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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. Brian Fr Langley

    I'm not sure why the Pope's comments make atheists happy??? Since they don't believe in an after life anyway? And why would an atheist be angry at a believer who tells him (or her) they're going to hell?? It's not like Christians suggest you'll endure any negative outcomes from rejecting Christ while you're alive???

    May 24, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
    • Bostontola

      The pope's comments don't make me happy, and I don't get angry when someone sentences me to hell.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
    • One one

      Even though I don't believe in hell I find it offensive for someone to believe that I deserve to burn in hell for not believing as they do.

      May 24, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
    • .

      you deserve to burn in hell just for being a horses ass

      May 24, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
    • .

      no offense intended to horses

      May 24, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
    • Horses

      None taken.

      May 24, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
  2. Bostontola

    Are fossils the remains of animals and plants killed in the great flood?

    May 24, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
    • M

      In geology, there is no event known as "the great flood," although flooding events have happened throughout the history of the earth.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ M – what is this "geology" thing you speak of? Is it a long-lost gospel?

      May 24, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
  3. Ivan A. Rogers

    There is a primary reason that "all people" have been entrusted to the ultimate judgment of Christ. Why? It was for a very specific assignment that I will now quote from the words of Jesus himself, as follows: "For you [Father] granted [me] authority over ALL people that [I] might give eternal life to ALL those you have given [me]" – John 17:2, emphasis added.

    It seems apparent that Jesus understood his heavenly commission to be the ultimate salvation of ALL humanity; in this he will not fail the trust put upon him by his heavenly Father.

    May 24, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • M

      This is interesting, "in this he will not fail the trust put upon him by his heavenly Father," but a contradiction for monotheism. But that, I think, was not your interest in the post, rather the emphasis on "all people." Do you get joy out of agitation? If so, you may want to examine your morals, not that what I see some of the atheists doing here to be any better.

      May 24, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  4. rg

    It's good to finally see an open-minded Christian, and Pope at that! One who embraces the Buddhist practice of "metta" (Pali)."maitri" (Sanskrit) or loving-kindness. There's room for all in the big tent of religion.

    May 24, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
  5. OMG

    Jesus is the only way to God.

    If you do not "believe" in Jesus, you can't know God.

    –What does it mean to 'believe' in Jesus?–

    Is there a prayer?

    Do I sign a contract?

    What is more important to Jesus:

    – My Beliefs?

    – My Life?

    Which can I change? I think my life – what I say and what I do (even doing 'good deeds' – a frightening thought to some Christians)

    How do I change what I believe?

    I feel like I am auditioning for His approval!

    I think the way of Jesus, and NOT somebody's words about Jesus, is the real meaning behind:

    "...no one comes to the Father but by me."

    -

    May 24, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
    • Science

      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 5:36 pm |
    • Bob

      If you have Christian friends ask them to guide you to the next step and/or meet with a Pastor and discuss your questions and ask for guidance.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • OMG

      I am a Christian.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • OMG

      I need Jesus.

      Not dogma or to pretend like I believe something in order to fit in.

      A lot of people – because of fear of other Christians and the threat of going to hell – try the 'fake it til you make it' strategy.

      I can't find any Christians here who seem willing to share any love – they just want to post and take John 14:6 out of context.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • Bob

      OMG, how is it that your omnipotent sky fairy couldn't do better than a book to communicate, that is so susceptible to being taken out of context?

      Pretty pathetic "god" you've made for yourself there, stupid.

      May 24, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
    • OMG

      There are other ways outside of the book to communicate.

      There is a good reason why things need to be read in context...

      ... God's ways are not our ways.

      He is speaking to our heart.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
  6. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Richard Dawkins interviews Daniel Dennett – Oxford, 9 May 2012

    Dennett: "[in Ireland a few years ago and says the statistic that was striking then] only 20 or 30 years ago there were 3 priests for every parish – now it's 3 parishes for every priest"

    Dawkins [gazing out with smile]: "actually that's very encouraging"

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6xYlXho4B8&w=640&h=390]

    May 24, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  7. Vic

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/23/heaven-for-atheists-pope-sparks-debate/comment-page-25/#comment-2367134

    May 24, 2013 at 5:26 pm |
    • Science

      Evolution wins VIC there is green slime all over the place. You know algae!

      May 24, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

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

      Wasting time changes things (think opportunity cost).

      May 24, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
    • as always

      busted boston is wrong

      May 24, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      like rain dances change the weather .

      May 24, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • nope

      @cedar rabies
      nope

      May 24, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
    • HA25

      Cute bumper sticker, but not an intelligent argument.

      Here's another cute bumper sticker. "The Universe is Constantly Trying to Kill You" We live in a very harsh place. Faith in God / Heaven probably makes you feel better about it. But when someone is selling you what you want to hear – it usually pays to be skeptical.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • One one

      How is praying for world peace working out for you ? Have you made any progress ? Let me guess, NOPE.

      May 24, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
    • nope

      @one lost
      nope

      May 24, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
  9. OMG

    How do we do this?

    Are there certain words we need to say?

    Is there something we have to believe?

    How did you come to believe?

    May 24, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Eat of his flesh and drink of his blood. It's as hard to accept now as it was then but still true.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
    • OMG

      But on the night Jesus was betrayed he didn’t say

      “this is my body broken for you…UNDERSTAND this in remembrance of me….

      he didn’t say ACCEPT this or DEFEND this or BOUNDARY this in remembrance of me he just said

      do this in remembrance of me.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
  10. Bostontola

    On this blog alone, one Christian accuses another Christian of spreading lies, another accuses the pope of spreading lies, another accuses other Christians of not understanding the bible. It is a free for all. That is all without bringing in other religions. What a mess.

    May 24, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  11. Science

    The video that goes with the link below

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lafL_mmv3EA&w=640&h=390]

    Bostontola

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130523143741.htm
    Scientists Offer First Definitive Proof of Bacteria-Feeding Behavior in Green Algae

    Amazing how god(s) use evolution, isn't it.

    May 24, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse | Reply

    May 24, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
    • Bostontola

      Thanks Science. (double entendre intended)

      May 24, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
    • JFCanton

      This would be much more groundbreaking if the algae in question didn't already have all the extra bits and pieces *besides* these bacteria. The foundational conditions we cannot test at present (though it wouldn't be important to anyone with a sophisticated religious belief; for every action a mechanism in the physical world has to exist).

      May 24, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
  12. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Stephen Fry dismantles the Roman Catholic Church
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6sz8D411kE&w=640&h=390]

    May 24, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
  13. Stayve13

    It doesn't matter what the pope says or doesn't say. He doesn't make the rules and just because he wants something to be a certain way does not make it so. He can fool himself all he wants, and I'm sure there'll be throngs of people who believe him but nowhere in the bible does it say all have been redeemed and are going to heaven whether you are a believer or not.

    If that were the case, why would hell exist if we're all going to heaven? And if the pope's argument is that hell doesn't exist, why does it say it does exist in the bible?

    This pope is one white garment away from a Bed, Bath and Beyond.

    May 24, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      In case you didn't know, you can't believe everything you read in the bible. It's been debunked on several occasions as being factually inaccurate.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      When the question is limited to fallen man it has a clear answer in such passages as I John, ii, 2; I Tim. ii, 4, iv, 10; II Cor., v, 16; etc., all bearing out the Redeemer's intention to include in His saving work the universality of men without exception.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
    • Ivan A. Rogers

      There are many professing Christians who will fight like hell to defend the mythical doctrine of hell. Go figure! Most of them don't realize that the word "hell" is fast disappearing from the Bible. For example, of the best selling Bibles only the King James Version still retains the word "hell" in its Old Testament. Whereas, the NIV, ESV, and NASV which are known to be based on earlier and better manuscripts have all completely eliminated the word "hell" from the Old Testament based on a more scholarly understanding of the original Hebrew language (The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew.)

      May 24, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
  14. luker6401

    We as humans can never be good enough to earn our way to Heaven like the Catholic church teaches.
    (for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God Romans 3:23) and all our righteousness is as a filthy rag. Isaiah 64:6)
    even on our best day.
    It is only though Jesus Christ that a person can be saved. By accepting Him as your Saviour and believing that He died on a cross to save you from your sins. The redeemed are saved by grace through faith. Grace is something that we receive that we do not deserve because we are sinners.(For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.) There is no one righteous in the eyes of the Lord apart from the saving grace of Jesus Christ. (Romans 3:10)
    Jesus came to this earth to pay a debt that we couldn't pay for a crime that He didn't commit.

    May 24, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'Jesus came to this earth to pay a debt that we couldn't pay for a crime that He didn't commit.'

      we didnt commit a crime either, its apparently guilt by association, i mean i dont even know these adam and eve characters.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
  15. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Peter Millican – Debunking the Kalam Cosmological Argument
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35WVf6Uvk8U&w=640&h=390]
    ...

    May 24, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
  16. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    C Hitchens destroys the Catholic Church
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBdZ6A1tCIM&w=640&h=390]

    May 24, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • JFCanton

      At least we can make the Nietzsche joke about Hitchens...

      May 24, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
  17. aldewacs

    The level of denial and obfuscation on this forum is staggering. The 'faithful' are just unwilling to accept any reason whatsoever, and keep spouting drivel. So many want to be 'holy' ar a least sound like Charlton Heston.

    So depressing. I fear for the human race if this nonsense continues.

    It is high time that children were taught the truth: there are no gods, no Allah, no Christian god, none of the old gods of history or new gods yet to be invented. None. Nada. Imagine the freedom of spirit that children could enjoy, and the superior humans they could develop into if they did not have to spend a lifetime shedding the yoke of false beliefs.

    May 24, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
    • Arpit Chauhan

      And that Wolf Blitzer didn't think that one should "thank the Lord" after a tornado.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • JFCanton

      What in human history gives you any confidence that they won't just make up another false belief? Some kids can handle it. Some struggle with the absence of firm emotional ground. Some self-destruct.

      Or that they won't decide something like this: "There's no evidence that my *personal* gasoline habit, drug habit, s-x habit, animal abuse habit, etc. harms any other people or the world, so why shouldn't I do it?"

      May 24, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
  18. Burned Bruno Giordano

    Well if you do good and don't pray does not count as good. Give coins to church...
    Religions destroying this world, so whatever.

    May 24, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
  19. Jesus Says Follow Him

    Jesus "I am the way,"
    + As in:
    + "I know the way."
    + "I've discovered it"
    + "You can, too."

    I think Jesus means this:

    + If you believe anything – believe not WORDS but the WAY to Life itself!

    + My way, like many other ways, will guide you into the Eternal.

    + In fact, you cannot separate the way to God from God herself.

    + The way to God IS God.

    GOOD NEWS! Not just for all ( not just the few somebodies that can happen to muster up enough strength to "believe" in the correct way!!!!!!)

    May 24, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
    • Bostontola

      Why does god need a gender, will it be procreating?

      May 24, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • R Greg Crews

      Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life, NO MAN COMES TO THE FATHER, BUT BY ME." JOHN 14:6 – You are spreading llies and half-truths.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      jesus is the church's gps?

      im claiming copyright on that, you cant use that.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
    • OMG

      How do we do this?

      Are there certain words we need to say?

      Is there something we have to believe?

      How did you come to believe?

      May 24, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
    • OMG

      Jesus is the only way to God.

      If you do not "believe" in Jesus, you can't know God.

      –What does it mean to 'believe' in Jesus?–

      Is there a prayer?

      Do I sign a contract?

      What is more important to Jesus:

      – My Beliefs?

      – My Life?

      Which can I change? I think my life – what I say and what I do (even doing 'good deeds' – a frightening thought to some Christians)

      How do I change what I believe?

      I feel like I am auditioning for His approval!

      I think the way of Jesus, and NOT somebody's words about Jesus, is the real meaning behind:

      "...no one comes to the Father but by me."

      -–

      May 24, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
    • steve

      Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life, NO MAN COMES TO THE FATHER, BUT BY ME". What is the context of this statement? Ea was speaking to whom? The all of humanity, romans, the chinese, jews? Answer d. The jews. Christ was the first and last great Jewish sage of his caliber. He was their Messiah and they went to Herod before Rome. Now his path is available to us all but there are other great sages. Heaven, Valhalla, Pureland or maybe your own. Dont forget salvation and enlightenment are quite different. Hitch a ride to his house or build your own you know?

      May 24, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
    • OMG

      Jesus said he is going away... and he will prepare a place for his disciples – a place for his closest friends.

      As usual – the closest people to Jesus had no clear idea what he was talking about.

      Thomas asked – "Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?"

      Jesus said to Thomas: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me."

      -

      What verse does he say it to all the Jews? Or to anyone that isn't a close friend?

      May 24, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
  20. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Sam Harris demolishes Christianity
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSdGr4K4qLg&w=640&h=390]
    ...

    May 24, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Too bad C.S. Lewis wasn't alive in the era of Internet videos that preach to the converted (or not).

      May 24, 2013 at 5:19 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.