As Rowan Atkinson once nearly said, Hell's had a bit of a bad press, you know? All that fire and brimstone and stuff is based on a very few verses in the Bible, which has an almost total lack of interest in the subject. "Hell" in the Old Testament is a cold, damp, dismal waiting place - a bit like Derby Station, on a sunny day. This Hell was a rough approximation of the Greek Hades, or maybe the Helliconian concept of "pauk", but it wasn't forever. The chance of getting out, in Jewish - or at least Pharisaic and Essene - thought, lay with the Resurrection. As I tried to illustrate a few years ago, that Hell had its doors kicked in when the first of those Resurrections happened.
Then we have what Jesus referred to as "Gehenna". The metaphor is for the rubbish dump in the Hinnom valley, where the rubbish was burnt and the Israelites of old, when they were in full Molech-worshipping mode, used to sacrifice their firstborn. Poor old St Paul. He's always the one who gets it in the neck for being a meanie, while Gentle Jesus is so meek and mild. Other way round. It's Jesus who depends extravagant moral standards and threatens us with hell - while St Paul gives us salvation by grace alone. But Jesus doesn't tell us much detail - a mention of fire and heat, and that's it. The Book of Revelation tells us a bit about eternal punishment. But it's not the punishment where the Devil gets to poke pitchforks in your nether regions for ever. Read the Good Book:
"I saw Satan’s army march across the earth and gather around the camp of God’s people and the city that God loves. But fire came down from heaven and destroyed Satan’s army. And he (the one who tricked these people) was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur with the beast and the false prophet. There they would be tortured day and night forever and ever." (Rev 20:9-10)And yes, there's a certain amount of people being thrown in the lake of burning sulfur after that. But Satan's not doing the pitchfork-wielding. He's too busy being tortured day and night in the sulfur himself.
So, on the whole, not good news. But at least there's no pitchforks. No cloven hoofs, no being flayed forever, no mention that "Satan belches fire, and enormous devils break wind both night and day! Hell: where the mind is never free from the torments of remorse, and your bottom never free from the pricking of little forks!" Satan, according to the Good Book, has other matters on his horny hands.
In short, Hell as the common imagination has it, is not really mentioned in the Bible. And where Hellish things are mentioned, it's short, and it's vague and, yes, it's quite warm.
But the books of the Bible aren't really that interested in Hell, because they're interested in more important things - the People of God, the Land, the goodness of God, the need to care for strangers and the poor, and the promise of a wonderful life forever with God. It's not that Hell doesn't exist - it's that it should not be our greatest concern. The focus of Dives and Lazarus - what is it? Is it the dead rich bloke with a roast turnip being pushed into his ears forever? No. It's the missing of the opportunity to do good; that and the (totally-undeserved, by the way, from the story) way that the poor Leper gets to spend eternity with Abraham and the other blessed.
I would hazard a guess that the threat of hell fire has a zero effect in trying to persuade smooth-chinned atheists with bad haircuts to believe in God. Because if you don't believe in God, then being told about Hell will not make any difference. It's like somebody telling me we shouldn't send little Celestine to Hogwarts, because the manifesto is woefully short on Chemistry. It's not really scary to a poor little Norfolk atheist, because he doesn't believe in it. And who's scared of things they don't believe in? (Apart from Jeremy Bentham, who was terrified of ghosts). Nope, the only people that view of Hell ever had an effect on were people who did believe in God, but presumably hoped they'd get away with being evil-livers anyway.
So - do I believe in Hell? Actually, yes I do. Because I believe that there has to be somewhere to go when they die, for people who don't believe in God. I do believe that the Jewish belief in Hades reflected a life that goes on after physical death, that when Jesus knocked the doors to Hell down some people were in there.
And I believe that the fire is a metaphor. A metaphor for destruction, though, sure enough. But one we will choose for ourselves. If God is the matrix within which we live and move and have our being, then to reject that is to fall back onto our resources, or onto the created things that we put in the place of God. And that's no sensible basis for eternal life. That's a recipe for withering away until the one who turns from God is just an attenuated echo of what they formerly were, forever. That's not as picturesque as a dungeon of fire full of red-coated Pan wannabes with toasting forks. But it's no less sad, in the end.
But then, always look on the bright side of life. God is good and loving, and will take anybody if they make that choice. God's not proud. Many we might think will be goats, will turn out to be sheep. And vice-versa. But if you want to be part of the shepherd's flock, my baa-ing friends, then you're allowed in. That's good news.
Oh, don't forget to feed the poor, visit prisoners and look after strangers, will you? Apparently that's a part of the deal. And not a bad one, when all's said and done.