Did Pope Francis Deny that Hell Exists During Holy Week?

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Remarks made by Pope Francis, the Catholic Church’s highest leader, seems to suggest that he believes there is no hell. These remarks, published in an Italian newspaper, have caused the Vatican to scramble in walking back the Pope’s statements.

Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist and a longtime friend and intellectual sparring partner of the Pope, wrote in the newspaper La Repubblica that the pope said, concerning those who die in a state of mortal sin, “They are not punished. Those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and take their place among the ranks of those who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot be forgiven disappear. A hell doesn’t exist, the disappearance of sinning souls exists.”

Mr. Scalfari, who does not use a voice recorder nor takes notes during interviews, wrote the article from a conversation with the Pope that he reconstructed. This is not the first time that he has attributed controversial statements to Pope Francis.

A few years ago, the Pope reportedly scoffed at the idea of the conversion of non-Catholics to Catholicism, which Mr. Scalfari wrote about in La Repubblica. Furthermore,  Mr. Scalfari quotes the Pope as saying that “there is no ‘Catholic God.’” This interview was removed from the Vatican’s website, when all of the Pope’s interviews are normally published. Other conversations between Pope Francis and Mr. Scalfari have also been omitted from the Vatican website, since they are not considered to be “official texts” because they were not recorded and transcribed material.

The Vatican also denies certain statements that Mr. Scalfari has said the Pope has made, including statements on whether the Eucharist can be administered to people who have been divorced. Pope Francis is a proponent of this, but the rules of the Catholic Church forbid it.

Many believe that the Pope continues to enjoy his relationship with Mr. Scalfari, as well as grants him interviews, because it allows him to examine untraditional beliefs, and even spread it to others.

Ross Douthat, a Catholic writer, says that “Francis [sees] an advantage in this sort of deliberately unreliable communication — whether as a form of freewheeling dialogue with a nonbeliever, a means to communicate very informally to supporters, or simply a way to talk casually without the strictures that an actual interview transcript would impose.”

The Catholic Church affirms the teaching that there is a hell, and that eternal torment is real. The Church emphasizes that “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God.”

It is to notable, however, that Pope Francis gave his interview to Mr. Scalfari, even if the journalist has had a record of publishing his more controversial statements.

But the Pope is not the first Christian to question the existence of hell, and this line of thinking is not surprising for him, as he has repeatedly emphasized mercy over judgment. Historically, theologians have also gone beyond traditional teaching on hell, proposing theories that all people will be saved (universalism) or annihilationism (unsaved souls simply stop existing). Even early church fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa and Origen of Alexandria believed in a type of universalism, and Irenaus of Lyons subscribed to annihilationist beliefs.

As time went on, the more traditional views of hell as eternal fire and brimstone took shape, mostly because of the teachings of Augustine of Hippo. But starting from the mid-19th century, people started re-examining these views again, including prominent thinkers such as Karl Barth, Clark Pinnock and Paul Tillich. These men come from Protestant traditions, however.

But even Catholics have begun to question their church’s teaching on hell, including Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Swiss theologian, who posited the possibility of universalism in a book he wrote, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Other theologians have examined the possibility that hell is in essence separation from God, as opposed to physical torment.