Church elders pour cold water on hellfire and damnation

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Religious Affairs Correspondent

Traditional doctrines of hellfire and eternal torment are "appalling theologies which made God into a sadistic monster and left searing psychological scars on many", according to the Church of England's Doctrine Commission.

The commission's latest report, The Mystery of Salvation, maintains that hell must exist: "The reality of hell ... is the ultimate affirmation of human freedom," the report says. But it adds that hell may prove empty. "Annihilation might be a truer picture of damnation than any of the traditional images of the hell of eternal torment ... Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God ... whether there be any who do so choose, only God knows."

The report rejects literal understandings of the Second Coming expressed in such biblical passages as: "He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him"; and: "This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." The passages, it says, "are not intended to provide literal depictions of the event, as though Jesus were a space traveller returning to earth. They refer, in the far more profound language of biblical imagery, to the manifestation in this world of that which is already true of Jesus Christ in heaven."

The report is the latest in a series of three over the last 10 years, and which attempt to reconcile the Christian faith withscience and feminism.

"In any church or community there may be debate about this or that item of feminist agenda; but such disagreements are dwarfed by the immense gap that separates our generation from those that have gone before ... for us, these questions, whatever we think about them, are unavoidable." The injustices imposed by men on women are denounced as sinful by the commission, which, however, draws back from using inclusive language about God.

One member of the commission, the Dean of Lichfield, Dr Tom Wright, said yesterday that the report attempted to clear away Victorian ideas and get back to the understandings of the early church.

The report gives short shrift to traditional images of the soul and the fate of the heathen. The soul, it says, is not a separate substance from the body, but best understood as the "information-bearing pattern of the body", a phrase that is meant to return towards the Aristotelian idea of the soul as the "form" of the body, since modern science has shown that a strict division between body and soul makes no sense.

The Book of Revelations does not foretell the end of the world, as is widely believed, but instead recounts the Christian movement in the first century, according to Australian academic Barbara Thiering.

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