Phelps’ preoccupation with God’s hate for people came, not from the Bible, as he would have had us believe, but from his own mind. Must have been terrible for those who were the recipients of his animosity, and for their families. But it must have been terrible for Phelps, too, to live with all that hatred.
Phelps will answer now for his sins, just as we all will. I doubt many will be able to whip up much sympathy for him, and judging from his life he wouldn’t care anyway. But, thinking about his death, I’m thinking of that table where Jesus sat with respectable, religious people and one sinner, a woman whose history had made her a pariah. And while the religious people grumbled about what kind of person she was, Jesus was talking about forgiveness and love. “This woman knows how to love,” he said, “because she’s clear on how much forgiveness she’s received. But the one who thinks they’ve had little need of forgiveness has a hard time with love.”
That, I think, was where Fred Phelps sat - in the chair of that Pharisee, bewildered by love because he knew only judgment, distrusting grace because he had never let himself admit his need for it.
And, I think, as believers in that grace, we have to remember that it extends all around the table. To sinners discovering the joy of a new life, yes, but also to hardened, angry pastors who don’t know how to love anyone, even the Lord. If you believe Jesus, the only way folks like that will learn to love is if those who know God’s grace extend it to them.
It doesn’t really matter what you think of Fred Phelps now. He’s gone. But there are lots of people out there, on both sides of the church doors, who need to know of God’s love. On the one side are those who think God hates them, and they need to see that he doesn’t. On the other side are those who are convinced God hates everyone else. What both sides need is grace made flesh in the actions and words of those who have experienced it first-hand. Then maybe no one else will have to live with the lie that God hates.