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
[twitter-follow screen_name='DanMericaCNN']

(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. The Reality of the Situation

    You realize it is all double talk, that you are redeemed . . . only if you get down on your knees and become a toady. He didn't get rid of the "you must believe and obey" garbage.

    May 23, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
  2. El Flaco

    I am certain that atheists do not go to Heaven.

    Then again, neither do Christians.

    May 23, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • Bippy, the Lesser Squirrel-God of Being Door-Bouncer at Squirrel-Heaven


      * except Farty Bob, for obvious reasons.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
    • Athy

      No one goes to heaven. There is no damn heaven.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
    • dove

      especially those who label themselves "Christians" yet worship power and interest. To go to heaven, you have to FOLLOW Jesus and walk the narrow way as Jesus did, to do God's will, not just profess Jesus.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
    • CS

      Stupid Squirrels.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
  3. Casey

    The worst part about reading these boards is not the hatred... not the misunderstanding... the self absorption... the vitriol... no... it is in knowing that so many are missing out on feeling such boundless Love from the Lord God. People close their hearts, close their minds, close their eyes and miss out on real happiness. It makes me kind of sad, but ... you know... all we can do is Pray.

    May 23, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
    • Wondering

      So Casey, where in the Bible were you instructed to be insulting and condescending?

      May 23, 2013 at 10:51 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Wondering, the truth hurts because you are used to lies.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
    • Casey

      Certainly not in the Bible.. If that is they way you took my comment, I can assure you that the failing was my own. I have no doubt that I am a flawed human being. However, I would suggest that you kind of missed the point of the comment. But I also suspect that you know the real point, and are attacking me personally because you just don't want to hear these truths.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Casey can't help it...he is one of the elect.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
    • JimmyBob

      Casey, the christian bible says that you should not judge others, either openly or to yourself. Every person's relationship with God is one to one–and you are not invited to participate, just as they are not invited to participate in your relationship.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      My camel toe hurts me as much as I think your lies hurt you.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
    • Roger that

      boundless Love from the Lord God.

      Surely you're not referring to the murdering evil dictator god of the Bible?

      May 23, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
    • Casey

      These are not judgments... they are actually facts. You have to admit there is a whole lot of hateful, anti-religious commentary here. I am pointing out that indeed, this is the majority of the commentary... and like I said, it's sad. You can attempt to twist my meaning all you want to try and play some sort of one-up-man-ship kind of game. But clearly, your refusal to absorb, or at least acknowledge the core meaning of what I said proves the point.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I'm curious, though I doubt that you feel boundless anything, and nothing at all coming from God. Love, or whatever an early Christian might have meant by the word translated as "love", why exactly do you want to feel it (apparently constantly)?

      May 23, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • Casey

      Tom... I'm really not well suited to teach or explain. There are many much more qualified than I for that. These things you ask about though... all I can say is when you establish a personal relationship with God, and you feel his presence, and Love, and understanding... even though we are all sinners... your life is much happier. And you want that to keep going. Like I said... if you really want to learn more, I urge you to go to Church... any Church. I'm Catholic so I can recommend the RCIA program... but I am sure that other churches have good programs as well.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I'm disgusting and I know it.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Bless you, but I'm actually a Jesuit.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
  4. Joseph Chandler

    Casey, care to site some example of a Pope saying that. And why does this make the news if that's the case

    May 23, 2013 at 10:48 pm |
    • Casey

      I know this is what I was taught by the Church for years. By Priests, and Deacons. I regularly attend classes on Catholic studies.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
    • Athy

      Man, that's a waste of time. Go to your library and learn something useful.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
  5. joe

    This is not a new Catholic teaching. I learned this in high school years ago, and it goes back to Vatican II, and even earlier. This teaching stems from the priority the Church places on one's conscience; when all else fails, one cannot be blamed for following his conscience, so long as the person has taken steps to develop his conscience, even if he is a Buddhist or atheist. Here is the Catechism on conscience: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a6.htm.

    Also Aquinas deeply influenced the Church's teachings on conscience (and everything else).

    May 23, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
  6. HeavenSent's Camel-Toe Dance Party

    The door opens at 10pm but you must be on the list unless you brought me some flea powder baby.

    May 23, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
    • Cluckles the Cloned Boneless Chicken's Embarrasingly Flailing Attempts to Dance the Macarena

      Am I on the list? I don't have that dry bones problem because I have no bones. I can do the funky chicken, the chicken dance, all the big ones.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
    • HeavenSent's Camel-Toe Dance Party

      Dry bones are ok, but no fat drippings allowed.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
    • Cluckles the Cloned Boneless Chicken's Embarrasingly Flailing Attempts to Dance the Macarena

      But the "Fat Drippings" is the latest dance craze amongst cloned boneless chickens. It involves laying on the ground and flopping chaotically.

      Okay, everything in the life of a cloned boneless chicken involves laying on the ground and flopping around chaotically, but all the same, we demand our right to do the Fat Drippings to the peppy tunes of Merv Snorfles, Tuba King of Delaware!

      May 23, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
    • CS

      Stupid chickens.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
  7. Chad

    The fanatical atheists...are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional 'opium of the people'—cannot bear the music of the spheres – Albert Einstein

    "I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an atti tude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being. – Albert Einstein

    May 23, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
    • Edna Pimples

      Chad again demonstrates the disingenuity of quote mining.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
    • Athy

      Your point? Did you have ona?

      May 23, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
    • STFU

      must be very disappointing for Chad....I mean new Heaven's immigration policy !!!

      May 23, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
    • DaveLake

      Albert Einstein “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

      May 23, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
  8. faith

    can we talk crushing of skulls?

    even kfc has joined the nazi god haters by cloning boneless chickens now

    do your part to get these criminals locked up asap

    May 23, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
    • The Sad, Floppy, Repeatable Life of Cluckles the Boneless Chicken

      You just can't out-stupid a Christian

      May 23, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
    • Athy

      Many have tried, none have succeeded. They're just too stupid. They practice stupidity at least once a week.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
  9. innersixx

    Not really news for an atheists though...

    May 23, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
  10. joliboy11

    God is Other! : http://artkatzministries.org/audio-messages/god-is-other/

    May 23, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
    • More precisely,

      God is your imagination.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
  11. STFU

    sign of a weak Pope.

    May 23, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
    • Flint Fredstone

      At least he doesn't look like a freaking vampire with a nasty case of blood-lust like the last one.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
  12. Unbelievable

    Still the best quote is from Galilleo

    "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."
    Galileo Galilei

    May 23, 2013 at 10:17 pm |
    • KidIndigo

      ...and the better quote, when he was forced to renounce his "theory" that the Earth actually revolved around the Sun, and not vice versa... "E pur, si muove."

      May 23, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
  13. Joseph Chandler

    So when and more importantly how did the Pope find this out. Did he have a divine revelation. Did God just tell him that. Why did other Popes before him did not know this and if they did why did they not tell us.

    May 23, 2013 at 10:17 pm |
    • Flint Fredstone

      It was in his fortune cookie.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
    • Casey

      This has always been the teaching of the Catholic Church. You just haven't been listening.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
    • Edna Pimples

      That's why the Catholic Church spent so many centuries oppressing and executing people of other beliefs.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
    • joe

      This teaching is not new. Pope Francis is not stating this on behalf of the Church for the first time.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
  14. David from Canada

    Desperate attempt to increase "customer base" = $ Profits. Corporation in survival mode.

    May 23, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
    • Casey

      Again... your lack of understanding, and base hatred of the Church doesn't change the facts. This has always been a basic tenant of the Church. That ALL may be redeemed... Athiests, Muslims, Hindu's... all are God's children and Jesus has sacrificed for all. Even you. (I am always stunned by the misconception about the Church.)

      May 23, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
    • Athy

      Tenet, not tenant. There is a slight difference.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
    • Athy

      And you spelled atheist wrong. And used an apostrophe to form the plural of Hindu. In other words, you have solidly identified yourself as a religie. Too much time on your knees, not enough time in a classroom. Pity.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      If you think that has always been the policy of the church you are very young and ignorant. I am old enough to remember when the teaching was that non-catholics were doomed. Even so much as attending a protestant church service was a mortal sin...or were the nuns and the bishop lying to me?

      May 23, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
  15. Unbelievable

    It is disgusting statements like this:
    "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."
    That show the degradation that religions hold over their minions. "BELONG" Hellloooo! No one bleong to anyone or anything else especially a religion. The correct phrase would have been
    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 FOLLOW any religious tradition.
    There fixed it for ya.

    May 23, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
    • Lee

      What's "Unbelievable" is that some people are so full of themselves that they feel it is their duty to correct another persons mistake, no matter how small, to the world. Feel free to correct my grammar, so you can feel better about yourself, because I know that it is not my best quality. It doesn't bother me because I know I have skills that are more useful than that. I'm a nurse who can save the life of someone injured or with a sudden illness, and yes I do feel good about having spent my time learning something that matters.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
  16. GodFreeNow

    The Athiest's Prayer

    Our Father who art likely a psychological figment of our imagination based on our biological fathers,
    Who art likely in residence in the same part of the brain that produces the god concept,
    Hallowed be my capacity to reason all of this out and the courage to accept it.

    Thy kingdom is not really tempting for me, so don't let it come. (I mean, I just spent a month with my family… I couldn't imagine an eternity.)
    Thy will is really inconsequential to me, because statistically speaking those things we classify as your will are really no different than things we classify the will of a magical bunny whether that be on earth or in my imagination.

    You can give the daily bread to those too lazy or too unfortunate to get it themselves. Besides, I'm kind of doing a gluten-free thing now. I'm not religious about it or anything, but honestly, we can all do with a little less bread and a little more veggies.

    You don't need to bother with forgiving my debts because as an adult, I assume full and sole responsibility for my debts—financial or otherwise.

    As far as me forgiving my debtors, it kind of depends on who it is. For example, I may forgive my brother's debt to me, but I'm certainly not going to forgive BP for that disastrous oil spill. You really need some common sense when applying forgiveness. It's not so black and white as you portray things to be.

    About temptation, I don't do anything that I don't want to do. Life is full of temptations, and I enjoy most of them.

    Deliver us from evil? That almost made milk come out of my nose. Since the time of your original prayer, you've had 2000 years to get this right. On the whole, things have gotten much worse. Good news though for you, humans are making great strides in understanding "the evil gene." In the not too distant future, we could find ourselves mostly evil free. But you tried, so… Good on ya!

    I try not to trespass, so I hope you'll forgive my reasoning self its dalliances in your region of my brain. Though again, if someone is trespassing in my house, I'm going to be too busy protecting my family to be thinking about forgiveness. Like I said above, common sense.

    In sum, you keep your kingdom, I'll keep mine.


    May 23, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
    • Athy

      Good, god free. I liked it.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
    • David from Canada

      Bad News on Debt Forgiveness: IRS doesnt like it! Must include debt forgiveness amount in gross income: Form 1099-C. LOL. Yeah, Im a tax accountant.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
    • Athy

      You're in Canada? And do US taxes?

      May 23, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      There are many Americans living in the Canada that must still file USA taxes.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
  17. David from Canada

    Ironically, many protestant sects believe the Catholic Church is the Harlot of Revelation and will suffer God's wrath at Judgment Day. In other words, Catholics are not going to heaven. The confusion is abundant.

    May 23, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
  18. Flappy Edna

    Where have all the posts gone
    Long time passing

    May 23, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
  19. Craig

    People who know about the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”

    Well, I know about "her." I know about the Crusades and the inquisition. I know about the witch burnings. I know about the great fortune the church has amassed. I also know that none of that is supported by the supposed teachings of Jesus, the man who supposedly founded the religion. Although I'm not a member of a church, I like Jesus. He had a lot of good things to say about how we treat each other. He didn't say much about the LGBTQ community, but the church certainly has. He didn't seem to say much about how we should discriminate against those who are different, but the church certainly has. He didn't, as I recall, advocate forcing women to give birth and then pay no attention to the fact that they cannot feed, clothe, or nurture the resulting child. In fact, very little of what he said seems to be followed by his Fan Club.

    In short, the church says (like every other religion) that "my way is the only way" and clearly, assuming anyone is "right" only one church can be. So, when they act directly contrary to the tenets of their founder and refuse to do most of the things he taught, I'm not going to have too much respect for them. I'll continue to try to treat my fellow humans as I wish to be treated. Yes, I'll fail from time to time, but I'll admit that and try to learn from the mistakes. When I see the church doing that, maybe we can talk.

    May 23, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
    • David from Canada

      She will never change. She's approaching her demise. Its inevitable. Church membership is dropping fast. She will be extinct in time.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
    • jesus was gay

      hopefully extinct soon.. Arrest the pope, bishops and cardinals for crimes against humanity

      May 23, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
    • joe

      You didn't mention any of the mass amounts of good the Church does. It looks like you have a skewed view. It's the oldest organization with successive leadership ever. The charity is immense. I'm not saying those bad things didn't happen, but if you're going to have a realistic view, balance it with the examples immense charity not seen by atheists or most other organizations.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
  20. robert

    Best pope ever.

    May 23, 2013 at 10:08 pm |
    • Flappy Edna

      On a relative basis, he does seem somewhat less sucky than most others.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
    • jesus was gay

      arrest the pope, cardinals and bishops for crimes against humanity. The destruction to childrens lives, worldwide

      May 23, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
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About this blog

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.