Weep and gnash those teeth: hell's back

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The Independent Online

The fastest growing Christian movement in Britain has reopened the controversy about the nature of Hell by insisting that traditional fire and brimstone really do exist.

The Evangelical Alliance, which claims to represent a million believers, is about to bring out a report at odds with the Church of England's less literal view of Hell.

The main Christian denominations have ignored hellfire in recent years, preferring to describe it as an absence of God.

But the Alliance, whose members include large numbers of practising Anglicans, takes a much sterner view. Its report, a 150-page book, insists that Hell is a place of torment peopled by "the Devil and his hordes". It is "a sphere of damnation, punishment, anguish and destruction" for the unrighteous and wicked.

Titled The Nature of Hell, the report has put the Alliance at odds with the Anglican and Catholic denominations.

In its 1995 report, The Mystery of Salvation, the Church of England denied that Hell involved everlasting punishment and torment, saying that "annihilation might be a truer picture of damnation than the traditional images of the Hell of eternal torment".

Even the Catholic Church has moved towards this position, with recent statements from the Pope suggesting that Hell should be seen as a separation from God rather than an actual place.

The Nature of Hell, published next week, has been prompted by growing disputes among evangelicals as to whether Hell is a place of punishment or a state of annihilation. The answer, says the editor, the Reverend Dr David Hilborn, is both. "It may be that the most important aspect of Hell is the separation from God. But this is not sufficient," he said.

The book points to the Gospel of Mark, which calls Hell a place where "where the fire is not quenched". And it refers to the Gospel of Luke where the sinners are "thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth". A spokesman from the Church of England refused to comment on the report. "We never comment on the affairs of other churches," he said.

Monsignor Kieron Conry, spokesman for the Catholic Church in the UK, was more open to the report's ideas. "We would welcome anything that seriously addresses this issue, anything that says that Hell is real enough, rather than dismissing it as a bit of a frightener, put there to scare people."

The only good news for sinners is that the Evangelicals conclude that eternity probably does not mean for ever. Eventually, says Dr Hilborn, Christ will come to the rescue of those struggling in the flames. The book says there will be "degrees of punishment and suffering in Hell related to the severity of sins committed on Earth".

According to Dr Hilborn, "It makes sense that Hitler will cop it more than somebody who was an agnostic and never made a firm commitment [to Christ]. Very few people would have a problem with Hitler or Stalin burning in the fires of hell. Where it gets difficult is Hitler's grandma, who was basically a nice person, but never had a faith in Christ."

The bottom line, according the report, is that whether Hell does or does not come to an end, "that judgement is on the basis of sins committed in this life and that when judgement is to Hell, it cannot be repealed".

It is, according to Dr Hilborn, natural justice for crimes committed on Earth. "Hell is a terrible thing," he said. "But nonetheless it is there and we have to deal with it, just as we can't pretend that the Holocaust never happened or that Rwanda never happened, or that Bosnia never happened. There is terror. There is horror and retribution this side of death, and in a strange way Hell provides some kind of resolution to that kind of suffering that is caused by human sins, by ruthless tyrants and dictators, in terms of justice. It's not about sadistic retribution. Hell is about God doing justice but in a cosmic and eternal sphere."

Peter Stanford, author of The Devil: a Biography, said: "Both Hell and the Devil are very much marginalised by the mainstream Christian churches. It isn't that they have abandoned the idea. It's more because they are embarrassed. It's an area of the religious market that's been abandoned by the mainstream churches. They don't want to talk about it any more."