I really wanted the title to be: “Where in Hell is Fred Phelps?” but I’m trying to grapple with my feelings about the death of this old man. It’s been so easy to hate him, to dismiss his “church” as a cult and to cheer those who have rallied to thwart their hate-mongering ways. When I heard the news he was dying, the old questions about heaven and hell, reward and punishment came flying back in.
I prefer to believe in an afterlife in which we are returned to the river of Divine life, whatever that will actually mean. My hope is that each of us then will be completely whole, fully healed of all the slings and arrows of life, perfectly in a state of shalom. I say I prefer to believe this because I don’t know if this is true any more than those who long for clouds, pearly gates and harps know their version is true. But my understanding and experience of the character of God leads me to believe in this kind of vision.
That is until someone like Fred Phelps dies. Then it gets harder for me to give up the idea of Hell. Or at least the concept of Divine punishment. Surely he must pay for the harm he’s done, not only to those he’s railed against but also his own family, who he’s poisoned and damaged. His hateful legacy goes on – it even came back to bite him when he himself was ex-communicated.
We had a similar conversation about this at our mid-week Lent book discussion of Joan Chittester’s God’s Tender Mercy. It was fairly easy to include absolutely everyone as deserving of God’s mercy. Until we got down to specific people, like Bernie Madoff, Wall Street bankers and, of course, Fred Phelps. Where do we go with our outrage? Where do we go with our longing for justice? Does God really love us all the same, even when the sinner is unrepentant? It’s a hard pill to swallow.
But it’s a good one. I’ve been immensely impressed with the response of people from various places on the spiritual/religious spectrum. Most have shown a measure of compassion and grace that they were never shown by Phelps and his ilk. I am glad to be in a world with people such as these. No one excuses his behavior or will stop working against the kind of evil he channeled. But I have to believe that they exhibit something of the Divine reception of Fred Phelps into the afterlife.
I’m sure that there will always be people who will challenge my notion of Heaven and my non-notion of Hell. But I’m also sure that I don’t want to return to a reward/punishment theology. I can laugh at cartoons that parody such a belief, but I wouldn’t wish this kind of heaven on Fred, let alone Adam and Steve.
I hope that Fred Phelps has been welcomed into the great river of Divine Oneness. I also hope that there is some consciousness of the incredible grace afforded him, both by God and by those he has hurt. (Check out Pastor Megan Rohrer’s response at http://revrohrer.blogspot.com/2014/03/fred-phelps-is-dead-and-i-am-not-is.html)
Maybe, hopefully, some of this generosity of spirit will spill over into the hearts of family members still caught in their web of hate. It will surely inspire us to continue to work against this kind of “religion” wherever it rears its ugly head, whether from the Phelps family in Topeka, KS or Pastor James David in Harlem, NY- no matter what we believe about the afterlife.
And if you don’t agree with me, well, you can just go to . . .
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