"Snake Salvation" debuted in early September on the National Geographic Channel and viewers, including readers of The Christian Post, have expressed fascination, repulsion and confusion over the sect of Pentecostal Christians who say they are led by the Holy Spirit to handle poisonous snakes while worshipping God.
"Snake Salvation" focuses on the lives and ministries of Pastor Andrew Hamblin of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., and Pastor Jamie Coots of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church of Middlesboro, Ky. Coots, in his 40s, serves as a mentor of sorts for Hamblin and was the inspiration behind the 23-year-old starting his own snake-handling congregation.
The 100-year-old practice is common among a sect of Pentecostal Christians that number about 1,000 and whose adherents believe they are instructed by Jesus Christ in Mark 16:15-18, specifically verses 17 and 18 in the King James Version, to pick up serpents. The specific verses read: "And these signs shall accompany them that believe: in my name shall they cast out demons; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall in no wise hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." By relying on the "anointing," or empowering of the Holy Spirit, these worshippers believe they will be supernaturally protected from harm when handling snakes.
Pastor Hamblin, who reportedly has been bitten on at least three occasions, once while in the pulpit during a 2012 New Year's Watch Service, explains in the final installment of his interview with The Christian Post that he understands that not every Christian is going to agree with the way he worships God.
"But the one thing that everyone could and should agree on, if they're Christians, is that the blood of Christ is the means of salvation, not serpents, not [casting out] devils, not healing the sick, this and that. It's the blood of Christ," he said. Hamblin also suggested that if others who believe as he does came forward, their group "could be as mainstream as the Southern Baptists," which claims more than 15 million members.
Below is a transcript of CP's phone interview with Pastor Hamblin. It has been edited for brevity.
CP: Pastor Jamie Coots has said that he refuses to seek medical attention if bitten by a poisonous snake. How about you?
Hamblin: This is my personal belief. If I go to my service tonight and God moves on me and I mean the Holy Ghost anoints that place and you got people shouting, you got people getting saved, people getting healed, delivered, and God moves on me to pull out a four-and-a-half foot rattlesnake and it lays fangs into me, if I'm anointed by God, that snake is not going to harm me. I don't care if it bites me 20 times, there'll be no harm. When the anointing of God moves, there is no harm.
But you let me go out in the woods and go snake hunting, or walking through the woods, and I accidentally step on one and it bites me in the leg or something like that, and I begin to get sick and I begin to get hurt, if God don't speak to me and tell me that there won't be no harm, I'm going to the hospital.
I'm a faith preacher, I believe in faith-healing, I believe in walking by faith. Since I was serpent-bit in 2010, I've not been to a doctor since. I've had little colds and different things. I try to live by faith so I can be an example. If I was in a car wreck, I couldn't stand and tell you no, I wouldn't go to a hospital. I don't know what I would do. Same thing with a snake bite. Like I said, if God's anointing is there and He moves and instructs to take up serpents, there will never be no harm in it. But if God don't move and people get bit in services and they get swell and hurt, God couldn't have instructed them to handle it, because there was harm. Our God is not going to harm us.
CP: What do you mean by the anointing, the Holy Spirit?
Hamblin: I do mean the presence of the Holy Ghost. It's just like with laying hands on the sick or casting out devils or anything else, there has to be instruction ... by the Holy Ghost to do it. I can't just walk up to somebody with cancer and say, 'Be healed.' That just don't work. But if the anointing of God, which of course is the Holy Ghost, the power of God, it begins to move, it begins to instruct my heart…that anointing, that will heal the sick. I pray for the people and not every time there is an anointing, and that's when we pray a prayer of faith, have faith believing they will be healed. But when the anointing moves, and the Holy Ghost instructs and God begins to instruct their hearts, that's when…you're led by the Spirit to take up a serpent, or you're led by the Spirit to lay hands on someone and see them miraculously healed and so forth.
CP: Your belief in handling snakes is based on Mark 16:17-18. What do you say to Christians who say you're taking Scripture out of context?
Hamblin: Of course I don't base it off just Mark 16:17-18. All through the Word, we hear about the signs of God. You've got Moses, of course and the rod, we all know the story of the burning bush...and we all know he went to Pharaoh and threw the rod down and the magicians did also. Anyone familiar with Scripture knows that story. Then of course you have where it rains fiery serpents down on the people. Moses made that bronze serpent, they looked up on it and they lived. You've got Paul, of course he did not literally take it up. He was gathering firewood and a viper came out and fastened onto his hand and it was because of the presence of God inside of him, there was no harm. … All through the Book of Acts you can find — and all through the Word — [where] the apostles done signs with their hands, where the apostles went forth and done signs and this and that.
When they ask me if I take it out of context, I explain to them that behind that Word of God is a spiritual and a carnal...Timothy told us to study to show thyself approved, a workman need not be ashamed, rightly divide the word of truth. We have got to pray, and Romans told us that being carnal-minded is death. We've got to pray and ask for spiritual guidance. Like I tell people, I feel the Spirit has taught me through that. If someone feels I take it out of context, I pray that God would help them or help me maybe. But I don't argue with no one on it, of course. But I don't feel I take it out of context, because I feel that the same man Jesus who said … 'And these signs shall follow them that believe. In my name shall they cast out devils...' Of course we don't cast out devils through or by the name of Andrew Hamblin or Jamie Coots, it just don't work that way. … Of course the same man said 'they shall speak with new tongues' and he said 'they shall take up serpents,' we all know the Scripture.
You see, people in this day will say, 'Well that means something else. That don't mean literally take up serpents.' I believe that if Christ, if he had meant that, then he would have broken down each one of the five signs. He would have just said, because you've got people that will believe in casting out devils, speaking in tongues and healing the sick, but yet the other two don't mean exactly what they said. To me, they take that out of context. … I ask (people) do you believe in healing the sick? Do you believe in speaking in tongues or casting out devils? Or do you believe that Peter was able to walk on the water by faith? And they say, 'Yes.' Then why would you think God would not have the power to anoint us, and we have power through the anointing to heal the sick? Why couldn't we have the power through the anointing to pick up serpents?
There are some people, of course, we just don't see eye to eye, but we're able to say, 'Hey, if you've got the blood and I've got the blood, that makes us family.' And we agree to disagree and go on about our way. Of course, there are some people that say 'You're crazy,' and don't want nothing to do with you.
CP: Do you believe Jesus' words in Mark:16:15-18 are commandments?
Hamblin: Some people do believe that it is a commandment from God. To me, it's not for everybody. Not everybody in this world is going to take up serpents. Not everybody in this world is going to lay hands on the sick. Not everyone in this world is going to believe in casting out devils. That's why you have so many different faiths, different denominations, different religions. But the one thing that everyone could and should agree on, if they're Christians, is that the blood of Christ is the means of salvation, not serpents, not [casting out] devils, not healing the sick, this and that. It's the blood of Christ. To me, if God instructs you and He opens your eyes to it as a commandment, you better perceive it to be a commandment, and you better not ever take down on it. That's like whenever a sinner is saved by grace, therefore he learns that Christ is his only means of salvation to heaven. If he goes back on that, he is going back on what the Lord has taught him, and you can't do that.
CP: What is your response to claims by other Christians that you are putting God to the test or tempting God, which the Bible prohibits?
Hamblin: If I expose myself to danger and I go to my church tonight and I run in there without any kind of...without the anointing moving on me, without the instruction of God, [and] I pull out a four-foot rattlesnake [and] hold it in my hands and say, 'God, don't fail me now,' then I have tempted God. I have preached that. I have made snake-handling people, their mouths drop when I preach that. If God instructs you, there is no harm, there is no danger. You don't think about the serpent, it's a peace of mind, it (the anointing) protects you. There is no harm, going by the anointing of God. … Without God instructing you, yes you are tempting God. That would be just like putting a .38 pistol to your head and playing Russian Roulette.
CP: How does handling poisonous snakes while worshipping God help your faith, or your relationship with God?
Hamblin: It don't necessarily help my faith or my relationship with God. Like I've always told [others], my faith don't lie in a snake, my faith lies in Christ. All that it is, is a sign to the nonbeliever of God's power. I always go back to healing the sick or anything else. If someone is miraculously healed, it's not done for the believer. The believer already believes in Christ and already believes in his power. It is done for the sign to the nonbeliever, that there is a God in heaven and that they can experience this same greatness as anyone else can.
CP: So, for you, serpent handling is a form of evangelism?
Hamblin: To me, it would be…just like faith healers, you've got Benny Hinn [as] one, they've got these megachurches with faith healing. We do the same thing, but we don't have people lining up in wheelchairs because it takes, to me — and no offense to nobody — but it takes something real to heal a sick [person], not a scam or a show. This is not done for a show, this is not done to glorify myself. Serpent handling, speaking in tongues, healing the sick, anything that is done, should always be done for the glory of God.
But I would go as far as saying that's what it is (evangelism). It's a sign to the nonbeliever, to say, 'You don't have to do this. You don't never have to do this. But let me introduce you to a man who can let you do it.' And when they begin to learn about Christ, their mind is no longer focused on a rattlesnake as much as it is on 'I want to learn about Jesus.'
CP: Do you think the serpent-handling tradition might grow stronger due to "Snake Salvation?" Or might the tradition eventually die out?
Hamblin: My personal opinion is that it has never died away and it never will. In Bell County, Kentucky, there are probably 60 churches alone that handle serpents regularly like we do.
If every Christian that believed in taking up serpents would step up to mainstream media like me and Pastor Coots have … we could be as mainstream as the Southern Baptists. But because of, whatever the reasons may be, they stayed backward, they stay out of the spotlight. We've had more persecution, not from sinner people or people who don't understand, we've had persecution from other serpent-handlers that we was wrong by doing the TV show, that we're bringing a reproach. My answer to them is this: If you're ashamed of it, don't do it. If you're ashamed of what God has taught you to do, then don't do it. I don't care if there's a camera around or not.
To me, it will never go away. To me, it will only grow stronger. To me, through these TV shows, it's gonna restore faith. People might not never take up serpents, but people...who knows. In a year's time, I may have a church as large as Billy Graham's crusades, you never know. My dream is to be able to convince my fellow Christian pastors, no matter what denomination, let's work together. Let's lay these differences aside. Let's work together to see the lost saved, to see our nation be prayed for, to see our government be prayed for, to see these ones that are bound by drugs, suicide, depression, and alcohol and different things... Let's pray together and believe, 'Hey, that man's a snake handler, that man's a Catholic priest, that man's a Baptist pastor...' Let's all agree together that God can and still does perform miracles in this day and time.
CP: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Hamblin: We welcome everybody, anyone and everyone that reads this...I do have a Facebook page, they are more than welcome to contact me. If they want to come to our services and be with us, they're more than welcome. And if there's anything else I could ever do for anybody in this world, let me know and I'll do my best to go the extra mile.