Tuesday, March 18th, 2014
After hearing of Fred Phelps critical illness this past weekend, there were many posts on FaceBook sharing opinions of their response to the news of his impending death. I began to consider what I was feeling and thinking.
Fred Phelps spent much of his entire vocation giving emphasis to God even though it came through some very judgmental and harsh communication towards LBGTQ people and anyone else he believed should succumb to the eternal punishment, as he understood it should be doled out. His strong anti-gay stance has caused a lot of pain and harshly invaded the privacy of many people’s lives during their times of grief and trouble. He was not a man that was well thought of by most outside of his own community and actually hated by a lot of people.
But, what do we think of his impending death? What will happen to the soul of this man? The answer to this question is as varied as the people who are thinking about it today. Our personal philosophy and religious beliefs will drive our opinions. Our own experience with pain as we experienced his harsh judgment will be a filter in our hearts and minds as we see him take his last breath. His death can bring to the surface what we actually believe about God, redemption, judgment, salvation and eternity.
What are your thoughts about the end of your physical life? Will you go on to some kind of life? Will you fall into the hands of God for judgment? Will you find yourself in a place we call heaven? Will you die and never see life again? What about others? Is there an actual hell for those who somehow don’t meet the criteria of God’s permission to find heaven their final resting place? If they do meet the qualifications, will they end up in a perfect Eden? And, what are those qualifications? How good does one have to be to go there, or how bad do they have to be to end up in an eternal place of fire and suffering with no possibility of freedom – eternally? Or, is that decision truly based upon some application of faith?
I’ve pondered these questions for many, many years. For most of my life I can say I believed in two places at the end of life – Heaven or Hell. I didn’t question them. I just made the assumption that what I had been taught was true. I liked to ponder Heaven, but I really didn’t think much about Hell. I just didn’t want to end up there, nor did I want anyone I knew to end up there either.
A couple of years ago, I began to ask myself what I truly believed about hell and why. If hell is an eternal punishment, a raging burning fire with no opportunity to gain deliverance from its grasp, what did that really mean for us as God’s children? I finally had the freedom within myself to dig around in my heart with these questions. Within the conservative church life I have been a part of most of my life, these questions were not ones we asked often. If the question arose, there may have been a quick retort of a typical statement of belief, but it seemed there was no real opportunity to freely discuss other ways of thinking.
I had been taught that entrance to heaven, and the pass on hell i believed depended on the acceptance of Jesus Christ as our savior. Somehow in our heart of hearts we had to have faith in Jesus to a place of receiving salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ. If we believed in our hearts that we had done that, then we had some confidence that we would not be going to hell. We could then walk in the promise of eternal life with God in a perfect place that God had created for us. I understand that there are many variances on this concept, but this was a basic understanding of what I had learned and followed within my own life.
With all this in mind, I believed I had crossed that line of faith and held tightly to the hope of being with God eternally. I also had a great desire that those I loved would also find themselves holding to those promises. I had conversations with some of my loved ones to the place of believing they would also be with me in paradise. There were others, of course, that I didn’t have that same confidence would make the cut. I would often just block my mind from thinking too deeply about them and what God may do with them upon their death. Like most of us, I’ve lost grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins, and many friends in death. As each funeral came and went I experienced a lot of detachment with regards to where they may be. I held tightly to my belief in God’s love and hoped they weren’t in the burning fire for eternity.
How could anyone believe anything else? I mean, how many people have gone to a funeral of someone they loved and actually think that the person they loved could be in hell suffering for eternity? Could anyone actually go to the depths of that line of thinking and attend a funeral of someone they believed had not made the faith commitment to accept Jesus as their savior? What would we go through if we truly believed someone could end up in hell?
As Fred Phelps comes close to the gates of heaven, or hell, has he made a profession of faith believing in Jesus as his savior? Did he hold fast to a concept of salvation that will be enough to satisfy God’s wrath? Somewhere in his heart did he find the redemptive love of Jesus? Was his passion against homosexuality, or Fags, as he called us, due to a depth of faith so heavy that he truly did believe in the wrath of God for gay people? Would his faith bring him to an entrance to heaven even though he was so cruel, hateful, and vengeful in his actions? Did salvation cover the inward grime that seemed to permeate his life? Did Jesus forgive his sins?
Over the last couple of years I have gone back to reconsider my belief system, reread Scripture and reviewed all of the things I’ve heard through the years. I asked these questions anew. Can anyone actually go to Hell? If so, what would cause them to end up there? Would it be something they did? Would it be because they didn’t have saving faith, as we called it? Does God actually decide upon someone’s death whether or not they will go to the eternal punishing place? If God does, what is the outcome based on?
Or, does Jesus become the bridge to heaven for them? Does God’s love truly cover a multitude of sins? Is the forgiveness of Christ enough for those who’ve done terrible things? What about people who have struggled their entire life to try to figure out God? What if their questioning minds keep them from ever finding a resolve to their seeking of faith? Would this be enough for God to make the decision to save them? If they questioned these things all through their years but didn’t come to say, “I’ve got it!”, would God then decide to send them to hell because they hadn’t made a cognitive decision for Christ’s salvation?
Lately, I’ve been wondering if Jesus actually died for ALL, not some, not only those who could understand God’s plan of salvation, but for ALL. I believe God knows that we can’t fully understand, nor comprehend spiritual things that are so deep in our limited human minds and hearts. I also believe that God desires that we all would be with Him eternally.
I’ve also thought about hell. Is there a physical, or spiritual hell? I’m not sure that I can answer that question with full confidence. If there is, I truly do not believe that there is anything anyone could do, or not do that would cause God to allow them to suffer for eternity in a burning place like that. And if there is a Hell of eternal punishment, would I ever want anyone , no matter how bad they were, to end up there. I would never want to see someone suffer that way, for all of time with no way of relief. Who would? Can someone actually end up in hell just because they couldn’t figure out God? The traditional “plan of salvation” seems to say we need to understand it well enough to accept it. What is someone is so angry from life pain that they just can’t get to that place? Would they end up in eternal fire?
Where will Fred Phelps be upon his death? Well, I’ve thought about that too. He has wounded so many people and has shown a hatred that would cause any of us to suffer if we had to live as he has. His life certainly has not been a representation of the love of God that I believe so strongly in. But no matter, I wouldn’t want him to end up in the burning fires of hell forever and ever! Nor would I want Hitler to burn forever.
What I would want for Fred Phelps would be for him to go through the deep, redemptive, renewing, and restoring grace of God’s love. Is that an option for the end of our lives? Is that part of our after life? Is it possible that none of us will go to hell, and that all of us will be changed, restored through the loving redemption of God? No matter how bad, or how wrong we’ve been. No matter how confusing spiritual things have been for us, in the end will it all make sense? Will we all find eternity where truth is fully known to us?
Did Jesus cover it all, for all? Does he truly desire that none would perish and did He make a way for all of us and did he make it possible for that to come to be? Not just for all of us humans, but will God restore all of creation? Is the universe part of his redemptive plan as well? Are the rooms in many mansions the newly reformed universe? Is that the real plan of salvation?
Is the Bible clear? Can we read it and know for certain what the answers are? I would say, no it isn’t. Each belief system or theory on heaven and hell and theological perspectives that many of us have heard have come from some understanding that is derived from the Bible. If we are honest, again, the Bible presents differing perspectives on these matters. Some scriptures are known as being highly figurative, others some believe to be factual and prophetic. But even as we look to the Bible, these answers remain unclear to most of us. It is very hard to prove one line of thinking above another.
So, in my thoughts of the impending death of Fred Phelps, my heart is heavy, sad, and somewhat angry for those who have been so deeply hurt by his life. I feel enraged that for some people, like Phelps, false religion and rigid Pharisaic living has caused so many to suffer. But on many levels, most religious beliefs have some entanglement of legalism and ungodly representation of the true love of God – if we’re honest with ourselves.
I think this is a wonderful opportunity for us to ponder the questions we have been afraid of asking. Is there a fear of the outcome if we do ask them? Will our faith be challenged to the core of our belief system if we question what we may have always believed about heaven, or hell? Is our faith strong enough to go into the world of the unknown down to the depth of what we’ve always believed?
One thing I know for sure. God is LOVE. Love does not condemn, but rather it redeems and restores. I believe that is God’s plan for us.