There is no hell where the souls of sinners suffer in eternity, Pope Francis was quoted as saying in a Thursday interview with Italian daily La Repubblica. The Vatican denied the report and said it would sue for defamation.
After death, the souls of people who repent are pardoned by God and join in his contemplation, "but those who do not repent, and therefore cannot be pardoned, disappear," Francis said.
"Hell does not exist - what exists is the disappearance of sinful souls," he added.
The pope was interviewed by Eugenio Scalfari, a veteran Italian journalist and atheist who regularly muses about faith and religion, and enjoys access to the leader of the Catholic Church.
In the past, the veracity of quotes he attributed to the pope has been called into question, especially after the 93-year-old Scalfari admitted to never using a tape recorder during interviews.
In response to the interview, the Vatican's press office released a statement saying the pope did not grant Scalarfi an interview and the article "was the fruit of his reconstruction" not a "faithful transcription of the Holy Father's words".
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The universal catechism of the Catholic Church says "The teaching of the Catholic Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity." It speaks of "eternal fire" and adds that "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God".