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. samsjmail

    Pope Francis...

    Is he the Girls Gone Wild guy?

    May 24, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      no, hes king candy from wreck it ralph.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
  2. Bostontola


    May 24, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
  3. Doh

    Ironically, even the Christians can't agree amongst themselves on the interpretation of 99% of the Bible.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Rachel

      Chad and I are always in 100% agreement 🙂

      May 24, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • samsjmail

      I DO have some questions....

      can I use electricity?
      Can I go to the doctor when I'm sick?
      Can I marry my 13 year old cousin and her 12 year old sister?
      Are they allowed to cut their hair?
      Should I worship on Saturday or Sunday?
      What should I do if my statue starts bleeding?

      May 24, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • Doh

      Christians: God is omnipotent and knows everything about you, including your future.
      Christians: God allows you free choice to choose your beliefs, allowing you to change your future.

      Can't have it both ways, so which is it, does he know if you're going to heaven or not? LMAO

      May 24, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Rachel, it would be strange if that were not so.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • Buck Rogers

      This is true as false doctrines have crept into the Church. The Bible says that judgement "begins with the house" as there will be a major "correction" of doctrine prior to the return of Christ. In other words, the true Church will rise up and many will "fall away" simply because they cannot handle the truth.

      Those 'outside' will also face a major scientific correction as evolution is all forms, will be exposed as fraudulent.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • samsjmail


      Evolution will be proved to be fraudulant?
      Will the earth still be round?

      May 24, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
  4. Buck Rogers

    @ Charles,

    See Malachi 4 as the "day of the LORD" will "burn as an oven". Christ raises the elect first, and then Earth will be burned up and dissolved as the Scriptures plainly teach (this is why false evolution is so prevalent, i.e. the 'throw off' the elect). Christ compared His return to the Noahic Flood as well as Sodom when in both cases destruction was imminent, total and quick. Our home is New Jerusalem, not old Jerusalem which is a "synagogue of Satan" and has been designated as "Sodom and Egypt" by the LORD.

    Hence, the 1,000 years does not take place here because Jerusalem is in the desert, and Christ said not to look for him there but to "look up".

    May 24, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • sam

      So would you say it's more like an electric oven, a gas oven, a pizza oven, or more like a kiln?

      May 24, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
  5. VMKH

    Contradictions exist only in the mind: the picture(s) one has of God and what one thinks God should or must be. Example: a merciful God who (according to some) allows suffering and death. Just be humble: You know little or nothing about God.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
    • JBOHDRider

      I know there is no such thing.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
    • aldewacs

      The level of denial and obfuscation on this forum is staggering. The 'faithful' are just unwilling to accept any reason whatsoever, and keep spouting drivel. So many want to be 'holy' ar a least sound like Charlton Heston.

      So depressing. I fear for the human race if this nonsense continues.

      It is high time that children were taught the truth: there are no gods, no Allah, no Christian god, none of the old gods of history or new gods yet to be invented. None. Nada. Imagine the freedom of spirit that children could enjoy, and the superior humans they could develop into if they did not have to spend a lifetime shedding the yoke of false beliefs.

      May 24, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
  6. Mercury

    The MOST ironic thing, perhaps, about contemporary religion is that the one thing upon which infallibly omniscient Christians AND Muslims agree is that the faith upon which both of theirs is based - is entirely bogus and fallacious.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • Angel Moronic

      Well, you really have to blame the Jews for this one. They started the whole thing 😉

      May 24, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
  7. samsjmail

    My totem pole says the Pope can get into heaven, even if he doesn't believe in my totem pole.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  8. joshua

    Only God can judge you and determine if your going through the gates, not the Pope or anyone else on this planet.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  9. OMG

    Maybe God builds a special room in heaven for Catholics – one where they can't see all the other people that God loves.

    That way they can think they are the only ones there.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • Doh

      Does it come with little children?

      May 24, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
    • OMG


      May 24, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
  10. Blahblah

    CNN, please. The word is "tenet," not "tenant." Are you having fourth-graders write these articles?

    May 24, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • Floyd

      Thanks Blahblah. I was just going to write that too. Come on CNN!

      May 24, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
  11. samsjmail

    As I understand it, Jesus was already here, but the ATF killed him Waco?
    ...and he had a badass Camaro?

    May 24, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
  12. luker6401

    The pope is dead wrong on this. Atheists will not have any part of God's kingdom. Psalm 14 reads "The fool has said in his heart that there is no God" The Catholic church and the pope are not the authority of who goes to Heaven or not. Only those who have been redeemed through Christ Jesus death on the cross will be saved. Atheism offers nothing. There is no draw to it. Jesus offers me eternal life, a home in Heaven when I die, heavenly rewards, peace in my heart.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • Doh

      Hey, the Bible only says what you have to do, not when you have to do it!

      May 24, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      "The great trouble with religion – any religion – is that a religionist, having accepted certain propositions by faith, cannot thereafter judge those propositions by evidence. One may bask at the warm fire of faith or choose to live in the bleak certainty of reason- but one cannot have both."
      – Robert Heinlein

      May 24, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • Angel Moronic

      Luker: atheists have their own heavenly place to go to. You don't have to worry about them crowding you out .

      May 24, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      so being 'foolish' is enough to condemn you to an eternity of hell?

      May 24, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • sam

      Don't panic. Apparently everyone stilll has to say some magic words and learn the secret club handshake (whichever of the 30,000 or so different ones that claim to be The Right One) to get access to your exclusive special snowflake afterlife lounge.

      You're still a super special snowflake. The scary mean atheists can't get you.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
    • Third Eagle of the Apocalypse

      The Catholic church and the pope are not the authority of who goes to Heaven or not.

      Neither is the bible. Even if you believe it was 100% accurate to start with, you do realize it has be translated and censored many times over right?

      May 24, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
    • OMG

      The Kindgdom of God is near – Jesus is helping people today.

      And not just those who profess to know and love Him the best.

      He loves us all – not just the ones that have the correct theology.

      I think Jesus wants us to love the atheist – not post poetry from the Bible accusing them of being a fool.

      How rude.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
    • samsjmail

      So, luker6401....

      I guess the Pope hasn't read the Bible? ...or is he isn't as smart as YOU are? ...or his Bible had some pages missing?....or maybe you accidentally drooled some tobacco juice on that page?

      May 24, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • Doh

      Hey, if you disagree with his interpretation, you can do what Christians like to do. Start your own denomination! It's the thing to do!

      May 24, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • Floyd

      Do good by humanity, you get in. Sin, but genuinely redeem through the Grace of God and you get in. Redemption and goodness is the Grace of God, whether believers or not. Just love and get along. Simple.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
  13. Angel Moronic

    A Xtian here said: Salvation is only, IN and TROUGH JESUS CHRIST.
    That is really gross, the way to heaven is thru a guy's mouth and out his rear end, down the sewer line ?
    No, I don't want to go thru that route

    May 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      i think it was a misquote. i think jesus actually said....so you think you can get into heaven? well you have to get through me first!
      He is probably in pads and helmet or something.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • sam

      The first rule of bible fight club is...

      May 24, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Now that kind of made me laugh. But what's really funny is that your mind first goes to the gutter and then secondly to violence, but never to your own cross.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
    • Itakeh

      The cross / Jesus thing was a joke.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
  14. Doh

    In your face Christians!

    May 24, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
  15. Dave

    So...the atheist is doing all of their good deeds without any assumption of being rewarded, and the christian is doing all of his/her good deeds with the assumption that these good deeds are required for entrance to heaven? And now both can go to heaven? Sweet! See you in heaven if I make the list...

    May 24, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      We'll have supper

      May 24, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  16. SPW

    Hahaha oh wow thank you Pope Francis

    May 24, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
  17. phneutral

    Bible sez: If the Pope says it'so, it's so.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  18. Josue Cepeda

    Salvation is only, IN and TROUGH JESUS CHRIST

    May 24, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Same old rhetoric from one more christian.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
    • sam

      Trough?? I thought he was born in a manger!

      May 24, 2013 at 4:04 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 4:07 pm |
    • Doh

      That's not what he said!

      May 24, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
    • Third Eagle of the Apocalypse

      @derp lol

      May 24, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • Pete

      A trough is a manger.

      May 31, 2013 at 9:36 am |
  19. Big Deal

    The Great Spaghetti Monster let me into heaven years ago. I think folks should shop around for the best deal before choosing their religion.

    May 24, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • Bob

      RAmen. And I am actually about to eat spaghetti too. Thanks to our magnificent deity. Way better than that torturing Christian nut with his hell and all.

      May 24, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
    • Doh

      The Great Ramen Monster objects to your ludicrous claim!

      May 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      For the low price of $30, the Church of the Subgenius offers eternal salvation or triple your money back!
      Praise "Bob"!!

      May 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care


      May 24, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  20. Willow

    Sounds like he is more of a Universalist than a Catholic. That is what Universalists believe.

    May 24, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Universalists believe that if you know about the Catholic church you should join? Who knew?

      May 24, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
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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.