Are There No True Christians Left?

Handling serpents at the Pentecostal Church of...
Handling serpents at the Pentecostal Church of God. Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky., 09/15/1946 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is a true Christian, and how might we spot one in the wild? Of course, we could just ask a few Christians how they decide who deserves the label and who does not. It probably makes sense to assume that Christians would be in a better position to explain this than atheists, right? And yet, this rarely helps because Christians don't seem to agree on the question of who deserves to be called a "true Christian." In fact, this is a real point of contention among Christians.

Consider evangelical fundamentalist Christians for a moment. Many would say that a true Christian is anti-gay because the Christian bible condemns homosexuality. Or perhaps a true Christian opposes scientific theories (e.g., evolution) or actual discoveries (e.g., geological findings concerning the fossil record) because these theories and facts contradict the biblical account of creation. When reality contradicts their bible, the true Christian must distort or even deny reality in order to preserve the "truth" of their bible.

Most liberal Christians wouldn't agree with much of this, and some wouldn't agree with any of it. They would probably argue that their bible is more of a living document that needs to be reinterpreted with the changing times. They'd probably argue that a "real Christian" should not hate others but strive to be more like Jesus.

While it is often tempting to regard the fundamentalist as sticking more closely to a literal reading of his or her bible, it is clear that Christians of all varieties regularly disregard portions of this book when it suits them. Fundamentalists like to accuse liberal Christians of doing this, but they certainly do it too.

In turning to Mark 16:16-18, we read:

He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

In studying these words carefully, two things are clear (aside from the part about you awful atheists being damned). First, the statement that Christians "shall take up serpents" appears to be a bit more of a command than a suggestion. In the United States, there are serpent handling sects; however, their members are typically looked down upon by mainstream Christians. But this is the "holy" bible, and it says that we'll be able to recognize those who believe because they will handle serpents. Second, this passage states that a true Christian can drink a lethal dose of poison and not be harmed (is this what the Tide pod challenge is really about?). These things are in your bible so they must be true, right?

Unless you cast out devils, speak in tongues, handle serpents, survive poison, and heal the sick, it is not clear that you believe. In fact, if the bible is to be trusted, the absence of these signs would seem to indicate that you do not believe. And if you do not believe, I'm not sure you should be calling yourself a Christian, real or otherwise.

An earlier version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2005. It was edited to improve clarity and expanded with additional content in 2018.