In December 2013, a hoax began circulating on the internet claiming that Pope Francis had called a Third Vatican Council that, among other things, purged a literal hell from Catholic doctrine. ‘This doctrine is incompatible with the infinite love of God,’ Francis purportedly said. ‘God seeks not to condemn but only to embrace… Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God.’ The piece quickly went viral on Facebook and other social media platforms – minus the element of parody. The remarks did not seem too out of line with the new Pope’s own attitude of embrace over condemnation.
This January, an article in the US online magazine Religion Dispatches offered some clues as to why the story took off so dramatically. ‘Millennials Invent New Religion: No Hell, No Priests, No Punishment’ went the title. The author, the Rev Candace Chellew-Hodge, described how her students at a community college in Columbia, South Carolina, when tasked with inventing a new religion, uniformly avoided ‘a concept of hell, or any form of punishment for not following the prescriptions of the religion’. When asked why they had avoided hell, one student replied that ‘Religion today is so … judgmental.’ Chellew-Hodge took this to mean that her students lacked a ‘full-featured understanding of religion’, and so overlooked ‘the core ideas of human suffering, the concept of discipline, and the very real threat of punishment’.
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