Self-Deceived Snake-Handler Dies



Self-deceived Snake-Handler Dies

Richard Hollerman

By now you have probably read or heard of the snake-handler from West Virginia who was killed by a poisonous timber rattlesnake a week ago.  This tragedy was proclaimed across the country and surely caused non-Christians who oppose the Bible to deride its teachings by citing this infamous case.

Pentecostal pastor 40-year-old Mark Wolford was conducting a service when the event occurred. On May 22, Wolford wrote, “I am looking for a great time this Sunday.  It is going to be a homecoming like the old days. Good ‘ole raised in the holler or mountain ridge running, Holy Ghost-filled speaking-in-tongues sign believers.”  Soon after the service began, the pastor passed around the rattler then sat down beside it on the ground. It was then that the poisonous snake bit him on the thigh.

Wolford then was taken to a member’s home some 80 miles away to recover, but when he got worse, they took him to the hospital where he died.  In 2011, the Washington Post quoted Wolford, “Anybody can do it that believes it.  Jesus said, ‘These signs shall follow them which believe.’ This is a sign to show people that God has the power.”  Sadly, the pastor had also seen his own father die of a bite from a rattlesnake when he was 39 years of age.

Wolford explained, “When he [his father] got bit, he said he wanted to die in the church.  Three hours after he was bitten, his kidneys shut down. After a while, your heart stops. I hated to see him go, but he died for what he believed in.”  He went on to say, “I know it’s real; it is the power of God.  If I didn’t do it, if I’d never gotten back involved, it’d be the same as denying the power and saying it was not real.”

Since the pastor declared that is practice of snake-handling was a sign of God’s power, what will unbelievers think of his death?  Did God’s supernatural power fail?  Did the Holy Spirit fail?  Or did Wolford simply lack the faith necessary to be bitten and survive?

This is an excellent example of how a misinterpretation of Scripture can have tragic physical consequences.  Jesus said, “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 16:17-18).

Does this passage justify the pastor’s practice and that of others within these small Appalachian sects?  A few comments may be made: (1) Some would deny that Mark 16:9-20 is inspired. If this were so, it would remove the only text that could remotely support such a practice. However, we believe that this portion is inspired.

(2) Notice that the text suggests that this is something that God would heal even if one did pick up a snake, not that it is something that would purposely be done.  Remember that Paul was bitten by a viper in Malta but he suffered no ill-effects (Acts 28:3-5). There is no indication that the apostle deliberately picked up the snake.

(3) Remember also that Paul was an apostle who could practice “signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Corinthians 12:12). 

(4) Notice that Jesus said that certain “signs” would “accompany those who have believed” (Mark 16:17).  This doesn’t say that “all” believers will practice all of the signs that our Lord mentions here.  Tongues, for instance, did “follow” those who believed, but it was only for a limited number—only those who were given the gift of tongues (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:9, 28-30). Not all were given the ability to speak in unlearned languages and not all were given the ability to suffer a snake bite without harm.

(5) All of the items that Jesus mentioned were actually practiced by members of the early body of Christ, except taking of poison. Surely this was not mean to be a practice that Christians were to deliberately engage in.

(6) Christians are not to “put the LORD your God to the test” by doing things like casting oneself off the pinnacle of the temple (just as Satan tempted Jesus)—or by deliberately drinking poison or taking up poisonous snakes.

This is an excellent example of how not to read and interpret Scripture.  It shows the power of deception by those who tenaciously cling to religious traditions and refuse to properly read and understand God’s Word.  Paul would say, “Let no man deceive himself” (1 Corinthians 3:18) and, “Let no one deceive you with empty words” (Ephesians 5:6).  Instead of influencing unbelievers to place their faith in God, this kind of incident repels them from the Christ of Scripture and His teachings!

How vital it is that we accurately handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15)!

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