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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. Pantheist

    The bible is full of contradictions and I don't know how anyone can honestly lend any credence to anything written in it!

    June 1, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  2. M

    The Pope's remarks simply meant that anyone could be saved, even atheists, as long as they turned themselves over to Jesus and the Church. As an atheist and having been raised as a Catholic it was very clear to me from the first publishing of his remarks as to what he meant, and I think any other former Catholic would have seen the same. If any atheist thought that the Church would accept them as an atheist, that simply doesn't make sense. But, if an atheist acknowledged his sins and his salvation through Jesus, then he's ok – everything forgiven. I think this is really aimed at the "nones," many of whom still believe, but have left their Church and taken their financial with them.

    June 1, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
  3. Nick Gonzalez

    Wow, you mean I can go to Heaven? There goes the Neighborhood.

    June 1, 2013 at 11:52 am |
  4. cmnsns

    Nice sentiment. Too bad there was never a Christ to spill blood nor is there a heaven waiting for anybody after death.

    June 1, 2013 at 10:10 am |
  5. Science

    Hey all creationists ...........chadie too....the truth below !

    The fairy in the sky DID NOT create US !

    Ancient life...............3.5 billion years ago.............NO god(s) or horn-y red devil (666 the beast) never has been

    Disappearance of Stromatolites, Earliest Visible Manifestation of Life: Ancient Enigma Solved?

    May 28, 2013 — The widespread disappearance of stromatolites, the earliest visible manifestation of life on Earth, may have been driven by single-celled organisms called foraminifera.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130528143756.htm

    +

    The University of Sydney.........................geology..............the dirt guys.

    Precious opal veinlets in a sandstone from central Australia.

    News

    Answer to opal mystery shows Red Centre's links to Red Planet

    31 May 2013

    The dramatic geological events that created opal, Australia's national gemstone, have been described for the first time by a University of Sydney researcher.

    http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=11678

    + the damn fossils ..............works better than the BIBLE !

    Scientists Recover Wooly Mammoth Blood ..................cloning could happen maybe

    Posted by Soulskill on Wednesday May 29, 2013 @01:52PM
    from the wooly-mammoth-vampires-very-excited dept.

    http://science.slashdot.org/story/13/05/29/1712242/scientists-recover-wooly-mammoth-blood

    New study restores famed fossil to "bird" branch

    Wednesday May 29, 2013 | Alicia Chang for The Associated Press

    http://www.newsdaily.com/article/04243837283ffd8f533a0cf41d35cd27/new-study-restores-famed-fossil-to-bird-branch

    AND chadie has a link on Bing

    Quarterback's next play: Going long with the Bible – CNN Belief ...

    religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/02/01/quarterbacks-next-play-going...

    Feb 01, 2013 · Since we've got Chad buybull ... Jurassic Park came out. Now that it has been found, ... You have nothing but a 2000 year old stone age book written ...

    AND

    All creationists...............a turtle.............but is it to old to have come from the ark ?

    Or chad crawled into his shell on the ark and finally found his way out .............you know chad ?

    The mystery of how the turtle got its shell has finally been solved by scientists studying a 260-million-year-old fossil.

    Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/scientists-have-figured-out-how-the-turtle-got-its-unique-hard-shell-2013-5#ixzz2UspYoTOm

    June 1, 2013 at 8:09 am |
    • Science

      Oops .............a thread from chadie and Austin............says (cats)

      Austin

      He is Risen. The Holy Spirit is a sanctifying spirit that bears the truth of God's word on one's heart. The Holy Spirit sustains the ministry with authority.

      June 1, 2013 at 7:51 am | Report abuse |

      http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/19/proofs-of-heaven-popular-but-not-with-the-church/comment-page-52/#comments

      June 1, 2013 at 8:17 am |
    • sciernce

      Remember chad........... the talking donkey you like so much might of chewed on that BONE.............that created eve.

      June 1, 2013 at 9:43 am |
  6. Fritz Hohenheim

    Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you....

    June 1, 2013 at 5:17 am |
  7. amercon

    Looper – The righteous go to eternal life. You can not be righteous without faith in God.

    'Without faith it is impossible to please God." Hebrews 11:6

    Science – Information, organization, laws of science, laws of logic, and life can only come from an intelligent living being (God). Energy and matter have no of these things unless first put there by God.

    'For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." Romans 1:20

    May 31, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
    • Creationist

      NYC 2:12 - wake me up when it's 7:00

      June 1, 2013 at 1:56 am |
  8. amercon

    Looper –

    May 31, 2013 at 9:40 pm |
  9. amercon

    Christ paid for the sins of everyone so everyone who believes in him can go to heaven.

    'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall have eternal life." John 3:16
    "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son." John 3:18 These are the words of Jesus.

    May 31, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
    • Creationist

      Yeah, right. Santa Claus brings the world gifts every year. Some believe that too.

      June 1, 2013 at 1:51 am |
  10. BacBac

    I just don't have enough faith to be an atheist

    May 31, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
    • Science

      From Bing below.............lmfao ...............chad has a link on BING !

      Quarterback's next play: Going long with the Bible – CNN Belief ...

      religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/02/01/quarterbacks-next-play-going...

      Feb 01, 2013 · Since we've got Chad buybull ... Jurassic Park came out. Now that it has been found, ... You have nothing

      but a 2000 year old stone age book written ...

      All creationists...............a turtle.............but is it to old to have come from the ark ?

      Or chad crawled into his shell on the ark and finally found his way out .............you know chad ?

      The mystery of how the turtle got its shell has finally been solved by scientists studying a 260-million-year-old fossil.

      Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/scientists-have-figured-out-how-the-turtle-got-its-unique-hard-shell-2013-5#ixzz2UspYoTOm

      May 31, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
    • Creationist

      Can't blame you. That takes courage.

      June 1, 2013 at 1:45 am |
  11. mzh

    It sounds like human is taking over the job of The Almighty...

    Do you know how?

    Peace!!!

    May 31, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
  12. truth

    John's Gospel chapter 10

    John 14:6

    Not all roads lead to heaven.

    Only by one name can/must be saved.

    JESUS

    John 3:16

    May 31, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
  13. DAVID

    This pope is twisted Tthere are different place for atheists,the place is enternal hellfire which means HELL!!!!!! atheists can have them as well

    May 31, 2013 at 7:15 am |
    • Science

      Hey DAVID.................True comedy gold hell and the pope.

      May 31, 2013 at 7:58 am |
    • Creationist

      Many religions have their own versions of hell. You better believe hell is not real, or one day you will be in one, and another one, and another one, ...

      May 31, 2013 at 8:20 am |
  14. Science

    Hey creationists...........Chad too...............bite the silver bullet and take the DNA test ........Game over !

    Easy to do ............shows you that there is NO red horn-y thingy. Creationists.............Chad too.

    For all creationists and ID believers...............IT only takes minutes to figure IT out. No fairy in the sky needed !

    New Device Can Extract Human DNA With Full Genetic Data in Minutes

    May 6, 2013 — Take a swab of saliva from your mouth and within minutes your DNA could be ready for analysis and genome sequencing with the help of a new device.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130506132100.htm

    May 31, 2013 at 6:25 am |
  15. GOOD NEWS

    We can clearly and unmistakably see GOD

    through His "Mathematically Designed" Perfect Deeds

    in His book of Universe, and in His book of Religion,

    in such a perfectly parallel manner now.

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com
    UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES

    May 30, 2013 at 8:26 pm |
    • Science

      Where is the picture then from 2013 ?

      May 31, 2013 at 6:23 am |
    • Creationist

      God created the internet and the Java programming language too; it's a miracle!!!

      May 31, 2013 at 8:16 am |
  16. GOOD NEWS

    Heaven is for all good people

    who will work for the good deeds.

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com
    UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES

    May 30, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  17. Liz

    If there is a God, I'm sure God would have to understand that I'm well aware that I can not now, nor have I ever been able to see Him. I'm sure he'd likewise understand that I can not measure, or proove Him. I can not see how, if He exists at all he wouldn't understand my doubt.

    May 30, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Mark 9:23-24

      23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe,[a] all things are possible to him who believes.”

      24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

      May 30, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
    • Looper

      You don't need God or Christ to get into heaven. Jesus said so in Matthew.

      Matthew 25:31-46

      King James Version (KJV)

      31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:

      32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:

      33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

      34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

      35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

      36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

      37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

      38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

      39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

      40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

      May 31, 2013 at 1:03 am |
    • nclaw441

      LIz, you make fair points. I am a Christian and still I make sure to ask my self, from time to time, WHY I believe what I believe. We should all ask ourselves that, whether we believe in God or not. We owe ourselves the obligation to investigate the question of whether God exists. The lack of proof, without investigation, doesn't seem sufficient to answer the question.

      May 31, 2013 at 8:58 am |
    • PRISM 1234

      Liz, we are intelligent creatures, far above any other living beings. We have been created that way. With our intelligence comes reason, and reason asks questions. It is not wrong to doubt. But it is wrong to claim our understanding is the plumb line by which we measure what the truth/reality is, and that's what man(kind) has basically settled for.
      That's why people who believe only in man and what he is capable to explain/understand are in state of deficiency and impairment, and it would be fit'ting to say they are "half there" because they have shut the door by which their Creator would communicate with/to them.
      Every human being has been given certain knowledge of his/her Creator, imprinted on his/her conscience. But it is through the deceitfulness of sin, love of Self and the pride that so easily be'sets us, human beings, that the heart gets hardened and conscience dulled, to the point that one becomes dead toward his/her Maker, and to them He is non'ex'istent.
      That's how come we have so many today who don't believe in ex'istence of God and who claim that all those who do believe are believing fairy tales. To THEM He is fairytale, because they are alike blind men who are stumbling in darkness, fru'strated at those who tell them of things THEY see.
      And although the things you said make fair points, it is up to you to seek to know the truth. Many people have this notion that God, if He is there, should love them and make every effort to reveal Himself to them.
      BUT God did that in Person of Jesus Christ, when He came into this world to partake our humanity and became the living sa'crif'ice, ato'ning for our sins, so that He may bring us before holy God , clothed in His righteousness, NOT our own. We HAVE NO righteousness of our own. Even one sin co'mmitted , separates us from God and brings judgment on us. But by our humbling ourselves before God, acknowledging our need for Him, and through placing our faith in Christ and His sa'crifice on the cross for us, we are cleansed and accepted by God.
      That's why the Pope and all those who say that "all" are accepted by God, even atheists, is dead wrong.
      If an atheist wants to be accepted by God, he must cease being atheist, or else he will be separated from God for eternity.
      Popes, cardinals and many religious leaders are often bold in their as'sertions and are presumptions . Their ti'tles and positions often swell their heads and they somehow think that their words are backed up with power, and (in Pope's case) think they can change the truth by making declarations like Pope did in this case, and therewith change "God's mind"...... In a way that sounds ridi'cu'lous, but if anyone knew Catholic do'ctrines, they'd understand that Pope and "holy See" believe that what they "loose or bind", God will "loose or bind", because (they think) God is obligated to act upon His word, because He said it so... But they don't' consider that they took God's Words and allowed their fleshly/human mind interpret them, not according to God's intent, but THEIRS! . Foolish men! ....but the world is full of them... And that's the story of mankind.....
      I hope you'll ponder some points written here, becaude it is not the wisdom of men that you should seek, but the one that comes from God who is willing to give to those who seek Him... but they have to seek Him with their whole heart, humbling themselves before Him, and not act like brats that think everything has to be handed to them. God doesn't respond to those kind of people as tender, loving Father. No parent should. And we should understand that!

      June 1, 2013 at 12:19 am |
    • Science

      Hey pms1234 and all creationists ...........chadie too....the truth below...........

      Ancient life...............3.5 billion years ago.............NO god(s) or horn-y red devil (666 the beast) never has been

      Disappearance of Stromatolites, Earliest Visible Manifestation of Life: Ancient Enigma Solved?

      May 28, 2013 — The widespread disappearance of stromatolites, the earliest visible manifestation of life on Earth, may have been driven by single-celled organisms called foraminifera.

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130528143756.htm

      June 1, 2013 at 6:23 am |
    • Science

      Oops forgot this one billie amd pms1234...

      Remember Billie........... the talking donkey you like so much might of chewed on that BONE.............that created eve.

      June 1, 2013 at 10:16 am |
    • PRISM 1234

      @science....
      dear friend, you cite scientific theories as they were facts, putting your faith in man's fables, thinking they make you wise.
      Then you make fun of things you know nothing about........Yet, you don't even know that the enemy of your soul has made a 'donkey' out of you.

      June 1, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
  18. Science

    BUZZ OFF fake science poster.and chadie/faith/Austin/toothless and L$H saw you somewhere today........the cats !

    all creationists !

    Changing Gut Bacteria Through Diet Affects Brain Function

    May 28, 2013 — UCLA researchers now have the first evidence that bacteria ingested in food can affect brain function in humans. In an early proof-of-concept study of healthy women, they found that women who regularly consumed beneficial bacteria known as probiotics through yogurt showed altered brain function, both while in a resting state and in response to an emotion-recognition task.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130528180900.htm

    http://www.safewayfoundation.org/

    Have a great life if you can crawl out of the green slim you are in.

    May 30, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  19. nathron

    The issue I have with atheists is that they constantly make jabs at Christians for not following their religion properly or not being truly moral (some Christians don't truly live Christian lives, they're right there) but they say they are moral & believe in human Rights even while believing a woman should have the right to kill her baby, but not be held responsible for not taking the necessary steps to prevent getting pregnant in the first place. In other words, they believe in human Rights but only past a certain age. That is NOT moral.

    May 30, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • side view

      Well lets take myself as an example. I believe morality is relative to the individual. I also do not believe any dieties exist. I believe it is wrong to take stabs at Christians or any other religious groups for that matter. I agree with you that abortion is wrong. I do not consider myself an atheist, because even though I don't believe dieties exist I think that is a simple fact of maintaining what exists and what does not exist and I do not think a label is necessary for logic.

      May 30, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
    • Veronica

      Hold on just a minute there!! LOTS of Christians are pro-choice. And I do know at least one atheist who doesn't believe in abortion at all. Why are you making it sound as if all Christians are pro-life and all atheists are pro-choice. That is not even remotely close to the truth.

      May 30, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • Looper

      Atheist are responding to Christian hatred toward them. As for a woman having an abortion, that is your religious belief. As for taking steps to prevent a pregnency, Christians fight and demand our government NOT to help women in this matter. Also, lets be clear here, it is not a child or baby, it is a fetus. Christian twist things to justify there right to push their god and the word of God that is distorted into hatred on others and non-believers.

      May 31, 2013 at 1:20 am |
  20. faith

    BOYCOTT THE ADVERTISERS THAT WASTE MONEY ON THIS DEGENERATE, SICK, HATE-FILLED PERVERSE MOUTHPIECE 4 NAZI GOD HATING FASCISTS

    2DAY, 2MORROW, 4EVER

    START NOW

    May 30, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • .

      "4 NAZI GOD HATING"

      The truth is that German Christians supported the Nazis because they believed that Adolf Hitler was a gift to the German people from God. Hitler frequently referenced God and Christianity both in public and private. The Nazi Party Program explicitly endorsed and promoted Christianity in the party platform. Millions of Christians in Germany not only enthusiastically supported and endorsed Hitler and the Nazis, but did so on the basis of common Christian beliefs and attitudes.

      May 30, 2013 at 12:27 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.