(RNS) The death of Jamie Coots could be read as just another bit of evidence that the universe doesn’t much care what you believe. Physics, biology, geology — all perk along with or without our assent.

Pastor Jamie Coots prays during a service in Middlesboro, KY. Photo courtesy National Geographic Channel

Pastor Jamie Coots prays during a service in Middlesboro, KY. Photo courtesy National Geographic Channel


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Coots may have been the most famous of America’s snake-handling Pentecostal preachers. He was featured last year in a reality show called “Snake Salvation.” He died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during the regular Saturday service.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, this was the ninth time he’d been bitten.

Not every snake is going to want to bite. The effects of a snakebite can vary: How big is the snake? How much venom got in? How sensitive is the victim to that particular venom? And news reports say that both Coots’ father and grandfather performed the same rituals without being killed.

So Coots’ grabbing the rattler wasn’t quite like stepping out a window in the belief that angels would hold him up. But it was in that direction, as this bite demonstrated. Faith or no faith.

Snake handling churches all look to a few verses in the New Testament:

  • Mark 16:17-18 — “And these signs shall follow them that believe …They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them….”
  • Luke 10:19 — “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.”
  • And Acts 28:1-6 tells a story about Paul being uninjured by a venomous snake attack.

To most people, these seem like a crazy justification to handle deadly serpents. But I evaluate these kinds of claims through Weiss’ Law of Religious Relativism: Any religion is, by definition, crazy to a nonbeliever.

That’s not to say that someone of one belief can’t appreciate the piety, values or even practices of a different belief. But those areas that depend on faith will seem irrational — crazy.

Is it crazier to believe that the creator of the universe had a son who is somehow also him and required that son to be tortured to death and resurrected to allow his creations to escape the consequences of sin — or that he would protect his faithful believers from the effects of snake venom?

Gregory Coots, left, of Middleboro, KY and Andrew Hamblin, 21, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., embrace each other while Hamlin holds several copperheads during a homecoming service on May 29, 2012. Hamblin is part of a new generation of serpent handling Christian, a 100-year old faith tradition in Tennessee.

Gregory Coots, left, of Middleboro, KY and Andrew Hamblin, 21, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., embrace each other while Hamlin holds several copperheads during a homecoming service on May 29, 2012. Hamblin is part of a new generation of serpent handling Christian, a 100-year old faith tradition in Tennessee.

From the outside, it’s a coin toss. Although gambling on the snakebite protection can have much clearer this-world consequences.

And to be fair to Christianity, most Christians see their snake-handling brethren as misguided. They’ve got their own proof texts, including Luke 4, where Satan tempts Jesus to jump off a roof. Old Scratch quotes Psalm 91:

“He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

Jesus counters with a line from Deuteronomy: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Other faiths have their traditions of wonderworkers — and of warnings against putting too much stock in them. In Judaism, for instance, the Talmud warns against depending on miracles for protection from evil. And Maimonides, one of Judaism’s greatest sages, said more than 800 years ago that the basic laws of the world weren’t going to change even with the coming of the Messiah:

“Let no one think that in the days of the Messiah any of the laws of nature will be set aside, or any innovation will be introduced into creation. The world will follow its normal course.”

But here’s another truth: Friends of mine who have attended and written about Coots’ church tell me that Coots was a powerful preacher. That members of his church say it saved them from the street, from drugs, from self-destructive and evil ways. And I believe it.

Andrew Hamblin, 21, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in La Follette, Tenn., holds up two rattlesnakes during church service. For more than a 100 years, small Pentecostal churches in East Tennessee and other parts of Appalachia have handled poisonous snakes and drunk strychnine during their services. The snake handlers say that the Bible tells them to do so, but it’s illegal and has mostly died out.

Andrew Hamblin, 21, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in La Follette, Tenn., holds up two rattlesnakes during church service. For more than a 100 years, small Pentecostal churches in East Tennessee and other parts of Appalachia have handled poisonous snakes and drunk strychnine during their services. The snake handlers say that the Bible tells them to do so, but it’s illegal and has mostly died out.


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

I believe it because, of the many flavors of faith I’ve covered, I can’t think of one where practitioners didn’t make a believable case that their religion helped give them purpose and peace and structure against the chaos of everyday life. Muslim, Jew, Pentecostal, Brahma Kumari, Sikh — my list could go

on for a while.

And every one of them would consider the faith claims of the other to be as crazy as most of us consider seizing a poisonous snake. Yet somehow each one apparently does some good for some people.

The Journal quotes another pastor who was at Coots’ home Saturday: “He died for what he believed in.”

Sadly for his friends and family, the universe didn’t much care.

YS/MG END WEISS

6 Comments

  1. The problem here is The Bible. You don’t have to pick something bizarre like snake handling to know there is a problem here.

    The Bible cannot be trusted. Anyone who puts ‘faith’ its words – even a mild, non fundamentalist faith – will eventually be devastated when reality hits.

    I once believed Jesus was speaking literally at least regarding prayer because the Gospels claim the only impediment to the effectiveness of any prayer is the strength of one’s faith.
    Here are at least 11 explicit claims:

    “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified….” (John 14:13)

    “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21:2)

    “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” (Matthew 21:22)

    “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” (John 15:7)

    “Therefore I say unto you, what things so ever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.” (Mark 11:24)

    “Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:24)

    “For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith.” (Mark 11:23)

    “When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6:6)

    “Whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.” (John 5:14-15)

    “…I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them.” (Matthew 18:19)

    “And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:17)

    And so on…

    One doesn’t need to be a fundamentalist to see Jesus is being literal.
    But the consequences of believing it are NOT benign.

    To blame poor results of a prayer on one’s faithlessness as Jesus scolds, is cruel twice; first because He supposedly required so little faith to begin with (the size of a mustard seed being sufficient), and second because failed prayer can add to human desperation at precisely the wrong time.

    Also, “Seek and ye shall find” (Matthew 7:7) is a sinister adjunct.

    Of course all prayers will work perfectly if one sneakily asserts that God’s will is behind any outcome; as in, “God knew what you needed, and it was not what you asked for”. Then why tell me to pray for it, Jesus?

    Yet, here is a short list of particulars for which Jesus has had a 100% failure rate in 2000 years of record keeping.

    There is no reliable record of a prayer:
    Reversing the loss of a leg, arm, finger or toe
    Reversing a single case of Polio
    Reversing Aggressive Child Leukemia
    Reversing a single case of Tay-sach’s Disease
    Reversing a single case of Lupus
    Reversing a case of ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease
    Reversing a case of Smallpox
    Reversing a case of the Plague
    Reversing the death of a child
    Reversing the death of a grandparent
    Reversing the death of a pet
    Reversing the death of anyone outside of a bible story
    Reversing blindness outside of a bible story
    Stopping a natural disaster outside of a bible story
    Turning water into something else outside of a bible story
    Reversing skin diseases outside of a bible story
    Ending the Mets losing streaks
    Reversing the spread of Nuclear Weapons
    Reversing a case of Malaria
    Reversing a stroke
    Reversing MRSA Bacterial Evolution
    stopping earthquakes
    halting Tsunamis
    halting mass killings
    stopping car accidents
    ending child rape
    ending hunger

    Whatever answer Jesus has given to these particular prayers it is indistinguishable from not answering!
    No amount of faith seems to matter. History proves it.

    I’ve done the homework. Jesus’ repeated promise, “Whatever you ask, I will do it” does not appear to be true no matter how it is interpreted.

    And if you think about it – it is incoherent anyway. A priest praying for sun for the church picnic on one end of town competes with a farmer who is praying for rain on the other end of town. Even if both had perfect faith Jesus cannot ‘bless’ both with an answered prayer.

    The Bible is not to be trusted. Religion is extremely cruel.

    • Earold Gunter

      A.M., Don’t forget old bolt necked Frankenstein, raised from the dead by Dr. Frankenstein.;-)

      Religion is as poisonous to the mind as was the venom that coursed through the veins of Coots.

    • I see what you’re saying, but the things you mentioned being prayed for are all earthly. Jesus didn’t come to earth to cure disease or end hunger, but He will give you what you need. God bless you.

  2. You might think twice before citing Mark 16:17-18 as scripture. These verses are two of the last twelve verses of Mark, the so-called longer ending, which is missing from what are considered the better manuscripts. There is also a (snake-free) shorter ending found in some manuscripts. Modern Bible scholars generally agree this is not part of the Gospel as Mark wrote it, which ends at 16:8.

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