There is a small group of Christians who take the Bible literally and interpret a passage from the very last chapter of Mark (16:17-18) that reads: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” as a test of faith and handled deadly snakes to show that they are indeed true believers.
The story of a West Virginia Pentecostal pastor Mack Wolford who took the Bible literally and died as a result of a rattlesnake bite is a tragic consequence of such delusions. Wolford had also apparently taken some strychnine during the same service in which he was bitten.
What makes this story even more incredible is that Wolford had seen his religious snake handling father die of a rattlesnake bite at age 39 when he was just 15 but that had not deterred him from enthusiastically taking up the practice himself. He had been bitten several times before and survived.
A reporter/photographer who had been observing Wolford for some time as part of making a documentary and had become friends with him missed the part of the service where he was bitten but observed his death throes and has some photos of his last moments along with some agonized reflections on whether she should have done anything differently. She writes:
As photojournalists, we have a unique responsibility to record history and share stories in as unbiased and unobtrusive a way as possible. But when someone is hurt and suffering, we have to balance our instincts as professionals with basic human decency and care.
In my mind, Mack’s situation was different from that of a starving child or a civilian wounded in war. He was a competent adult who decided to stand by what he understood to be the word of God, no matter the consequences. And so I’ve started to come to peace with the fact that everyone in the crowded trailer, including myself, let Mack die as a man true to his faith.
Here we see the damage caused by the ‘respect for religion’ trope. In any other context, what the reporter observed would have been interpreted by her as reckless behavior that had gone seriously wrong and she would have immediately called for emergency medical assistance. But because Wolford was doing it to show he was “true to his faith”, people not only did not try to discourage him from doing an obviously foolhardy thing, everyone just froze in their tracks and let events play out even when it was obvious that he was in mortal danger. It should be noted that Wolford himself, perhaps realizing that he was not immune to snake venom after all, eventually asked for medical help to be called but it was too late.
And so a man has needlessly died, and the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of religious delusions and ‘respect for religion’, nothing else.
Having said all that, I have a grudging respect for people like Wolford, even if their beliefs are insane. They are not like the hypocritical leaders of religious institutions, like the clergy in the Catholic Church or the leaders of the megachurches who live a life of luxury and ease on the donations of poor people and take only those parts of the Bible that are self-serving and ignore the rest. They impose on believers things that they do not do themselves. Such people are nothing more than con artists exploiting the gullibility of believers to enrich themselves. The Pentecostal snake-handlers, on the other hand, seem to take their beliefs seriously even if it could result in their deaths. What bothers me are those who do not share those insane beliefs but do not do anything because of feeling that they need to treat those beliefs with respect.
The passage in Mark from which such believers draw their inspiration about handling snakes is interesting. It comes at the very end as part of things Jesus said to his disciples after he rose from the dead. Some have argued that verses 9-20 were added later and thus should not be taken as ‘gospel’. But if that is done and those verses thrown out, then Mark’s account would end with the empty tomb and that means that one has to throw out his entire account of the resurrected Jesus meeting and talking with his disciples. That would undermine similar accounts in the other gospels since they came later and seemed to use Mark as a source.
Furthermore, there is another passage where Jesus seems to grant his followers immunity to snakes. In Luke 10:19 he says, “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you” as part of his regular pre-death teaching.
One often hears that even if one thinks that Jesus was not divine, one must concede that he was a great teacher. I am not willing to concede this. It is true that he said some good things, though nothing that was truly original or carried tremendous insight. But he also said some awful things, the casual treatment of snakes being one. Why say such a thing? What was the point of encouraging his followers to take life-threatening risks for no benefit? How could someone who encourages his followers to take pointless and life-threatening risks be considered a great teacher?