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Tuesday, 4 April, 2000, 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK
Hell - it's about to get hotter
Church hall
Church leaders are encouraged not to shy away from teaching the "realities of hell"
By BBC News Online's Joe Goodden

The flames of hell, recently doused to a state of "nothingness" by the Church of England, are to be reignited.

The Nature of Hell, a 140-page report drawn up by the Evangelical Alliance, says that while biblical images of burning lakes should not be taken literally, they symbolise the horrors that are in store for people who reject Christian teaching.

The report, published next week, claims that sinners consigned to hell will face unimaginable torment based on the severity of sins they commit in life.

Hell, according to the study, is "a sphere of damnation, punishment, anguish and destruction".

The Evangelical Alliance was formed in 1846, and represents Christians from all denominations, including many Anglicans. It claims to represent a million Christians, and campaigns on contemporary social issues.

The study, written by a party of five people - including an Oxford theologian and a senior lecturer at the London Bible College - details the fates that sinners can expect to face in the next world.

Pope John Paul II
The Catholic Church has welcomed the study
"Hell is more than mere annihilation at the point of death," it says. "There are degrees of punishment and suffering in hell related to the severity of sins committed on Earth."

It is at odds with a 1996 Church of England report approved by the General Synod which claimed traditional views of hell were outmoded.

It said "hell" was merely an absence of God, and that sinners were far more likely to face swift annihilation than eternal suffering.

The new study, which has been welcomed by the Roman Catholic Church, also urges church leaders not to be afraid of telling their congregations of the realities of hell, but advises against "fire and brimstone" sermons.

It also calls for a greater emphasis on the teaching of hell in schools and theological colleges.

The report recommends tact and caution in certain circumstances, including "explicit pronouncements" at the funeral of a person whose relationship to God had been "unclear".

Depths of hell

Yet far from promising an easy ride, the new report does concede there is disagreement among evangelicals as to whether those banished to the depths of hell will suffer eternally, or if they are destroyed after a period of torment.

Gavin Drake, senior press officer for the Evangelical Alliance, said the new study was not a direct response to the Church of England's 1996 report.

"There has been a growing disagreement for some time among evangelical Christians about the nature of hell.

Phil Collins
Phil Collins: "It's been hell"
"The traditional position was that hell is eternal, but that has changed in recent years. Now the common view is that hell lasts for a period of time relating to the sins of the individual."

According to Mr Drake, the new study is based on teachings in the Bible.

"We can't be absolutely sure what hell is," he says. "In a lot of aspects we can't know the full extent of God's grace. But Jesus had more to say about hell than any other person in the Bible.

"There is certainly the view that residing in hell culminates in annihilation. The report tries to address both this view and the view that it goes on eternally."

"All people are initially damned to hell, which is why it was necessary for Jesus to offer an escape route to eternity.

"Anybody can get to Heaven, but the only way you can do that is through Jesus Christ."

Three sides of hell

The Rev David Hilborn, convener of the working group, said hell consists of three elements: privation, separation and punishment, and that Christians should not lose sight of the punitive aspects.

"We should be wary of speculating on how exactly the correlation between sins committed and the penalties imposed will operate," he said.

"There are indications in the Bible that there are gradations of punishment, but no one can second-guess God."

Traditional imagery, such as that portrayed by Blake, Joyce and Hieronymous Bosch, was criticised for going beyond the scriptures and creating an "almost pornographic delight" in suffering as a form of entertainment.

However, the new report may be too late for some. Phil Collins, on receiving an Oscar for best original song last week, breathed a premature sigh of relief. "Now my life can go on," he said. "It's been hell." He may have to think again.

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