In general, the things that Jesus is reported to have said are fairly benign. (I do not want to get into the question of whether Jesus actually existed or said these things, which is something over which there is heated debate). But there is one thing that is highly problematic and that is found in the verses Mark 16:17-18 where, after his resurrection, he told his disciples the following:
“And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
There is some controversy as to whether this passage, that appears at the very end of the gospel, was a later addition. But since it is in the Bible it carries great heft for the faithful. In particular, some Pentecostal sects have taken the passage, not as a mere statement that they will have protection if they should happen to get bitten, but as an active command that they should deliberately handle venomous snakes to prove their faith. Furthermore, in the event they do get bitten, some will refuse medical treatment because that would imply a lack of faith. The result is predictable. Some have been bitten and died. This has happened frequently enough that a few congregations have stopped the practice but not enough to eliminate it entirely.
I was curious as to why there had not been more serious instances of suffering and death from snake bites and this fascinating article about snake handling congregations suggests a possible explanation. It is because not all the bites of venomous snakes that they typically handle, typically rattlesnakes, carry lethal amounts of venom.
Handled gently, reptiles are unlikely to bite, and weak snakes can’t inject a lethal dose of poison. But the more one handles, the greater the likelihood of bites. Rattlesnake venom, which contains hemo- and neurotoxins, induces numbness and swelling, blurred vision, paralysis, and respiratory failure. It destroys skin tissue and blood cells, leading to internal hemorrhage. Victims can survive if they receive antivenom within two hours, but without medicine, death can occur within six to 48 hours.
It appears that quite often the bites are ‘dry’ (i.e., lacking any venom) and that can lead people to think that they were saved from the effects of the bite by faith, thus enabling the continuance of this practice with tragic consequences.