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. Deez

    Worship the Golden Rule

    May 24, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Practice the golden rule – ,worship nothing!

      May 24, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  2. meifumado

    I have to say this pope is very interesting.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:42 am |
  3. Tom

    What I want to know is if I could get into Hogwarts? Since the pope is giving away free tickets to his fantasy land, why not throw in another!

    May 24, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • vancouverron

      Yeah! "Get out of hell free" cards. Thanks Frank, I'll take one.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  4. Mr. Flibble

    And when you die Mr Pope, just like me, you'll simply blink out of existence. 🙂

    May 24, 2013 at 11:40 am |
  5. Christian

    It's interesting that so many people are interested in what the Pope says, the Bible is where the answers are, that's where God speaks to us. Jesus said "I am the way and the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father except through me". This hasn't changed, neither has what Jesus said about people who deny Him "If any man denies me I will in turn deny Him before my Father".

    May 24, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • ThereIsNoGod

      The bible also says to kill people working on the sabbath – Exodus 31:15. Do you follow that as well? Nope. Just cherry picking the parts you agree with.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  6. FH

    The pope can say anything he want cause catholics don't read their bibles anyways, how can they decipher for themselves truth from false.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  7. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Sam Harris demolishes Christian morality

    May 24, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  8. Kevin

    Thanks, Frankie. You seem like a charming guy, much like your predecessor's predecessor.

    But I will take a pass.

    For you must remember, we have OUR principles, too.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  9. Dan B

    Religious nuts make up whatever absurd, magical nonsense they want and tell other people to disprove them.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  10. Jack Sonberg

    tenet, not "tenant" - where are your editors?

    May 24, 2013 at 11:33 am |
    • Iconoclast

      The pope lives in and apartment in the middle of the Vatican, therefore a Core Tenant.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  11. Hey! You!

    I was under the impression that it was God who determined who went to Heaven and who went to Hell. Not some Pope in Rome, preacher in the pulpit, or half-wit on the internet.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • Lauradet

      You're going to burn in hell for you comment.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • Shaggy

      In the same way that it's Santa who brings you Christmas presents, the Easter Bunny who leaves baskets of goodies, and the Tooth Fairy who takes your teeth and leaves you a quarter, yes.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  12. Greg


    May 24, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      Take a chill pill and hit your caps lock key.

      There is no heaven or hell to go to so just relax before you break a blood vessel.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • Ralph_in_FL

      Despite what you may think, using all capitals does not lend any weight to your post.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • lemon

      Sounds like you're already there.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • CP in FL

      No need to shout. The pope probably realizes that there is no god or heaven and that religion is the oldest scam. Were you brainwashed as a child into believing such nonsense? Do you believe in Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny? How about unicorns? The bible is a book of fairy tales written by men thousands of years ago.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • Deez

      You sound like a fun person.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • OwMySkull

      I'd love to see a scan of the inside of your head. Like a fire drill at the county asylum.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • Fred8680

      We're having a little get together with the family in-laws this weekend. Would you like to come over?

      May 24, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Sounds like a little-right-of-center member of the dead jew zombie vampire cannibal death cult aka christian. I wonder how many guns, bombs or knifes it has close at hand.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • gmantis

      Greg.. you might want to consider switching to a decaffeinated brand.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:44 am |
    • Eric

      I like when people type in all caps, because it saves me the time of actually *reading* it.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:46 am |
    • Tom

      Greg....firebrand crap is soooooo 16th century!.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:48 am |
    • Dan B


      Do you have any idea how silly this sounds?

      May 24, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  13. Lauradet

    “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone."

    When did the Hebrew god approve this? I thought the Hebrew god's chosen people were the Israelite. Didn't he/she smote all others as a jealous god? One day the story will get straight.

    When did god become LORD? When did Jesus become God?

    May 24, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      The Trinity got the official DOGMA stamp put on it in 325AD.
      Santa Claus himself helped make it official, though back then he was just plain old Nicholas of Myrna.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  14. Rita

    Here we go..........................

    May 24, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  15. karen justice

    Mr. Silverman cannot be expected to know this, but Jesus of Nazareth did NOT condemn ANYONE to hell, not even the Roman Solidiers who crucified him (" Father, forgive them; they know not what they do).He very clearly proclaimed himself to be a Universailst ( " I have come not to condemn the world, but to save the world.").He stopped to speak with the Samarian woman at the well ( condemned to hell at the time by traditional judaism , the equivalent to the evangelical concept of atheists as hell-bound)). She was, in effect, redeemed before he got there. He stopped by to commune with her, not to convert her. Her life changed because she met God, or Spirit, in the person of Christ. That would do it for me.

    It's a shame the Catholic church felt they had to qualify PopeFrancis's obvious belief in universalism, which was the predominant viewpoint of the early church (origen, Nestor, et al). It is high time that both "christians" and nonbelievers stop blaming hell on Jesus Christ.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • Chad

      Jesus most certainly did not proclaim that there was any other way to Heaven, than Him.

      That way is open to anyone, not just the Jews (which is what He was showing by engaging with gentiles), but it is the ONLY way. You are engaging in misleading people to claim anything else.

      Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. - John

      May 24, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • Christian

      Jesus also said that if anyone denies Him before others that He will in turn deny them before His Father. Jesus desires all to be saved, but as He said, the way is narrow and few there are that find it.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • Science

      By the way he is lower case.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      And yet Peter says the opposite in Acts 10:34
      "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."

      Nope – nothin' about the throny crowned carpenter there...

      May 24, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      God is the most evil being ever imagined because he allows a place of eternal torture to exist when he could eliminate it.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • Chad

      @Doc Vestibule "And yet Peter says the opposite in Acts 10:34
      Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

      Nope – nothin' about the throny crowned carpenter there...

      @Chad "I think you are confused.. did you read the entire thing?

      That way is open to anyone, not just the Jews (which is what He was showing by engaging with gentiles), but it is the ONLY way. You are engaging in misleading people to claim anything else.

      Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. – John

      May 24, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • Joey

      What a surprise the bible contradicts itself? Who would have thought it? Chad, I would like to personally thank you for providing the proof.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • Chad

      you lost me.. how does it contradict itself?

      The way is open to anyone
      but there is only one way.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  16. fred

    I mean seriously who cares what any believes the on going battle between those who believe and dont believe will always be there screw it just crack a beer, eat some chips, or whatever you do and leave the ignorance of a society i should say world just move on cause when you are dead people are going to be talking about the same thing till the sun or humanity swallows us whole.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • Lauradet

      Heck, I'm waiting for Muslim, Jews and Christians to annihilate one another so there will be more space for me.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • Science

      Make sure to finish watching fred.

      Bon Jovi ~ Army Of One | 'North America' Opening – Discovery Channel


      May 24, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  17. Randy

    Looks like they're letting just about anyone in these days. : ) Seriously though, did something happen or change that I didn't hear about? Not that many years ago non-believers were being tortured and burned at the stake. What happened between then & now? Did god send out a press release I didn't hear about? Was there some major announcement that I missed? Or is it simply that religion, and man's belief in god, is all man made & it simply changes as the times require? Unless someone can point to the press release from god I'm going w/the latter explanation. : )

    May 24, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • CP in FL

      Non believers are still being locked up or killed in most Muslim countries. Just yesterday there was a story on CNN about a journalist in Turkey who received a year prison sentence for speaking blasphemy about the Muslim religion. All religions are equally bad but it seems the Muslim religion is a few hundred years behind Christianity as far as tolerance goes.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  18. stacy100

    I hope what the Pope was trying to say was....Of course, an atheists can go to heaven.....once they have repented of sin an accept Christ as their savior. ....."believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved".... If the atheist does not become a believer, they WILL NOT ENTER THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN! Hope the Pope understands that part.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • CP in FL

      There is no evidence of god or heaven. Anyone that says they have proof is lying. How does it feel to know that you have wasted your life believing in something that probably does not exist?

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

      You're assuming of course, that this person is even in position to accept Christ, that he/she's heard of Jesus and even knows who he is.

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

      In the homily there wasn't any restrictions, except to do good works.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • lemon

      What exactly does "believe" mean anyway? Go to church on Sunday's and be an idiot the rest of the week? Meanwhile, you can be the best , selfless most loving person who happened to grow up in another country and you will go to hell because of that? Total BS.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • OwMySkull

      Hey, stacy100, I thought your God was supposed to be ALL LOVING !!!!!

      May 24, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • Arthur Bryant

      If thou repentest not, thou shalt surely not pass go, and thou shalt surely not collect $200.00; nor shalt thou be given a get out of hell free card!

      May 26, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
  19. Badly-Bent

    Could this be the first progress in religion since the reformation?

    May 24, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  20. Topher

    “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.”

    I know the Catholics are works-righteous, but correct me if I'm wrong, you still must be a Christian. You can't reject God and do good works and get in.

    "But do good" ... The Bible says none of us are good.

    And don't Catholics hold that you must also participate in communion, baptism and confession?

    May 24, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • Topher

      Wrong place. I've corrected.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Vic

      @Topher "....."

      That's why it has been an ongoing (primarily denominational) debate! This is an issue of Time Dispensation where some scripture won't apply!

      Related post:


      May 24, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • Sciernce

      Hey HeroesAre Rare..............deleting more comments aye?

      Oh! by the way –
      Sam stone, Science and the Doc all of whom think they're pretty sharp............ I've said what I have to say and I will NOT respond to ANY of your juvenile attempts to argue. Got it!

      May 23, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply

      May 24, 2013 at 7:09 am | Report abuse | Reply


      HerosAre Rare , faith the peach and chadie too you are so full of IT...............link below if you need help !



      May 24, 2013 at 7:33 am | Report abuse |


      HerosAre Rare...........urls got you science !

      May 23, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |



      May 23, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |



      May 24, 2013 at 7:48 am | Report abuse |


      Hey Chadie

      So solution for the sign being wrong in picture above..................is NOT to teach children the fairy in the sky created US.

      Easy DNA swap will tell you your family tree !


      May 24, 2013 at 9:17 am | Report abuse |


      May 24, 2013 at 11:31 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.