What we learn about hope this advent from the snake

November 28, 2022

“Kill it again, Charles! Kill it again!”

I’d heard the punch line a dozen times, but it never failed to send me into a fit of giggles. That my grandma, the strongest, bravest woman I knew, would be the source of it made it even funnier.

She’d grown up in the mountains during the Great Depression, the middle child of 10. Her people were farmers who understood the goodness of hard work, laughter, and family, so once a year, we’d make our way back to their hills for a reunion where the siblings swapped memories and told tales on one another. I remember passels of cousins by varying degrees, games of softball, an outhouse, a creek, and tables full of food—potato salad, ham, and butterscotch pie.

But my favorite time for stories was curled up in my grandma’s bed on the nights I was allowed to stay over. Our days together were for work—cleaning, blackberry picking, and gardening—but the nights were for storytelling. She’d dress me in layers and socks and tuck me in under piles of blankets. Sweating, I’d throw them off, but she’d put them right back on, determined that I wouldn’t be cold.

Then in the darkness, I’d whisper, “Grandma, tell me about the time . . .”

I had a whole repertoire of stories to choose from: the time she’d overturned the churn and spilled the family’s cream for the week or how she walked three miles to high school in good weather and boarded in town in bad. But one of my favorite stories was when she and her older brothers were out making hay under a blazing summer sun.

She’d been assigned to the top of the wagon, and as her brothers threw up pitchforks of hay, she’d stamp them down to make room for more. The system was working fine until a tremendous black snake came flying through the air straight at her—an unfortunate hitchhiker on someone’s fork of hay. As quickly as it had come up, she sent it back down, where her brother stabbed it. But satisfied with nothing less than the reptile’s eternal damnation, she screamed, “Kill it again, Charles! Kill it again!”

The snake and the promise 

In all fairness to the snake, seeing one in a hay field isn’t uncommon, and most are entirely harmless. There’s the black racer—long, shiny, darting here and there; the northern ring- necked with its yellow collar; and the eastern garter, a striped snake that apparently to someone, somewhere, once resembled the aforementioned accessory. You will occasionally spot more harmful snakes, the kind that send a shiver up your spine and have earned the aversion we carry against the species as a whole. Timber rattlers make their home in wooded areas, blending into the underbrush, while their neighbor the copperhead prefers more open habitats like overgrown fields, dilapidated barns, and rock ledges.

When you encounter a snake, however, the best thing to do is nothing. Even a venomous snake would rather move along than bite you. So catch your breath, calm your heart, and watch it for a few seconds before it glides out of sight. If you do, you’ll see one of the most unexpected, and unnerving, spectacles in the animal kingdom.

Limbless, a snake propels itself in waves, writhing and slithering along the ground. To climb, it will coil around a tree or pole, scrunching and creeping upward. To burrow, it relies on “rectilinear locomotion,” a unique coordination of scale and muscle movements that allow it to push its body forward in a straight line. Surprisingly, this uncanny way of getting around is the first specific animal phenomenon recorded in Scripture. And perhaps even more surprisingly, the snake is the first to receive the promise of Christmas.

According to Genesis, after God made the man and woman, he placed them in a garden which they shared with the animals. For a while, everything was good and beautiful and exactly as God planned; but a twist was coming, a twist in the form a winding, coiling, curling reptile. One day a snake shows up, and with subtle, hissing words, convinces them to do the one thing God had forbidden: to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Immediately, a curse descends; the man and woman are banished from the garden; and nothing is the same again.

For its part in the deceit, God sentences the snake to its unique movement:

You are cursed more than any livestock and more than any wild animal.
You will move on your belly
and eat dust all the days of your life.

But then he promises this:

I will put hostility between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring.
He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel (Gen. 3:15).

Theologians call this passage the protevanglium, or the first announcement of the good news, because it foreshadows the birth of the One who will undo the serpent’s deceit along with its lethal aftermath. Eve’s hope—our hope—was that this coming Promised Son would crush the serpent and all it represents, even as he suffers in the process.

But here’s something curious: the news of a Redeemer wasn’t given to Eve, not directly at least. It was given to the snake. And it was given in the form of a warning: judgment is coming. The power you hold over the earth will one day be taken from you. So for the snake, Christmas is far from good news. Or is it?

Of course, the snake of Genesis 3 is not simply a snake, not like the ring-necked and garter snakes in my backyard. Revelation 12:9 speaks of an “ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the one who deceives the whole world.” And elsewhere in Scripture, snakes represent sin and our own bent toward falsehood. Romans 3:13, for example, says

There is no one who does what is good, not even one.
Their throat is an open grave; they deceive with their tongues. Vipers’ venom is under their lips.

But here’s something even more unexpected than the fact that Christmas was first announced to a reptile. In John 3:14-16, Jesus likens his redemptive work to a miracle that occurred centuries earlier when God healed the Israelites of poisonous snakebites by having them look to a bronze serpent on a pole. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness,” Jesus says, “so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”

And just like that, those who once followed the snake into damnation, now proclaim the grace of Christ in salvation. Those cursed by their own disobedience are now blessed by the obedience of another. I wonder about this. I wonder how the snake—so long associated with sin and death—could be associated with Christmas. I wonder until I remember the heart of the Creator for his creation. The God who knows every sparrow that falls, who numbers the stars, who holds the seas in his hand—would this same God let his creation be taken from him? Would he so easily give up what he has created and called “good”?

No. This is a God who redeems. This is a God who restores—both for those who have suffered under the deceit of sin and those who have deceived others. Because one day, evil will be crushed under the heel of the Promised Son, and his blessings will flow “far as the curse is found.”

And when he does, the snake that was once a sign of sin’s dominion will become a sign of our complete and final redemption. In Isaiah 11:8–9, the prophet tells us of the day when the Promised Son will finally and fully reign over his creation. In that day,

an infant will play beside the cobra’s pit,
and a toddler will put his hand into a snake’s den.
They will not harm or destroy each other on my entire holy mountain.

The hope of the snake is our hope. We, who with poison on our lips have deceived and been deceived, to us, the promise is given: a Savior has come, and a Savior will come. And when he is lifted up, all who look to him will find life—everlasting and eternal.

This article is an excerpt from the new book, Heaven and Nature Sing by Hannah Anderson from B&H Publishing (2022).

Hannah Anderson

Hannah Anderson lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with her husband, Nathan, and their three children, ages 12-17. They have been married for 20 years and have spent much of that time in local church ministry in rural communities. Hannah is the author of multiple books including Humble … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24