It is strange as a Christian to read of the death of a man with the title “pastor” and have a high degree of confidence that he is now in hell. The Bible is very clear that while salvation is by grace alone through faith in the works of Jesus Christ on our behalf, and that it is not given to anyone because of their good deeds in this life; the Bible is also very clear that people who have been saved by this free grace are in fact personally changed by that salvation, and that the fruit of their salvation flows out in their everyday lives. Fred Phelps has spent decades putting the rotten fruit of his fallen heart on display for all of the world to see, as he has spread as much hate and pain as he was able in his 84 years of life. Even worse, he has grossly misrepresented the God of heaven to an entire generation of spectators. Yet here as always, God will not be mocked. Although we must always make the caveat that only God knows the ultimate realities of the heart, the title of “pastor” is no barrier to my saying that if I think anyone went to hell when they died, I think this is true of Fred Phelps.
What should be the reaction of the Christian? These moments are difficult to navigate, but here are six thoughts to help guide us along.
1. We should condemn the mission, message, and methods of the Westboro Baptist Church without hesitation
It is quite true that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Biblical Christians must not flinch on this fact, no matter how far the pendulum of our culture’s value system continues to swing away from us. But there is simply no precedent for the sort of hateful, vile things that Westboro has done. Jesus was a friend of sinners. He could be very frank with them, but he was the sort of man that they were actually drawn too. It wasn’t the sinners who stirred up the crowd against him; it was actually the religious hypocrites. If Jesus came now, I believe it would actually be groups like Westboro that would be shouting, “crucify Him!” When you add to this the fact that this group picketed Military funerals for some convoluted connection to policies in support of the homosexual agenda, bringing great pain upon innocent grieving families, the filthy value system of these people is on full display. Christians must condemn such evil without a hint of hesitation.
2. We should not allow ourselves to be wrongfully identified with hate speech we do not own
There is always an attempt to hang such shameful distortions of the faith around the necks of all Christians. We must not allow this. Taking a principled stand for Biblical truth does not make you a bigot. The Bible is not hate speech. We must contend for a faithful and firm witness against a hostile culture that is seasoned with love, respect, and charity. We are not Fred Phelps, and we must object when we are made out to be for simply believing and proclaiming Biblical truth.
3. We should not give in to a morbid rejoicing over a man’s death
The point of this post is not to break out into a sort of sanctified version of “ding, dong the witch is dead.” God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and neither should we. It is a chilling thing to consider the awful reality of a man like Phelps being called to account before the Judge of all the earth. The culture will make this a cause of celebration. Obscene jokes will be made. Christians must not impugn our witness by taking part in such morbid rejoicing.
4. We should be thankful to God for providentially removing a man who persisted in great evil
The above point does not mean that we cannot be thankful for God’s providence in this matter. Although I would have vastly preferred that this pitiful and angry man be granted repentance, God has seen fit to remove his evil presence from the world by means of his death. I trust God that He has done rightly, and I do not hesitate to say I am thankful that Mr. Phelp’s mouth is now silenced. True, I suspect that his followers will persist in carrying out his mission, but I am hopeful that this marks the beginning of the end of the Westboro Baptist Church.
5. We should stand on Biblical truth, being a faithful witness against sin in all its spectrum of expression
The temptation to give up Biblical ground on the issue of homosexuality is great. The cultural pressure is already massive, and coercive tactics may not be far ahead. Brothers and sisters, we must not cave to this pressure. We must stand with the Word of God, even if all others stand against us for it. When read in proportion and balance, the Bible’s doctrine on this matter is already equipped to give a faithful answer to its critics. Our job is to stand strong and declare that witness. This means condemning sin in all its spectrum of expression, including homosexuality, while constantly pleading grace and pointing all who will listen to the redeeming love of Jesus Christ.
6. This is a moment for the gospel to transcend current events
Mr. Phelps was not just the enemy of gays and military families; he was the enemy of true Christians as well. Christians are called to hate sin, but also to love our enemies. How are we to grapple with this complex reality, this strange place we find ourselves in condemning his message, mission, and methods while standing firm against the sin of homosexuality? In ourselves, we are insufficient to the task. Yet it is moments like this that the transcendent brilliance of the gospel can break in. Yes, God hates Phelps in that Phelps is a sinner. God’s Holy character allows Him to do nothing else. But this is true of every single one of us. We are all sinners and are justly under the Holy hatred of God. Yet the unexpected and shocking scandal of Christianity is that God himself became a man in the person of Jesus Christ; that the Holy One came and suffered for the sins of men. This is why the love of God exceeds all earthly loves. There is no saga ever conceived which holds a candle to the blazing flame of God’s self-sacrificing love for sinners. Some of those he died for were bigots. Some were gay. Some were religious hypocrites. All stood in equal desperate need of his grace. He is our only hope, now and forevermore.
So in a sense, yes, God hates Phelps. And it’s temping to get out some markers and make a sign to that effect. But maybe the better thing is to be a faithful witness to the fact that God has hatred against all the sins of men under the sun, without distinction, whether it be homosexuality or adultery; bigotry or racism. Sins which often get a pass in Christian circles such as pride, gossip, and hypocricy are no less deserving of hell than anything perpetrated by Westboro or the Gay Lobby. But our plight is not hopeless. To the merchants of hate in Kansas and to the most resistant Homosexual; the call goes out from our Savior without distinction and without prejudice: Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
(By: Nicolas Alford)
Image Credit: David Zalubowski, AP