Hell hardly hurts any more. In everyday parlance (“What the hell are you doing?”), it is merely a bark, not a place. As a place, it is anywhere nasty: the London Underground in summer, the worst bits of Lower Manhattan, department stores at sales time, a publisher’s party. Philosophically, Jean-Paul Sartre has encouraged the idea that Hell is other people. Theologically, even the Vatican now defines Hell as a state of exile from the love of God. The devils and pitchforks, the brimstone clouds and wailing souls, have been cleared away, rather as a mad aunt might be shut up in the attic.
After explaining how differnet religions still have their purists who believe in a literal, pitchfork holding demon hell, the Economist comments:
Hell’s democratisation seems to have begun in Judaism, with both Isaiah and Ezekiel arguing that it did not seem right that good and bad alike should go to Sheol. The wicked, surely, should have deeper and sharper punishment. God should deal with them as they deserved—especially since, in life, they had usually prospered from their wickedness, whereas the virtuous, like Job, had been struck with disasters and covered with sore boils. The Essenes, a more extreme sect, injected the idea of eternity into it, as well as storms and dungeons. Just as man has always made God in his own image, so he projected his own notions of fairness on to the world to come; and ended up with a real horror story.
I haven't actually thought of Hell (with a capital H) for a few years. I think I lost my conception of hell as a physical place early in my teens, replaced with a conception of hell as a place where the soul suffers and then later as a place of shame.
I don't think I've had a conversation with anyone who believes in a physical hell for many years. I take this as an encouraging sign that most of us do not believe in the religion of our youth.