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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. Ted Jones the crusader not for khrist

    So they closed comments on John Stembergers article....he said this..
    .
    "Parents should have the e xclusive right to raise issues about s e x and se xuality with their children in their own time and in their own way, in the privacy of their homes, not brought up by other older boys around a campfire. Allowing open hom os e x uality injects a sensitive and highly charged political issue into the heart of the BSA, against the wishes of the vast majority of parents."
    .....
    Okay so he removed his children from the campfire to avoid the older kids......does he home school his kids? What happens when they go to school. Also a vast majority in the South were against blacks getting rights. Sounds like the BSA will be better off with one less big ot.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • ME II

      And he said,
      "The BSA had never discriminated against ho[]mos[]exuals. "

      Which is completely bogus since the current policy is:
      "While the BSA does not proactively inquire about the se[]xual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed hom[]ose[]xuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA."
      (http://www.scouting.org/sitecore/content/MembershipStandards/KnowTheFacts/CurrentPolicy.aspx)

      May 24, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • ME II

      "...we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed hom[]ose[]xuals...."

      May 24, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • Ted Jones the crusader not for khrist

      So Mr. Stemberger is a bigot and a liar. How christian............

      May 24, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • Ted Jones the crusader not for khrist

      “We've seen in every state with a marriage amendment like this on the ballot that the people get it and understand the threat and it motivates them to come out and vote.”

      John Stemberger
      -------------------------------
      Fear based...got to love it

      May 24, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • John Stemberger

      It is a sinful lifestyle and has no place in our great country.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  2. Ryan

    I didn't realize that atheists insist on having equal access to heaven. Not sure how to solve that one...?

    May 24, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
    • snowboarder

      @ryan, i don't think they do. i think the church is trying to broaden its base by being more inclusive.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • Ryan

      Why then are they concerned with Catholic doctrine regarding salvation?

      May 24, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
    • hee hee

      @Ryan: a sting! Touche! Unless of course there is a reason for concern outside the scope of your imagination.

      For example, I am concerned only insofar as it is fun to ridicule the aforementioned doctrine. Others will have their own reason. Here are some hints: political power of the church, wishing to know what our neighbors believe; you could come up with more if you wanted to.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
  3. Hiram

    Hallelajah! I'm being admitted to a non-existent place by a non-existent god. Too bad my "soul" won't exist after I die to enjoy paradise.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:59 am |
  4. Charles Darwin

    Nice of him to say that, but I think the chance of there being a heaven is along the same line of me winning the power ball lottery.
    Dream on.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • ME II

      "... along the same line of me winning the power ball lottery [without buying a ticket]"

      May 24, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
    • Troglodytes Entertaining All

      Nah... Because you actually have a chance to win the Powerball.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  5. Questionable

    Reading the remarks from the devout people on here is truly disheartening. It amazes me that you find such discomfort in the allowing of 'certain' people into Heaven, which tells me (based on the faith and your comments) that you find comfort in damning people to Hell. Concerning your belief, what benefit will you gain when you are in Heaven and 'Jim' or 'Sheila' is not there? Your selfish soul will be proudly celebrating the eternal pain of another. Somehow I feel your faithful condescension is not exactly a ticket into Heaven. Then again, I probably just missed the part where the purpose of religion was to persecute others. From the beliefs I have heard about Heaven, I am fairly sure "riff-raff" is not a problem in Heaven.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • Open Eyes

      Not damning people but speaking what is said in the Holy Word. Jesus stated that the only way to the father is thru him, that means believing in him. Now based upon their belief of not believing, who is damning them? Themselves as I see it by their own admittance. Yes all are redeemable and no one is to be treated any different then others, but one can not gain admittance to Heaven unless one believes and live by the example of Jesus Christ. Even self proclaimed Christians will not see heaven if they do not truly believe deep in their Heart that Jesus is the Son of God, and came to die for not just a specific people's sins but the sins of the World, Opening the door to Heaven to all because we all fall short. So what The Pope is saying, is not completely true/false, but he is playing the middle of the road. And God Gave us the choice to believe thus either saving ourselves by believing and living on Jesus' words or denying them and his existence. Also He said All who deny him while here on Earth he will deny before his father and state I Know thee not depart from me. So the choice of being saved or damned is your choice. No man outside of yourself can put u in heaven or hell, but your belief or non belief of the son and the father. I believe and will live by that belief, but will share my belief to all that want to hear, but those that choose not to hear I pray for redemption not damnation.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  6. Kevin

    Thank you!

    May 24, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  7. Steeev

    Heaven for atheists? Popeye say yes! Aah ga, ga, ga, ga!

    May 24, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  8. Steven Colo

    "bishops and experts in Catholicism say Francis was expressing a core tenant of the faith."

    Nope. Tenet. Not tenant.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  9. Tony

    These comments are absolutely blasphemous. Irregardless of how you believe or what your thoughts are, if the doctrine that you base your beliefs on is changed simply to fit in with what the world wants, then you have been blasphemous to said doctrine.

    The Pope is playing God here by changing the words of the bible. Let it be clear... Jesus was clear that the only way to salvation was belief in him. It has nothing to do with being good or bad. Jesus said, only a fool in his heart has said that there is no God (an atheist) he admonished such a belief as the pathway to hell. Whether you like it or not... one cannot change the very words that Christ spoke. What the pope did was simply a part of a greater expanding apostasy to please the majority. The very teachings of Jesus show that, as God in the flesh, he did not waver from the truth.. whether people liked it or not.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • Beez

      Considering what Jesus said was written at least 60-100 yars after his death at the very minimum, I don't think you can take the Bible as direct quotes anyway. It was written by men to further whatever agenda they were pushing at the time.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • snowboarder

      the story of jesus is either a complete work of fiction or so grossly embellished as to be meaningless.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • Dandy

      Tony– The Catholics and protestants both see eye to eye (typically) that Christ's sacrifice was to "redeem" the sins of all. Christ, in one instant, gave his life so that ALL mankind from all time would be delivered from sin. Redemption is not equivalent to salvation.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • Lokari

      According to the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility, if the Pope says it, it's true. Ergo, it takes precedence over your interpretation of the gospels.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
  10. Dan B

    It's fun to make up things that can never be proven or disproven.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • Beez

      YEs, it is fun...my dog just levitated 3 feet off the floor and did 3 circuits around the room before landing back on the floor.....prove it didin't happen, lol

      May 24, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  11. Dandy

    Pope Francis stated something that the Catholic Church has always taught; that Christ died on the cross to deliver man from sin. This "deliverance,", or "redemption" includes the totality of humanity for all time (even atheists). Redemption, however, should not be confused with salvation. That is another subject altogether. God Himself is the judge who determines which souls are granted salvation and which are not. For Catholics, salvation is promised for those who live their lives in communion with Christ. For non-Catholics, salvation is available for those who, according to God's judgment, live in accordance with their conscience that is "written on their heart."

    May 24, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  12. Beez

    It is interesting to see that even the Pope has spin-doctors to 'refine' what he stated.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  13. george smythson

    "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!”
    Pretty much what the Bible says–Christ's death on the cross was for everyone. Period. Now, whether folks avail themselves of that becomes the question... To paraphrase, whosoever believes shall not perish... The onus is still on the individual to accept that redemption. And recognize, all have sinned and fallen short...—it’s only thru Christ’s redemption that we can reach salvation, not thru good works.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:51 am |
  14. Ryan

    Unfortunatley he is dead wrong... unbelievers will not be in heaven..however the pontiff will meet the atheist later because both of them will be in hell

    May 24, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • Joe Rossi

      The idea that you "go" to heaven or hell is silly. When you die you don't "go" anywhere. Rather you become what you were for the billon of years before you were born. A peaceful nothingness. In 1700 none ofus existed and was it not a rough time for you. We won't exist in a hundred years from now. Only a body is born; only the body dies. not a soul. The soul is eternal having existed for all time. Hate to tell you that. Obviously you think you're special and people you disagree with deserve to suffer eternally based on some fairy tale book you blindly put your faith in.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  15. Nick

    There is confusion between "redemption" and "salvation". Catholics believe Jesus died to redeem every human, good, bad, catholic, protestant, athiest, pagan, murderer, shoe salesman, saint, scientist, straight, gay, wise or foolish person that has ever lived or will ever live.

    A person can either accept that redemption or reject it. We belive that the ultimate wages of that rejection is the eternal seperation from God which is called Hell.

    Just because a person does not accept Jesus as his or her savior does not prevent them from being redeemed or from doing good on this earth as all of us should.

    Definitely a misleading interpretation on CNN's main page.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  16. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Dan Dennett on the mind (4/8/2013)
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbJHOnkFimg&w=640&h=390]

    May 24, 2013 at 11:48 am |
  17. Ralph_in_FL

    Like anything else a religious leader says, his comments are totally irrelevant to the real world.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • Dandy

      If you are naive enough to dismiss the fact that religion is part of the "real world" then you live in a fairy tale. Ignorance is bliss I suppose.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  18. FH

    I like this, 15554 commits 0 Facebook recommend 0 tweets 0 unshared and 0 Google. Fail for the pope!

    May 24, 2013 at 11:45 am |
  19. Lisa

    I am a religious person, but not a Catholic. I think the Pope's statement is tremendously important. He is emphasizing living a good life, and being kind to other humans, and discouraging us from using our religions to (erroneously) judge whether our fellow man might or might not go to "hell" , and to also discourage us from fighting and persecuting each other based on religious differences. I don't agree with the President of the American Atheists that Jesus said blaphemers would go to hell - Jesus died on the cross with two thieves and emphasized that believers could go to heaven. Jesus also emphasized the Golden Rule. I don't recall Jesus every saying anyone would go to Hell, except those who stole from others, etc. and were unrepentant for what they had done.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • Truth

      The Pope is nothing more than a False Prophet. The Bible quotes Jesus explicitly in Matthew chapter 7:

      21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

      22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?

      23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

      The will of the Father (Jesus) is expicitly preached by Peter on the day of Pentecost in the Book of Acts:

      37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”

      38 Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

      May 24, 2013 at 11:52 am |
  20. John Nichols

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

    Um, is a "core tenant" someone who rents a core?

    May 24, 2013 at 11:44 am |
    • Lisa

      Yes, I think the word they were looking for is "tenet." Meaning "specific belief."

      May 24, 2013 at 11:46 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.