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. gee ruckus

    I read the pope's statement. Then I read the Vatican interpretation of what the pope really meant. Already the spokespeople are twisting what the pope said into what they think it should be.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:28 am |
  2. Peter

    I don't think all of this is atheist "hate". The anger that atheists express comes from jealousy.
    Let's say you have a believer and a non-believer. The one thing they have in common is that one day they will both die. In the final hours, the believer will be at peace because he has faith that his soul will go on and he will be reunited with loved ones. The non-believer on the other hand will be shi**ing his pants and basking in fear in the final moments. This is what drives the atheist nuts. They will deny it and say that they are at peace with dying, but in the final moments, they will not be.
    They will also try to say that in the end, believers will be fearful, but we of strong faith know that we won't.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:28 am |
    • M

      That's partly true. I think the brink of death brings many thoughts to many minds, if we have any of our wits left at that age, including is there really a god after all. The fear runs both ways.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • gee ruckus

      So obviously you are a mind reader. How dare you tell an atheist what he or she thinks? Are you just repeating what someone in a church said and you never took the time to investigate for yourself? Atheists 'hate' comes from seeing humans waste their time and energy to be dedicated to a myth. We find it unbelievable that religous people blindly follow and never question. It makes us embarrassed to know our fellow man can be so easily duped into believing something totally nonsensical. I believe that when I die I will be dead. I will not go to a heaven or a hell. I will no longer exist in any form. I do not fear that. Do you know why you are called 'believers'? Because you believe, you don't know. A belief is not a fact no matter how strong the brainwashing.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Wow, that was a load of unsubstantiated crap. What evidence is there to support your claims? Have you been near many Atheists on their death beds to know this?

      May 24, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • Jeebus

      I've been on a battlefield and have seen men die, both men of faith and non-believers. Men who prayed every morning and every time they went outside the wire were still filled with terror as their intestines lay all over a sandy road and they felt the life draining out of them. If you honestly think you won't be afraid in your final moments then you are an ignorant fool and are in for quite the surprise when your own time comes.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:39 am |
    • Raider

      Um, fear of what exactly? Fear of absolutely nothing? Yeah, no I don't think I'm afraid of absolutely nothing. You religious nutters are so funny!

      May 24, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • gee ruckus

      I guess I need to break it down to a third grade level. Yes, there is a high chance that I will be scared when I die. I think most people are. When I speak of not being afraid of death I guess I should instead say, I'm not afraid of hell. I think hell and heaven are as believable as Valhalla and Mount Olympus. And you are right, many non-believers pray when death is upon them. There isn't much that people won't do to stay alive, including prayers for deliverance to imaginary beings. How many people do you think have prayed for help as they died? 90%? More? And they still died. That leads me to believe it is a useless ritual. I don't know how I will act when I die, but I won't waste my time on worshiping myths while alive.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:29 am |
    • hee hee

      @Peter: where do you get your information? How many atheists have you watched die? How do you know what drives them nuts? Have you even met an atheist? Because your caricature fails to convince.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • Arthur Bryant

      And you know this how? You have magical insight into the final thoughts of all atheists? I'm impressed. Now prove it.

      May 26, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  3. Jeebus

    That's nice, maybe he can tweet that to his followers. I vividly remember being told I was going to burn in hell by door to door missionaries because I'm Jewish. I was 8 years old at the time. Real nice folks, you Christians.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • M

      Well, this is what the Bible tells them, so it should not be surprising that they would repeat what they have been taught. Too bad they haven't bothered to read the arguments against their position.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  4. faith

    nazi god haters are out in numbers just like this spree of kfc ads

    they are cloning boneless chickens. contact the fbi and peta and get all these criminals locked up.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:26 am |
    • M

      Actually Nazis were God lovers. If you word search "God" in Mein Kampf (written by Hitler), you find quite a few thanking God. It's available online for free, if you care to test your faith.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:35 am |
  5. JonfromLI

    Where are all those "There must be no news for CNN to report this" comments that I'd find on other articles? The Pope says that atheists may not go to Heaven. Wow. What a great man. They don't call him the Pope for nothing, you know.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • victor genao

      I am atheist.....also admire the pope....I am sure If there is a heaven ...I will go there....god made me atheist....

      May 24, 2013 at 10:31 am |
  6. not my chair

    @M why does it take courage to think turn away from religion? When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. i think its a natural progression that as we mature we turn away from these stories of magic and use logic to explain things. i respect people, but its hard when they believe in some of the things they believe in.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  7. OwMySkull

    I just hope that all pedophile priests and those who harbored them are denied heaven.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:21 am |
  8. Jenny

    That's real big of him. But since there is no god or heaven, the point is moot.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:18 am |
    • not my chair

      i think the point was to humanize atheist to the christian populace.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:25 am |
  9. Tim

    I sure hope that my non-belief doesn't hurt or offend anyone. I would feel bad if someone's feelings were hurt if I said that I feel that your religious beliefs are nonsense. But there – I said it. Please don't pray for me. I will continue to help my fellow man by trying to treat other people like I would wish to be treated. And yes, that sage advice has been around a lot longer than the Jesus character.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:18 am |
    • M

      I don't think you have to call it "nonsense," regardless of the fact that you don't believe it's true. Just say you don't believe it's true, why, and let the strength of your argument do your talking for you.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • Jeebus


      I think the reason why so many atheists react angrily or insultingly towards believers is because so many aspects of our national politics and culture is defined by people who's beliefs boil down to faith instead of facts and logic. It's very hard to live in a free and fair society when it's impossible to reason with the other side. Look no further then Congress to see proof of that.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • Primewonk

      @ M – but it's still OK when religious nutters continue to damn us to hell, right? And it's still OK when fundiots continue to try and force their religious myths into our secular laws and into our public schools, right?

      May 24, 2013 at 10:31 am |
  10. sosueme

    I suppose it doesn't matter that I have no interest in being included in your fantasy playground?

    May 24, 2013 at 10:16 am |
  11. JoyA

    Nice to see a pope acknowledge that there are a LOT of atheists out there who live clean productive lives, who genuinely care about their fellow humans and work to do good deeds and help one another. I'm so sick and tired of sanctimonious church-goers who insist on branding everybody else as evil selfish wicked monsters. I know it makes your life simple if you can just divide humans into two groups - "Christians" and everybody else, where "everybody else" is absolutely going to hell, even if they lived good, caring lives. If heaven is full of people like that, then I want no part of it.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:16 am |
    • HamsterDancer

      Thumbs up on your comment!

      May 24, 2013 at 10:20 am |
    • M

      Keep in mind that most church goers are not like this, and can get along with most folks regardless of their beliefs. It's only the religious extremists that create the cacophony. And I hate to say this, but some of the religious folks that post here make me think of that we have a Christian Taliban here in the states.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:24 am |
  12. GOD

    Imagine Heaven – tons of virgins like mother Teresa who unfortunately never got the chance to enjoy fruits of the earth

    May 24, 2013 at 10:15 am |
    • OwMySkull

      I just hope they are better looking than Mother Teresa.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:22 am |
    • Li Min

      Many saints were given a glimpse of heaven (and some of hell). When saints die and go to heaven, their bodies are renewed-they look perfect and whole. But one needs faith and desire to love God to get there.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:27 am |
  13. Adam

    HAhahahahaha fking judgmental religious people got owned by their own kind. 🙂

    May 24, 2013 at 10:13 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      "got owned"

      Sounds like something my 16 year old nephew would say...is it a day off school Adam?

      May 24, 2013 at 10:15 am |
    • derp

      "Sounds like something my 16 year old nephew would say"

      That sounds like something my 12 year old nephew would say.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:23 am |
    • Li Min

      No, not at all. "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."

      People can NOT reject the Truth when they are aware of it. One only needs to ask God for the gift of Faith and He will grant it.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      "People can NOT reject the Truth when they are aware of it. One only needs to ask God for the gift of Faith and He will grant it."

      How does one know for certain that god has granted them this apparent gift? What is the evidence supporting such a claim?

      May 24, 2013 at 10:29 am |
    • .

      liar prefails is as important as the stench rising from dog sh it in the sun totally useless and self absorbed no one gives a sh it what it thinks

      May 24, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      CA's out on a weekend pass again...oh hateful one, what did Canadian's do to offend you today or is it still that whole 1812 deal??

      May 24, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • Raider

      Li Min, religious nutters reject the truth all the time and prefer to play in fantasyland.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:59 am |
  14. faith

    "not my chair
    we pay attention to your religious leaders because unfortunately they control a lot of people. also why would you follow a deity that will punish some for eternity for not following him, that sounds worse than hitler"

    u lie
    u hate
    u have no job
    pope controls zilch
    y r u not following your god? what is your excuse this time?

    May 24, 2013 at 10:11 am |
    • Science

      Hey faith..........chadie

      Better than Comedy GOLD................it is THE PEARLY GATES !.............what a JOKE !

      Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate

      By Dan Merica, CNN



      May 24, 2013 at 10:17 am |
    • not my chair

      well i dont lie, i have a job, if the pope controls nothing why do millions of people follow him? i guilty of hating i will give ya that. and why dont i follow my god? because i am an atheist meaning i do not believe in the supernatural.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:34 am |
  15. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    Too little, too late as the RCC and Christianity in general crash to the ground in a thunderous tornado of flawed history and theology!!!!!!!!!! Added details are shown on p.1.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:11 am |
    • faith


      May 24, 2013 at 10:13 am |
  16. Hopefully Heaven

    This is an exhausting tirade. I choose to believe and live in hope. Many of you choose not to believe. I wish you eternally the best.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:11 am |
    • Derek

      You believe and "hope" in your tooth fairy, and we'll think for you.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:14 am |
    • HamsterDancer


      Don't ever put down the Tooth Fairy. I received money from her every single time I put a tooth under my pillow. If that isn't irrevocable proof of her existence I don't know what is!

      May 24, 2013 at 10:25 am |
  17. ME II

    Why are comments "closed" on the Boy Scouts recent article?


    May 24, 2013 at 10:11 am |
    • Robert Brown

      They don't want to hear it.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:12 am |
  18. john vance

    Anyone who has tried to read St Augustine or Thomas Aquinas knows that Church doctrine and theological principles can be subtle and convoluted but I wouldn't have expected such a statement from the Pope.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:11 am |
    • faith

      try getting a life

      May 24, 2013 at 10:14 am |
    • Li Min

      The pope's statement isn't shocking at all. I think this quote from the article says it all: "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."

      May 24, 2013 at 10:28 am |
  19. Quid Malmborg in Plano TX


    May 24, 2013 at 10:10 am |
    • Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

      "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" by Christopher Hitchens, read by the author.

      May 24, 2013 at 10:11 am |
  20. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Another interview with Dennett on consciousness, free will, and other issues within the philosophy of mind.
    Published on Apr 8, 2013

    May 24, 2013 at 10:09 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.