In the snake-handling case, the Kentucky minister got bitten by a rattlesnake but refused to be taken to a hospital, where emergency room treatment would most likely have saved his life. The minister had earlier been convicted on a charge of illegal wildlife possession of 50 venomous snakes and put on probation. It didn’t deter him from continuing the snake handling practice of his congregation.
His death of snake bite is open to several possible interpretations. One is that God didn’t keep his promise that persons who picked up venomous snakes would not be hurt. (Or did the promise apply to only nonvenomous snakes?) Another interpretation is that this Kentucky minister did not have the requisite faith, which raises questions about his eternal destiny. The opposite interpretation would, of course, be that his picking up snakes and then refusing all medical aid after getting bitten was the ultimate expression of faith, assuring him of salvation in the hereafter.
Believers in divine healing and snake handling have one thing in common, the idea that a sensational and miraculous intervention of God, or a daring risk, is a sign of superior spirituality. It reminds me of the story of a man stranded on the roof of his house during a flood. He prayed to God to save him. A boat came by and offered to save him, but he turned it down. Then a helicopter came by, but he turned it down too, expecting a more spectacular divine rescue. So he drowned. When he appeared before God he asked God why he hadn’t been rescued. God said, “I tried twice. Didn’t you see the boat and the helicopter?”
We seem to keep getting too many people like this in our society.
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Goshen College. In 1968-69 he received a Fellowship in Asian Religions, spending five months at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. His “The American Religious Landscape” broadcast can be heard every Sunday at noon on FM 91.1.