On Snake Handlers

A week or so ago, a snake handling preacher died:

See: http://lauraturner.religionnews.com/2014/02/20/jamie-coots-death-dont-understand/

Snake handlers take their cue from Mark 16:16-18 where it says the truly faithful can handle snakes.  However, like most religious people who quote the Bible, they mostly take that quote out of context. I say mostly because these churches also like to drink poison as a test of faith.

Anyway - here is what Mark 16:16-18 basically says in it's entirety (paraphrased).

 The sign of a true believer and prophet of God is that they can:

  • Cast a devil out
  • Speak in tongues
  • Handle snakes (not necessarily poisonous ones – just snakes)
  • Drink poison and not die, and
  • Lay hands on and actually heal the sick.
These are the 5 things that prove you are truly faithful. 5 things!  You have to do all of these things to prove you have been chosen by God/Jesus to be a spokesperson for Him. . Keep in mind that the writers of this passage state in another section of Mark 16 that they are aware that others can do some of these things too, this is why they require the entire package. If people can do part of this, but not all of this, they are to be considered false prophets.

My point is that groups that handle poisonous snakes as a test of faith are doing it wrong.  They don't have to handle poisonous snakes. That isn't part of the test. At all! Any snake will do. And it's important to remember the context of when this section of the Bible was written. Most people at that time couldn't tell poisonous snakes from non-poisonous ones. To the lay person, they were all the poisonous and dangerous. We know this was a scam that anyone could do because in modern tribal areas - you still have magic men wowing the gullible by handling non-poisonous snakes but leading their audience to believe they are poisonous when they actually aren't. The handler isn't taking any actual risks, but their audience doesn't know that. This was and still is a scam to prove an individual has magical powers and should be feared. Regardless, handling poisonous snakes is NOT part of the criteria listed in Mark 16:16-18. Anyone who thinks it is, isn't reading the passage correctly.

The 2nd thing we should consider is that speaking in tongues is also similarly not impressive. It can be faked.  Casting a devil out - not sure how you would prove you did that. So... again, that's not something I think that would be useful in a modern test of faithfulness per Mark 16:16-18.

Which leaves us with only drinking poison and not being harmed and the healing the sick through the laying on of hands. These are things that in the modern age are still considered impressive and are scientifically verifiable. Which means, they would make a great objective test of whether someone is actually speaking on behalf of Jesus/God or not. And I think we can all agree, taking blind faith out of the equation and replacing it with an objectively verifiable way to know whether any particular religious leader is worth following or not would be nice.

How to apply the Mark 16:16-18 test

Since speaking in tongues and handling snakes and saying you've cast out a demon are things that just about anyone can do or fake, I am proposing a new rule. all prophets or people who claim to speak on behalf of God or Jesus must: 
  • Provide a faith healing through the laying on of hands verified by science as having no medical intervention, and
  • They need to drink actual poison and not be harmed by it. Again this must be done in a controlled setting so it can be properly verified and so that if they are harmed, they can receive immediate medical attention - no option to refuse. There is nothing in Mark 16 that suggests not seeking medical care is noble or a test of faith. All it means is that you weren't chosen by God/Jesus to speak on his behalf. People who profess to be faithful should be humble enough to accept it if they aren't among God's chosen representatives. 
Perhaps the James Randi Educational Foundation can act as the arbitrator of whether a "prophet" or priest meets the test of faith that God/Jesus clearly laid out to help us determine the false prophets from the real.

In conclusion:

Any pompous ass claiming to speak for God should be asked to drink poison in a controlled setting (so that if they get sick they can be saved by medicine). They must also perform a faith healing in a controlled setting. If they refuse or fail this 2 part test, they have to admit they have no right to speak on behalf of God or Jesus per Mark 16. And that they are a false prophet. End of story!

The faithful should demand that any Bible based religious leader who wants to lead them or claims to know God's will, must pass this test! It's reasonable and consistent with Biblical beliefs. They should insist on this test for the same reason the ancients did - so that they won't be led astray by a false prophet.

Post Script:

This test would only need to be administered once per proposed prophet or priest. Once they pass the test, they are cleared. The reason I think Humanists and skeptics should administer the test is

a)  to make sure it is objective and
b) to control it for health and safety reasons. 

There is no reason why any of these dangerous activities should be done in a church without medical supervision. Ever. The additional benefit of having these done in a controlled monitored way is that if someone failed the test, they could not only receive the necessary medical care to recover from the poisoning, but also to help them cope with the emotional and psychological fall out of learning they aren't a chosen representative. I can imagine that for some people, this might come as somewhat of a shock. Maybe the voice in their head they think is god is the devil, or maybe they are just mentally ill. Regardless, anyone who takes the test and fails will need support, compassion and medical assistance as they adjust to the reality that they do not have special supernatural powers conferred on them by God.