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. Kenny from South Park

    IF YOU are a atheist why does it matter what the pope says. This just shows on some level that atheist believe in some form of higher power.

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

      the atheists didn't ask. the pope declared.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • HA25

      So in your world, 2+2 = 22. Your fantastic leap in logic shows the weakness of true believers. And is why atheists are scared for humanity's future.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • John Sharp

      @Logic for two years old.

      I am a fan, nicely put

      May 24, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Arthur Bryant

      It's amazing how the xtians jump on nonbeliever's interest in the Pope's message and say "Aha! you DO believe!" This even though person after person has posted the reason.......that being (follow me here) that the Pope is encouraging people NOT to demonize unbelievers. That's significant in a totally political (not "spiritual") and social way. It has nothing to do with anyone secretly believing anything. Ok? Got it now?

      May 26, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
  2. John

    The Pope is wrong, it says clearly in the Bible that you must believe in Jesus Christ to have eternal life. Your good acts are nothing but dirty rags. You should do good but it won't get you into heaven.

    John 3:16
    “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

    John 14:6
    Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

    Ephesians 2:8-9
    For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

    Isaiah 64:6
    But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.

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

      So that I have this straight....

      The super powerful sky wizard made me.

      He made me a sinner.

      He knew I'd be a sinner before I was born.

      He then expects me to NOT be a sinner.

      But it's ok if I actually am a sinner because he killed his kid to make my sins somehow not sins.

      If accept his dead son as my sin remover, I'm good.

      And you actually believe this?

      May 24, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • HA25

      I have to keep that one, derp – it was good.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  3. Kevin

    Proof the bible was written by man. You can do just about ANYTHING and as long as you "open your heart to jesus" on your deathbed you go to heaven. Only man would put in such a huge loophole. I'm also sure all the pedifile priests are relying on it. How else can you explain their actions?

    May 24, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • derp

      Biggest "get out of jail free card" of all time. I laugh uncontrollably whenever I hear a jesustard talk about morality. As if christianity knew anything about morals.

      The entire faith is based on the fact that god knows you will act immorally before you are even born. Then he lets you off the hook because he killed his kid for you.


      The fact that some people believe that ridiculous pile of horse excrement is astounding.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  4. Thezel

    The official catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of those who have not had the opportunity to know God, but nevertheless live a good life will have the opportunity to go to heaven; those that have had the opportunity, but directly reject God, by definition, will spend eternity in hell; i.e., the complete absence of God.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • derp

      Apparently gods right hand man disagrees with you. As an ex catholic atheist, who does good works, I'm kind of glad. Now, the next time some doofus christard blabbers Pascal's wager at me, I can take comfort knowing that if I'm wrong and there is a god, he likes me anyway.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
  5. sativa619

    I'm an atheist, and the more I hear from this Pope, the more I like him. He practices what he preaches, and does not use incredibly divisive language. This is another example of a man doing good by his followers, and for more than just them. I'm curious to see how his papacy turns out.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
  6. saurov

    Hinduisim never believed in a God who sits somewhere up in the clouds and creates humanity, planets etc. Hinduism believes in MANIFESTATION and not creation.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
  7. Dave

    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.”

    I don't think he is saying we will meet each other in heaven, but rather meet each other doing good, that it's the place of coming together in agreement on doing good works for all humans and I believe he was referring to humanists who have the same agenda as most religions minus all the ritual, that of being good, happy, productive human beings. And the pope is just pointing out that is where Catholics have to meet the humanists, at the common goal of helping others.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • be honest

      doing good? Like the cover ups of child abuse? Destroyed lives of children worldwide..

      This is the last group that should tell anyone, what it good.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  8. wilbie

    I'm trying to imagine an all powerful, all knowing god, who supposedly created us and the universe who is concerned as to whether or not I believe in him (her, it). I am an atheist not because I am rebelling against any particular religion or just to be contrary; belief in a god just doesn't make sense to med and is illogical and I am completely sincere in my non-belief. Stop for a moment to consider the non-existence of a divine being and all the pieces fall into place and the world makes sense. This was apparent to me since I was 14 and i've seen no counter evidence over the next 40 years. A god who would punish me for not believing in him (her, it) would be petty which is a characteristic of most people. Are you saying that this almighty god is petty? I have no fear of death. If there is a god he most certainly will not be petty and may perhaps give me "bonus points" for not believing in him despite all the social pressures to do just that and for having the courage not to cowtow to the masses.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • Hmmm

      I bet there is a counter at the back with crappy gifts you can spend your bonus points at...

      May 24, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • derp

      I'm asking to get my non-belief bonus points in singles. Then I'm heading right for heaven's strip club. Can you image how hot the strip pers are in Heaven.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • david ward

      If you are wrong, it could turn out very badly for you. if i am wrong, i simply wind up in the dirt next to you and neither of us will be the wiser. In either case, I would rather be wrong in my shoes, than wrong in yours. Followers of Christ don't generally try to rationalize why God does or does not choose to act or not act. We don't feel the same compulsion to have to have the answers to his actions. We accept that He can do whatever he chooses. Those of us that have spiritual faith don't have understand that are opinions on the matter are really irrelevant. Faith is not a topic that can be debated. You either have it....or you don't.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • derp

      " if i am wrong, i simply wind up in the dirt next to you and neither of us will be the wiser "

      Unless the jews or muslims are right, then you end up in hell right along with me.

      Pascal's wager is for intellectually challenged morons.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  9. TC

    This article shows the ignorance of atheists and even their leaders how uneducated they are about the original Christian faith – all have a chance at salvation. Regardless of the Pope's message your typical CNN commentattor who is an atheist will not care or listen to the broader context – too busy being angry with those idiots who believe in fairy tales.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • be honest

      who cares,, it's all ancient voodoo witchcraft stuff to replace the outdated volcano worshipers.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
    • Chuckles

      Wait a sec, so the pope (you know, the guy who's supposed to be the figurehead of catholicism) makes a statement pretty much amounting to "stop hating on atheists, they have as much right to enter heaven as anyone else" and atheists are the ignorant ones?

      Wow, your religion has really addled your mind huh?

      May 24, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
    • derp

      "too busy being angry with those idiots who believe in fairy tales"

      We are not angry at you.

      The "idiots who believe in fairy tales", well yeah, we do think that.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • DavidTX

      Most atheists did not start out atheists (well, they did until they were 3 or so when their parents started indoctrinating them) but were raised in one brand of faith or another. The majority of atheists I read on these boards seem to have a very ti ght grasp on Christian doctrine often because they were devout members for many years. And many claim that it was their dedicated study of the bible that brought them to believe all of it an invention of man, not divine instructions from another dimension as it essentially claims with God's and angels and demons existing in the "spirit realm".

      More and more members are waking up to the realization they have been duped for years all in the name of collecting the almighty dollar, not praising some almighty God. And some are indeed bitter about being used and abused by org anized religion for so long, so they at times lash out verbally at the zealots who keep th u m ping their books without reading them.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • TC

      @ Chuckles – an atheist being ignorant does not translate to one hating another. I hate no atheist becasue of their belief, I only stated what the facts would be on this forum and what atheists said in the article. Read the comments from your fellow brethren, am I wrong in my assertion of what the atheist commentors would write?

      May 24, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  10. Adam Williamson

    "experts in Catholicism say Francis was expressing a core tenant of the faith"

    You mean 'tenet of the faith'.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  11. Jim

    Whew! I was worried there. I guess we can now forget about Pascal's wager.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  12. The PATH

    Chad Pecknold, an assistant professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, agreed with Zuhlsdorf, pointing “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.”

    1) All of mankind are Sinners
    2) Redemption is available to all who repent of their sins
    3) Salvation is available to everyone that believes and accepts the plan of salvation as laid out by Christ Jesus
    4) Eternal life is available ONLY in Christ Jesus

    May 24, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • be honest

      and all that based on a god and heaven that's invisible,, neither ever proven to exist.

      Makes the whole thing not only silly, but a complete waste of time.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
  13. Rueben

    No other gospel

    6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: if anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!

    10 Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.Galatians 1
    2 Peter 2

    New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

    False teachers and their destruction

    2 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2 Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. 3 In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.
    2 Timothy 4:3
    For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather round them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
    1 Timothy 4

    New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

    4 The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
    2 Corinthians 11:13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • TC

      Like a typical cultist heretic, you only know how to isolate specific sentences but as typical, you fail to take the whole Word of God into your heart.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • Benjamin

      But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
  14. Tom

    This is one atheist who could care less that the pope thinks I'll go to an imaginary place that doesn't exist after I die. No atheist would 'welcome' this revelation any more than if he'd promised the tooth fairy will leave a dollar under there pillow when they lose a tooth.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • JumboShrimp

      If the pope left a dollar under my pillow, I wouldn't mind. That would be sweet.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
  15. Redoran

    This pope is a RIOT. He's gotta appear on S&L!!!!!

    May 24, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • Redoran

      Major correction – -"SNL"!

      May 24, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • be honest

      maybe one of the comedians will dress like him to expose how delusional the pope is... then have a bunch of cathoholics throw change at him

      May 24, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  16. Christopher

    The arrogance and the condescension in the pope's statement about non-theists is ridiculous. Here we have the man behind the largest organized group of pedophile defenders in the history of man talking to others about doing "good works". Just because this pope is less evil than some previous popes doesn't mean that he's not evil. The damage done to human beings in third world countries because of the church's views on birth control and condoms is incalculable. How many people have been born into some of the worst poverty imaginable because of these backwards views? How many human beings have lost their lives to disease because of these backwards views? The pope doesn't need to worry about me or other non-theists. He needs to worry about his own house before looking to clean someone else's.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • be honest

      I'd prefer muslim terrorist hang around the vatican.. The two would enjoy each others destructions.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
  17. Dan B

    We are all taking a long dirt nap. Why is that so difficult to accept?

    May 24, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  18. Paul

    Having imaginary friends isn't going to change the fact that you're going to die alone on a rock floating in space, and that's the end of it. If there is an intelligent designer or creator, he doesn't care about any of us billions of rats running around on this rock.

    The Bible was written by MEN, it was not handed down from supernatural powers. The gospels were written decades/centuries after the life of JC, maybe they are the first urban legend?

    If your god loves me so much, why does he go to such great lengths to hide from us?

    May 24, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • Stormin

      I used to think that the Bible was written by men, until I read it with an open mind.

      How do you know he does not care for you ? Romans 5:8

      May 24, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
    • JumboShrimp

      Stormin, by "open mind" you mean "high," right? Right on, bro!

      May 24, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  19. Dan B

    His job is to get you to believe stuff that is not true.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Redoran

      Exactly! How many thousands of editions of the bible presently exist? That is the question for my Evangelical "friends". I have asked them countless times, and they have NO response as to why their Big Boy in the sky permitted so many comic interpretations. HEY- God should appear on Comedy Central!!!

      May 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • Redoran

      Or- – Is that Central Comedy?

      May 24, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
  20. Secretary to the Pope

    The Pope actually wanted to comment on the little gay boys in boy scouts. I mean he really wanted to comment ON them.

    Unfortunately that article is closed to comments so people like him, I mean so perverts can't have a field day.

    Anyway that is why we are stuck with this crap about heaven and atheists. Terribly sorry.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Dandy

      you are damaged goods pal

      May 24, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • Secretary to the Pope

      Dandy, you think you know better than the Pope?

      May 24, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • be honest

      the pope and the catholic church are the LAST group that should teach ANYONE moral values.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • Johnny Drift

      That's like asking if he knows better than the Ayatollah.

      May 24, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
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