- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000

LONDON Hell, recently downgraded to a state of "nothingness" by the Church of England, will make a comeback this week with a group representing millions of British Christians claiming that it is all too real, and that sinners consigned there face unimaginable torment.
The strongly worded report by a working party of five including an Oxford theologian argues that the level of punishment meted out to the wicked will be linked to the severity of their sins in life.
And while it warns against a literal interpretation of biblical images of lakes of fire, undying worms and the wailing and gnashing of teeth, it says that they are symbolic of the true horrors awaiting those who reject the teachings of Christ.
It urges Church leaders not to shy away from teaching the realities of Hell to their congregations, though "fire and brimstone" sermons are discouraged. At the funeral of someone whose relationship to God has been "unclear" or even hostile, for example, the report cautions against "explicit pronouncement on that person's eternal destiny."
The 140-page report, "The Nature of Hell," was drawn up under the aegis of the Evangelical Alliance, which represents 1 million Christians, including many Anglicans.
Its working party included an Anglican theologian from Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, a Baptist academic and a senior lecturer at the London Bible College.
Its conclusions are in sharp contrast to a Church of England report approved by the General Synod in 1996 that criticized traditional images of hellfire and damnation and said annihilation was a more accurate picture than eternal torment.
The new study, which was welcomed by spokesmen for the Roman Catholic Church Saturday, concedes that many find the doctrine of Hell "indefensible and obsolete," but it was an uncomfortable truth.
"Hell is more than mere annihilation at the point of death," the report said.
"As well as separation from God, Hell involves severe punishment. Scripture depicts this punishment in various ways, using both psychological and physical terminology.
"Although this terminology is often metaphorical and we should be wary of inferring more details about Hell than Scripture itself affords, Hell is a conscious experience of rejection and torment.
"There are degrees of punishment and suffering in Hell related to the severity of sins committed on Earth.
"We should, however, be wary of speculating on how exactly the correlation between sins committed and the penalties imposed will operate."
But the report does concede that there are differences among evangelicals over whether those in Hell suffer eternally, or whether the unrighteous are "destroyed" after a period of torment.
The Rev. David Hilborn, the convener of the working group, said that from the Christian group's perspective, the Church of England's report was "lacking in fullness."
He said Hell consisted of three elements privation, separation from God and punishment and the Church of England's report failed to emphasize the punitive nature of Hell.
"When people talk about the likes of Ian Brady, the Moors murderer, they often say they want him to 'rot in Hell,' " said Mr. Hilborn.
"That shows how deep the idea of divine justice is in our language. The same is true of people such as Hitler, Stalin and Attila the Hun.
"From all the evidence of their lives, it is possible to infer that they will be in for a pretty rough time.
"There are indications in the Bible that there are gradations of punishment but no one can second guess God."
He criticized popular visions of Hell, such as the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, for going far beyond scripture and taking an "almost pornographic delight" in suffering, as if it was public entertainment.
"Christians should approach the subject of Hell with tears and a heavy heart," he said.
Mgr. Ciaran Conry, a senior spokesman for the Catholic Church, said Catholics would welcome the report because it focused "on the reality of the afterlife and that our actions in this life have serious consequences."

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