Dr Jenkins denied that sinners were tortured for all eternity in hell, and that descriptions of the Second Coming should not be taken literally. As the controversy intensified, he described as 'psychopathic' the imagery of the book of Revelations, in which the wicked are thrown into a lake of fire and 'tormented night and day for ever and ever'. Instead, he argued in a series of media interviews, that those who turn away from God at the end of time will be annihilated, rather than tortured; and the Second Coming would be 'God's general clear up and gather up of everything worthwhile in human history'.
'We have to understand the wrath of God as the blazing and burning side of the love of God; and the burning of hell is really ourselves,' the Bishop said yesterday.
Dr Jenkins is no stranger to controversy, but it was almost impossible yesterday to find any theologian who disagreed with what he actually said, though several objected to the fact that he said it.
A spokesman for the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Rev Roy Williamson, said: 'Dr Jenkins's comments are not helpful. It is fine for an academic to speculate but it is not the role of a Bishop.'
But the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt Rev Jim Thompson, defended Dr Jenkins' views and the heads of two evangelical theological colleges said they taught their students similar things.
Bishop Thompson said: 'It's quite possible to imagine a God who would infinitely torture human beings, but I don't believe that's what Christ reveals to us and I don't believe the majority of the Church has believed in that for more than a century.
'We're all the time trying to see God through Christ and the more we look through the lens of Christ the more we see that some ideas of God in the Bible are changed by the New Covenant. We don't, for instance, believe someone with a crippled organ or limb should not be part of the congregation of God and we don't believe woman's menstruation is a wicked or unclean thing.'
Dr Christina Baxter, the Dean of St John's College, Nottingham, said that it was very rare nowadays to find evangelicals who believed that the wicked really burnt in hell through all eternity. 'This is not because we don't believe in the Bible, but as a result of asking what it means when it talks of burning.
'All the references to the wicked burning in the New Testament are references to Gehenna, the constantly smouldering rubbish dump outside Jerusalem. The burning is part of the process of annihilation. Those who do not repent of sin fall out of a relationship with God, and that is the most terrible thing that can happen to anyone,' she explained.
Dr Baxter also denied that it was necessary to take literally the language of the Second Coming in the Bible. 'There will be a new heaven and a new earth. God will do a new thing; but the New Testament language is figurative. The creeds say: 'He will come again in Glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end.' But the New Testament must not be read as if there were a heavenly timetable for this.'
The Rev Graham Cray, Principal of the evangelical Ridley Hall Theological college in Cambridge, said: 'Inside the evangelical part of the Church there has been a lively debate in the past year or two and I find myself in agreement with the Bishop. After the final judgement, there is extinction for some, rather than eternal torment, however you imagine that.'
Doubt as to the literal truth of some New Testament statements about hell goes back at least to the third century, when Origen, one of the Fathers of the church, maintained that even the devil would be saved in the end, a view also held by St Clement. However, it was bitterly attacked by St Augustine. During the Middle Ages, St Thomas Aquinas taught that the pleasures of the saved must be increased by contemplating the torments of the damned. At the reformation, Calvin and his followers espoused a particularly gloomy version of Augustine's dogma. According to this, God created most of the human race for eternal damnation, just as some had been created for salvation.
In the 19th century, doubts about the moral propriety of such a God began to surface. The Anglican theologian F D Maurice was sacked from a post at King's College, London, in 1854 for doubting eternal punishment, but his view is now triumphant, even among students of St Thomas Aquinas.
Fr Herbert McCabe, a distinguished Dominican philosopher, said yesterday that 'All Catholic theologians, and all Catholics realise that that this stuff about flames is metaphorical.
'What Aquinas argued was that we do not know what God is. Therefore he cannot be confined in any moral code that we can imagine. But we know that God cannot be cruel, and that hell, since he has made it, must be just rather than unjust. And the just, Aquinas argued, should be beautiful to contemplate.
What is hell? page 17
Leading article, page 15
(Photographs omitted)Reuse content