The gospel according to Fred Phelps was warped, but behind every extremism lies a nugget of truth.
Phelps needed proof that he was honoring God and measured his worthiness to preach the Gospel based upon the anger it generated. As misdirected as this may have been, there are countless biblical and real-life examples in which the Gospel does indeed make people angry.
For some to hear they need a Savior produces intense anger at the message – and the messenger. You don’t have to do anything extra to trigger their anger. The mention of Jesus is enough.
Sadly, though, Phelps stretched this to an extreme. He trained Westboro Baptist Church to ruthlessly insult and intimidate vulnerable people. God could never be pleased by their childish and crude protests at the funerals of gay teens and fallen military heroes.
At the death of Fred Phelps, the best thing we can do is transcend hate.
1. Transcend Hate: Don’t Fuel It
We should never minimize harms perpetrated by Westboro, but in some respects it is too easy to pick on Phelps. The death of the 84-year old described as “the most hated man in America” has yielded waves of hateful online tweets and comments. This gives Fred Phelps exactly what he wanted. It fuels his brand of gospel. It empowers his surviving family to continue their crusade.
To transcend hate requires love but also humility and self-examination. We must consider how we take nuggets of religious truth and turn them into extreme ideas that dishonor God. The “right-wing wacko” stereotype comes to mind when we talk about religious extremism, but there is just as much liberal extremism. A full spectrum of extremism lurks behind many ideas about God.
2. Hope in Heaven: Never Celebrate Hell
Some are celebrating the prospect of Phelps rotting in hell. Hell is a real place. Jesus spoke about it extensively. He warned the sexually immoral and many other sinners that hell is an eternal reality. This should give us pause before we ever wish it on someone. Particularly in light of the scariest words Jesus ever spoke: “with the measure you use, that’s the measure you will receive.”
Whatever you think about Phelps, I pray he is in Heaven. All the things he did that dishonored God will burn up for sure (that goes for us too), but I hope the man himself will be saved. Last summer, Phelps was apparently ex-communicated by Westboro Baptist Church. His family went to extremes to shield anyone from talking to him. Could it be that he experienced an awakening?
We may never know, but we can pray so. God measures the heart. It would not have required us to see the change in his heart. It would not have been necessary for him to have time to undo many works that displeased God. It would have only required a whisper in the heart: “Father, forgive me.”
Is that an offensive thought to you: the idea of Fred Phelps being in Heaven?
No one should fear Heaven because Fred Phelps is there. As an earthen creature made of dust, he could be ruthless. But if he is in Heaven, this is certain: God has thoroughly washed him of any hate. He will from this day forth reflect the full beauty and shining glory of God’s amazing love!
If we protest that Phelps must go to hell, remember Jesus’ stark warning.
3. Be Objective: Extremism Has Many Forms
We all fall short of God’s glory. We all think, do and say things that are displeasing to God. We all need a Savior. Some of our sins we see. Others are obvious to everyone but us. For all the ways we sin, we need the sacrifice of Jesus.
Beyond everyday sinning, though, there are other ways that we dishonor God. When we turn God into rigid legalism, we dishonor Him. When we casually dismiss God, we dishonor Him. When we accommodate our sins, we dishonor Him. When we deny our sins, we dishonor Him.
At the death of Fred Phelps, it is too easy for us to escape deeper questions about God. Fred Phelps was wrong, but surely there was (and is) something of worth in the passion he felt about God. I think the nugget of truth behind his many errors was a deep conviction that God is holy.
Thinking about this objectively, it is a reality that both culture and the church rarely allow prophets to speak hard truths. This too is a form of extremism: one that dismisses or reduces God to fit our demands and preferences. God is indeed holy. We need to remember this. Yes, He is loving too.
4. Be a Peacemaker
Gay Community leaders are providing an admirable example of how to respond to the death of Fred Phelps. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force acknowledged that Phelps will not be missed by many LGBT+ people, but added: “While it is hard to find anything good to say about his views or actions, we do give our condolences to his family members at what must be a painful time for them.”
5. Live the Gospel
At the death of Fred Phelps, let us transform the energy of hate into dialogue, compassion, peace and love. Let us also redeem the nugget of truth behind Phelp’s misdirected passion by seeking to humbly understand God’s holiness. Putting the two together – worshiping God in holiness and freely extending His love to others – is what it means to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In Christ’s name, amen.
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