoke snakes and drink poisons for no other reason than based on the assumption that every one of these promises holds for them personally. Indeed, even if the promises were meant for every individual believer, it would still be a sin to act in this manner. When Satan appealed to a similar promise of protection, Jesus recognized his guile and retorted appropriately:

"Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, 'If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, "He will command His angels concerning You"; and "On their hands they will bear You up, So that You will not strike Your foot against a stone."' Jesus said to him, 'On the other hand, it is written, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,"'"  (Matthew 4:5-7).

So even if every single believer had a standing promise from God that He would protect us from snakes and poisons (something the text does not actually say), it would still be sinful to put His promise to the test by needlessly grabbing vipers on purpose. These signs were protections against the dangers of going out into the world to proclaim the gospel. When Paul came across a snake, God protected him, and many were astonished. This testified to his message, but Paul didn't chase such situations down. Likewise, poisons were the tools of assassins and even means the state sometimes used for executions (as in the famous death of the Greek philosopher, Socrates). On the occasions that those who sought to do Christians harm through poisons found them miraculously protected, this surely testified to the truth of their message. But again, God did not intend believers to instead seek out poison by which they might test the limits of His promises. One simply cannot derive the practice of Pentecostal snake handling or poison drinking from this passage.

Luke 10:19

Though the practice is really rooted entirely in Mark 16, some defenders of snake handling will also appeal to Luke 10:19 as a secondary support. The verse reads: 

"Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you," (Luke 10:19).

Of course, this describes walking over snakes, not picking them up and handling them, and no one would ever derive Pentecostal snake handling from this verse directly. But once one has accepted the practice, it is perhaps not surprising that they would misread it into other passages like this one. Even on its face, however, this verse is not talking about handling snakes in worship services. In context, it becomes even clearer. The passage is related to seventy disciples whom Jesus sent out to preach. It says:

"The seventy returned with joy, saying, 'Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.' And He said to them, 'I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven,'” (Luke 10:17-20).

When read within its intended context, the imagery of "snakes and scorpions" is clearly a symbolic reference to evil spiritual powers over whom Christ gave these seventy men authority. It is not about literal bugs and animals. In fact, if the passage were about physical protection, it still would not provide any support for their case because it would have no application to us today. The Chapter begins with Jesus promising the seventy:

"Go; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no money belt, no bag, no shoes; and greet no one on the way," (Luke 10:3).

But later in Luke's gospel, Jesus says to His disciples:

"And He said to them, 'When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?' They said, 'No, nothing.' And He said to them, 'But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one. For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, "And He was numbered with transgressors"; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.' They said, 'Lord, look, here are two swords.' And He said to them, 'It is enough,'" (Luke 22:35-38).

Thus, the promises in Luke 10 of miraculous physical provision and protection during Jesus' earthly ministry were taken away. They would now need to carry money, protect themselves from thieves on the road, and prepare for persecution. It was no longer true that no harm would come to them. Indeed, most of them would die from physical persecution. So the promises of material provision and protection given to the seventy were withdrawn at the crucifixion. If Luke 10:19 were about physical protection from literal snakes, then not only would it clearly be about snakes on which one steps rather than about intentionally picking them up and handling them during worship, but it wouldn't matter anyway because it would be a part of the temporary physical protections during Jesus' earthly ministry that were later rescinded. Just as we still carry wallets (money bags), so too we still watch out for snakes on our path. The Bible does not command us otherwise. Luke 10:19 offers no more support for Pentecostal snake handling than does Mark 16:18. The New Testament simply doesn't teach this practice, which is why it is unknown to history prior to a small number of Pentecostal offshoots in modern North America.

  • 1. Acts 5:16, 8:7, 9:17, 16:16-18, 19:11-12, 28:8
  • 2. Acts 2:4, 10:46, 19:6
  • 3. Acts 28:3-5
  • 4. Eusebius, History of the Church, Book 3, Chapter 39, Section 9