Why It Matters What You Believe

By Robin Schumacher

Pentecostal Pastor Jamie Coots, one of the co-stars on the National Geographic's "Snake Salvation" TV show, died Saturday, February 15th after receiving a bite from one of his snakes during a church service earlier that night. The Middlesboro, KY, police reported that Coots refused medical treatment for his snake bite and was found dead in his home at about 10 p.m.

Why would Coots do such a thing? The answer, it appears, is that he embraced parts of the controversial and much-debated ending in the book of Mark: "These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover" (Mark 16:17–18).

This very unfortunate episode underscores an important truth for everyone: it matters greatly what you believe. Why? Simply put, because in most cases consequences exist for being wrong.

An Unfashionable Position

Like wearing white after Labor Day, it's very unfashionable these days to make the claim that a particular belief is not true. The philosophical pluralists who insist that every belief is on the same evidential playing field and the postmodernists who assert there is no objective truth will loudly protest any challenge to the "true for you but not for me" position. Then there are the apatheists, which say they "don't know and don't care because it doesn't matter."

However, let's first remember that the pluralist's and postmodernist's opinions are self-defeating. The pluralist must face the reality that, while they say all beliefs are equal and true, they deny the belief of the Christian who says all beliefs are not equal (i.e. the pluralist says the Christian's belief is "wrong"). In the same vein, the postmodernist must confront the fact that their claim of there being no objective truth is an objective truth.

Next, let's also not forget that the apatheist doesn't approach his/her life in total with their philosophy. Give an apatheist the wrong medicine or the wrong financial advice and you can be assured they'll let you know about it.

All of these "ists" assume their stance in order to not offend people, which on the surface seems like an admirable thing to do. But it is flawed thinking and fails to make this important distinction: all people are equally valuable, but not all ideas are. Avoiding those bad ideas/beliefs is smart because we steer clear of undesired outcomes.

Deep down we know and practice this. For example, if I'm shopping at a particular store thinking I'm getting the best possible price, but you show me a different store that saves me even more money, I won't be offended, but will be very grateful because you've corrected me and helped me avoid the consequence of losing money.

But when it comes to matters of worldview and religion, we act and think differently as if there's nothing to lose. Skeptics say this is because, unlike the financial example above, these are areas that cannot be as easily verified empirically and so they must be regarded as being uncertain.

But as Mr. Coots and his family discovered, that's not always true.

The Longer Ending in Mark

Pastor Coots relied on a much debated section of Scripture to protect him from his practices of handling snakes during church services. But should he? A scholarly examination of the passage as well as a historical review of other individuals who put their trust in those verses would have served him well.

Christians naturally get very touchy when someone makes the claim that a particular section of the Bible isn't legitimate. Fortunately, the science of Biblical criticism (a terribly sounding phrase, I know…) helps provide confidence in making such determinations. When it comes to the longer ending of Mark 16 (vv. 9-20), the majority of Bible scholars agree that it is spurious and very likely was added by a redactor after Mark was written.

What evidence supports this claim? First, the verses are missing in the two earliest codices B and Aleph (Vaticanus and Sinaiticus), in codex K (codex Bobbiensis, the best exemplar of the earliest African Old Latin text), the Sinaitic Syriac, and other very early manuscripts. Further, early church fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen seem not to have known them.

Also, according to Eusebius, the famous church historian who was born about the year 260 AD and died around the year 340, "the most accurate copies" and "almost all the copies" of Mark's Gospel ended with the words of 16:8, "… for they were afraid." Jerome also writes that almost all the Greek copies he knew of lacked the verses. [1]

From an internal evidence perspective, about 1/3 of the significant Greek words in verses 9–20 of chapter 16 are "non-Marcan," that is, they do not appear elsewhere in Mark or they are used differently from Mark's usage prior to verse 9. [2]

For these and other reasons, nearly every Bible other than the King James Version heavily documents the skepticism toward the longer ending of Mark. There is no question that later Greek manuscripts contain the verses, but when the manuscript evidence is properly evaluated instead of just counted, the balance swings heavily toward the omission of the disputed verses.

To put a more practical perspective on it, these verses are not something on which someone like Jamie Coots should have bet his life.

Examining Things Carefully

Let's not forget that being wrong about a belief can have tragic outcomes — not just in this life but also in the next. For example, my family has become friends with another family whose college-age daughter is beginning to practice Wicca. She is very intelligent, bound for medical school, and is quite open about her new beliefs.

I hope we are given an opportunity to have a deeper conversation with her about it where we can ask important open-ended questions like, what evidence do you have that the Wiccan beliefs are true and, why do you believe that the goddess Gaia actually exists?

The Apostle Paul tells us, "examine everything carefully" (1 Thessalonians 5:21) for a reason. Whether it's a misguided pastor who puts his trust in spurious Bible verses (while at the same time putting God to the test — Matthew 4:7), or a smart college girl following a false religion, they both eventually learn an unfortunate truth: consequences exist for being incorrect.

To be sure, being mistaken about something in this life is one thing, but where eternity is concerned, that is simply far too long a time to be wrong.

1. Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953-2001). Vol. 10: Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark. New Testament Commentary (683). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
2. Grassmick, J. D. (1985). Mark. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck, Ed.) (Mk 16:9–20). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

Published 2-25-14