Mars Hill Forum #70, October 13, 2002

[Fred Phelps and the Idolatry of Hate]

John C. Rankin (prepared comments)

Casper Open Bible Church, Casper, Wyoming, w/Fred Phelps of Westboro “Baptist Church” and “Does God Hate Homosexuals?” Prepared Comments with slight edits:


Good afternoon. In my comments, I will read a paper I have written for the occasion, an exception for me, but there is much to cover in little time.

The definitive question is this: Does love define hate, or does hate define love? To define something means that the one giving definition is greater and prior to what is defined. It means that what is defined cannot exist otherwise.

In 1 John 4, the apostle says: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (v. 8). Jesus sums up the greatest commandments as loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and thus, to love our neighbors as ourselves.

John says that by definition, God is love. And Jesus says that our neighbors include our enemies. Is there any definitive statement in the Bible that says God is hate? No. Therefore, it is God’s nature as love that defines any language of hate.

Mr. Phelps starts with hate, not love. Therefore hate is its defining identity, implying that this is where God’s identity begins — contrary to Scripture.

The Bible is the story of creation, sin and redemption, as defined in Genesis 1-3. The order of creation is good, sin reverses and breaks that order, and redemption reverses the reversal and restores the goodness. The word Gospel means to “announce good news,” and is rooted in Genesis 1-2. The God of creation is greater than space, time and number, and he is entirely good. Pagan religions all start with an assumption of destruction at the outset. But how can something be destroyed unless it has first been created? This leads to a second question: Does creation define destruction, or does destruction define creation?

Mr. Phelps starts with a statement of destruction, not creation.

C.S. Lewis speaks of “the good infection” of the Gospel, rooted in the parable of Matthew 13:33. What infects what? Does love infect and poison the power of hate? Or vice versa? Do we, in the ministry of the Gospel, infect the world with the Good News, or do we infect it with the bad news of hate versus hate? In Romans 12, Paul shows how it is that love defines hate. He says: “Love must be sincere. Hate was is evil; cling to what is good” (v.9).

Thereafter, Paul continues:

“No one should be repaid evil for evil. Provide good in the presence of all men. If you hold the power, bring peace to all men. Do not, of yourselves, be vengeful my beloved, but give place for the wrath. As it is written: ‘For I am the wrath, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

“But: ‘If your enemy is hungry, you feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink. For in this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good” (vv. 17-21).

How is it possible for Mr. Phelps to honor this Scripture, do what is right in the eyes of everybody, to live at peace with everyone, or to show love to his enemies? Is he not defeated already, being overcome by evil?

Where does biblical preaching start? Is it with creation, sin or redemption? If we start with redemption, and do not define the depths and consequences of sin, we give false comfort. If we start with sin, and seek to scare the hell out of people, then we give false warning, for no prior goodness has been defined. We must start with the order of creation, so that as the height of its goodness is grasped, the depth of the fall can be understood, and the hope of redemption’s height can be embraced. When Paul addressed the pagan philosophers of Athens in Acts 17, he started with the order of creation, not with its reversal. Thus a third question: Does hope define fear, or does fear define hope?

Mr. Phelps starts with the preaching of sin, not with the order of creation; with fear, not hope.

The goodness of the Gospel can be summed up in six ethical pillars. The word “ethics” refers to how we relate to each other. This is the love of God and one another.

The first ethic is the power to give.

Yahweh Elohim, the sovereign and good God of creation, gives man and woman stewardship over his good creation. The power to give is the definition of goodness and love. Love is goodness given, even if rejected. Forced love is rape, and therefore not love.

There are only two choices in life: Give and it shall be given, or take before you are taken. To take from others is to rob their humanity, an act of destruction. One of Satan’s names is the “destroyer.” Therefore, we can pose a fourth question: Does God define Satan, or does Satan define God? The corollary, and therefore fifth question, is: Does giving define taking, or does taking define giving? If Satan defines the terms, then the universe implodes automatically, and could never have existed to begin with. Mr. Phelps allows Satan to define the terms; he starts with the power to take and destroy the humanity in hurting or even rebellious people, and not with the power to give.

In the order of creation, Yahweh Elohim initiates the power to give, and teaches Adam and Eve to receive and give to each other this goodness, then to give back to God in worship. This power to give and receive equals the basis for trust, for God is trustworthy in his goodness. The man and woman in covenantal marriage are thus free forever to trust each other, the basis for a healthy society. Man and woman are equals and complements, giving to and receiving from one another spiritually, physically, sexually and emotionally. Sexual promiscuity and homosexuality are based on taking from someone you cannot trust fully, and this short-circuits the human soul. And homosexuality is without complementarity. Thus we can pose a sixth question: Does trust define distrust, or does distrust define trust?

Mr. Phelps starts with a war of distrust, being without the courage or power to invest trust in broken people’s lives, as Jesus did in John 4 with the woman at the well.

The second ethic is the power to live in the light.

The prologue to John’s gospel says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were made through him, without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness cannot understand and overcome it” (vv. 1-5).

The power to live in the light means the freedom to have nothing to hide from, and with full accountability to God and one another. Thus, a seventh question: Does light define darkness, or does darkness define light? By definition, in physics, ethics and spiritual domains, darkness flees the presence of light. In John 3:19, Jesus says that men loved darkness instead of light, because they knew their deeds were evil. Darkness cannot understand or overcome the light. Jesus is the Light of the world, and Satan is the prince of darkness. To hate hatred with hate is to put no trust in the Light, and it is to be swallowed up by the darkness. To hate hatred with love allows the light of God’s presence to drive the darkness away.

Jesus, as the incarnate Word, comes to sinful humanity and relates to our brokenness in terms we can understand, and reveals the truth as light by definition disperses the darkness. In philosophy there is a concept called “the metaethics of language.” This means that it is not so much important that we understand what we mean to say, but that our hearers understand what we mean – especially those who oppose us.

Mr. Phelps lives in the darkness, is not accountable to the wider church, and fails to communicate and reveal the truth.

The third ethic is the power of informed choice.

The first words in the Bible are the words of God’s sovereignty, and the first words to Adam from Yahweh are words of freedom. God’s sovereignty defines and provides for human freedom. This is the power of informed choice, as Yahweh defines for Adam and Eve the terms of good and evil, and the power to choose between the two. Here is an eighth question: Does good define evil, or does evil define good? God is free, and his freedom is the power to do the good. Adam and Eve, made in his image, were given the same freedom. God, himself not a slave, did not create man and woman as slaves. If God forced them into his will, he would not be good. Men and women would not be image-bearers of God, and would be no more than puppets, robots or animals. Thus, we have a ninth question: Does freedom define slavery, or does slavery define freedom?

This God-given freedom is polluted by sin, but Yahweh still respects the freedom of man and woman to accept or reject his grace. Sinful man has no power to save himself, or reach up to God. But God reaches down to us and provides the gift of salvation, if we will accept it. The Holy Spirit is the One who mediates this possibility. This reality of assumed freedom is seen when Yahweh first confronts Cain (Genesis 4:6-7), in the final words of Moses (cf. Deuteronomy 11-20), in the final public words of Joshua (cf. Joshua 24:14-24), in the Bible’s shortest sermon, given by Elijah (cf. 1 Kings 18:21); in the invitation of Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30), in key words of Paul (cf. Galatians 5:1), and in the final invitation in the book of Revelation (cf. 22:17).

Mr. Phelps says that free will is a lie, that people have no ultimate choice between heaven and hell; accordingly he means that people are slaves, and thus his god of is a slave-master like a pagan deity, which means his god is also first a slave to his own lack of freedom, and therefore not sovereign.

The fourth ethic is the power to love hard questions.

All through the Bible, God is hospitable to our toughest questions. Jesus asked far more questions than he gave answers, for we cannot possess an answer until first we embrace the question. Here is a tenth question: Do questions define answers, or do answers define questions?

There are many salient hard questions here, such as the moral nature of hell, whether God still loves those who choose hell, predestination, and the nature of a biblical theocracy. We can thus pose an eleventh question: Does heaven define hell, or does hell define heaven?

Mr. Phelps defines questions by presuppositional doctrinal grids with ready-made answers, thus censoring honest questions; and spends his primary energy describing hell.

The fifth ethic is the power to love enemies.

Here is a twelfth question: Does friendship define enemies, or do enemies define friendship? There is a well-known Arab proverb: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But after the mutual enemy is vanquished, the new friendship resorts back to enemy status. If the sharing of a mutual enemy is the basis for friendship, hate will triumph over love.

The height of the Sermon on the Mount is where Jesus says that perfection is the power to love enemies. Are we more concerned with perfect doctrine in the abstract, or in obeying Jesus in the concrete? Paul also says, in Romans 5, that Christ died for us when we were still his enemies (vv. 8-10). How can we but love those who are still his enemies? Paul says in Romans 12: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (v. 14).

This leads to a thirteenth question: Do blessings define curses, or do curses define blessings? Proverbs 15:1 says: “A gentle answer turns away rage, but a hurtful word lifts up up anger.”

Mr. Phelps defines enemies as his basis for whom he accepts as friends; he curses enemies and in his reaction to certain militant homosexuals, he mocks Proverbs 15.

The sixth ethic is the power to forgive.

After Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer, he said: “For if you forgive men their trespasses against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, your Father will not forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).

The power to forgive is the power to give in the face of the violation of human sin. Those who do not desire forgiveness for others mock the forgiveness they may have received, and are happier in hell where they can stew in their bitter and self-righteous juices.

In Luke 7, Jesus says of the woman sinner, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. [But] he who has been forgiven little loves little” (v. 47).

In James 2, the apostle says: Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will we shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment (vv. 12-13).

Thus, a fourteenth question: Does mercy define judgment, or does judgment define mercy?

Mr. Phelps allows judgment to trump mercy; in so doing, the question may be asked: Does he know the God of mercy, or does he only know a god of merciless pettiness – like a Zeus?

In 1988 at Harvard, three women classmates once approached me during lunch. They said they were lesbian, and that every lesbian they knew had been physically, sexually or emotionally abused as girls. When I heard this, I prayed in my spirit, “Dear God above, does the church know this testimony, or do we just condemn?”

Now, speaking as a man, a husband and father, I ask any father here today: How you would respond if you learned years later that your daughter had been so abused, and thus turned to lesbianism out of the fear of men? Would look at her, and say, “God hates you, you dirty hell-bound faggot?” Or would you wrap your arms around her in protective love and seek to minister to her wounded soul? How much more does our heavenly Father love all his children, the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

Isaiah 42 speaks of the Messiah: “He will not call out alas! to be heard. A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not kill” (vv. 2-3).

This is the language of binding up the broken-hearted, of protecting the last flicker of hope in a wounded soul from the violent winds of adversity, cupping the hands around the wick and gently breathing the smolder back into a bright flame.

The Messiah himself says in Matthew 11: “Come to me, all you who toil and are loaded down, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is good and my burden is light” (vv. 28-30).

Can we imagine how Mr. Phelps might counsel the father in speaking to his daughter? Would it be to call her a hell-bound faggot? Can we imagine Mr. Phelps walking in the light of Isaiah 42? Or, in his chosen language with raised voice, would he break the bruised reed, quench the smoldering wick, and in fact, would he oppose Jesus in his Messianic fulfillment of this prophecy?

In 1996 I addressed a packed forum at Yale Divinity School, where much of the audience was homosexual, and most others were thus sympathetic. Yet they all agreed that the Bible on its own terms is defined by the doctrines of creation, sin and redemption in Genesis 1-3. So I asked: Where in the order of creation is homosexuality found? No evidence could be provided. After a break for refreshments, several ex-homosexuals from New York City gave their testimonies of conversion and lasting change through Jesus.

In the ten days following, the two student evangelical leaders who organized the forum were approached by as many as 20 avowed homosexuals. These homosexuals all posed the same question, “How can I change?” Jesus came to seek and save the lost. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 testifies to the possibility for homosexuals, and all sinners, to be transformed by the grace of God.

Would any homosexual student at Yale seek out Mr. Phelps for a listening ear?

Therefore, love defines hate, but for Mr. Phelps, hate defines love and accordingly reverses the biblical order of creation. The same is true as Mr. Phelps allows destruction to define creation, fear to define hope, Satan to define God, taking to define giving, distrust to define trust, darkness to define light, evil to define good, slavery to define freedom, answers to define questions, hell to define heaven, enemies to define friendship, curses to define blessings, and judgment to define mercy.

The “gospel” of Mr. Phelps is bad news, not the Good News of the Messiah. It is reactive in its insecurity, not proactive in confidence. It is indeed pagan in its ethics.

The true Gospel calls all people to repentance, based on the love of God for all sinners, homosexual or otherwise, and based on the evidence that God is good. The evil that God hates is rooted in his prior and defining love for us, that we may be set free from its tyranny.

Thank you.