Do Episcopalians Believe in Hell?

Most Episcopalians consider the traditional view of hell an outdated concept.
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Episcopalians, also called Anglicans, are Christians who identify themselves as members of The Episcopal Church in the United States. They follow a faith tradition called Anglicanism, which is best thought of as a middle ground between traditional Roman Catholic and Protestant practices. Until the later 19th century, the denomination primarily followed a traditional stance in the belief of a physical "hell" where sinners and non-believers were physically punished in perpetuity. Advances in biblical criticism techniques and a refocus towards social justice movements eventually led many Episcopal clergy and laity to reassess their view.

1 Definition

The current Episcopal Church teaching about the concept of hell comes from the denomination's prayer book, The Book of Common Prayer. Episcopalians use this book for their formal liturgies, prayers and historical guidance. In the Book's 1979 edition under the chapter "An Outline of the Faith," the reader is asked, "What do we mean by heaven and hell?" The Book answers, "By heaven, we mean eternal life in our enjoyment of God; by hell, we mean eternal death in our rejection of God." This answer reflects the denomination's current position that the concept of hell reflects an Old-Testament-era belief that the dead reside in a place of darkness and silence called Sheol. This region was not a place of torment and retribution and only received these attributes from later era influences and re-imaging in the New Testament.

2 Change in Perspective

Most Episcopalians follow mainstream Christian beliefs that characterize Western Christianity. They believe their denomination to be a descendant of the early Apostolic Church and adhere to traditions and creeds passed down from it as a result. One of the creeds, the Apostles' Creed, traditionally states that Jesus of Nazareth descended into a hell before his resurrection. The wording of this creed was changed to "descended to the dead" in the current Book of Common Prayer, reflecting a view that had been increasingly accepted by a majority of Episcopalians at the time of the book's publication in 1979.

3 Purgatory

Episcopalians tend be of a split mind concerning a notion of a post-death place of purification called Purgatory. Many of those adhering to a more "Anglo-Catholic" tradition tend to embrace the concept of a temporary way-station to better themselves before moving on to eternal life in heaven. Congregants following a more Protestant tradition see the concept as a rejected Roman Catholic idea.

4 Disagreement

There are Anglicans worldwide who completely disagree with the mainstream Episcopalian philosophy concerning an eternal hell. Some Anglicans believe the classic concept of eternal damnation to a rather unpleasant place to be real and teach accordingly. Others would argue that this concept of hell is entirely false and a product of post-Old-Testament-era revisionism. The difference of opinion is one of many that Episcopalians see as a defining element of the denomination's culture: "Disagree, but be agreeable about it."

Stan Smith is a writer based in Nashville. He has been a journalist with "The Tennessean" and "The Northern Virginia Daily" since 1985 covering crime, corruption and sports. Stan holds a Bachelor of Arts in German history from The University of the South and is working on his first novel.