Answer: Mark 16:17-18 records, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will … pick up snakes with their hands.” As a result of this text, there are some churches that practice snake handling. During church services, people actually handle poisonous snakes, supposedly giving evidence that they are true believers who are empowered and protected by God. Is that what Mark 16:17-18 is really instructing us to do?
First, it is very important to remember that there are some questions regarding whether Mark chapter 16, verses 9-20 belong in the Bible. There is some evidence that these verses were not originally part of the Gospel of Mark. Some of the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark do not contain verses 9-20. Some other manuscripts contain Mark 16:9-20, but set them apart from the rest of the Gospel of Mark. As a result, it is not wise to use anything from Mark 16:9-20 as the sole basis for a doctrine or practice. Snake handling is one such example of a dubious concept from Mark 16:9-20. For more information, please read Should Mark 16:9-20 be in the Bible?.
If we assume, despite the evidence to the contrary, that Mark 16:17-18 does belong in Scripture, does it teach that we should be handling snakes in church? The answer to that question is a definitive no. Mark 16:17-18 does not contain any imperatives. It does not say, “Go out and handle snakes.” It says, “They will pick up snakes with their hands.” It is describing something that will occur, not commanding that something should occur. An example of this is the Apostle Paul in Acts 28:3-5: “Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand … But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.” Notice that Paul did not seek out to handle a snake. The snake bit Paul, but God protected Paul from the effects of the snake bite. Mark 16:17-18 is saying that if you are faithfully serving God in the spread of the gospel, He can protect you from anything that may cross your path.
If the snake-handling churches were consistent, they would also follow the second part of Mark 16:18: “…and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.” Scripture is consistent that God can and will protect us, according to His will, as we are serving Him. Scripture is also consistent that we are not to put the Lord to the test (Exodus 17:2;Matthew 4:7). Just as Jesus refused to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, even though God would send angels to protect Jesus, so are we to not intentionally put ourselves in situations that require God’s miraculous intervention. First Corinthians 10:9, while not speaking directly of snake handling in churches, says it best: “We should not test the Lord, as some of them did — and were killed by snakes.”