What the Life and Death of Fred Phelps Taught Me About Heaven, Hell, Love, Hate, and Myself

March 26, 2014
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As WBC members protest in Kansas City, opponents meet them with condolences.

Of course you probably know that Fred Phelps died last week.

The event was a bit more significant here in my neck of the woods, with Westboro being just about 90 minutes away.  That’s close enough that there have been plenty of Westboro Baptist Church pickets here in Kansas City.

Just about anyone would consider Westboro Baptist Church a hate group. Just about anyone would consider the life of it’s founder, Fred Phelps, to have been wasted.  His legacy has been a waste.

He was a frustrated, angry man on the fringes, who as a lawyer used to work civil rights cases, then was defeated for political office seven times, and then built a church as a platform for his frustrations.

And even though he is gone, WBC lives on, with enough energy to even protest the Lourde concert here in town, for no apparent reason.

I have spent the last few days thinking about what the death of this man means, a man so famous for being so hateful.  

And the thing is, perhaps quite by accident, the life of Fred Phelps quite plainly confronts many of the truths that you and I hold to be absolute.

Heaven and Hell at Funerals

The thing about funerals is that, when you are at one, the deceased person is always in heaven.

It doesn’t matter how much we talk about hell any other day.

It doesn’t matter if we believe in a literal, conscious, eternal hell.  When someone dies, they suddenly become a saint who is surely floating along in heaven, looking pleasantly down on us.

The whole debate on hell is rather moot, because when it comes down to it and someone we know and love dies, no one actually goes to hell.

That is, until, someone we want to go to hell dies. You don’t have to go very far to find someone memorializing Phelps with a, “Good riddance,” or a “May he burn in hell,”  or some other curse.

See, when it comes to people we want to get to heaven, we cannot imagine a loving God who would send them to hell. But when it comes to the death of an utterly despicable person, suddenly we can’t imagine a loving God who doesn’t send that person to hell.  Suddenly, we start sounding like the ancient, bloodthirsty barbarians, sacrificing hearts on top of the temple mount to the sun god.

A man like Fred Phelps makes us re-evaluate what God will do with us.  But whatever God has done with Fred Phelps is his business, and you and I don’t have one thing to say about it.  That’s surely a good thing.

Sometimes, Intolerance Is Right

Now, in modern America, I think we like to consider ourselves pretty tolerant.

That word tolerant has very nearly been added to our list of national virtues (though like our other national virtues, there is often quite a gap between our ideals and our reality.)

Despite that, we believe that we are tolerant of others.  We believe that we give other people a chance to be heard, that we are fair-minded, that we do not pass judgement on others.  No, it doesn’t really matter that all the evidence says we are more politically polarized, more divided, more hostile and more suspicious of everyone.  We think we are tolerant.

But then, every so often, as if the planets have aligned, a man like Fred Phelps blesses us with his presence…

…And it is that contrast between that man and the men and women we want to be that makes our ever so tolerant society say “No, we do not tolerate this.”  

It is the presence of sheer, unabashed, irrational hate that has clarified the beliefs of so many people, if only to say, “We are not like that.”  

Sometimes, it is right to be intolerant.  I don’t think Americans usually get it right.  But being intolerant toward WBC is right.

We Are Better Than Fred Phelps…Right?

Finally, and perhaps most frighteningly, is this:

Let’s admit it.  For all of our talk about Jesus and the cross and our redemption and our sins, we believe that we are basically good people, so much so that I bet more than a few people will be pretty intolerant toward what I’m about to say.

After all, we obey the laws.  We help our neighbors out.  We go to church.  We aren’t wrapped up in the vanity of social media…er…never mind.

We are good people.

And maybe not too many of us will catch this, but when I look at Fred Phelps, I see a man.

A human being.

A human being who shared the same basic genetic makeup as you and I.

I saw a man who died a slave to his beliefs.  I saw a man who didn’t have a drop of the Holy Spirit in him.  I saw a man in his completely natural state.  

And I realized that all of my anger, left unchecked, would leave me in exactly the same as Fred Phelps.

All of my jealousy, all of my wounded brokenness, everything inside me, except but for God’s grace, would make me everything that Fred Phelps was.

Fred Phelps was not a good man.

And neither am I.

That’s what I think of the man.  What about you?  What has the life and death of this man taught or clarified for you?

3 responses to What the Life and Death of Fred Phelps Taught Me About Heaven, Hell, Love, Hate, and Myself

  1. Couple of thoughts–

    1) I have a small request–it’s all well and good to say “well, whether or not someone goes to Hell is God’s decision and it’s not our place to say if it happens”, but if you’re going to say that, could you please start applying that reasoning to EVERYONE? A lot of the evangelical Christians that I come across (my own family included) have no problems stating with absolute certainty that John Lennon, or Ghandhi, or George Carlin are in Hell right now. Yet when a truly awful person who happens to have the “Christian” brand attached dies, it’s all hemming and hawing and “well we dont know for sure” and “God will take care of judging him”, etc. My parents did the exact same thing when Jerry Falwell died and I’m seeing the same thing done with Phelps now. I don’t care what y’all think–just pick one or the other and stick with it!

    2) There have been a couple of posts over at “Love, Joy, Feminism” on the topic of Heaven and Hell from an atheist/ex-fundamentalist perspective which I think are worth checking out. I think a lot of evangelicals a) don’t realize how jacked-up their theology regarding the afterlife actually sounds 2) don’t realize that, in some cases, this jacked-up thinking is actually driving folks away from the church rather than bringing them any good news.

  2. I like your take here. Regardless of our feelings about Phelps, we need to check our heart and make sure we’re not the Pharisee Jesus spoke of in Luke 18.

  3. I am Fred Phelps but for the grace of my Lord. Good reminder – of something I’m all too prone to forget.