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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. Observer

    Atheists in heaven? Why not? It will fit in fine with all the other hypocrisy. If heaven is the home of those who followed the Bible, it's probably pretty empty anyway.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
  2. Julie

    Not one of these so called Christians posting here have ever seen or spoken to god. If they say they have, they are either liars or psychotic. They are only regurgitating information that has been impregnated in their minds their entire lives. Usually from the people they loved and trusted the most, their parents. It just a vicious cycle of ignorance.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
    • Bob Dunham

      Julie, please take time to read a few books written by people that have had Near Death Experiences. About 6% of the people on this planet claim to have died, had a glimpse of heaven and were revived. That many people cannot be wrong. Since 1975, I've been reading books and talking to people that have had these experiences – and I believe them. These people are from every walk of life, practice every faith known, while some are Agnostics and Atheists. I cannot imagine how lonely you must feel, thinking that this is the best life you can expect.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:43 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      Bob baby.;
      Try reading some of the logical science about the activities of the brain as it starves for oxygen. Rather amazingly it causes bright light sensations. Also, when in low oxygen environments, the brain replicates dream like states. Maybe all those illogical "experiences" are the result of easily explained symptoms of oxygen deprivation. Also,have you ever done any opiate pain killers? Man they can do some wonderful things to your brain. How many of these people were on serious pain killers at the same time? How many of them were also suffering shock? Ever been in shock? It will mess with your thoughts and memories. As a follower of reason, I will believe the most rational, logical, and simplest explanation.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      Julie,you can talk to God yourself.You don't need anyone to help or guide you.He is your Father and he wants to reconnect with you.How do I know? I did it years ago,and still do.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:31 am |
  3. Robert

    So....Hell is gone then all the sudden? Or what? Where did it go?

    May 23, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • Herb

      It never existed. It's just wishful fantasy dreamed up to make people feel better about people they hate.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
    • Science

      Robert............no HORN-Y RED DEVIL ether !

      The DINOSAUR ?...............Chomp Chomp !...Evolution WINS hands down...time for the horn-y red devil to get the

      HELL out of the way.....................Stem Cell research !

      Allosaurus Fed More Like a Falcon Than a Crocodile: Engineering, Anatomy Work Reveals Differences in Dinosaur Feeding Styles

      May 21, 2013 — The mighty T. rex may have thrashed its massive head from side to side to dismember prey, but a new study shows that its smaller cousin Allosaurus was a more dexterous hunter and tugged at prey more like a modern-day falcon.

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130521152638.htm

      Evolution wins............No red devil either !

      peace

      May 23, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
  4. Julie

    So called Christians hate to hear this. They want all non believers to roast in hell for refusing to believe the same nonsense they were brainwashed from birth to believe.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
    • faith

      what gave it away?

      May 23, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
    • Melli

      THAT is hogwash. TRUE Christians understand exactly what the Pope said and know that it is truth! There are many who call themselves Christian who are actually far from it.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
    • faith

      THAT is hogwash. TRUE Christians understand exactly what the Pope said and know that it is truth! There are many who call themselves Christian who are actually far from it.

      no! not hitler

      May 23, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
  5. Mario

    The concept for all us to do good and be kind is Christ-like and yes Jesus died for our sins, all of us but as the BIBLE says THE ONLY way to get into heaven, is to make Jesus Christ Lord of your life. If you believe that God sent His only Son, Jesus to die for our sins and if you believe, that God raised Him from the dead then you will be saved and have eternal life and get into heaven. Good deeds do not get you into heaven. You will be known as a Christian by your good deeds and your treasures in heaven will depend on your good deeds. This is the problem with the Catholic faith. They don't teach the Bible and Catholics don't read the Bible so they are deceived by men like the pope.

    God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. 9 Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. Ephesians 2:8

    May 23, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
    • Julie

      You have never spoken to god so how would you know?

      May 23, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
    • Mario

      speak to Him daily through prayer and reading His Word but don't take my word for it. Im just a human being like you. I encourage you to read the Bible. Start with Genesis and then ask me the same question

      May 23, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      Mario: Ooooh, oooh, oooh! Does he talk back? What does He sound like? I read the Bible. Understood it completely. "The Night Before Christmas" still has a more believable plot, story line and coherent writing. Bronze Age stories (stolen from previous cultures) verbally handed down for up to several hundred years before being written by people who were educated enough to write does do the "accuracy" any justice. Countless revisions by the corrupt, power and money hungry church and British Kings hasn't helped. I'll stick to things that have at least one shred of scientific evidence, logic and that aren't packed full of death and destruction by a "merciful" being. Thanks for playing though.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
    • JMEF

      Mario
      I urge you to read the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien knew how to do fairies. How about Lord of the Flies by Golding basic human condition.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
    • faith

      "Mario: Ooooh, oooh, oooh! Does he talk back? What does He sound like?"

      as sung by willie nelson
      written by
      MILES, C. AUSTIN/BROWN, CHARLES FORGAN

      I come to the garden alone
      While the dew is still on the roses
      And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
      The Son of God discloses
      And He walks with me
      And He talks with me
      And He tells me I am His own
      And the joy we share as we tarry there
      None other has ever known
      He speaks and the sound of His voice
      Is so sweet the birds hush their singing
      And the melody that He gave to me
      Within my heart is ringing
      And He walks with me
      And He talks with me
      And He tells me I am His own
      And the joy we share as we tarry there
      None other has ever known
      I'd stay in the garden with Him
      'Tho the night around me be falling
      But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
      His voice to me is calling
      And He walks with me
      And He talks with me
      And He tells me I am His own
      And the joy we share as we tarry there
      None other has ever known

      And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand ben hur

      hearing his voice changes everything

      don't take the word of delusional, mentally ill, brain washed boobs, though.

      the sound of his voice is like the opposite of sambo the rectum lover and dodo murdock the paranoid schizophrenic borderline personality disordered (i hate everything and everyone, especially myself) jerk who poses endlessly and doesn't work.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
  6. prophet

    what this clergy person is saying redemption s available for those who accept it but he is just trying to make himself popular but he is an idiot, We are praying for them.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
    • Mario

      all we can do. We are to pray so that all may be saved.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      Prophet? Really? What's gonna happen tomorrow dude?
      Anyhow, who is "we" that are praying for him? Nice of you, I'm sure it will do wonders. Also, what exactly are you praying for?

      May 23, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
  7. kristofer

    why would someone die for my sins ? it doesn't make sense

    May 23, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
    • Joep

      For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. – John 3 verse 16.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      Isn't sacrifice a sin? I didn't ask anyone to pay forward by 2000 years my actions. Whatg about someone who doesn't sin? An incredible arrogant, mean and useless thing to do. Some Christians think that since Jesus already paid for their sins, they don't have to worry about their own actions. (Yes, you can deny it, but without fail the most dishonest people I've met in business have also been "devoutly" religious.)
      I am more than willing to accept responsibility for my own actions – kind of an adult thing to do. To claim that one is going to a "heaven" because some deity ruthlessly killed his own "son" two centuries ago is complete nonsense.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
    • faith

      ScienceNeedsNoFaith
      Isn't sacrifice a sin? I didn't ask anyone to pay forward by 2000 years my actions. Whatg about someone who doesn't sin? An incredible arrogant, mean and useless thing to do. Some Christians think that since Jesus already paid for their sins, they don't have to worry about their own actions. (Yes, you can deny it, but without fail the most dishonest people I've met in business have also been "devoutly" religious.)
      I am more than willing to accept responsibility for my own actions – kind of an adult thing to do. To claim that one is going to a "heaven" because some deity ruthlessly killed his own "son" two centuries ago is complete nonsense.

      lol dodo

      btw toots, u r overflowing with the blackest black darkness of sin. u r so far gone and in so much trouble,
      to say u have no sin is the gravest of the grave sins
      it is y u see so clearly

      May 23, 2013 at 8:57 pm |
  8. prophet

    atheists don't accept redemption so they are not redeemed. What a stupid man this clergy is.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
    • Melli

      Athiests "don't accept" - THAT hit the nail on the head. Jesus died for ALL. ANYONE is able to claim salvation – through Jesus Christ. But "accepting" IS the key!

      May 23, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      Atheists don't believe in heaven, hell, redemption, or your sky fairy. So your debate over whether or not we will be going to heaven or hell is pointless to argue with us. But entertaining as "hell" for us to watch you guys argue the finer points of the nonsense we don't find reasonably possible to exist.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:32 pm |
  9. prophet

    this man is a fool, we are only redeemed if we accept it.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      That's not true, redemption can be found at recycling centers.*

      *(Offer valid only in participating states)

      May 23, 2013 at 8:33 pm |
  10. Chris H

    I welcome his remarks, which appear to be meant kindly. While I have no doubt there is no afterlife, gestures such as this will lead to better human relations in the earthly realm.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      you have no doubt there is no afterlife yet here you are saying "prove me wrong" most atheists are seekers in disguise looking for someone to give them proof of God.The proof is in you.Only you can answer your own questions.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:42 am |
  11. LinCA

    Atheists going to heaven? I sure hope he's wrong. I wouldn't want to get caught dead, in that place.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      It kind of begs the question 'just what is heaven for an atheist?'

      May 23, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
    • Science

      LinCA..............AGREE !

      HeroesAre Rare .........you now the drill you are included kristofer;....... are page going to disappear here too ?

      Hey Cora how are the cats and JustTheFacts

      https://www.zotero.org/colleengreene/items/5XRFKX8N...............url for you chadie !

      But in favorites or peg IT OK !

      Peace

      May 23, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • Science

      Oops ..........pages ?

      May 23, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
  12. Andy

    But you still have to donate 10% of your salary if you want to go to heaven.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
  13. Liz the First

    There's hope for this guy! maybe he does know the Truth that we're all going back to the same place because God loves us all unconditionally. it's just men who feel the need to think their particular club is better than everyone else's. it's so sad what men have done with religion. i don't blame folks for saying they don't believe in God. what they don't believe is the nonsensical portrayal of God as some old goat sitting on a throne in the clouds going, 'you're good, you're bad. you're going to heaven and you're going to hell!' people use God as an excuse to stay ignorant of the real world. they use God as an excuse to hate and persecute anyone they think is different or somehow inferior.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
    • Herb

      Nope. It's all a bunch of hooey. He's a Jesuit and Jesuits are the propaganda arm of the RCC.
      It's all play-acting for him. When the cameras are off, the child-rapists are laughing behind closed doors.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      Can we here from Liz the Second? Liz the first seems to be broken.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:35 pm |
  14. Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcO4TnrskE0&w=640&h=390]

    May 23, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
    • crc

      The fool has said in his heart, there is no God.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
    • Science

      The DINOSAUR ?...............Chomp Chomp !...Evolution WINS hands down...time for the horn-y red devil to get the

      HELL out of the way.....................Stem Cell research !

      Allosaurus Fed More Like a Falcon Than a Crocodile: Engineering, Anatomy Work Reveals Differences in Dinosaur Feeding Styles

      May 21, 2013 — The mighty T. rex may have thrashed its massive head from side to side to dismember prey, but a new study shows that its smaller cousin Allosaurus was a more dexterous hunter and tugged at prey more like a modern-day falcon.

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130521152638.htm

      Evolution wins............No red devil either !

      May 23, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
  15. Free Dinner Anyone?

    http://evidentlyitstrue.com/Standing_Offer.html

    So what atheist in the Maine area willing to take the offer?

    May 23, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
    • Herb

      Who would ever trust a stranger like you? I wouldn't touch your food with a hundred-foot pole you sick putz.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • Free Dinner Anyone?

      Guess you were unable to read all those words on the website. No worries, they wouldn't want to talk with you anyway. They want intelligent conversation.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
  16. Joe

    Even Jews? Nyahhhhh..

    May 23, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
  17. drakon

    what a joke papacy and their cult are. If there is heaven for atheists then why be religious at all why do anything or care, youll go to heaven anyway, right?. Defeats the purpose.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
    • Chancho

      You are missing the Popes point completely as well as theological discussion surrounding the statement.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
    • Herb

      You are making too much sense. Their brains can't handle facts or logic.
      They keep shooting themselves in the foot because religion is mental illness.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
  18. kristofer

    its the greatest sin to call someone a sinner

    May 23, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • Athy

      What about someone who calls someone who calls someone a sinner?

      May 23, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
    • Joep

      Athy

      That's bad. But, someone who calls someone who calls someone who calls someone a sinner is real bad.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
  19. Uncouth Swain

    Hmm...on the latest "My Take" about g a ys in the Boy Scouts, they have the comments closed. I think this is the first time I have ever saw CNN do that.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Me too. . . Maybe they are holding off comments while they upgrade their servers in anticipation of the mountains of scorn that will be heaped (correctly, in my opinion) on the author, delusional believers and the BSA.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      I agree. His opinion piece was so full of juicy material, ripe for harvest. It almost made Ann Coulter appear coherent. Oh well, I have things to do anyway....

      May 23, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      Could also be that their filters wouldn't allow two certain words to be written in comments so why bother.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
    • Herb

      They've done it before. Like when CNN's resident papal bootlicker wrote an article fawning all over the pope – they kept comments blocked for more than three days on that one...

      May 23, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      They have topics that fail the word filters all the time.

      I think it's more likely they decided that any commentary was going to degenerate in to pointless abuse and trolling within the first two posts.

      In that case, I happen to agree.

      May 23, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  20. kristofer

    a core tenant of catholic faith ?...i am not a core tenant of the catholic church but i follow its tenets

    May 23, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoFaith

      Well, since the give so much to the church, could that be considered "rent' and therefore, tenant would kind of make sense? They never really get a piece of the church, so it's more of a rent. Wouldn't all those hail Mary's count as some sort of payment also?

      May 23, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
    • Science

      HeroesAre Rare .........you now the drill you are included kristofer !

      Hey Cora how are the cats and JustTheFacts

      https://www.zotero.org/colleengreene/items/5XRFKX8N...............url for you chadie !

      But in favorites or peg IT OK !

      Peace

      May 23, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |

      May 23, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |

      May 23, 2013 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse | Reply

      May 23, 2013 at 8:04 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.