I was 19 the first time I encountered the Westboro Baptist Church. I lived in Kansas, but somehow, I never knew about them until I drove past one of their neon protests one Sunday afternoon, only a few miles from my house.

I’d never seen people so proud of hate, displayed on placards, shouted at passing cars. Eyes full of sadness and anger.

That day, all I could think about was my friend, Mike. I’d only just met him a few weeks before. He had just come out to his family, and he’d been introducing me to all his friends in the LGBT community. I’d fallen in love with these new friends. And even though most of them didn’t know or like God, I desperately wanted them to know God still knew and liked them.

Yet here were these people, calling themselves Christians, effectively erasing the love I wanted my friend to know with only a few words of powerless rage.

Instantly, my heart filled up with its own anger. And then it broke. The tears burst forth, welling up so that I could no longer see to drive. I pulled my Honda over to the side of the road, weeping for my friend, bitter toward these “monsters”.

My heart calloused over quickly, unable to love the ones who could not love. More like them in my mirrored hate than I wanted to admit.

This is the sign I should’ve had. [Click photo for credit}

This last week Fred Phelps Sr’s son, Nate, who left the church over 30 years ago, informed Facebook his father had been excommunicated from the church and was near death. (The most frequently stated reason for his excommunication was that Fred Sr. advocated for a “kinder approach” in dealing with church members, and as he did this, his own church cast him aside.)

It seems a cruel irony: the man who regularly held a Top 5 slot for Most Hated Person in the US died alone in a hospice room, his own family barred from visiting him.

From what I saw on the road that day 13 years ago, and in the years that followed, Fred’s life never emanated love. His gospel seemed to be one of seething anger, not toward the whole world, but specifically toward the LGBT community.

If I compared Jesus and Fred, I don’t know if I would see a single similarity. But does that mean Jesus didn’t love Fred Phelps? Did Jesus die for someone as awful as him? Or was Fred the exception?

I know it’s easy to assume Fred didn’t make the leap. That his hatred kept him from accepting a salvation purchased only by love. Many people are even celebrating his death, wishing a hell into existence – if they don’t believe in one – just for him.

But today, my heart is broken again. This time it’s for Fred. 

He died alone. And who knows what spun in his heart and mind in those final hours. I wonder if he felt guilt. Regret. Remorse. I can’t imagine being in the last days of my life, knowing I spent it all to cause others pain, and agonizingly aware I cannot take a single word back. Can’t heal one broken heart.

I’ve felt guilt before. It’s a lot like death. And I wonder if guilt killed Fred. I wonder if, late in his life, as his years were heaping up on him and his health was failing, if he couldn’t even get behind own beliefs anymore? What if he subconsciously excommunicated himself?

I often struggle to receive forgiveness. I don’t deserve it, even though I want to earn it. And that’s something Fred and I have in common, that we don’t deserve to be forgiven.

But maybe he begged God for forgiveness anyway, wanted to finally take him up on the Gospel Jesus preached. Maybe Love showed up on Fred Phelps’ death bed, just like the moment the mocking thief on the cross turned to Jesus. Maybe Fred and the thief are in heaven now, overjoyed, because the ones “who have been forgiven much, love much”.

I know we want to think heaven is a nice place full of average, not-so-bads like me and you, people who rarely say the mean things out loud, whose worst offense is gossip or an extra-long lunch.

But heaven is an escaped convicts row. It’s a potluck of criminals and Mother Theresas. It’s downright offensive to think who is eating lunch together up there. 

But if that pisses us off, we are missing the point.

Jesus didn’t die neatly by lethal injection or food poisoning. He crashed into death the most obscene way. Just watching it in a movie makes my stomach turn. His violent and sobering death made possible the freedom of every man and woman, no matter how rotten, evil or scandalous.

Jesus didn’t endure extra beatings because of the world’s Hitler’s, Milosevic’s or Phelps’. His death was gruesome because that’s what sin is. All sin is death and decay. All sin rots us from the inside out, tears and shreds at our souls, leaves us lonely, outside relationship with God and humanity.

So today, I am sobered because that brutal and savage crucifixion was for me and Fred. I want to be up at that generous and sprawling banquet table some day, but I don’t write the guest list. Jesus, in his totally unfair distribution of love and forgiveness, offers it to anyone who will take it. Because he hates sin, and he hates hell more. It’s equal opportunity for me and Fred.

I don’t know if Fred received what Jesus offered, if he said “Yes” at the end, but I hope he did. I hope he made it to heaven’s church picnic the same as I hope I do. Because the truth is, I can’t earn my salvation any better than Fred can. I only hope I say “Yes” to grace every day til the end.

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16 thoughts on “What If Fred Is In Heaven?

  1. I’ve often been inclined to feel nothing but hate for Fred. One day (not sure what happened) my mindset changed to compassion. I prayed for him, that the Spirit would reveal His truth, that something or someone would penetrate his heart. Hopefully this is the beginning of the end of the Westboro legacy.


    1. I’m sure God would also characterize my feelings for the Westboro community as hate too. But there was something about the man on his death bed, at the end alone, that broke me. I hope love wins them all over, one by one.


  2. Sarah – that is the most beautiful and meaningful post that I have read in a very long time. My eyes welled when I read it and when I shared it on my facebook page. Amen, Sister!


  3. Sarah, thank you for sharing this. I have much sadness about his life’s “work”… I am sad that he spoke hate while calling himself a Christian.


    1. Evelyn, that breaks my heart too. Thank you for reading and joining the conversation here. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be God and be misunderstood and misrepresented in so many horrible ways. He is so kind, isn’t he?


  4. I, too, encountered Fred Phelps on my college campus and I was so angered by his hateful words. What a life to have been so immersed in hate. Seems like it would wear you out. But, when I heard he was dying, I felt saddness. I wonder how he felt on his last days. He and others very similar to him are a challenge to us to pray for our enemies, which is sooooo very hard. So hard in fact that we feel justified in not doing it. That is something I need to work on in myself. Great post.


    1. Amy, I know what you mean. They make themselves enemies and just managing our anger becomes a full-time job. I realized in all this that it doesn’t take much for a person to hate someone who also hates. Love transcends, and I agree, it is hard, but it’s the true work. Anyone can hate, but who can love?


  5. Thank you for posting these beautiful words. It is a relief to have my own sentiments validated by another and in such eloquence. The Holy Spirit was indeed speaking through you when you wrote this. THIS is Christian love. Right here. In this blog entry.


    1. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts here. I’ve been overwhelmed by how many people feel similarly. Love is such a powerful thing, that even when someone lives a life of hate, we can still choose love toward them. I know that’s heaven at work down here in us.

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