News reached the world this past Sunday that Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, was dying. That church, of course, has distinguished itself by its theology of hatred, and the hateful actions that it gave rise to, based on Mr. Phelps’s twisted, distorted version of the Gospel. Phelps and his Westboro followers (who are, apparently, mostly members of his own family) have spent their lives telling the world how much, in their opinion, God hates various categories of people. And they have harbored a special hatred for the gay and lesbian community. Their “God Hates Fags” signs were to be seen at the various funerals and other events they chose to picket, though in recent years, their pickets have been overwhelmed by those who had enough of their hateful speech and actions.
As Mr. Phelps approaches the end of his earthly life, the question that might arise in the minds of many is this: does God hate Fred Phelps? It would be tempting for those of us who have been so upset, angered, and undone by Mr. Phelps’s massive distortion of Christianity and the biblical tradition to hope that the divine judgment will not be favorable toward him, that he will find himself the recipient of what he has dished out to others over the years, that he will find himself surprised by a consignment to a hell to which he was so ready to consign others. But this hope, as understandable as it is, brings God down to our level. It supposes that God thinks as we do, that the divine justice is but a reflection of our human understanding of justice. Such a hope turns God into what Fred Phelps sought to turn God into: a far too small embodiment of our own fears and prejudices. We would do well to remember the words of the prophet Isaiah:
let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.… (Isaiah 55:7b-9)
I have a feeling that Mr. Phelps will find himself in hell for a while, but it will not be a hell to which God consigns him out of anger or justice. Instead, it will be a hell of Mr. Phelps’s own making, and one that will, I think, not last for eternity. For I think that Fred Phelps will — as all of us will, when our moment comes — find himself, upon crossing the threshold of death, embraced by the fullness of Divine Love. When he, and we, are embraced by that Love, we will become aware that this Love is not just for us. It is for all. This Love is a Love that exists beyond all rivalry, all shame, all fear, and even death itself. This Love is a Love that teaches us, in a moment, that the words “hatred” and “God” have nothing to do with each other. This Love is a Love whose breadth is such that all come within its embrace. And, I think, in that moment, we will each become keenly aware of that which is within us that is Not Love. And it will be taken away from us, if we are willing for it to be. It will be taken away from us not through condemnation or judgment, but through being overwhelmed by the Divine Love that seeks to convert that which is Not Love to only Love.
That moment when our Not Love touches the Divine Love is a moment of hell. It is a moment when we become fully aware of the places within ourselves that remain alienated from God. But that moment need not last more than the twinkling of an eye, for the Divine Love will undoubtedly rush toward these parts of ourselves to embrace and transform with infinite compassion. Yet, all that our traditions tell us is that God never forces us. God only invites, entices, beguiles. I suppose that were we to resist this Divine Love rushing upon us it would retreat, respecting the boundary we have established, refusing to violate our freedom even if doing so means that we will suffer as we continue to maintain at least a partial separation between ourselves and the Divine Love that longs to fully embrace us. It is hard for me to imagine refusing the embrace of that Love when it is manifested to us so clearly. But I suppose it must be possible. Just as we place ourselves in various hells in this life, so perhaps some of us will persist to do so in the life to come.
I will pray for Fred Phelps this week, hoping that his moment of hell will indeed be short-lived, and that he will allow his spirit to be enlarged by the Divine Love that he so steadfastly tried to deny to so many in this life and, thus, did not experience himself. I pray that he will learn the truth of these words for the first time:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)