How one reads the scripture determines what it says. St. Irenaeus (2nd century) said that the scripture is like all the pieces of a mosaic of the Great King, but we have to put the mosaic together. Consequently, what image you bring to the scripture, you are likely to find there. Therefore the Tradition and the holy fathers and mothers (saints) become essential. They provide the image that we see in the scripture.
To use the story of the flood at the time of Noah as an example: modern people look at that story and see senseless destruction. They see God arbitrarily destroying millions of people because their thoughts are evil–which is generally interpreted to mean that they do not obey God’s rules. God appears as a vindictive and totalitarian despot punishing those who do not follow His (apparently arbitrary) rules.
However, if the death that results from sin is not (and never was) a punishment but rather an end to sin, a reboot, a limitation on the human foray into non-being, selfishness, and non-reality (virtual reality?), then the Noah story can be read quite differently. Before the flood, people are living almost a thousand years long. Evil has become their continual habit of thought; that is, they are constantly tormented and driven by demonic passions–or as the hymns of the church put it: they have become “a plaything of demons.” They have no freedom left. They are complete slaves to passions. To set these people free, God releases them through death and starts again, limiting the human lifespan to 120 years and beginning a a new covenant-based relationship with humanity which will instruct them through the patriarchs, the law and the prophets. This process will produce a holy people–and most specifically a holy person, the Virgin Mary–from whom is incarnate God himself. Through His incarnation, God not only teaches the way and transforms creation (making heavenly life possible even while on earth), but He also dies, descends to the place of the dead, and raises with himself all who from Adam have sinned and yet who long for the Light. Those who died in the flood have lost nothing. We all die. Even God when He became man died.
We have a problem with the concept of hell. In the Old Testament, hell was merely the place of the dead. The concept of hell was not of torment, but of inability to praise God (not having mouth nor body to praise with). The concept of torment is introduced through Jesus with what He called Gehenna–the dump outside Jerusalem that continually burned and where the maggots never ceased. Jesus introduces the concept of eternal life and eternal torment (actually, the prophets introduce the idea, but Jesus really explains it).
But what does “eternal” mean? When we say eternal life, are we talking about a life (like everyone breathing on earth experiences now) only never ending? Is the eternal life that Jesus promises just an unending continuation of what we already know? Of course not. Eternal life is the life of the age to come. It is a new quality of life, not a greater quantity of the life we already know. It is the life of the new age which even while still living in this world we can begin to experience. Similarly, eternal damnation is not a reference to an unending duration of damnation. Rather it is the damnation, or suffering, of the age to come. In other words, what we do, the choices we make, and who we become in this life, has consequences in the age to come. And the bliss or the torment of the next world even begins to be experienced by us in this world.
What most people imagine when they think of either heaven or hell has much, much more to do with European superstition and mythology (Dante and Milton for example) than it has to do with what the Bible actually says or with how the Church understood these matters for its first 1000 years (and still today in the Orthodox world).
God is real, but sin is delusion. God has created man with freedom (within the created order, not ultimate freedom) so that man may freely love. When man rejects love, he (or she) experiences torment–like the smoldering fire in a dump or the gnawing of maggots–because love is real. For example, I may want to run around in a t-shirt and shorts as if it were summer even though it is 0 degrees outside. I might choose to do it, and for a while I may stay warm enough by activity or mental distraction or the thrill of breaking free from the apparently arbitrary constraints of warm clothes. But eventually, I will suffer torment because I am living in unreality. I am acting as though how I dress is irrelevant, and I might even imagine that God is punishing me with pain in my extremities and uncontrollable shaking. I might say God is unjust to make me suffer so much just because I want to wear shorts and a t-shirt to walk outside in March in Saskatchewan. But I am the one who is insisting that the universe conform to me, rather than cooperating with the universe. In terms of theology, we call that salvation: working together with God.
God loves us and created us to love Him. But love involves freedom. God will not change reality to fit our delusions (the Bible word for this is “vanity”). We suffer, not because God is punishing us. We suffer because we refuse to love the truth (love what’s real) and so be saved.