Hell and the Church of England

It wasn't a firestorm, but British newspapers recently found a subject hot enough to compete with the Royal Family's sex life.

"Hell hath no fury any more," said the Observer, responding to a Church of England report that included modernized language on heaven, hell and damnation. Another London headline said, "We believe in Hell, says the Church (but without the flames)."

While "The Mystery of Salvation" does reject "universalism," the belief that everyone goes to heaven, it suggests that those who choose to reject God face eternal death, not eternal punishment. In other words, if hell exists, it's empty.

"In the past the imagery of hell-fire and eternal torment and punishment ... has been used to frighten men and women," says the report. "Christians have professed appalling theologies which made God into a sadistic monster. ... Hell is not eternal torment, but is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely ... that the only end is total non-being."

An Observer editorial noted that the state church is saying that if "heaven is where life with God continues forever, hell is now personal annihilation. Game over, just as atheists always believed."

So, how many demons can dance on the head of a pin? Questions about hell never die and cut to the heart of agonizing issues of good and evil. Plato noted that if the soul is not immortal, then there is no chance for those who commit evil deeds, and prosper, to be punished. If the soul is immortal, and there is no hell, then evildoers remain unpunished.

The Church of England report is fascinating because it's rare to hear anyone other than evangelicals talk about hell, said philosopher Jerry Walls, author of "Hell, the Logic of Damnation." However, it is clear that the report's authors wanted to remain vague.

"They left an amazing number of doors wide open," said Walls, who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. "They say you can't be a dogmatic universalist. But, then again, that may turn out to be true. They say it's wrong to use old, literalistic images. But, then they say annihilationism may be true. So there."

In rejecting hell-fire, the Anglican report may inspire new debates. As previously mentioned, most liberals say hell doesn't exist, while many traditionalists still preach about an eternal lake of fire. Others teach that damned souls are annihilated at death or consumed after some period of punishment.

In this age dominated by counseling, many now describe hell in terms of souls undergoing treatments from a "divine therapist," said Walls. The assumption is that a perfect God will -- given eternity -- heal even the most incorrigible sinners.

Meanwhile, some traditionalists now emphasize images of loneliness and isolation. Asked why he rarely preaches about a fiery hell, anymore, the Rev. Billy Graham once told me that he believes the best image for damnation is that of a soul dwelling in "outer darkness," far from God's eternal light. Or perhaps, the evangelist said, hell is like the old joke about a man who going on a boat cruise, complete with wine, women and song. Somehow, he got on the wrong boat.

"The other boat was for a Sunday school picnic from a Baptist church," said Graham. Before long, the man was sick of it. "He said, `Man, this is HELL to be in with this crowd. They don't smoke, they don't drink, they don't tell dirty stories. ... But the Baptists were having a wonderful time. It was like heaven to them."

Similar themes, noted Walls, appear in modern cartoons, such as the Far Side image of the maestro condemned to spend eternity rooming with banjo players. The Anglican report even avoids affirming this kind of vision, in which unrepentant sinners spend eternity under the gaze of a loving, but all-seeing, God.

"I think this is a powerful, and accurate, picture of hell," said Walls. "If you don't have the right moral or spiritual sensibilities, then being in heaven would be miserable. It would be like choosing to be in hell."