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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. JohnC

    If there is a God He certainly understands the source of my doubts. He knows the efforts I've made to learn the truth. He knows my efforts to be a good person and to help others. He knows I can't just _make_ myself believe (should I also believe in extraterrestrials abducting people just because many have claimed it and say I should believe?) and he knows I wouldn't know which of the competing religions is the right one. So I trust with His knowing comes mercy or He isn't the God so many say He is.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
    • ttwp

      His love and mercy was shown on the cross.

      May 23, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      "His love and mercy was shown on the cross."

      No love or mercy involved in a death that involved torture and was not the guys choice.

      May 23, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
    • Larry L

      Well stated. It would be easier to simply to simply embrace the psychological and social rewards an Evangelical society. You'd fit better into your community and all of your questions in life could be answered with sound-bites like "He works in mysterious ways...". You could just ignore the absolute lack of evidence that any god exists and stop listening to the doubt from your mind. In this way you can convince yourself that you are "born again" and immortal. However, that's a dishonest path because it requires delusion and denial. We have a shot at one good life and it would be a shame to waste it.

      May 23, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
    • Susan Wicks

      Absolutely, God knows us better than we know ourselves. Jesus said it wasn`t the person saying `Lord, Lord`that gets saved but the one who does the will of the Father.

      May 23, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      Susan: Your book also said Jesus said "Heal thyself" Those two statements are rather contradictory. Also, besides a silly book that was often written up to hundreds of years after the "fact". I find little reason to find "truth" in anything stated in the Bible. How many times did parts of it get passed down (and modified) in verbal form before being written? How many times has the church performed edits – edits that no good Pope would ever grant power to the people and lessen the church's grip on power, property and money. Remember a absolute power corrupts, even those who wear fancy hats and to die for red slippers.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
    • txdm

      nice statement.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • Paul223

      Sounds like you're an Agnostic...very sensible.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
  2. mcm

    What should we make of the claim that "The Lord has redeemed all of us...Even the atheists"? Well first, this is nothing new, and therefore hardly "news." The Catholic Church has maintained for two-thousand years that Christ's sacrificial death was for all (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:15 and 1 Peter 3:18.) As the Church teaches in the Catechism of the Catholic Church http://www.strangenotions.com/atheists-redeemed/

    May 23, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • John

      Has the Catholic Church also maintained for centuries that Atheists will be in Heaven?

      May 23, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
    • Joey

      Of course they have John. The only reason the church executed atheists for centuries is so they could get to heaven sooner.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  3. sly

    Amen to that Popey!

    Imagine Heaven – tons of gorgeous virgin teenage chicks who unfortunately never got the chance to enjoy fruits of the earth.
    No laws. No wives.

    Man ... it's gonna be fun up there. Wilt the Stilts '10000' record will fall to me within 4 months. Yee haw.

    Thank you Mr. Pontiff – I don't care what they say about you ... you a good dude.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      the jokes on you,no pee pees in the afterlife,spirits don't have the need for that physical stuff.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:25 am |
  4. Hatchets

    The Pope: We should bury the hatchet.
    The Vatican: We're not going to bury the hatchet.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • sam

      Don't say 'hatchet', you might draw in the juggaloes.

      May 23, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
  5. notjack

    If I'm to judge solely by this article, that was...

    One small comment by a man (The Pope).
    One giant platform for others to tell us what he "really" meant.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Isn't that the story of religion?

      May 23, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
    • jim

      not bad notjack

      May 23, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
  6. PJ

    It seems his comments are not saying athiests will go to heaven, rather Jesus died even for those who don't believe in him. Christ's blood was shed for all. quit making everything such a fuss

    May 23, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
    • Bill Richardson

      I would have accepted that answer had I not read further what he said. "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.”" The pope is saying that good deeds, not acceptance of Jesus Christ as your savior, will get you into Heaven. That, my friend, is Satan's gospel.

      May 23, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
    • John

      Satan wants everyone to do good?

      May 23, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
    • Confused

      ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”"

      The "there" he is talking about is not 'there' as in Heaven, but the act of doing good. Let us meet at least in the middle in doing good things together. That can be a common ground we can work from.

      I've never seen such an effort to twist what the pope is saying, and I'm a protestant!

      May 23, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
    • John Smith

      well said PJ

      May 23, 2013 at 9:23 pm |
  7. Semma

    YAY! an imaginary after life, I'm so happy!!

    May 23, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
    • Bill Richardson

      Yes, be sure to tell that to your imaginary Satan, when you get there.

      May 23, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
    • red shirt from season 2

      look, Bill, buddy ...um... barking up the wrong tree pal, very few imagonary things scare me, flying spiders, unicorns (cant trust them), jackalopes.... satan, not so much

      May 23, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
  8. John

    Kind of funny to see the Pope make a pronouncement and see the Vatican immediately disassociate themselves from it. Seems like a similar thing happened on the exorcism issue. Seems like the Vatican views this Pope as something of a loose cannon. I wasn't crazy about this new Pope when I watched the inaguaration, but hey – he just threw an olive branch to atheists, that's admirable, even if the Vatican immediately backpedaled on it.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
  9. my2cntsworth

    The biggest circular logic ever created was the bible and god. "there must be a god because the bible says it's so. The bible was written by man and inspired by god, so it must be true." There is a good reason why children are indoctrinated into a religion. This is required so that religion is perpetuated. If it wasn't for the brainwashing that took place when we were children, religion would be a long forgotten relic of our past, when people knew nothing of the universe and had to make up "gods" to help us cope with whatever nature brought (floods, earthquakes, famine, volcanoes, drought, etc).

    Not questioning religion is considered honorable, because your pastor, Rabbi, priest or other religious leader tells you so, We come up with so many excuses as to why god allows children to suffer death from famine, abuse, accidents and tornadoes, but those excuses don't make god any more real. Hopefully, people will come to realize that there are no gods, no devils, no spokesmen for god on earth, and realize that the universe does not care.

    Please, stop with the "well just you wait and see" comments. They are feeble attempts at defending your belief system as you were indoctrinated. I'm sure most of us question if there is a god, but are afraid to confront this question, since we have all been told that this leads to evil. Well it doesn't lead to anything other than to starve your religious leader.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • J.F.

      The way I look at God/religion is – it doesn't really hurt anything if I choose to believe (and not jam my beliefs down other people's throats). I believe in God/afterlife, because the thought of the lights going out and there being nothing left scares the living s**t out of me. If there is a God, bonus – if there's not, by the time I'm dead, it won't matter – but up until that point, it's a small glimmer of hope that there is life after death. This is the same reason that I teach my child that there is a God, and when she decides to choose what to believe in – she can. It's a lot more comforting for a small child to tell them, Grandma's gone to heaven, then to say – Grandma's dead and not coming back, lights out. The cynic in me tells me there isn't, but my heart tells me there is – so I'll leave it at that.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
    • my2cntsworth

      To JF; well stated. I am an atheist but I am scared of death just like all humans. However, hoping there is a god and an afterlife don't make it so. But thanks for being upfront about it.

      By the way, I also told my Kids that Santa was bringing toys, until they figured it out. I am guilty of convincing my children about Santa. However, the main difference between you and I is that I never told my children that there was a god. They were called heathens and were shunned by some "friends". Now as adults they see the folly in both imaginary creatures, Santa and god. They have no problems with realizing that death is just an end to existence. There is no heaven there is no hell.

      I appreciate your honesty and the fact you aren't trying to force your beliefs on all. However, most religious people, and especially Christians and Muslims don't act like you. They attack those that question their beliefs. They don't want their religious beliefs questioned. They force their prayers and religious teachings on all, in the name of religious freedom. Hence the fighting.......

      May 23, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
  10. Sane

    To see god, you cannot barrow eyes..
    To seek god, you do not need an agent like a messenger or a prophet
    To feel god, just do good..

    - ancient Indian script.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • Arthur Bryant

      "barrow"? I suppose if my eyes were on stalks I might trundle them around ina wheelbarrow; but I don't see (har har) what that has to do with seeing gawd.....

      May 25, 2013 at 12:34 am |
  11. Hypatia

    Oh who cares what that old pedophile says!

    May 23, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
  12. We WereOnTheMoon

    Remember the story where Abraham shattered his dad's statue of an idol, to prove that the idol is not real? This means that its OK to test god or gods right? So I ask god to give us his/her own opinion if he/she is truly out there.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
  13. Bill Deacon

    Every day, in every encounter I have with detractors of the Catholic faith, I am more encouraged in my faith. The Gospel truth of Christ's salvation is enduring. Holy Mother Church is our home for this time.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
    • JMEF

      BD Looks like there will be more atheists and agnostics in heaven than wretched criminals like you Bill, your sins can never be forgiven. Just kidding all rational people know there is no heaven.

      May 23, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
  14. DP

    So.. as an atheist why would I care if the pope's imaginary afterlife now welcomes me. Its like telling me that even though I don't believe in Santa Claus, he will still bring me presents.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Hopefully the believers will be less judgemental about atheists not having morals etc., but judging from this board I'd be surprised if it makes a difference.

      May 23, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
    • Bill

      So, if you don't believe in Santa Claus, you do still get presents on Christmas morning?

      May 23, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • red shirt from season 2

      A MEN!! -wait...is that right? im not used to being exsolved by the pope, but i agree COMPLETELY... is that haliluah? er... im such a noob...

      May 23, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
    • sam

      @ red shirt – hurry and get to transporter room 3, we are on the away team!

      May 23, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
    • red shirt from season 2

      @sam... on my way buddy! ...i look forward to a long rewarding life after this away mission, yup, only 2 months to retirement, cant wait

      May 23, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      separation from your father leads to lonliness and emptiness,lack of hope or joy in life,no colors ,only grayness and eventual despair.cynicysm and anger at a world that makes no scense.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  15. incognita

    A heaven for this atheist would be no heaven at all– a heaven on Earth would be a planet where no one believed in stupid things, and where everyone used their reason instead of old books and wishful thinking to back up their positions.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
  16. LookANDSEE

    "MASS" DECEPTION AHEAD

    May 23, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  17. DarqueSide

    WHOA! Now THAT is a huge change of direction for the Catholic church! "But do good: we will meet one another there." Looks like Pope Francis is coming around to acknowledging that God can't be a bigot and still be God. Personally, I don't believe in heaven or hell and I'm not convinced there is a God, either... but this is a huge step forward for the Catholic church.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I don't think it means what you think it means but I am glad to join you in pursuit of justice and mercy for all.

      May 23, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • Science

      You might need mercy Bill...........I sure do not need your mercy !

      May 23, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
  18. Tim Ostermeyer

    GOD'S WORD: John 3:16 For God so loved the world that whosoever BELIEVES in Him will have eternal life.
    POPE: Any unbeliever who does good things will get eternal life.
    CONCLUSION: The pope is a false prophet!

    May 23, 2013 at 5:26 pm |
    • DarqueSide

      Conclusion: Christian bigotry on full display.

      May 23, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Tim, just as I've correct atheist here for that misunderstanding, I am compelled to tell that you didn't hear what was said properly.

      May 23, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      John 3:16 is a poor example of how your god loves this world...allowing your own child to be tortured is not exactly love.

      May 23, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
    • The Demon Deacon

      Billy is an obsequious papal apologist troll. Yes tell us what francis meant to say as you interpret it. There is a special place in your heaven for confessed murderers, strange place your heaven and the company you will get to keep, Billy.

      May 23, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      maybe he is saying that good works will put you on a road to where you will eventually find your way to God .

      May 24, 2013 at 10:45 am |
    • Art

      Amen!

      May 24, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
    • The Pope

      Tim Osterizer is a false prophet!

      May 25, 2013 at 12:38 am |
    • Science

      Agree Billy Is a TROLL !

      June 7, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
  19. Ryan

    Define "good".

    Why would an atheist care because they don't believe in God, therefore they don't believe in heaven or hell, etc?

    May 23, 2013 at 5:26 pm |
    • Limper

      What kind of person only does good because they are afraid of getting punished, or to earn some sort of dubious reward they can only get after they die?

      Even lower order animals seem to recognize that doing good things for others can be rewarding in itself.

      May 23, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      But Ryan, your god is only one of many we don't believe in...when you understand why you dismiss all the other gods, you will understand why we dismiss your god.

      May 23, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
    • Daniel

      Truth Prevails you wrong there is only one God not many. i see what you call "other gods" as ideals, man made up denial of the truth, satans distording of facts. look maybe you just dont see the truth because your blided(thats was the number one things jesus cured in the Bible) Jesus came to show us in the physical what he does in the spirtual. maybe you have not seen it because you dont want too but i have seen God work miracles, healing answering prayers that makes no since to the way the world operates. i pray that one day you will as well. harden your heart to me are the other believers on this post but be careful not to harden your heart to Gods. either way we all have a purpose and the last thing you want is for your purpose to show someone else that be a non-believer makes no sense.

      June 7, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
  20. ob@ma 2012

    We are saved by HIS Grace, not by our actions and works.

    May 23, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
    • John

      So what's all that about the rich and the camel through the eye of a needle? It certainly sounds like Jesus is saying that character/works are a factor.

      May 23, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
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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.