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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. In home personal training long lsland

    I love a Pope who can doesnt judge. At least that's what I go out of it. Believer or non believer, the Pope's statements from from a loving place. I'll take that any day.

    January 12, 2014 at 8:09 pm |
  2. Tedd

    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. (Matthew 7:21 KJV)

    January 8, 2014 at 3:11 pm |
  3. KimKim

    According to most religions if you don't think that there is a God, you are going to Hell! So the Pope is spinning here!

    January 6, 2014 at 3:44 pm |
  4. Remove the Veil

    I think his effort is lovely too bad it is met with mocking laughter by the very people who he has told its ok that God will forgive them any way. Which we all knew would happen anyway.

    January 6, 2014 at 1:26 pm |
  5. Tedd

    I believe in God, and I've been saying what Pope Francis said for a long time, despite sometimes creating awkward moments among my devout Christian family and friends. My belief is that it really doesn't matter what you say or what’s in your head, it only matters “what’s in your heart.”

    January 4, 2014 at 9:10 pm |
    • TYRANNASAUR

      It's amazing that people think many things are from the heart....the heart is nothing more than a pump that pumps blood throughout the body...THAT'S ALL IT IS.... the whole fantasy about things coming from the heart goes back to 5000 years ago in Egypt because they thought the heart was where everything came from and the most important thing in the body....when they mummified people special care was taken with the heart while the brains were thought of as nothing, were pulled out through the nose and dumped in the garbage....THE HEARTS IS A PUMP...THAT'S ALL IT IS.

      January 9, 2014 at 10:34 am |
      • Tedd

        uh... Have you ever heard of a phrase "a figure of speech"?

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Figure_of_speech

        January 9, 2014 at 12:18 pm |
  6. TYRANNASAUR

    Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate...............

    This is an exercise in INSANITY.....LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLO.....the last thing an atheist cares about is going to a place that has never and will never exist.....lololololololololololloloolollololololo

    December 29, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  7. Zane

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    December 27, 2013 at 9:47 pm |
  8. Austin

    ◄ 1 Timothy 2:5 ►

    For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus,

    December 27, 2013 at 12:25 am |
    • TYRANNASAUR

      Lololololololololololololololololol.....

      December 29, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  9. Austin

    DONT WORSHIP MARY

    Austin

    if you take personally what i am talking about then you maybe should do so. I am talking to a million catholics in general, because at 1009 AD the stared praying to Mary, which is GARBAGE, and sac-religeous idolatry.

    The fact is, Mary is no different than every other small person that God used in a suprising place. From moses in the river, Joseph sold into slavery, or Isaiah, Daniel in the Den, Jeremiah in a cistern, Paul, Peter, Mary,

    WE DO NOT PRAY TO HUMANS. WE PRAY TO GOD. IT IS SO OBVIOUS. Praying to Mary BREAKS WHAT WE ARE TOLD IS ACCEPETABLE.

    2. You shall have no other gods but me.
    Exodus 20:4

    Exodus 20:4.

    Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:

    that was true for a golden calf, and is certainly true for statues of Jesus OR MARY. and you do worhip them. If you kiss it, you are accessively devoted to this image. and that is worship.

    prayer
    pre(ə)r/
    noun
    noun: prayer; plural noun: prayers

    1.
    a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship.

    so you have made mary an object of WORSHIP, through prayer. this is not what the church claims "hyper adoration"

    YOU WORSHIP MARY. this breaks an important commandment. Again, this is STRICTLY FORBIDDEN

    December 27, 2013 at 12:23 am |
    • igaftr

      strictly forbidden by a book that says you can test your wife's fidelity by having her drink water and dust.

      Some people will believe anything.

      December 29, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • will

      God is the owner of heaven and he have set his standard to enter his kingdom, may be Pope want to change it,hahahhaah new pope new law. please let him know heaven belongs to God not him.

      January 8, 2014 at 1:59 pm |
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  11. dave powers

    Well, perhaps the pope should read hat Jesus said..
    "He will separate them one from another. . . . Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. . . .' Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels . . .' And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life" (Matt. 25:31-34, 41, 46).

    December 21, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  12. David

    Your real problem is whether YOU exist, not whether God exists. If there is no God, then everything is just physics and matter, molecules and forces. Then your brain is essentially no different from a rock on the ground, except for the particular arrangement of those atoms. And the next thing that you say is just brain chemistry. There is no YOU that speaks, just brain chemistry producing sound out of your mouth. Is that right or not?

    Molecules can’t decide between good ideas and bad ideas, between logic and illogic, between right and wrong. Everything about YOU tells YOU that YOU exist! There is more to YOU than molecules. And once YOU admit that YOU exist, it’s easy to figure out that God exists.

    December 18, 2013 at 12:00 am |
    • doobzz

      "And once YOU admit that YOU exist, it’s easy to figure out that God exists."

      Caveman logic.

      "Here's a rock, a squirrel and an ear of corn. Therefore, a big guy in the sky made it and everything else."

      December 29, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Of course there is more to me than molecules. Inside me the four fundamental forces of nature are at work. No, we don't know why the four fundamental forces of nature are what they are. No, we don't know why there is energy and matter that allow us to discuss energy and matter. Nope, we don't know a lot of stuff. It's mysterious, aint it?

      However, I'm not going to suppose that some invisible sky wizard chanted the universe into existence with magic spells. That's just silly.

      December 29, 2013 at 11:46 am |
    • igaftr

      "And once YOU admit that YOU exist, it’s easy to figure out that God exists."

      There is no logic in your statement.
      The fact that I exist is in no way any indication of any gods, or any of the other infinite other possibilities.
      I am only evidence of me. Not how I got here or how I work.

      December 29, 2013 at 11:49 am |
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  17. Bob Mich

    Any person can be saved if they are willing to obey they gospel. However, Hebrews 11:6 clearly shows that people who are and remain atheists will not be in heaven.

    Hebrews 11:6 But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

    September 13, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
    • James

      The Pope has to be more careful. I understand what he is doing but obviously the press with headline that atheists can go to heaven is not even remotely what he said. He is trying squash much of the hate coming from pretend christians who say things like"God hates Gays". Those people are not Christians..but pretenders. They fight against Christ.

      Atheists are vile depraved God haters and in their current state they will face doom for their constant fight against Christ and those who love him. They are a destructive force in the world and will be destroyed. Remember, these people are not saying..they just dont know, they are actively engaged in a smear campaign against God–calling him evil stupid and his people fools and bigots and the biggest "told you so" of all time is awaiting them. On that day all their arrogance, filth, and diseased thinking will come to an end–never to be heard from again.

      September 21, 2013 at 11:26 am |
      • Anna

        Don't you see how hypocritical this is? You condemn those who pour hate onto gays, and then turn and spit horrid, ignorant remarks towards atheists. Do you honestly believe that anyone would turn from god, if they truly knew him? Atheists have a lot to say about the religious, and a lot to say about God, it's true. However, how can they discuss someone they do not know or something they've never experienced? Atheists react the way they do out of fear, ignorance, and distrust. And who can blame them? No one has asked us to put our faith in something we cannot see, something we cannot feel. We learn to open our hearts, and then we see, we hear.
        As for those you condemn so readily, who openly turn from God, have you ever paused to wonder why? It's terrifying to let go of control, to accept that you have no say, to relinquish everything you have to Him, especially in difficult times.These people deserve our love, our support.
        If my arguments are not enough then remember we are asked to who he loves, and the lost sheep are the ones most cherished when they return.

        November 8, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
      • Stuart

        You are mistaken. The people who actively take part in the condemnation of religion are called "Anti-Theists" they are a type of atheist in the same way that baptists are a type of Christian. many of these Anti-theists are looked down upon as being childish extremists by other atheists.

        November 15, 2013 at 4:54 am |
    • cole

      why does god need to be pleased by heavenly worshipers, that shows he is narcissist why is that good for him but bad for kim kardasion she justs wants to be seen and pleased down here.

      December 15, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  18. CLAUDE

    Hmmm...I hope the Pope meant that GOD LOVE EVERYONE IN THE WORLD (including the atheists) and that, they can be saved by the the cleansing of the shed blood of Christ also...! Otherwise, what he has sparked is wilder conflagration of controversy than hell fire itself!

    September 13, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • K Kim

      Hope all you want but it looks like the Pope said exactly what you hope against. If this report is accurate, the pope just undermined the existential basis for the Catholic Church.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:45 am |
      • James

        Comprehension problems?
        John 3 18
        18 Whoever believes in Me(Christ) is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.

        You turn to Christ or you're done. No one in the modern era has any claim that they didnt hear this message. They have heard it more than any other generation and have flatly rejected the mercy of Gods court. There is no paying God back by good deeds. Our own criminal justice system doesnt tell the guilty to leave court and do some deeds to acquit themselves. The deed is done–all that is left is mercy and God has made it so simple to ask for it and once you do Christ is placed in your mind as FACT..you know it at that point(the faith is only in the first step)-the fact that millions refuse to do something so simple reveals their true heart–"I will not have a Master, I will not confess my wrongs, I dont need God, I am the God of my life".

        The whole point of heaven is to remove these arrogant people from sight so they will never be heard from again. So no, unbelievers have never been able to comprehend the message because their reasoning has become dysfunctional, Hence, all the bizarre proclamations on this board.

        September 21, 2013 at 11:42 am |
        • Julia

          All in all, I think that when you throw out insulting and scary monologues about people and their everlasting lives, it brings them much further away from wanting to open their hearts to God and Christ because you are acting as his ambassador and you are doing a scary job. Don't forget that while he had warnings for people, Jesus' message was of Life and Love, and that yours is very devoid of that. Don't add hurdles to people's journey. Fear of the people who you would see at church is a hurdle. And the pope was actually just saying that people don't need believe they've already been ruled out for heaven potential because Jesus created an opportunity for everyone.

          December 26, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
  19. Olivia

    Does this mean then that even though I am a born-again Christian, because I am no longer "Catholic" I will not go to heaven?

    August 19, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • Dan

      “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.

      September 11, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
    • Polycarp

      Depends on what level of your ignorance is, thus your leaving the Church.

      December 9, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • Evangelarry

      The Bible says, that everyone who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Jesus said, no one will enter the kingdom of God unless they are born again. And you are a born again child of God and are sealed with the Holy Spirit as a deposit guaranteeing you eternal life. Just belonging to a denomination has absolutely nothing to do with one's salvation. However, make sure you belong to a church that preaches the truth of God's word and the true gospel of Jesus Christ that leads people to being born again, just like you. God bless.

      December 17, 2013 at 6:07 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.