This Lenten season has witnessed a fascinating public debate about whether the everlasting fires of hell have been scorching Judas, the Great Betrayer, for the past 2,000 years. But an infinitely more interesting and challenging question is whether Fred Rogers, the beloved host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, is suffering in the Inferno. That's what Rebekah Phelps, a member of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, claimed at the time of Rogers's death in 2003. An ordained minister, Rogers would have dismissed such flammable accusations as theologically suspect.
Fred Rogers was a gentle Presbyterian. He was not inclined to speak of God as full of wrath and vengeance, ever prepared to consign individuals to hell for eternity. "The BIG thing about God," Rogers wrote, "is God's faithfulness: not giving up on those with whom God has made covenant... not even giving up on them as they torture and kill each other."
Rogers was reflecting on the Holocaust when he emailed those words to writer Tom Junod. That horrific event, so full of hatred and violence, had given Rogers reason not to question the existence of God, as so many others had, but to express sheer wonder at divine grace.
"Don't you think that if you were God you would have wiped out the whole world... in the wake of the Holocaust?" Rogers wrote. "But, like a parent whose child insists on a path of careful dalliance leading to an eventual downfall, God refuses to force the Way at the same time being always available."
Rogers turned to the New Testament parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin to illustrate his understanding of God. The former parable speaks of a sheep owner who leaves behind ninety-nine sheep in order to find one that has strayed, and the latter of a woman who, having lost one of ten coins, lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches until she finds it. In reflecting on these parables, Rogers wrote: "I think that the woman (in the one) and the shepherd (in the other) represent God. They do all they can to look for and find the lost. ... God continues to try and find us. ... God doesn't ever give up on us completely."
God never gives up on us?
Any of us?
Right: There are no gates in Fred Rogers's heaven; the place is wide open to all, even to folks like Rebekah Phelps and the Nazis.
As a progressive Christian, Rogers firmly believed that God, as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, is "the Great Appreciator," one who sees each and every person as good, valuable, and lovable.
Rogers never dared to claim we are altogether good, but he did believe that "the bad" within us can never rightly become the defining characteristic of our identity. For him, "the bedrock of our being is very good stuff."
Rogers thus sharply criticized his fellow ministers -- perhaps those who glory in Lent -- for obsessing on the sin and sins of humanity. "In fact," he wrote in 1975, "I'm wary of people who insist on trying to make other people feel bad about themselves. The more I look around me and within me the more I notice that those who feel best about themselves have the greatest capacity to feel good about others."
In the deepest recesses of his heart, Fred Rogers was an unabashed universalist who believed that God never gives up on any of us exactly because we are all essentially good, valuable, and lovable: God is the Great Appreciator, and we are the greatly appreciated.
Rogers shared this radical belief in private and public. In May 2001, while walking to the office after taking his daily swim, he encountered a man who was arguing with his co-workers about salvation. The man recognized Rogers, grabbed him, and said: "Tell these people there's only one way to God."
It seems the man was quite intent on making sure that his co-workers believed in the literal truth of Jesus' words in the Gospel of John: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
But Rogers did not take the bait of Christian exclusivism: "And I said," Rogers recounted, "'God loves you just the way you are.'"
Rogers held to this radical conviction for a very long time. In 1978, in a letter to a woman who had asked about heaven, he wrote: "I believe we participate in eternal life through the grace of God. We are accepted as we are and loved exactly as we are. In other words, I believe heaven is sheer gift." And in a 2000 interview with Christianity Today, a magazine favored by conservative evangelicals, Rogers added: "When I think about heaven, it is a state in which we are so greatly loved that there is no fear and doubt and disillusionment and anxiety. It is where people do look at you with those eyes of Jesus" -- the eyes of an advocate who sees each and every one of us as good, valuable, and lovable.
So is Fred Rogers in hell? Of course not, at least according to Rogers himself. He's in the "state" of heaven right this very moment, enjoying the fullness of the love of God. Fred Phelps is there too, and so is Judas, and so are all those who wanted Phelps or Judas to burn in the flames of hell forever.
That may sound utterly fanciful, preposterous, or horrific to many of us. But to Fred Rogers, a gateless heaven is the Neighborhood of all neighborhoods -- the perfect creation of the Neighbor whose love knows no bounds.