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. tom LI

    Keep your silly imaginary Heaven. I want no part of a place filled with nothing but suck-ups and liars, and the immoral. Yeah, that's right, that's Heaven. A club for sycophants who deny reality, and are belligerent to nearly all other people. Sounds like hell, but its really heaven. Its all a sham, and like usual only a few of the rational can see thru it...

    FYI – no one is going any place but a box in the ground, or an urn in the back of a relatives closet.

    May 24, 2013 at 5:43 am |
    • terri

      Since you have never been to heaven, I find your statements unsubstantiated and unbelievable. Jesus, however, came from heaven and returned there. He was crucified and rose from the grave 3 days later. This fact was substantiated by witnesses. You, on the other hand, don't have any power over death. Therefore, I choose to believe in someone who does.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:47 am |
    • The real Tom

      Your statements aren't "substantiated" either, terri. They're your beliefs and there's no more evidence for their being true than for tom's.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:48 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      "He was crucified and rose from the grave 3 days later."

      Always a favorite line (a crazy , unsubstantiated one) ...considering nowhere else in history will you find a dead person who has come back after 3 days, what would make one think this to be true?

      May 24, 2013 at 5:54 am |
    • saggyroy

      "This fact was substantiated by witnesses." – Except for Jews who were a large part of the community. Show us something that corroborates the story outside the bible. If it was so miraculous, it most likely could be verified by independent witnesses.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:55 am |
    • M

      Respectfully, if there was such a thing as miracles, they would be happening today and at a greater proportion.

      May 24, 2013 at 6:18 am |
    • DB Angel

      I agree. Interesting how folks will believe just about anything they are taught to believe. Its quite unfortunate that Christians negate to use the core teaching of their "teacher" Jesus. Did he not teach love, did he not preach God is love? Yet, Christians do not practice this core value. They are so filled with hate and the mentality of "I'm better than you". Funny how their imaginary friend's virtues are only used when they want to address their own agenda. Nothing but egotistical hypocrites unfortunately. Kudos to those who actually practice human virtues just because not out of fear of an eternal flame. LOL

      May 24, 2013 at 6:22 am |
    • Geoffrey

      The real Tom

      Your statements aren't "substantiated" either, terri. They're your beliefs and there's no more evidence for their being true than for tom's
      Christians have the testimony of witnesses to Jesus's death, burial and Resurrection carefully recorded by history.

      May 24, 2013 at 6:29 am |
    • The real Tom

      It is not "carefully recorded history." It's been mistranslated by thousands of people over two thousand years. It isn't based on facts but on beliefs. There is no evidence that there was a resurrection at all. None.

      May 24, 2013 at 6:36 am |
    • Mirosal

      I would like someone, anyone, to name me ONE, just one, eyewitness to the "miracles" attributed to your dead zombie guy. And also tell me where those writings of the eyewitness are kept Oh, and remember, not a single author, not one, was a witness to anything jeeebus ever did, because NO author of the New Testament ever knew, met, walked with, or talked with, your supposed savior.

      May 24, 2013 at 6:38 am |
    • Mark

      Peter, James. Sorry that was two.

      May 24, 2013 at 7:18 am |
    • The real Tom

      What you believe was written by Peter and James could just as easily have been made up by anyone decades or even centuries later.

      May 24, 2013 at 7:21 am |
    • Mark

      You can say that about anything ever observed. We can't just deny historical accounts for our own sake of argument, right!

      May 24, 2013 at 7:30 am |
    • The real Tom

      No, Marky, that is not the case. There are many sources we can use to verify much we observe; there is no source that corroborates what the Bible says about the divinity of Jesus. Not one.

      May 24, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
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    May 24, 2013 at 5:36 am |
  4. Conserv

    I think the pope has been hanging out with amanda bynes and smoking a little pipe. He is a more liberal pope than they nave had in a while, but he is sending the wrong message.

    May 24, 2013 at 5:28 am |
    • M

      It is possible to convey arguments/persuade with the weight of the argument itself and not the disrespect.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:32 am |
  5. Richard the Lionheart

    Just because the pope said it does not mean it is true.

    I am sorry to report that atheists will still go to hell upon the moment of death by biblical decree. And the only way to avoid that is to believe in God and the Son of God....not to call God a liar and the Bible a joke because it is not a joke and God is not a liar

    May 24, 2013 at 5:17 am |
    • M

      Respectfully, I think you need to read "The Age of Reason" by Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine was one of our founders along with Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, etc. Or, is your faith not strong enough to withstand such a simple test?

      May 24, 2013 at 5:23 am |
    • The real Tom

      Aren't you just a doll, Dickie! You don't know what happens when we die. If you did, you'd be world-famous. As it is, you're an anonymous doofus who enjoys the thought of people you don't like roasting on a spit for eternity simply because they don't believe in something for which there isn't a shred of evidence.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:27 am |
    • LivinginVA

      I'm sorry to say, but just because you say it, it doesn't mean it's true.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:29 am |
    • M

      By the way, I mean to say what I said above, with respect, and if I have not, I must apologize for my poor choice of words if they convey disrespect.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:35 am |
    • Arthur Bryant

      I really wish you bible thumpers were honest enough to admit you LOVE the idea that people who don't believe in your garbage will burn in torment forever. That it makes you feel superior to be "saved". That you AND your god are sadistic freaks.
      And you wonder why the rest of us say you're mentally ill.

      May 25, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
  6. randomman

    I guess that kinda kills any need for Pascal's wager....

    May 24, 2013 at 4:55 am |
    • M

      You can be an atheist without being disrespectful....

      May 24, 2013 at 5:13 am |
  7. lerianis

    There is no heaven, hell or anything else after death. It's non-existence or a 180 back into another body on this planet when available.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:53 am |
    • M

      It sounds like you are expressing a different kind of belief in an afterlife (reincarnation) – reincarnated or not.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:12 am |
  8. brad

    But wait, god has to be real. Otherwise the bible would be a lie.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:43 am |
  9. M

    I suspect the Pope has a better feel for the number of Catholics whose faith is not strong and feel like leaving the church, and that it is a very significant number. Continuing to tell these Catholics that they're hell-bound will ultimately move them to being a "none" or an "other" and out of the Catholic church completely, at which time they would no longer contribute financially.

    But there may be a mix of genuinely wanting to show mercy to those Catholics who are marginal and non-believers as well – I can't assume or pretend to really know the Pope's mind, but only interpret his words.

    This would also bring many former Catholics who have left the church back to it again, and back as financial contributors. Catholic churches continue to close around the country.

    in view of the number of churches closing and the growing group of "nones," I think this is about money, unfortunately, and I say that as a former Catholic and now atheist. But I say that without the vitriol that I hear in the voices of many other atheists, and see expressed on the many faith blogs here on CNN and other places. There are quite a few of us who are not "angry," but are resolute nonetheless.

    As for Silverman, I have never cared for his abrasive tactics with believers – it's as simple as vinegar and honey.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:26 am |
  10. Andriod

    Actually it's not about religion or anything else. Doesn't matter what you believe in or don't. The reality is about the human spirit, the soul, the stuff that pass between you and me every day. And the Pope this too. Religious societies have only managed to find a name for all of this, much like when a place stuffs products into a shop and call it a 7 11 or Quick Stop.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:21 am |
    • M

      Actually, the motivation for doing good deeds does matter, not for the recipient, but rather for the benefactor.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:42 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      "Actually, the motivation for doing good deeds does matter, not for the recipient, but rather for the benefactor."

      It matters for both. There's a feel good measure on both sides.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:14 am |
    • M

      Yes, the recipient feels only the good either way, but the motivation for the act of kindness is important for the benefactor – i.e., is her/his head in the right place for doing the act of kindness?

      May 24, 2013 at 5:28 am |
    • The real Tom

      What do you mean by that, M?

      May 24, 2013 at 5:30 am |
    • M

      Think about it a bit.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:39 am |
    • The real Tom

      I have. Your statement that the benefactor has to have his "head in the right place" is not clear no matter how much I "think about it."

      What do you mean?

      May 24, 2013 at 5:41 am |
  11. irisheys

    I'm a protestant minister, so have to say I'm no pope worshiper & have quite a few disagreements with the Catholic Church.
    But I think what he was saying is this: Thanks to the redeeming love of Jesus, people of good will can work together in THIS world. That's the Spirit of love & you don't have to believe in Jesus for love to work through you. This has nothing to do with heaven. I'm a liberal sort & believe that God accepts ALL – we are just in training pants in our earthly journey. Much more to come. Remember, Jesus was totally comfortable hanging out with the non-religious people of his day. I take that as a sign that the saved/not saved crowd is in for big surprises.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:13 am |
    • Right

      So nobody can agree on what Christianity says, and you have special insight on who is really going to be saved.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:30 am |
    • M

      Actually, we don't *know* what Jesus was comfortable with, because none of us actually knew him, if he did exist. We can only pretend to know through what has been cast in stone in the bible, and re-interpreted throughout the ages by various religions. My opinion is that this is another re-interpretation.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:49 am |
  12. ArgleBargle

    Men will be judged by their works, not by what religion they happen to be a member of.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:00 am |
    • Simple, true, and impossible for so many to wrap their minds around

      There is no judge.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:04 am |
    • M

      While I don't believe we will be judged, because I don't believe, I would say that the reason for the good deed is as important as the deed itself. Was it done for selfless (to simply help another person) or selfish (to help one's self into heaven) reasons?

      May 24, 2013 at 4:56 am |
  13. Gary

    It's a miracle! I'm going to heaven! Praise be to the lord!

    May 24, 2013 at 3:55 am |
    • M

      As an atheist, I have to say this kind of post make you appear as an unreasoning person.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:01 am |
  14. Loggan44

    There is nothing wrong with having faith in a God or a religion. Its when your faith steps on other's beliefs or interferes in Government is when it becomes a bad thing. I am a Buddhist (agnostic-I believe in some force in the universe) but I respect others beliefs. As far a souls go I don't believe that the chemicals and synapses that make up my body are all there is to it. I am me. And Ill continue on in some form I am sure of that. But to the people that don't believe that, I respect your views. I just disagree.

    May 24, 2013 at 3:55 am |
    • Atheist Dictator

      This is a prime example of being so open minded that your brain falls out. Seemingly innocent religious faith bleeds negativity to those around them. Especially concerning those with low IQ and limited education.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:02 am |
    • M

      Actually there is something wrong with religion. Belief in an afterlife tends to make us ignore the problems we are creating here on the planet with pollution, overpopulation, destruction of plant and animal species... the list is long. If you believe this existence is only a small part in a longer existence, you will necessarily trivialize this one.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:18 am |
    • The real Tom

      I disagree, M. I have known many Christians who live their beliefs and help others not for any belief that their good works will get them into heaven, but because they feel it is part of being human and loving others, the same reason many non-believers do exactly the same kinds of things. I never hear them say that the problems of this world are unimportant because they believe in a heaven. On the contrary, many of them are just as devoted to helping others and solving problems as those who don't believe.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:58 am |
  15. Atheist Dictator

    NO NO NO! This doesn't help. I just want to be taken off the roster. I don't want any part of Biblegod. He's proven to be too unreliable. I'd rather just die into oblivion than take my chances there. Do I have that choice? Yea, Heaven sounds grand doesn't it? Just wait 'til he has a bad day. He'll flood the place, burn it to the ground or worse! I'd feel like a Pit Bull going to live with Michael Vick. He's ok today, but what about tomorrow? No, I'm holding out for something better!

    May 24, 2013 at 3:43 am |
    • ArgleBargle

      This life is a test of man's faith in God, not the opposite.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:04 am |
    • Atheist Dictator

      Argle, please re-read my post and then try to post an intelligent response.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:27 am |
    • Right

      So the omniscient guy who already knows what is going to happen needs to test on things he already knows the answer to?

      May 24, 2013 at 4:31 am |
  16. Qularkno

    What about Esau, Pope? How about the second man crucified beside Christ, Pope? What about those that The Father doesn't place in Christ's hand? No, Pope, as Romans teaches ... Those represented by Adam are condemned and those that are represented by Jesus Christ have eternal life.

    May 24, 2013 at 3:34 am |
    • beall

      I think you miss the point of the two thieves.As the Pope said"Do good things".In asking Christ to remember him that thief was showing an understanding that the way he lived his life was wrong & implied regret.The other thief did not.In other words if both thieves had lived,one would go on to live a life doing good things,the other would continue his old ways.Accepting Christ was symbolic of what would have been a change in his actions if he had lived.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:52 am |
  17. David Rudmin

    The pope did NOT say they 'WILL' go to Heaven, in Eternity, for doing a few good acts. Rather he said their lives are "redeemed" (Latin for "bought back") now, so that their GOOD ACTIONS now will have GOOD ETERNAL VALUE. (From this we can hypothesize that they may achieve a slight vicarious blessedness, even if they themselves should end up in Hell.) Notice, their soul, per se, will not necessarily have eternal value, but their actions will. The Bible says as much in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31-46).

    May 24, 2013 at 3:33 am |
  18. Harikrishna

    I have been graced with a hand of God experience. I know there is a God, and I am humbled and made a better servant to fellow mankind, because of this. I crumble to the floor sometimes at moments of mistaken ego. Work on your soul daily that is the true test. Perfecting your soul is why we were born. Lose the ego, greed and selfish ways. God really is love...

    May 24, 2013 at 3:29 am |
    • Mirosal

      There has never bween a shred at all to confrim that a soul actually exists. Your exeriences are purely subjective, and provide no proof whatsoever that any kind of deity exists.

      May 24, 2013 at 3:32 am |
    • ThronedOne

      >" I crumble to the floor sometimes at moments of mistaken ego"

      There are medications for that.

      May 24, 2013 at 3:43 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      "Work on your soul daily"

      That might be possible if a soul could be shown to exist outside of religion.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:44 am |
    • M

      If this was true, God would have revealed himself/herself to everyone. The fact that this has not happened says a great deal about the belief. However, I would agree that we should all strive to be better people and to help others.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:07 am |
  19. Mirosal

    The way this reads to me is ... Even Atheists can be saved, if they stop with their non-believing and start believing. If we start to believe, then we're no longer Atheists. Pope Francis's comments seem like political roundabout double-talk. "Sure, Athiests can go to heranve, if they accept Jesus as their savoir". If an Atheist does that, then he's not an Atheist. The Pope never realy answered the question in the first place.

    May 24, 2013 at 3:25 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Maybe it's a sign that their god doesn't want the gullible who only believe on faith and wants the ones who were intelligent enough to question the existence or perhaps it's the Pope's ploy for more cash for his church. The pope can't be so blind not to see the on-going scandal, so he's losing his flock and needs new recruits-maybe??

      May 24, 2013 at 4:42 am |
    • beall

      Or maybe he's really saying is that even if you believe and DON'T do good things you will not go to Heaven.I think the point of the statement was "to do good things"-that is number one.And isn't that really what Christ's original message was? When asked what His most important message was,Christ said"Love one another".Not believe I exist-or belong to my church.And most importantly-If you don't do good things,can you really say you believe?Do good things=love one another.

      May 24, 2013 at 6:06 am |
  20. Smile

    One day we will all know the truth, obviously not everybody is correct, if there is no God, nothing to loose.If Jesus is the saviour (which i believe) and the only way to be saved is through Jesus Christ and some of you are making a mockery of Him you will have to answer one day. (sooner than you think) the only advice I can give you is, take the bible and read through it from Genesis to revelation, humor me and ask the imaginery God to reveal Himself to you while reading!

    May 24, 2013 at 3:15 am |
    • tallulah13

      Humans have worshiped literally thousands of gods throughout history and there isn't a single shred of evidence to support the existence of any of them, even the christian god. So what makes you think that hedging your bet by worshiping the christian god is even the right choice? There's an equal chance that you will be greeted by Hades when you die. Therefore, your argument is silly and pointless.

      It's also known as Pascal's Wager, and has been refuted several times on this very blog.

      May 24, 2013 at 3:20 am |
    • Atheist Dictator

      If God exist, I'm guessing it is far smarter than the Biblegod version! Perhaps I'll be praised for using my critical thinking skills to the best of my ability, rather than abandoning them to faith.

      May 24, 2013 at 3:55 am |
    • The real Tom

      Why are so many believers clueless? Threats don't work, Smile. And it's "lose," not "loose."

      May 24, 2013 at 4:51 am |
    • beall

      What is more of a mockery,believing in God & not following His message?-Or not believing in God & following His message?It is not the belief or the non belief-it is living the message.Jesus of Nazareth spent His life spreading a message of how we should live-Love one another(AKA Do good things).That was His emphasis,implications of divinity were secondary,occured mostly after His death,& were implied mostly by people other than Him.The Bible tells me so.

      May 24, 2013 at 6:24 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.