I've been thinking of God (more properly his manifestation in our world, since God as a whole is beyond our comprehension) in terms of interconnectedness. Things interact with each other, forming a system rather than remaining isolated and independent atoms. The world isn't just a collection of things, it's an arrangement of things.
Sin, then, is not just a violation of some arbitrary rules that God decided we should adhere to. Sin is anything that breaks down that beneficial interconnectedness. Harming someone else is directly harmful to God, because the relationship we damage is a manifestation of God. "As you do unto the least of these, so you do unto me."
Sophisticated observers have pointed out that hell -- the fate that awaits sinners -- is not the land of fire and brimstone, with demons poking people with pitchforks, that pop Christianity gives us. It's more a state of separation from God. Thinking of it in this way, hell is not a punishment. Punishment implies a disconnectedness (which is contrary to the nature of God). Punishment is artificially imposed justice. A hurts B, so B (or someone external to the conflict but claiming to act on B's behalf) decides to hurt A.
But punishment is the opposite of restoration. People speak of "paying for" their misdeeds, but that is not what happens when a person is punished. Think about what happens when you pay for something at the store (for example, a pewter Jesus figurine). The store is losing something of value (i.e., being hurt) when it gives you the figurine. It may seem that, in return, you are losing something of equal value -- your money. But if that were the case, then it wouldn't matter whether we gave the money to the cashier, or gave it to the person behind us in line, or flushed it down the toilet. What's really happening is a restoration -- the store is getting money equal in value to what it lost. And in fact, as long as they get taht restoration it's immaterial who it came from -- if the person behind you in line pays for your figurine, or you find some money in the toilet for them, they'll take it.
So therefore the idea of hell as a place of deliberate punishment by a God who could choose not to doesn't make sense. Going to hell doesn't solve the problems created by sin -- if anything, it solidifies them.
Hell, then, is something that sinners bring on themselves. They find themselves disconnected because they broke those connections. Of course, it's possible to restore connections. This is the basis of the Old Testament tradition of animal sacrifices -- God was believed to enjoy the smell of burning sheep, and so a negative (sin) was addressed by a positive (animal sacrifice) rather than another negative (punishment).
However, there's one problem here. God becomes passive. When a person breaks connectedness, God allows that to be broken. When a person restores it, God accepts that restoration. That conflicts, though, with the idea of love. Love is a specific human form of connectedness. Philosophically speaking, to love someone is to make that person's happiness important. We love ourselves, to the degree that we want to be happy. When we love others, their happiness becomes important to us. God-like love is found in the commandment to love our neighbor as
ourself -- that is, to make it so that whether or not happiness is mine or somoene else's is irrelevant to its importance. It resembles an interest in happiness from an impartial, non-partisan, non-favoritist, outside perspective. Love is active because it can be one-sided. Love is not simply a connection that can be broken by either party. Love actively reaches out to other things.
So to conceive of God as not just an impersonal principle of interconnectedness, but specifically of love, is to make him active. A loving God does not allow us to send ourselves to hell because, while we may be damaging our interconnectedness, he won't let it be broken. He loves us even if we don't love him. God essentially turns the other cheek, absorbing the damage we do and presenting an undamaged front (another, unbruised, cheek, if you will).
This, I think, is the theme (or one of them) of Jesus' life and death. His crucifixion was not a "payment" for our sins, unless we imagine that God is sadistic enough to enjoy seeing someone tortured to death (which makes one wonder how much God really enjoyed animal sacrifices as such, especially given that the Cain and Abel story seems to indicate that the sacrifice is simply an acting out of the more important element -- repentance and a desire to reconnect with God). And if this was truly a payment of some sort, then Jesus ought to have gone on suffering for as long as people continued sinning, rather than rising from the dead after three days. What really happened, it seems to me, is a demonstration. Jesus, is acting out the part of God (and I think this works whether you see Jesus as part of God [the second person of the trinity] or just a representative of God). He absorbed the worst the Romans could do to him -- beatings, crown of thorns, forced labor, exposure, public humiliation, nails in his extremities, and finally death by asphyxiation. And yet he came back a few days later, apparently unhampered by the wounds in his wrists and side (wounds likely just left visible for the benefit of doubting Thomas). In his crucifixion, Jesus demonstrated what he had been saying all along (in contrast to the purity-obsessed, disconnecting philosophies of most Jewish sects of the time) -- no matter what you've done or how much you've screwed up, God's active love is reaching out to you.
And casting the story this way makes it irrelevant whether the New Testament account is a historical fact or a myth. God didn't change between the Old and New Testaments. God loved Moses the same way he loved Paul. The Jesus story was simply a powerful message, conveying the nature of God's love in terms that, to judge from the spread of Christianity, had a powerful resonance with a lot of people.