Is hell really a terrifying post-demise destination created by God to scare us into better behaviour?
Or could such "traditional" views of hell be poised to gently fall by the wayside?
For example, I've recently read of Christians perceiving hell as spiritual desolation rather than eternal damnation, or as total absorption in self rather than fire and brimstone.
Are these steps in the direction of both heaven and hell being viewed as states of thought - the former aligned with the joy, forgiveness and harmony that express the goodness of God, the latter associated with the less appetising elements and consequences of our so-called human nature?
"Sin makes its own hell, and goodness its own heaven," is how one thinker - Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy - summed up the difference in her text Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.
This understanding of heaven and hell can go some way to healing the dread that can accompany belief in a definitive judgement day looming as an afterlife moment that might sentence us to damnation.
Clearly, not everyone is championing less intimidating perceptions of hell. I was recently engaged in a lively discussion with several people who subscribe to a view of hell as literal hellfire - a view I struggle to equate with the loving divine Parent I accept God to be.
"As a parent, you wouldn't send your kids to a place like the hell you're describing, no matter how badly behaved," I suggested hopefully, adding: "Surely a loving God couldn't do that either!"
One of them explained that he believed in chastising his children to help them discern right from wrong, and so did God.
But isn't there a yawning chasm between loving discipline and eternal hellfire? And where does the latter come from if, as the Bible's opening chapter Genesis says, "God saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good"?
Hell evidences God's goodness, another guy claimed, pointing to the discomfort felt in the presence of someone who's good by another who's succumbing to temptation. It's God's mercy that exiles the disobedient, he said, so they won't feel discomfited by His presence.
But how can leaving anyone in such a state be merciful?
I agree that making bad choices can make us uncomfortable in the company of those making better choices. I've been there, done that and got the t-shirt! And in doing so I'm in good company. The Bible relates how the fisherman Simon felt profound discomfort in his first encounter with Jesus.
Yet far from abandoning him, Jesus took Simon under his wing, patiently rebuked his ill-conceived thoughts and nurtured his more inspired, spiritual thinking. He helped this "sinner" become Peter ("the rock") a treasured disciple (student) who grew into an Apostle "called by God to be His emissary and appointed to tell the good news".
Indeed, early Christians like Peter shared great news - that we're all made in God's image, and that our human natures can be reformed through spiritual growth that grasps and proves this truer, more spiritual blueprint of our lives.
And wherever we seem to be on our spiritual journey, understanding this inherent reality of who we by divine nature are changes things for the better progressively, in a "judgment day of wisdom" that "comes hourly and continuously" (Science and Health).
An example I experienced of this step by step change was when I was all set to condemn what I saw as the self-evident error of another's ways. Instead, a Bible passage came to thought as I was about to speak that inspired silence instead of comment.
"Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults-- unless, of course, you want the same treatment," it counsels (Matthew 7, The Message).
At the very moment I decided not to speak, my companion turned to share unexpected news. What I'd been about to condemn him for wasn't actually going to happen.
I felt humbled and grateful. Instead of two sinners - a perceived wrongdoer on the one hand and a self-appointed judge and jury on the other - we were both in the clear. And I'd been guided along the route I needed to take out of the self-imposed hell of self-righteous thinking.
"I believe in a God whose endless love makes the sin flee the sinner, not the sinner flee from God!" is how I summed up my view of sin and punishment as the (cordial!) conversation I'd been in drew to a close.
Whatever traits we struggle with, and no matter how entrenched they might be, they can flee. Not because a threat of hell frightens us into letting go of them, but because we see that the true blueprint of who we each are never includes any such flaws.