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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. lionlylamb

    Our visual depth perceptions into the very vastness of 'inner space' are yet veiled over by visualized spectrums’ forced-fields of multiple Omni-geodesic proportionalities. We all are but the dreams of tenured rationalisms in ideologically enamored fantasias living within the means and weighing of dire straits haughty with hunger to know and be known.

    May 24, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
  2. reasonablebe

    it's great that the catholic church finally acknowledges that it is not the holder of the sole 'true' belief- whatever that may be. time for other religions- all of them, to similarly admit they have nbo special claim to knowing all the answers of life and belief. and that it matters not what you believe, if you believe or how you believe, what matters is that you are a good person, decent to all and live life as best you can, while allowing others to do the same.

    May 24, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
    • Roger

      In Catholic theology, being "redeemed" in the universal sense is not "going to heaven". It is fair to say that Jesus is the Savior of all men – (1 Tim. 4:10). But it is not accurate to say that all men will be saved. Just as sin entered the world through the disobedience of the first man Adam and all mankind was sown into sin so then through obedience of the second man, Jesus Christ, all mankind will be sown into righteousness. (For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. – Rom. 5:19) Thus in this sense mankind has been redeemed and both the Atheist and Christian share the same saving act of God through the blood of Christ Jesus. Being reconciled to the Father as opposed to separation they commonly shared through Adam. But it does not mean that all men will come to Him or respond to His goodness.

      Secondly, no where does the Pope say that Atheists "go to heaven" . Instead where the Catholic and Atheist should meet is "in doing good" and we both should meet one another there. Below is the complete text of Pope Francis’ comments so that you can see how the media has gone off track with his words:

      "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. 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.”

      May 24, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
  3. No Such Thing

    Telling someone that they can go to Heaven without those people first accepting Jesus Christ as their LORD and Savior is doing God a great, tremendous dis-service! God is not mocked and no mortal man can speak for Him including the pope. We don't know what possessed that man to say something like that which is so fraught with serious Biblical error. "Jesus saith unto him, I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me." - JOHN 14:6 (KJV)

    May 24, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
    • Gerry from Bayonne

      No man can speak for God, except for you, I guess.

      May 24, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
    • Roger

      Did the "men" gathered at the Council in Jerusalem speak for Him in Acts 15, in particular verse 28, where it says,"It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us"?

      May 24, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
    • No Such Thing

      It is known and should be widely known, that no Mortal man or men in whatever office capacity they hold on Earth can ever say that they speak for God. God can clearly speak for Himself and does. End of story.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
    • Roger

      Then the Council was lying when they spoke for God and wrote the letter to the Church? "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us"

      May 24, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
  4. gkochanowsky

    I am a life long atheists that has said for years that if there were a god worth a dang, it wouldn't need worshipers, it would need people who did right by each other as any partent would expect of their children. Good to finally see a pope that is this enlightened. Next step, drop the supernatural nonsense.

    May 24, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • Gerry from Bayonne

      Couldn't agree with you more. What we need is a pope who believes in nothingness. That everything is passing, nothing is real, nothing endures. There are no rules. That's the kind of religion I could sign up for.

      May 24, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • reasonablebe

      totally agree.

      May 24, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
  5. Only ONE Way

    Non-Believers, atheists, and similar others cannot be celebrating this false premise that those who have not given their life to Jesus Christ can enter into Heaven. Clearly, they cannot! That is Biblical and the pope should know better than to intimate that they can without they first converting into Born Again Christians and accepting Jesus as their LORD and Savior. That's all they have to do to enter into Heaven! "Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." - JOHN 3:3 (KJV)

    May 24, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • Bob

      Hey, LOST Way, there's other fine guidance in the Christian book of nasty that you can reference too, like this fine stuff:

      Numbers 31:17-18
      17 Now kiII all the boys. And kiII every woman who has slept with a man,
      18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

      Deuteronomy 13:6 – “If your brother, your mother’s son or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul entice you secretly, saying, let us go and serve other gods … you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death”

      Revelations 2:23 And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.

      Leviticus 25
      44 “‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.
      45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.
      46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

      Note that the bible is also very clear that you should sacrifice and burn an animal today because the smell makes sicko Christian sky fairy happy. No, you don't get to use the parts for food. You burn them, a complete waste of the poor animal.

      Yes, the bible really says that, everyone. Yes, it's in Leviticus, look it up. Yes, Jesus purportedly said that the OT commands still apply. No exceptions. But even if you think the OT was god's mistaken first go around, you have to ask why a perfect, loving enti-ty would ever put such horrid instructions in there. If you think rationally at all, that is.

      And then, if you disagree with my interpretation, ask yourself how it is that your "god" couldn't come up with a better way to communicate than a book that is so readily subject to so many interpretations and to being taken "out of context", and has so many mistakes in it. Pretty pathetic god that you've made for yourself.

      So get out your sacrificial knife or your nasty sky creature will torture you eternally. Or just take a closer look at your foolish supersti-tions, understand that they are just silly, and toss them into the dustbin with all the rest of the gods that man has created.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
      Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.
      http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

      May 24, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
    • Hey! You!

      God changed the rules. You didn't get the memo?

      May 24, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
  6. athiest_nosoul

    Isn't this just a way of saying, "hey its ok if you don't believe in God, but really there is a God and a heaven. So if you are good but don't believe in God you are still ok because God will get you to heaven regardless of your belief!"

    I am not sure atheists actually believe in heaven. So how come they "welcome" these comments. Lets just agree to disagree and move on. Atheists don't need salvation or need to do good to reach a goal when they die.

    May 24, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • reasonablebe

      we don't. when you're dead, you're dead. eternal life is in the memory of others or in the things you did that changed the lives of others. it's not literal. and neither is heaven or hell for that matter....

      actually, hell was literal in ancient times. hell was the name of a garbage dump behind the temple in jerusalem- it was a place people were sent when they were ostracized from the community for something they did that the community found odious. (it was not the mythical hades, which somewhere in there, while the romans were busy running over the middle east, it became associated with-myth, that went with roman myths and gods and so on.)

      May 24, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • withorwithout

      We welcome these comments, not because we are concerned about salvation or getting into heaven, but because the pope has taken a historic step in basically saying, "We can accept one another and work together (for the good of humanity) without first requiring the other to abandon his/her differing opinion."

      This is a HUGE step. The pope is validating the atheist position without affirming it, but affirming the larger issue is of common humanity, aside from ideas about things we cannot see, much less pretend certainty.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
  7. More Bible Reading

    He needs to seriously read his Bible, something most Catholics say they do not do especially priests. Jesus has told us that there is no way to Heaven except through Him which means you have to give your life to Jesus Christ by accepting Him as your LORD and Savior and become Born Again in order to be saved. The pope cannot pardon anyone from God's directive, that is a fact! "Jesus saith unto him, I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me." - JOHN 14:6 (KJV)

    May 24, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
    • Athy

      It's absolutely amazing that people actually believe that fairy story. Are people really that dim witted?

      May 24, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
    • Bob

      Don't think you want to be recommending that Christian book of nasty for reading, when it gives horrid guidance like these fine bits, from both testaments:

      Numbers 31:17-18
      17 Now kiII all the boys. And kiII every woman who has slept with a man,
      18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

      Deuteronomy 13:6 – “If your brother, your mother’s son or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul entice you secretly, saying, let us go and serve other gods … you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death”

      Revelations 2:23 And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.

      Leviticus 25
      44 “‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.
      45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.
      46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

      Note that the bible is also very clear that you should sacrifice and burn an animal today because the smell makes sicko Christian sky fairy happy. No, you don't get to use the parts for food. You burn them, a complete waste of the poor animal.

      Yes, the bible really says that, everyone. Yes, it's in Leviticus, look it up. Yes, Jesus purportedly said that the OT commands still apply. No exceptions. But even if you think the OT was god's mistaken first go around, you have to ask why a perfect, loving enti-ty would ever put such horrid instructions in there. If you think rationally at all, that is.

      And then, if you disagree with my interpretation, ask yourself how it is that your "god" couldn't come up with a better way to communicate than a book that is so readily subject to so many interpretations and to being taken "out of context", and has so many mistakes in it. Pretty pathetic god that you've made for yourself.

      So get out your sacrificial knife or your nasty sky creature will torture you eternally. Or just take a closer look at your foolish supersti-tions, understand that they are just silly, and toss them into the dustbin with all the rest of the gods that man has created.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
      Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.
      http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

      May 24, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
  8. DYLANLAD

    No thanks...we want no part of your idiotic fantasies.

    May 24, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
  9. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Daniel Dennett – The Carthesian Theatre
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=videoseries&w=640&h=390]

    May 24, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
    • Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

      This movie was part of a series so it doesn't work above – but the youtube link is:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJWucWI456w&list=PL14BE529339AC770C

      May 24, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
  10. lionlylamb

    Hidden deeply the gods do dwell. From the very depths of atomic perceptivities do the Gods rise up to become of the Celestially Woven Manifestations in Bimolecular Physiologies! We are all of the Gods buildings via the atomic domains being made manifest by the Gods husbandry for giving Life to that which was not of Life and Creating Life Forms inside all Celestial Life Formations! By conceptions are we made manifested to become a Celestial Manifestation by living cells of Life's Atomized Essences! Yet are even the Gods but mortal and they all do die!

    Genesis 6:3 And the LORD said, "My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that He also [is] flesh".

    May 24, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
    • kenny

      you guys get internet access at the insane asylum?

      May 24, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
    • lionlylamb

      Kenny,

      🙂 😦 🙂

      😦 🙂 😦

      May 24, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • One one

      This has the guise of sounding deep and informative. But in reality, it's no different than non-sense junk mail.

      May 24, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
  11. RA

    Catholic theology is so far off course...

    May 24, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
  12. Jeff

    Pop is nothing short of yet another political figure. Useless, hypocritical, and moraless.

    May 24, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
  13. faith

    it's so elementary
    1, 2, 3

    "Horses
    What's with this whole "God's only son" BS, as if an omnipotent being couldn't make as many sons as he wanted."

    dodo, who said god could not have made more sons?

    May 24, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
    • JFCanton

      It seems to be popular to argue against characteristics of God that have no essential meaning. It's a label for our benefit, that's all.

      May 24, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
  14. One one

    The pope has to walk a fine line here. He knows his product is on its way to extinction. The hell myth contributes to that problem. But his bible clearly calls for eternal punishment for non-believers. Plus many of his customers don't want to give up the satisfaction of seeing those who disagree with them burn in hell. After all, they have towed the line faithfully for so long.

    What is a pope to do ? It appears he is trying to reposition the catholic brand. Not a bad idea, but he better be careful. It could blow up in his face.

    All this just shows, once again, religion is made up, and changes with the times when necessary despite claiming its virtues and morals are absolute and cast in stone.

    May 24, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
    • JFCanton

      This isn't a very good understanding, either of Catholicism-which can be given a political sheen, but whose dogma is essentially 800 years old or more-or of the historical religions in general. Most of what they reference is fixed material from the distant past. The interpretations of the uneducated may vary wildly, but those are almost personal cults.

      May 24, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
  15. David

    This may be all well and good but what I want to know is what does one do in this place Christians call Heaven?

    May 24, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
    • One one

      When I was a child my mom said "if you are good, you go to heaven."
      "If you are bad, you go to hell"
      "And if you are VERY VERY good, you go to heaven and get to go to hell on weekends".

      May 24, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
    • Arthur Bryant

      Well, you float around on clouds – because heaven is up in the sky, see – even though it seems to hide from satellites, telescopes, airplanes, and even birds – anyway, you float around on clouds singing the praises of god forever. That's it. Oh, except for pointing down – which somehow is where hell is, even though earth is in the way – and laughing at all the non-believers writhing in eternal torment. That's the fun part.

      May 27, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
  16. Me

    Hey Pope, quit trying to include people who don't follow your religion within your religious beliefs. It's offensive and egotistic.

    May 24, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • Another Fact

      And he is also very wrong in his assertion that non-Believers can enter into Heaven. They surely cannot as God, who is the Prime Authority on this, has already told us they cannot in Scripture.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
  17. ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

    Mithra, savior of Mithra ism, savior ism called Christianity, according to Bible, who never died..

    According to Bible Jesus compared himself to be like Jonah,

    Jonah jumped off of a ship, he was alive. Jesus put on the cross, he was alive.
    Jonah swallowed by a fish, he was alive. Jesus put in tomb, he was not dead, but alive.
    Jonah was in the belly of fish, he was alive. Jesus was in side the tomb, he was not dead, alive.
    Jonah was spitted out by fish, Jonah was alive. Jesus came out of tomb, he was alive.

    Claim of of jesus dying on a cross is hoax, by hindu Pharisees, crooked secular s by faith, it has no merits, but a tool to hind fool humanity in to hinduism, racism.

    May 24, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
    • ^^^^^^

      Troll ism

      May 24, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
  18. ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

    Mithra, savior of Mithra ism, savior ism called Christianity, according to Bible, proven other wise.

    According to Bible Jesus compared himself to be like Jonah,

    May 24, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
  19. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Dan Dennett on free will as moral competence. (April 12, 2012 – Univ. of Melbourne)
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwbnGqOrAEM&w=640&h=390]

    May 24, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
  20. ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

    Mithra, savior of Mithra ism, savior ism called Christianity, according to Bible, who never died on cross.

    According to Bible Jesus compared himself to be like Jonah,

    May 24, 2013 at 6:50 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.