The Rev Eric Shegog, the Church of England director of communications, said afterwards: 'I would have thought, generally speaking, most Christians would not have taken much offence at it because it was so innocuous.' Earlier in the day, speaking in a BBC Radio 4 interview, he said: 'This sounds to me like it is highly irresponsible; it sounds to me like a cheap attempt to get audiences.'
Mary Whitehouse, the campaigner for television standards, branded the sketch 'tasteless' and 'silly', but said that she would not be making a formal complaint.
Central TV, which makes the show, said it received 380 complaints about the sketch during the day, after newspaper publicity, but only 20 after the screening.
The Spitting Image Jesus is actually a recycled puppet of Mike Rutherford, of the pop group Genesis. It has been transformed by a long white gown. The ITC's code of taste and decency specifies that any treatment of religion should be responsible.
Last night's show included a sketch showing God looking high and low in heaven for a copy of the Bible - until Jesus suggests that he follow J R Hartley and look in the Yellow Pages.
Before the screening, the Rt Rev Gordon McMullan, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Down and Dromore, joined in the condemnation. He said that the idea was a descent into bad taste, an insult, and verging on blasphemy. 'To present my Lord and Saviour in this way, I would find deeply offensive, as I believe would many people. By all means laugh at my foolishness as a Christian, laugh at my mistakes, point them out, in whatever way people like, but that's different from portraying the one whom I worship as the Son of God.'
The producer of Spitting Image, Bill Dare, said that Jesus might become a regular cast member. 'I think that, if the first appearance of Jesus is a success, as with any puppet, if people seem to latch on to it and seem to like it and if it's not too controversial, there's every possibility that he may make more appearances. Most people who are truly religious take this in their stride, and aren't particularly bothered. It's only the nutters, really, who object to it.'
A Central TV spokeswoman said: 'As with all Spitting Image material, this short item has been checked at the highest level for taste and legality and considered suitable for transmission. Spitting Image is renowned for being controversial, and viewers must make up their own minds.'