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Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate
Pope Francis greets the faithful as he leaves St. Peter's Square at the end of his weekly audience April 10 at the Vatican.
May 23rd, 2013
03:59 PM ET

Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate

By Dan Merica, CNN

(CNN) -– American atheists welcomed Pope Francis’ comments that God redeems nonbelievers, saying that the new pontiff's historic outreach is helping to topple longstanding barriers.

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone,” the pope told worshipers at morning Mass on Wednesday. “‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”

Francis continued, “We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said that although he has been skeptical of Francis' outreach to the nonreligious, he welcomed Wednesday’s comments.

“I gather from this statement that his view of the world's religious and philosophical diversity is expanding,” Speckhardt said. “While humanists have been saying for years that one can be good without a god, hearing this from the leader of the Catholic Church is quite heartening."

He continued, “If other religious leaders join him, it could do much to reduce the automatic distrust and discrimination that atheists, humanists, and other nontheists so regularly face. “

Francis’ comments received a great deal of attention on social media, with a number of people asking whether the Catholic leader believes that atheists and agnostics go to heaven, too.

On Thursday, the Vatican issued an “explanatory note on the meaning to ‘salvation.'"

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”

At the same time, Rosica writes, “every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved. Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit. No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin.”

Rosica also said that Francis had “no intention of provoking a theological debate on the nature of salvation,” during his homily on Wednesday.

Although the pope's comments about salvation surprised some, bishops and experts in Catholicism say Francis was expressing a core tenet of the faith.

"Francis was clear that whatever graces are offered to atheists (such that they may be saved) are from Christ," the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a conservative Catholic priest, wrote on his blog.

"He was clear that salvation is only through Christ’s Sacrifice.  In other words, he is not suggesting – and I think some are taking it this way – that you can be saved, get to heaven, without Christ."

Chad Pecknold, an assistant professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, agreed with Zuhlsdorf, pointing out that the pope’s comments came on the Feast of Saint Rita, the Catholic patron saint of impossible things.

“The remarks about atheists show that there is even a saint for atheists,” Pecknold said. “Including all of humanity, on this day especially, remarks like that are almost called for.”

“To stress that the gospel redeems all people, including atheists, is the teaching of the church,” he added. “This is an objective fact that the church believes.”

Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, said Francis' comments reflect “the interfaith and inter-community work many of us nontheists are dedicated to.”

That said, Epstein hopes that lay Catholics are listening.

“I hope Catholics, and all people hearing the pope's statement, will recognize that his words about atheists need to symbolize much more than just a curiosity or an exception to the rule,” Epstein said. “If someone thinks there are only a few atheists out there doing good just like Catholics do, that's a major misunderstanding that can lead to prejudice and discrimination.”

The pope’s comments come a few months after he told worshipers that Catholics should be close to all men and women, including those who don’t belong to any religious tradition.

"In this we feel the closeness also of those men and women who, while not belonging to any religious tradition, feel, however the need to search for the truth, the goodness and the beauty of God, and who are our precious allies in efforts to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation,” Francis said shortly after his election as pope in March.

Even atheists like David Silverman, president of American Atheists, who has had an antagonistic relationship with the Catholic church, welcomed the pope’s remarks.

“While the concept of Jesus dying for atheists is wrong on many levels (especially given that Jesus himself promised hell for blasphemers), I can appreciate the pope's `good faith' effort to include atheists in the moral discussion,” Silverman said.

“Atheists on the whole want no part in Catholicism, of course, but we are all interested in basic human rights.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Pope Francis • Vatican

soundoff (3,731 Responses)
  1. Stephen H

    We are covered in Christ's blood only if we believe. He states, 'Do good' and you'll meet there. Okay, Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV /

    For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

    Works in itself doesn't mean anything. Anyway, I'm out. Too tired to keep typing.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:48 am |
    • Jesus sucks

      Covered in blood just like a Muslim murderer in the street, crowing about your god and how he will exact vengeance.
      Where's your kitchen knife? Stuck in someone's back, I suppose.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:40 am |
    • PH

      to Jesus S-ks
      ?
      Why DO you spend time commenting about things that so disgust you?? Isn't it rather masochistic of you to spend your time and days immersing yourself in what you find so repulsive? So funny how people like you just cannot go happily on your way. Is it because it hasn't been a satisfying day for you unless you vent your spleen in the rudest way? Apparently.

      May 24, 2013 at 3:23 am |
    • Arthur Bryant

      Covered in christ's blood? Ewww, gross!

      May 25, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
  2. DS

    So many misunderstandings in this article. It's mind boggling.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:46 am |
  3. faith

    Believer
    Believer
    For my fellow Believers: I have but a few questions that I debate from time to time with my wife, who is also a Believer. What of those who were raised under another religion and are never exposed to Christ? What of those who live in other countries who've never been exposed to Christ or any religion and are non-Believers? Is ignorance a sin? Would these same people be denied passage to heaven and God's grace?

    Pete
    What if you've reviewed all the reasons for believing in God and honestly just aren't convinced?

    what if you seek him with all your heart and you find him?

    May 24, 2013 at 1:43 am |
  4. Hilarian

    Those belive in Jesus Christ has enternal life. Enternal life is the fellowship with The Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Under the Law of moses , if commit the sin we loose the fellowship with God ( that is man does not repent of his sin and do not come to the lord . he walks in his ways). That is not the case who belive in Jesus christ. If he commit a sin , he will repent of his sin and will retun to the god and walk in the ways of God. This is because , through Jesus Christ , God has given us Holy spirit. Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of those who fellowship with God. No sinners and Haters of God cannot fellowship with god.So athiest will not enter the Kingdom of God.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:40 am |
    • Gregg H

      People with good grammar go to Heaven, poor grammar sends you to Hell. Sorry about that, it's the truth, I saw it in a bowl of cornflakes.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:43 am |
    • Athy

      Hilarian. First of all, you spelled atheist wrong, along with a few other words (believe, eternal, lose, etc). Your dismally poor writing skills clearly identifies you as a religie. Secondly, atheists don't hate god. One cannot hate something that doesn't exist.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:47 am |
    • bob

      What about all the people that lived before Jesus. Poor them.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:51 am |
  5. bob

    “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

    ― Marcus Aurelius

    May 24, 2013 at 1:38 am |
  6. Shannon

    I loved this post from AlterNet:

    Here are nine questions you shouldn't ask atheists. I'm going to answer them, just this once, and then I'll explain why you shouldn't be asking them, and why so many atheists will get ticked off if you do.

    "1: "How can you be moral without believing in God?"

    The answer: Atheists are moral for the same reasons believers are moral: because we have compassion, and a sense of justice. Humans are social animals, and like other social animals, we evolved with some core moral values wired into our brains: caring about fairness, caring about loyalty, caring when others are harmed.

    If you're a religious believer, and you don't believe these are the same reasons that believers are moral, ask yourself this: If I could persuade you today, with 100% certainty, that there were no gods and no afterlife... would you suddenly start stealing and murdering and setting fire to buildings? And if not - why not? If you wouldn't... whatever it is that would keep you from doing those things, that's the same thing keeping atheists from doing them. (And if you would - remind me not to move in next door to you.)

    And ask yourself this as well: If you accept some parts of your holy book and reject others - on what basis are you doing that? Whatever part of you says that stoning adulterers is wrong but helping poor people is good; that planting different crops in the same field is a non-issue but bearing false witness actually is pretty messed-up; that slavery is terrible but it's a great idea to love your neighbor as yourself... that's the same thing telling atheists what's right and wrong. People are good - even if we don't articulate it this way - because we have an innate grasp of the fundamental underpinnings of morality: the understanding that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves, and that there is no objective reason to act as if any of us matters more than any other. And that's true of atheists and believers alike.

    Why you shouldn't ask it: This is an unbelievably insulting question. Being moral, caring about others and having compassion for them, is a fundamental part of being human. To question whether atheists can be moral, to express bafflement at how we could possibly manage to care about others without believing in a supernatural creator, is to question whether we're even fully human.

    And you know what? This question is also hugely insulting to religious believers. It's basically saying that the only reason believers are moral is fear of punishment and desire for reward. It's saying that believers don't act out of compassion, or a sense of justice. It's saying that believers' morality is childish at best, self-serving at worst. I wouldn't say that about religious believers... and you shouldn't, either."

    May 24, 2013 at 1:36 am |
    • faith

      dodo, where did the sense of justice all people have come from?

      May 24, 2013 at 1:47 am |
  7. brian

    Popes have a silly way of thinking. They have yet to admit they made a mistake with Galileo.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:29 am |
  8. ericgoestoholland

    I'm not Catholic and never will be. But I absolutely love the new Pope. Good choice.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:27 am |
  9. Deeble

    pete

    and trust me man oh man do they love Catholicism sometimes they don't tend to their business because of it. I don't agree with that of course since god is not going to give them money but still let them be.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:26 am |
  10. Ryan

    I have heard other religious people state similar things. "God judges behaviour, not theology" It is a good sign that the religious are willing to make this statement. But this does not mean Heaven exists! My bet is that we end in all forms at the moment of physical death.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:14 am |
    • Graph

      wow!!! I had no idea!!! Einstein...

      May 24, 2013 at 1:16 am |
  11. Francis

    Question: What did Papa Francis say exactly, the context. Having first ascertained what he actually meant, all Catholics the world over must accept his teaching.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:13 am |
  12. rkh

    Wheh! That was close.... glad we are all going to heaven! Thanks Pope.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:11 am |
  13. syntax

    Christians who refuse to allow the advances of science to inform their understanding of the world, are not searching for the truth.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:07 am |
  14. Sriram

    Hindus have been saying this for millenia. Christianity is finally getting there. All people eventually get salvation....not just believers. Its not just about believing in a specific God or Image. Its about being good and performing our duties and responsibilities in a loving manner. By discharging our responsibilities and by being loving, fair and just, we cleanse out our individuality (ego), grow spiritually and reach salvation.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:05 am |
  15. Dave

    An atheist doing good because they want to is far more valuable than a religious person doing good under fear of reprisal or for a golden ticket to heaven.
    If god existed and was indeed omnipotent, he would for certain see the difference.
    Why wouldn't he welcome the atheist into heaven with open arms. People helping others with no reward on the line is the greatest human trait one could have.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:01 am |
    • LinCA

      @Dave

      Yup. Only a god who values sheeple over the virtuous fit the bill. Definitely not a god worth worshiping.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:06 am |
    • Graph

      why does it matter? both do good and deserve recognition it's not like anyone will let you know they do it out of fear anyways you can't know that. Anyways religious people can do it because they like it just like anyone else.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:08 am |
    • Pete

      Graph
      It's the difference between someone who helps an old lady cross the street because it's the right thing to do, and helping her across because it gives you the opportunity to pitch your product to her. For a lot of Christian "charities" the actual objective is to "spread the word", and any aid rendered is actually secondary. Secular charities are in it just to help people.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:23 am |
    • Graph

      Pete

      Both are still helping people. Do not downgrade one because the other does it out of joy while the other does it out of saving himself. Both are equal I guess but yeah I see what you mean. If people get the help they will not care for the motives behind it they just want the help. You actually think they care why you do it? They are thankful either way.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:33 am |
  16. 2357

    Hell is what happens when an unrepentant sinner enters the full presence of a holy and righteous God. The sin ignite, and sinner with it. His holiness knows not the meaning of the Holiness. Pity the fool.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:46 am |
    • LinCA

      ROTFLMAO

      Do you also still believe in the Tooth fairy?

      May 24, 2013 at 12:48 am |
    • mickey1313

      Um Does not you book of fairy tales, aka the bible, say love the sinner, hate the sin, and judge not, least ye be judged? But christians are the most deluded hateful self rightous group of ignorant f-tards the world has ever seen.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:57 am |
    • Gregg H

      I'm glad you pity him. Your god who is torturing these poor people for an eternity sounds horrible.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:00 am |
    • Pete

      You sound like Mr. T with that "Pity the Fool" stuff.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:07 am |
    • Arthur Bryant

      2 brain cells.
      3rd grade education.
      5 years living in mom's basement.
      7 more to go.

      May 25, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
  17. Mon

    All souls belong to God and will go back to Him.. however; every soul will be judged by Him, not man.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:41 am |
    • LinCA

      @Mon

      You said, "All souls belong to God and will go back to Him.. however; every soul will be judged by Him, not man."
      Got anything to back up these silly superstitions?

      May 24, 2013 at 12:44 am |
    • Pete

      Mon
      I'm not hurting anybody. So, if your God judges me harshly just because I don't believe in him that would be a reflection on his insecurities.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:09 am |
    • Arthur Bryant

      Thanks for clearing that up.

      May 25, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
  18. NoHeavenForAnyone

    There's no "heaven" for atheists, or anyone else for that matter. Nor is anyone going to find out anything "in the afterlife" because that doesn't exist either. The revealed knowledge epistemology is and always has been a fake. But, we're hard-wired by our evolutionary history to be easy marks for all sorts of cons based on it, religions included. The only defense is to think – starting with how you can "know" anything.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:36 am |
    • Deeble

      you do not know that you have to stop trying to make people feel like there is nothing... I mean does it matter to you? People believe in what they want if there is a heaven for them then there is.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:03 am |
    • Pete

      Deeble
      It's what people often do in order to better their chances of getting into this hypothetical place called Heaven that bothers us. At the very least, the behavior of many who suppose that they're getting in is enough to convince me that I'd rather stay out and away from that kind of person. If I'm forced to be with them, then I'll know that I've ended up in Hell.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:14 am |
    • Deeble

      Pete

      For people that believe heaven is not hypothetical it actually exists you can stay away if you want but I have family like that and while I may not agree with them I am not going to shove them out of the way they have always treated me well and have not tried to shove their beliefs down my throat.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:23 am |
    • Mano

      GOD BLEES THE POPE. GOD IS LOVE AND MERCY. GOD BLESS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE CATHOLIC BELIEVERS. JESUS IS OUR SAVIOR. GOD FORGAVE US ALL WHEN HE WAS ON THE CROSS. JESUS IS MY JOY AND HAPPINESS. JESUS IS THE TRUTH AND THE ETERNAL LIGHT. AMEN.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:32 am |
    • Gregg H

      If your religious beliefs are correct – does the Pope really need you to ask God to bless him? I mean he's probably taken care of on that front.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:41 am |
  19. Ed

    Why would an atheist want to go to heaven, governed by a God they refuse to acknowledge?
    Playboy always presents Hell as a great place, without rules where you do whatever you want.
    He'll an atheist Heaven?

    May 24, 2013 at 12:35 am |
    • Gregg H

      Saying an atheist wants to go to heaven is like saying I want to go to Oz and visit the Tin Man and the Scarecrow.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:02 am |
    • Pete

      Since both Heaven and Hell are supposedly ruled over by dictators, either would be like being sent to live in North Korea.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:16 am |
  20. Reply to Believer

    Believer, I thank you for your willingness to discuss. Throughout the Bible, God is not only epitomy of love, but also justice. Both go hand-in-hand. It is hard to fathom hell if sin is not a big deal. However, it is cosmic treason. This means that the person does not want anything to do with the one who created him/her and doesn't want to follow the rules, but instead their own rules. I don't know about you, but if a person tried that your house, they'd be banished. Libraries, waterparks, etc. have all done that to people who refuse to obey–banished for their entire life.
    The question to ask is why would they want to be in heaven praising God worshiping him? They wouldn't. They'd seek to rebel. A sin against an eternal God has eternal consequences. Plus, as God is just, each person will be judged and a sentence given individually according to the Bible. If you remember the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, what does Abraham say to Lazarus who never states the punishment is unjust and wants to warn his family and relatives? I'd suggest re-reading the gospels as Jesus talks about it more than anyone. Also, in Romans 1, we see that no one is without excuse of not knowing God. Hell will be where God's justice is justly meted out. I'd also suggest looking into the book "Bible Doctrine" by Wayne Grudem.
    The final question is why didn't God cut off the human race when Adam and Eve sinned? He would have been perfectly just to do so (no ruler takes lightly those that rebel against them). No human would have been saved, but justice would have been done. However, he chose a redemptive history of those who believe in him by faith will be saved (whether before or after Christ's death), which displays his justice on Christ for all who will believe by having Christ take the penalty for their sins. This leaves those who will not by faith believe in Christ alone for salvation to face justice for their own sins. Hopefully this helps and gives you resources to look into it more. Shalom.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:34 am |
    • Believer

      Believer

      For my fellow Believers: I have but a few questions that I debate from time to time with my wife, who is also a Believer. What of those who were raised under another religion and are never exposed to Christ? What of those who live in other countries who've never been exposed to Christ or any religion and are non-Believers? Is ignorance a sin? Would these same people be denied passage to heaven and God's grace?

      May 24, 2013 at 1:16 am |
    • Pete

      What if you've reviewed all the reasons for believing in God and honestly just aren't convinced?

      May 24, 2013 at 1:18 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.