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
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(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. great news

    this is great news since most if not all of the catholics i have met (hundreds) are practically athiests themselves.

    May 24, 2013 at 8:30 am |
    • Steve

      Agnostic, not atheist.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:31 am |
    • Albert

      I agree. Catholicism is more of a "culture". Most Catholics no nothing about the Bible. They certainly do not follow it. THe Catholic leadership has kept their followers in spiritual darkness for centuries. The Bible refers to this type of false religion as "Babylon THe Great", and speaks of her destruction at Revelation Chapters 17 and 18. Very interesting read.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:38 am |
    • Canada

      Hey Albert, since I believe you may have read that part and perhaps know a bit about the 7 Kings, and the 8th false king that is of the seven... What did you think when you saw The new Pope? It kind of disheartened me a bit.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:48 am |
    • DrJStrangepork

      Everyone, with the exception of atheists, are practically atheists.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:53 am |
    • >

      Canada, the foot fetish thing bummed you out, me too.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:55 am |
  2. Steve

    "What ever is bound on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven." He is the acting Rock. It is his say so. Or, Jesus is a liar.

    May 24, 2013 at 8:29 am |
    • Mirosal

      The Pope wasn't chosen by "god" or the "holy spirit" or even by enlightenment.. he was elected by his cronies.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:39 am |
    • Salty Bob

      Jesus lied.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:56 am |
    • Ak-Haru Kenaustin Ardenol

      Nobody really knows what Jesus said, since the Bible is full of lies, it would also seem likely that his words are fake, too.

      May 24, 2013 at 9:09 am |
    • uos_spo6

      Quoting scripture to complete a circular thought process isn't debate or proving anything, it's expression of your sheepish ignorance.

      May 24, 2013 at 9:37 am |
  3. JS

    What a bunch of haters and cowards on this board. To say such mean and hateful commments on a message board is so petty and cowardly – because none of you would ever say these things in person, cause you don't have the guts!

    May 24, 2013 at 8:27 am |
    • breater1

      Ok, where do you want to meet?

      May 24, 2013 at 8:30 am |
    • be honest

      sure I would,, and have.

      Arrest the pope, bishops and cardinals for crimes against children.

      BTW: I've given proof to the local DA and FBI. I lobby to demand this filthy group of perverts be held accountable by law.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:32 am |
    • pjr

      JS – i would have the guts to say them to your face, because it is not I who speaks, but the word of God. I was depraved and going to hell, until I gave my life over to Jesus Christ. I deserved eternal separation from God, but because I now have a personal relationship with God through His SON Jesus Christ, I will see Him face to face, and I shall be like Him with a glorified body.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:34 am |
    • Mirosal

      actualy I made my position clear to two Morons ... I mena Mormons who came to my door yesterday. They left a little stunned when i countered their jeebus guy with simple logic, and they were unable to use their little "holy" book to counter me.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:36 am |
    • Tim

      You should see what they say on some Christian boards, and the mods there do nothing to discourage the most hateful things being said about gays, atheists, non-Christians and basically everyone else who disagrees with the predominant clique. It's like mean high school girls on there.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:40 am |
    • Science

      Hey JS

      Do a simple search for Prof. Higgs...............The RCC hates that !

      May 24, 2013 at 8:41 am |
  4. Will

    I'm so glad I can enter heaven now, I CAN'T wait to see the Easter Bunny and Santa!

    May 24, 2013 at 8:26 am |
  5. Marticus

    Why would an atheist believe in heaven? Doesn't that show that they believe?

    May 24, 2013 at 8:23 am |
    • Tim

      Doesn't matter if we don't believe, the point is that the Pope is urging his followers not to demonize us because we don't. I take that as a positive step.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:28 am |
  6. Andy

    How can man change religious beliefs on a whim? Is this not something that only God can do? This is just another sign of how corrupt our beliefs have become and the sad shape mankind is in. The Pope is just another relgious leader, no more, no less. Do not confuse him with God.

    May 24, 2013 at 8:21 am |
    • alpg49

      This has always been the teaching of the Catholic church.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:23 am |
    • Thoth

      Since the great and powerful 'god' has chosen to remain hidden, how can anyone know anything about him/her/it...much less confuse it for a man?

      May 24, 2013 at 8:28 am |
    • Robert Brown

      Very good post, no one can believe without a reason and faith is a gift from God.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:55 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      God's a bit stingy with that gift, don't you think Robert?

      May 24, 2013 at 9:03 am |
    • Robert Brown

      Tom, Tom, the Other One,

      I don’t believe he is.

      Hang in there Tom, I think God is going to give you a reason very soon.

      May 24, 2013 at 9:08 am |
  7. Rich Hicks

    The Pope should be ashamed of himself for still believing in myths and fairytales in the 21st century. There is no heaven and there is no hell.

    Stop misleading the ignorant masses.

    May 24, 2013 at 8:19 am |
    • be honest

      he's a nut case, is all

      May 24, 2013 at 8:21 am |
    • breater1

      He would be out of a job if he didn't stop making up fairy tales , and the thousands of priests would have to troll street corners for kids.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:32 am |
    • Metal Lord

      Of course there is no Heaven and Hell. That ended with the passing of Ronnie James Dio.


      May 24, 2013 at 9:04 am |
  8. 3rdEyeOpened

    Following what the Pope says is like following the blind. They both will only lead you off of a cliff in the end.

    May 24, 2013 at 8:19 am |
    • Metal Lord

      I disagree. The blind have dogs. The Catholics have dogma. I'll follow a dog over dogma any day. A dog will use it's senses and make decisions and choices based on reality. A follower of dogma on the other hand.......

      May 24, 2013 at 9:08 am |
  9. be honest

    religions,, they call those mentally ill sinners. They tell their children they are born with a sin.

    GROW UP, PLEASE!!!!!

    May 24, 2013 at 8:19 am |
  10. Joe Zamecki

    And any spokesperson for the Freethought movement who says the Pope's comments are "heartening" or anything else positive, is NOT speaking for the masses of non-religious people. WE understand that the Pope and his church are plain evil, and we do NOT need his approval. Please don't assume that the Pope is suddenly legitimate in our eyes. He is NOT.

    May 24, 2013 at 8:18 am |
  11. pjr

    it is a sad day for the church, especially the catholic church and the pope. folks, the unclean, immoral, unbelieving, adulterers, etc., will not inherit the kingdom of God. How can a holy, sinless God allow those mentioned above, into His presence. it is not going to happen. Jesus is the only way to God. Unless you enter through the door (Jesus) you cannot inherit the kingdom of God. (John 14:6) Notice the word cannot. To die once and then comes Judgment. God is slow to wrath, slow to condemn. If you come to Him in faith, He will not cast you out. He desires that non perish, but all to come to the knowledge of the Truth. In this case, the Truth is Jesus. Beware and make no mistake about it. Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

    May 24, 2013 at 8:13 am |
    • Julie

      You do understand that you come across as being delusional and possibly psychotic if you really believe this.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:18 am |
    • Inglourious

      Every zealot believes that their creed is the one and only that is true.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:19 am |
    • Charles

      You seem very judgmental, and lacking much compassion for your fellow man. Do you think that you still qualify as believing in Christ with that att.itude?

      May 24, 2013 at 8:20 am |
    • alpg49

      This should not come as a surprise to anyone, but I've known lots and lots of people who profess Faith in Christ every time they turn around, then lie, cheat, steal, etc... and claim they're saved by their Faith (alone). Yes, "sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal".

      May 24, 2013 at 8:27 am |
    • breater1

      Take you meds before commenting please.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:34 am |
    • Evenstar

      Amen!!! It is such a shame that so few get it. I pray those who do not believe will someday come to know Christ.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:41 am |
    • Robert Brown


      Agreed and as you can see from some of the replies, the lost don’t realize that it is with complete love and compassion that you try to warn them.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:59 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Robert, you have no idea if pjr is motivated by "love and compassion." There is nothing in his post to indicate his motives. Just like you to assume through faith, without facts, though, I guess.

      May 24, 2013 at 9:03 am |
    • Robert Brown

      Cpt. Obvious,

      Everything pjr posted is from the word of God. I can think of no other motivation for sharing the truth other than to bring people to a saving knowledge of Christ.

      May 24, 2013 at 9:12 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Like I said, you're assuming. (Just because you can't think of an alternate doesn't mean there's not one or that it's not in play. That goes for your blind faith on god and the bible, too).

      May 24, 2013 at 9:15 am |
  12. Joe Zamecki

    So the leader of the world's largest and most successful pedophilia network says that people who avoid religion are okay? I'd prefer that he spew hate at us instead. People and groups like that are exactly what I want diametrically opposed to reason-based thinkers like me.

    May 24, 2013 at 8:12 am |
    • breater1

      Hate based thinker is more like it.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:35 am |
  13. Johnny 5

    Atheists like myself don't believe in a heaven or a hell. Does the pope not understand atheism?

    May 24, 2013 at 8:12 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      The pope is recruiting.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:23 am |
    • Charles

      I don't think that he was aiming it at atheists. It's the judgmental believers who smugly think that Heaven is just for them, and that everyone else is contemptible, he seems to be speaking to.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:23 am |
    • alpg49

      Yes – you should at least be grateful he doesn't take a negative view of your or your beliefs.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:28 am |
  14. Lucifer's Evil Twin

    How nice of his holy Poopiness... however, I still don't give a crap what catholics believe

    May 24, 2013 at 8:10 am |
    • be honest

      it's witchcraft,, nothing more

      May 24, 2013 at 8:20 am |
  15. be honest

    dictators and religions,, all the same.

    The both; make up stuff you are suppose to believe is true, they use fear to enforce the lies and they love to control.

    ..religions and dictators destroyed so many innocent lives.

    May 24, 2013 at 8:07 am |
  16. Mexi Cant

    It's nice to see a catholic priest take a position that isn't right behind the alter boy for once.

    May 24, 2013 at 8:07 am |
  17. Ric Stevens

    SO many cynics... Believe or DON'T believe does it REALLY matter? Often times a PERSON forgives another for themselves.. need you be so arrogant as to think it's always about YOU? I am nOT Catholic.. but think the current pope's comments are a VERY good step towards understading each other

    May 24, 2013 at 8:06 am |
  18. Evenstar

    Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. Mark 8:38

    May 24, 2013 at 8:06 am |
  19. be honest

    ..no provable god

    ..no provable heaven

    .no one has ever seen either, including the dope pope. And he talks about it????? Now that's a nut case.

    May 24, 2013 at 8:05 am |
    • Science

      be honest

      Do a simple Prof Higgs search...............the RCC hates that..

      No fairy in the sky either.............that is way out there no ?


      May 24, 2013 at 8:38 am |
  20. sparky

    Look through the history of religion. Early years, you go against the church you were a heretic and killed. Then a threat of eternal damnation, then god will strike you down with lightning as he is a vengeful god, then the numbers started dwindling, so god became a forgiving god and he understands if you waver from your religion all will be forgiven. So, now it appears the human voice of god is telling us we can do what we want and believe what we want, because in the end it's all good.

    Ask yourselves, why would religion change over time? because it's all about membership and getting the numbers behind their causes. Vote the bible?

    May 24, 2013 at 8:05 am |
    • Troy

      Amen to that!

      May 24, 2013 at 8:14 am |
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