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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. Doc Vestibule

    Francis is doing a far better job of representing what the Catholic church should be about than Benedict ever did.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:52 am |
    • Science

      Doc.............but

      Better than Comedy GOLD................it is THE PEARLY GATES !.............what a JOKE !

      Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate

      By Dan Merica, CNN

      http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/23/heaven-for-atheists-pope-sparks-debate/comment-page-18/#respond

      http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/05/when-christians-become-a-hated-minority/

      May 24, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • William Demuth

      Yes

      But then again, Francisco Franco (Who remains dead!) was a better dictator than Hitler, but I would have been loathe to live under either of them

      May 24, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      Wow Doc! A positive comment about a Catholic. Respect to you for a fair comment.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • Science

      Doc

      Hey HeroesAre Rare..............deleting more comments aye?

      Oh! by the way –
      Sam stone, Science and the Doc all of whom think they're pretty sharp............ I've said what I have to say and I will NOT respond to ANY of your juvenile attempts to argue. Got it!

      May 23, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply

      May 24, 2013 at 7:09 am | Report abuse | Reply

      Science

      HerosAre Rare , faith the peach and chadie too you are so full of IT...............link below if you need help !

      http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/internet-explorer/internet-explorer-help#internet-explorer=top-solutions

      Peace

      May 24, 2013 at 7:33 am | Report abuse |

      Science

      HerosAre Rare...........urls got you science !

      May 23, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |

      science

      Test

      May 23, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |

      http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/05/when-christians-become-a-hated-minority/comment-page-111/#comment-2365603

      http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/05/when-christians-become-a-hated-minority/comment-page-111/?replytocom=2366231#respond

      May 24, 2013 at 7:48 am | Report abuse |

      Science

      Hey Chadie

      So solution for the sign being wrong in picture above..................is NOT to teach children the fairy in the sky created US.

      Easy DNA swap will tell you your family tree !

      Peace

      May 24, 2013 at 9:17 am | Report abuse |

      May 24, 2013 at 11:29 am |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      Science – I did NOT delete any comments. I hate your opinions and think you're lacking in logical reasoning but you STILL to express what you think,

      May 24, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
  2. Cpt. Obvious

    CNN has closed the comment section of the "Boy Scout" Gay whatever thread.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:51 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      I noticed that too.
      I guess the author of the article doesn't want to read any backlash for his ho/mophobia.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • midwest rail

      I asked this morning, and was told comments were never allowed.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  3. ticalal

    The pope clearly knows nothing about marketing!

    May 24, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      Why would he? He's about spreading the word of God and respecting others. But you can't handle THAT can you?

      May 24, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
  4. Jim

    Steve Jobs last words were: Oh wow, Oh wow, Oh wow. What do you think he saw? Lets have a respectful discussion. Ok go!

    May 24, 2013 at 10:49 am |
    • snowboarder

      delusions as his brain ceased to function and the impulses faded away.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:51 am |
    • SDCinNS

      I suspect, "Oh wow, oh wow.. how wrong I was... and Budah can't help me now!"

      May 24, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • Jim

      People who have had NDEs claim to see beautiful images, calmess, and some even claim to see a perfect being. I wonder if some have had experiences opposite of this.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:57 am |
    • Jim

      *calmness

      May 24, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • Madtown

      Not sure, but hopefully for his sake he was not reacting to pain.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • Jim

      When my father was on his death bed, he kept claiming to see his father who was welcoming him. Another funny thing was when he was out of consciousness, he yelled "That light is lame!". I thought it was pretty funny. I know he had a peaceful passing, and thats what counts i guess.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • Arthur Bryant

      He saw the plan for the iPhone 14.

      May 26, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  5. SDCinNS

    The catholic church one again contradicting the words of Jesus – no surprise there. The truly scary thing about this article is, the atheist at the end of the story is the only one with Biblical theology – all the "religious experts" they quote contradict the Scriptures.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • theala

      So you think that people who never heard of Jesus are condemned to Hell then? Nice guy.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • snowboarder

      there are literally as many interpretations of scripture as there are readers.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • dennis

      There's no contradiction here. The ignorant media are reading too much into his words. Christian teaching has always held that ALL of mankind has been redeemed by the death of Christ on the cross. To be redeemed in this sense means to have the gates of heaven opened for you. Whether you are actually SAVED and able to walk through them after you die is entirely different. It is up to you. If an atheist remains true to his creed to the very end–i.e., deliberately refusing to believe–then the fact of his redemption will not enable him to enter heaven. He will be damned. As Jesus said, whoever does not believe is already condemned.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • SDCinNS

      Jesus told his people to "go into all the world and preach the gospel" (Matthew 28), because, "it is not God's will that any should perish" (2Timothy). But the choice is theirs.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • LinCA

      @dennis

      You said, "If an atheist remains true to his creed to the very end–i.e., deliberately refusing to believe–then the fact of his redemption will not enable him to enter heaven. He will be damned."
      Yet, if your god exists, it made me the way I am. I can no more force myself to believe the Easter Bunny Exists, than I can force myself your god does. It's not a matter of refusing to believe, but inability to suspend my disbelief long enough to fall into the trap.

      There is no rational case to be made for the existence of gods, including the christian one. There is no rational case to be made to believe any of the christian doctrine. There is no rational reason to be a believer.

      You said, "As Jesus said, whoever does not believe is already condemned."
      My disbelief is not a choice. If your god exists, and want me to spend eternity in hell for that, I'll gladly take it, since it'll be far better than spending it with that monster.

      It's really a good think gods don't exist.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • SDCinNS

      @Denis – how you describe "redeemed" is foreign to the Scriptures. The Word of God has no distinction between the saved and the redeemed. They are synonymous. Eph 1:7 "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace."

      May 24, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • SDCinNS

      @LinCA – Sadly... God will give you your choice.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • LinCA

      @SDCinNS

      You said, "Sadly... God will give you your choice."
      Maybe. But only if your imaginary friend exists. Something which is incredibly unlikely. So unlikely that it doesn't warrant a second thought.

      Come back when you have some evidence that shows there is even a remote chance your imaginary friend exists.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
  6. Linden Pike

    Heaven involves praising your god for days on end, with most of the people we can't stand down here.

    Sounds more like Hell to me. No thanks.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • Raider

      I agree completely, if there is a heaven, I want no part of it. Good thing it's as real as Candyland!

      May 24, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • SDCinNS

      You'll remember says that for all eternity... and God will grant you your wish.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  7. sick of christian phonies

    Here's what the spinners, flacks, tools, and worthless hacks that maintain the catholic hierarchy had to say after the Pope spoke about atheists: The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who know about the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”
    I bet they're gonna give the pope a stern talking-to, to make sure he toes the official line in the future.
    Jesus' love and salvation is ONLY for catholics. Everyone else: go to hell.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:46 am |
    • theala

      He's actually wrong about that; that is not what the Church actually says. Its about following Jesus; Catholics just think we follow most closely because we're the original church.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:57 am |
  8. jeffro

    Religion is the biggest scam in the history of humanity

    May 24, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  9. pivotman

    PAPA EMERITUS II for Pope! http://www.infestissumam.com/

    May 24, 2013 at 10:45 am |
  10. palintwit

    Off topic, but I just heard that Sarah Palin is on her way to Moore, Oklahoma to personally deliver a platter of s'mores to the tornado victims. That woman certainly knows just what to do in a crisis. Which is why she would make an excellent POTUS.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  11. chooselife

    capnmike,

    I will still pray for you too : -) thats the beautiful thing about God.. is that he is LOVE and all you want is to see the good in people. I respect that you don't believe.. but it will never change the way I will pray for you for success, joy, and peace in your life. Thats what God calls me to do... to care for other needs. God Bless you capnmike

    May 24, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  12. albie

    Who care what this guy says

    May 24, 2013 at 10:39 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      According to the Vatican, about 1.2 billion Catholics world wide.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • chooselife

      because I know what he says to me is only the enemy influencing him to say those things. We fight evil with love and prayer. I know thats not the real him and God wants to mold him to be a man of God 🙂

      May 24, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  13. John

    Screw the pope and the catholic church. I really don't give a damn what catholics think or say about atheists.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:38 am |
    • LD

      Then why bother to click on and read the article? Just wondering.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Well what we say is that you are a child of God, no less than any other and as such, you deserve life, dignity and justice from other humans. We'll keep working towards that for you along with others who may not share our faith but are willing to put shoulder to shoulder for the betterment of mankind. Along the way should you find yourself in God's grace, you may choose to accept the faith and join the community. We're planning a big wedding after the work is done!

      Knew you'd want to know.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • Habberdash

      You sound angry.

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

      Apparently, you do give a damn. Your participation in this discussion proves it.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:59 am |
  14. capnmike

    Since there actually ISN'T any "heaven", well, thanks for nothing. Religion is an enormous scam...none of that supernatural bunk really exists...HUMANS INVENTED IT! If you believe it, you have been brainwashed. Time to WAKE UP!

    May 24, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • chooselife

      capnmike,

      I will still pray for you too : -) thats the beautiful thing about God.. is that he is LOVE and all you want is to see the good in people. I respect that you don't believe.. but it will never change the way I will pray for you for success, joy, and peace in your life. Thats what God calls me to do... to care for other needs. God Bless you capnmike

      May 24, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  15. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Sam Harris on Christian morality (Univ. of Notre Dame)
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcO4TnrskE0&w=640&h=390]

    May 24, 2013 at 10:37 am |
  16. sick of christian phonies

    Holy Smokes! He said "everyone". Does this mean Mahatma Gandhi finally gets into heaven? I bet the fundamentalists, evangelicals, southern baptists, ad nauseum, will disagree...

    May 24, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

      Of course. Everything is disagreeable to fundamentalists, evangelicals, and southern baptists. They are the epitome of unfounded righteousness and self-interest.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:46 am |
    • Todd E

      Every Christian will disagree. Only those who believe in Christ will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not an extreme or fundamentalist viewpoint. It is one of the most obvious and plainly stated points in the entire New Testament.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  17. chooselife

    hee hee,

    Funny message lol

    But seriously, God know who you are. So I will pray for the person that reponded to my post with the name "hee hee" 🙂 God Bless you.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • Tom

      You pray for us. We'll think for you.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • mk

      What prayer will you say? Will you ask your god for mercy for his sinning, pathetic, hopeless, ignorant, lowlife, heretic self?

      May 24, 2013 at 10:41 am |
    • chooselife

      mk,

      Are those the words that you decribe aethist that I used in my earlier post? We all have a choice in what to believe, my job only is to share the gospel and let the Holy Spirit do his work. I pray for all what God has for you in your life, to answer your question. God Bless.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • mk

      Please don't.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
  18. Beth

    Heaven will be there whether we believe in it or not. It's not really up to us.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • Tom

      Same as Russell's Teapot, eh Beth? You stupid fool.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • rabidatheost

      Or it's not there, and I won't worry about it, unless you have some evidence that it does.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:37 am |
  19. chooselife

    One of the biggest LIE the enemy has told to humans is that he and God does not exist. If one doesn't believe that God or the Devil exists then he can change your mind to not seek the Almighty God which is peace, joy, love and everlasting life. For an example, if there is a spiritual war going on around you but you can't see it, but the only way to defend yourself is through prayer, the enemy wins because you don't believe the war is going on and you won’t ever use your tools (prayers) to defend yourself. MY MESSAGE TO EVERYONE ON THIS POST (Atheist, Agonists, etc.) GOD LOVES YOU ALL AND HE WANTS YOU ALL IN THE HEAVEN FOR ENTERNITY THAT’S WHY JESUS DIED ON THE CROSS. YOU SEE, GOD ONLY SEES THE BLOOD OF JESUS, HE NO LONGER SEE OUR SINS. YES, THERE ARE WONDERFUL CARING ATHEISIS, AGONISTS IN THIS WORLD, THAT ACTUALLY IS A GIFT FROM GOD FIVEN TO THEM THAT WAS PLACE IN THERE HEARTS; HOWEVER, THE BIBLE SAYS THAT MAN’S RIGHTEOUS WORKS ARE LIKE FILTHY RAGS TO HIM. YES, WE SHOULD LIVE A RIGHTEOUS LIFE; HOWEVER IT STARTS WITH BELIEVING THAT JESUS DIE FOR OUR SINS AND IS OUR LORD A SAVIOR. I AM TELLING YOU ALL THIS BECAUSE I LOVE YOU ALL AND DON’T WANT YOU IN ENTERNAL DAMATION. SO GOD GIVES US FREE WILL THAT MEANS A WILL TO MAKE A CHOICE TO CHOOSE TO GOD OR NOT. I PRAY THAT YOU WILL ALL HAVE EVERLASTING LIVE. AMEN. GOD BLESS YOU ALL. John 3.16
    IF YOU NEED PRAYER, PLEASE RESPONSE TO MY POST AND I WILL BE HAPPY TO PRAY FOR YOU 

    May 24, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • hee hee

      Could you please pray for me in all-caps?

      May 24, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • hee hee

      If there's a wonderful, caring "AGONIST" out there, I gotta meet that guy.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • capnmike

      What a crock of balony!

      May 24, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • Tom

      hee hee, great posts this morning. LOL. Thanks.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:38 am |
    • sick of christian phonies

      I see by the grammar why you took "chooselife" as a handle instead of "chooseintelligence"...

      May 24, 2013 at 10:39 am |
    • albie

      I wish there were smarter people in this world, instead of people like this ...

      May 24, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • Xty

      You said it all. It is left with individual's choice. Our prayer is that everyone chooses the right path, which Christ Jesus.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:59 am |
    • chooselife

      capnmike ...sick of christian phonies.... albie,

      Man believes they are more intelligent than God. A man that only imitates or mimics things, but no man has created anything BUT GOD. A baby in a mother’s womb doesn’t know any life after the womb until he comes out and is born into this world. But that baby can’t see that world. What if he didn’t believe there’s life after the womb? Death and life are the only two promises we have today. As man always tries to be “smarter” than God, then you should ask yourself today, can I control where I am going after I die? Or better yet, Can I control when I am born? God is in control of everything regardless of what we say or not. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • hee hee

      @Tom: thanks!

      May 24, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
  20. Darlene Buckingham

    Only the Pope knows for sure.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:31 am |
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