Leading Article: The Church's empty hell

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There is an influential body of opinion in this country which holds that it is the duty of the Churches to believe, on our behalf, propositions that we are too clever or sophisticated to believe, just in case they turn out to be true. The patron of this tendency should be Lord Melbourne, who, a century and a half ago, announced his desire to support the Church of England unfailingly, like a buttress supports a cathedral - from the outside.

Such people will be bitterly disappointed by the Church of England's latest report. Hell exists, it says, but may well be empty, and even - following Dante - cold in its innermost depths. The idea that Hell is a place of endless torment or burning is denounced as contributing to a blasphemous picture of God as a sadist. Similarly, the report regards as unnecessary the traditional understanding of the soul as a substance separable from the body, which flies upwards (or downwards) at death. Instead, it proposes that the soul be understood as the "information-bearing pattern of the body", which may be held in the mind of God after death.

Perhaps the most radical and generous break with past Christian patterns of thought is the attitude that the report takes towards other religions. "It is incompatible with the essential Christian affirmation that God is love, to say that God brings millions into the world to damn them," it says, and: "We can see empirically that people are enabled to lead better lives through loyally following other faiths, and this must mean that God is at work in these faiths."

These are ideas that would have been denounced without hesitation by most Christians as heretical a hundred years ago, and may still be denounced as unchristian by their successors today. They are not perfect and could often be better expressed. There is, also, a note of donnish self-deprecation running through this report, which will in itself dismay the Melbourne tendency: "It would be silly to suppose that we can solve in one chapter or even in one report, a problem which has taxed the greatest minds of Christianity for two thousand years." Indeed.

On top of these minor flaws, the effort to disentangle eternal truths from cultural ones is intrinsically dangerous: a successful religion must somehow infuse a consciousness of eternity into the habits of the surrounding culture. A church that has lost touch with contemporary culture soon comes to a pathetic end; while a church that has lost contact with eternity has no point at all.

But the risk must be taken. The effort to disentangle the two sorts of truth can't be dodged at the end of a century that has seen so many traditions crumble under such richly deserved attacks. The Church of England is right to attempt to face head on the challenges posed to traditional Christian understandings by science and feminism. After all, if there is a God, She created both. Churches are in the business of truth, and Christians see the central truth of the universe not as a theological abstraction but as a person. The business of theologians ought to be to refine the images which make that person clear to the rest of us.