What to think about Fred Phelps

What do you think of Fred Phelps the Baptist minister from Topeka who goes around picketing funerals and protesting homosexuality?

He’s a clown. Fred Phelps fancies himself something like a latter day prophet and one of only a handful of righteous people alive in the world today. But he is more like a megalomaniac than a prophet of God. He seems to believe that whatever happens to him and his Westboro Baptist Church is at the center of what God is doing in the world today.

For instance, if you go to his website you’ll find a story that tells about how someone set off a homemade bomb in his daughter’s yard one night back in 1995. His daughter serves as the spokesman for the church. And she says in this article that this incident is why so many of our soldiers are being killed by homemade bombs in Iraq. She says,
Every player in this disgraceful event [the homemade bomb set off in her yard; by the way, there was only minor damage and no one was hurt] will stand before God on the Judgment Day and account, in the minutest detail, for his or her role. It will be a great day of reckoning. Recompense is already unfolding at the hands of the Iraqi insurgents…It is perfectly fitting for a just God to avenge his little Saints by using IEDs…to destroy the fruit of America.
She is tying the death of American soldiers in Iraq to what was done to her as a member of Westboro Baptist Church.

Soldiers who are killed in action are automatically assumed to be damned to hell. On May 14, Phelps released a statement saying, “Thank God for 13 more dead troops. We are praying for 13,000 more.” And a little further down the page it says, “Here is a roster of the damned.” And it lists the names of the soldiers. And of course they picket the funerals of the troops killed in action. The rationale goes something like this: The United States has officially approved of the homosexual life-style, thereby bringing down upon itself the wrath and curse of God. And since the United States is under God’s curse, those who fight for her must be under his curse as well.

This highlights one of the many problematic aspects of his ministry—he seeks to tie specific tragic events, whether terrorist acts, mass murders, or “natural disasters”, to specific personal or national sins, and often to wrongs committed specifically against him and his church.

He said, for instance, that the city of Greensburg must have been an especially wicked city to have suffered the devastation it did by the tornado in 2007. He called Greensburg a “God-cursed town…a rebellious little demon-possessed hotbed of evil masquerading as a municipality.” He said that what happened to Greensburg was the face of God’s wrath against the state of Kansas for how the state has attempted to silence him.

The same is assumed about those who died in the West Virginia coal mine last month. The church has a flier on its website with the words “Dead Miners in Hell” emblazoned on it. And it talks about how this mining accident happened because when members of the church were previously picketing in West Virginia, they were “set upon with hard words and violent hands.”

Back in the Fall of 2006, there were five Amish school girls in Pennsylvania that were murdered execution-style in the little one room schoolhouse. Another five were very seriously wounded. According to Phelps this happened because the governor of Pennsylvania had previously denounced him and his church.

Phelps assumes that a tragic death, whether in war, or in the Greensburg tornado, or by the hand of deranged gunman, or in a mining accident, or whatever is proof positive of divine judgment and eternal damnation.

But tragic events often happen to both the righteous and the wicked. The righteous are not immune to trouble. Job received testimony from no less an authority than God himself that he was a blameless and upright man who feared God and turned away from evil (Job 1:1). But he suffered the loss of all his possessions as well as all of his children. But God had a wise and holy purpose for it, as he always does.

Suffering tragedy, therefore, is not a certain indicator of God’s wrath. Many of the prophets and apostles came to a tragic end as they were often persecuted even to death. But they were good and holy men. And Jesus himself was brutally treated and killed; but it was not because he had done anything wrong.

The fact is, the same suffering may be experienced by both the righteous and the wicked, but God has a very different purpose in each. For Phelps to claim that a U.S. soldier who dies in service to his country is therefore certainly damned, or a miner who dies in a mining accident must necessarily be under God’s wrath and curse, or that a murdered Amish school-girl must be in hell, is really quite out of order.

Furthermore, the glee that Phelps takes in announcing God’s judgment is difficult to reconcile with the attitude of the prophets, and even with Jesus himself, when they announced impending divine judgment. When members of his church picket soldiers’ funerals they carry signs that say, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” And they pray for more soldiers to die. Contrast this with the prophets of God wept for the people of Israel when they announced God’s judgment. They pleaded with the people to turn back to God so as to avoid his wrath. They didn’t pray that the body count might increase.

Likewise, Jesus lamented the impending fall of Jerusalem, even as he announced its destruction (Matt. 23:37-39). And when he was being led away to crucifixion, he told certain women who were mourning him, “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.”

The joy that Phelps and the members of his church take in other people’s suffering is hardly consistent with being human, much less a Christian. He would have more credibility if he would pray like Moses prayed, “This people have sinned a great sin… But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written” (Ex. 32:32). Or if he had a heart like Paul, who said, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsman according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:2-3). Paul didn’t take joy in the judgment that fell upon his people. In Ezekiel, God said, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? … I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live” (Ezek. 18:23, 32). You see none of this in Phelps and his followers.

I say none of this for the purpose of minimizing the enormity of the sins of which our country is guilty. Nor do I wish to imply that God does not judge people and nations for these sins. But it’s always a risky business to think we can confidently identify a particular tragedy as a judgment for a specific sin or to make confident assertions about the spiritual state of people we don’t know anything about. How does Phelps know that the miners who died were not Christians who died in a state of grace? Or that all the soldiers who have died in Iraq are not Christians? Or that the Amish school girls are in hell?

And how is it that he can show no sympathy and have no compassion for those who suffer, even if they are suffering justly for their sins? He offers no hope of mercy from God. His bitter tirades do far more to drive people away from God than to draw them to him. He’s a clown and a buffoon and an embarrassment to the church and to the cause of the gospel. And he’ll have to answer to God for it.


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