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. islam is the way

    No God but Allah, Mohammed and Jesus son of Maryam are his messengers.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
    • Ted

      Islam, the way to hell.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
    • Haveabrain

      You have got to be joking. Islam is the faith of murderers and is perpetuated by the devil

      May 24, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
    • Islam is the way to hell

      You know you have a problem don't you?

      May 24, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
  2. News

    And is far as all making to Heaven you cannot make it with guilt!

    May 23, 2013 at 7:08 pm |


    May 23, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
    • TAK

      Perfect clip. Should be required viewing for everyone.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
  4. News

    The guilt of failure keeps you from God.
    Sin keeps you from God.
    This is why we were Given Jesus to Help us up when we fall down we can admit we blow it and try again free from guilt!

    May 23, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
    • Archaia

      I stopped feeling guilty when I stopped believing in God. A much better salvation, in my opinion.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
  5. JFC

    I am so , so grateful to the pope! Lol So arrogant. I don't think he knows what an atheist is. We are not enemies of God(gods), we just don't believe that there is/ are any, unless it can be proven. So far, well...Still waiting. What is new about believers in the supernatural? But as a matter of fact, I feel that if there was/were god/gods, she/they would have more respect for a person using her reason, than a (enter your word of choice) who believes in "Mickey Mouse."

    May 23, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • faith

      "have more respect for a person using her reason, than a (enter your word of choice) who believes in "Mickey Mouse."

      he prefers mindless boobs who believe in fsm

      May 23, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      why don't you ask God if he is real? Do the work yourself,dont worry about what other people believe.Find your own answers.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:00 am |
  6. islam is the way

    Allah is the Greatest

    May 23, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
    • Bostontola

      Greatest what?

      May 23, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
    • Athy

      Greatest figment maybe?

      May 23, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
    • Cupojoe

      Thanks for 9/11

      May 23, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
    • sam

      What?? I thought Muhammad Ali was the greatest!

      May 23, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
    • JustTheFacts

      Islam is not of God.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
    • Islam is the way to hell

      Best way to get to hell?

      May 24, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
  7. JustTheFacts

    This is just one more indication and illustration that the Pope is of the devil, and that the Catholics are of the devil. Atheists won't be in heaven and nor will the Pope. If the Pope was truly of God, he'd understand that…

    Mark 16:16 – (Jesus speaking) He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not (atheists) shall be damned.

    Jesus Christ doesn't mince words. He said what he meant and he meant what he said. And anyone who doesn't believe that is bound for the lake…

    May 23, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
    • Bostontola

      According to you, Jesus sucks at saving souls, he's getting less than a third of them.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
    • DJ

      A Pope that doesnt read the bible...what a joke.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
    • Archaia

      The lake?? Ohhhh I love lakes.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
    • JustTheFacts

      Bostontoia… Whoever told you that other two thirds was supposed to be saved in the first place? Not one person who is supposed to be saved will be lost. Jesus said, "I know my sheep, and I shall loose not a one of them."...

      May 23, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      And to believe that the crap in The Babble are actual quotes – how silly can delusional believers get?

      May 23, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
    • blathermonger

      @JustTheFacts: If your Jesus is as smart as you claim, he wouldn't misuse the word "loose" the way you and the other religionist trolls do.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  8. News

    {1:1} In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
    " What this means is God created Earth with the Heavens"
    And some may say it feels like hell.
    It is Your Sin that make it feel like hell!
    You must first believe before it becomes a reality to you!

    Their are many places and many types of heaven.
    Jesus Christ came to this side of heaven to wage War and bring understanding .
    My advise is do some fighting of your own to make things better.

    May 23, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
  9. Bob

    I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me. ....Jesus John 14:6

    May 23, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
    • Bill

      Who is Jesus John?

      May 24, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  10. MCFx

    Athiests Are Funny! They spend 90% of their time trying to convince 90% of the population that the very thing they themselves don't believe exists doesn't exist. They remind me of a jilted lover who tells everyone that will listen that they are completely over thier ex and have moved on. You Athiests...I can always count on you for a good laugh.

    May 23, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
    • John

      Well, in defense of atheists – this isn't just some thread about religion that a bunch of atheists crashed. It's the Pope talking about atheists.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
    • Bostontola

      What is most funny is broad generalizations that are obviously false.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Maybe when you can spell you might be taken seriously. When you have proof of your sky-fairy that would be worth another comment from you. In the meantime if you stop pushing your religion on the rest of us I doubt you'd hear too much from atheists.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • George Carlin

      Have you caught my routine on god, fvcking hilarious if I do say so myself, truth can be quite a laugh.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • Robert

      As opposed to theists who are like those awkward children who refuse to admit that Santa Claus isn't real.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • Archaia

      I have no interest in converting believers. What you choose to believe in is your own business. All I ask is that you stop trying to shove your beliefs into my life. I have a right to not be Christian... a right that the Bible gives me. If I go to Hell, so be it.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
    • Athy

      And you can't even spell atheist, MCFx. How can anyone take you seriously? Post again when you advance to the fourth grade.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
    • Dippy

      And he can't spell "their" either.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
    • MCFx

      Ha! I'm still laughing. And "In Santa we trust" let me know what was mispelled. I'd be happy to correct your ignorance.

      Tune in tomorrow when Athiests will Wage War on the Tooth Fairy. Their dissertation to follow.

      Such energy and anger. If you feel like you're getting religion rammed down your throat then you either need to change the channel, STOP reading the "Belief Blog", or move to Hollywood.

      And where's the Outrage over Satanism or Witchcraft?

      May 23, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
    • Athy

      And he still can't spell atheist, even after we shwed him how.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • George Carlin

      Thanks for playing, the more every uneducated ignorant Christian that struts their stuff, the more atheists you create.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
  11. Bob

    Unless one born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. ...Jesus John 3:3

    May 23, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
    • Athy

      Doubt of the lord is the beginning of wisdom. Reality 4:23.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
    • Ted

      Athy, nice quote from your father the devil.

      May 24, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
    • Arthur Bryant

      there's that Jesus John guy again.......

      May 25, 2013 at 6:18 am |
  12. Bob

    By the fear of the Lord one keeps away from evil. ...Proverbs 16:6

    May 23, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
  13. Bob

    The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. ...Proverbs 9:10

    May 23, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Do spare us endless quotes from your sky-fairy hand-book. Most of us know that nonsense anyway and you'll only upset HeavenSent etc. for taking her life's work away.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
    • Ted

      Bob, keep it up. Great Job. The world is spiritually starving, and needs the Word of God. God Bless

      May 24, 2013 at 8:40 pm |
  14. Bob

    This is the work of God, that you believe in Him Whom He has sent. ....Jesus John 6:29

    May 23, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
  15. Bob

    What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his own soul. .....Jesus Mark 8:36

    May 23, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
  16. Bob

    The grass withers and the flower falls away. But the Word of the Lord endures forever. ...I Peter 1:24

    May 23, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
  17. Bob

    Man shall not live by bread alone, but by evey Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Deut. 8:3/Mathew 4:4

    May 23, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
  18. Bob

    Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away. ....Jesus Mark 13:31

    May 23, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
  19. Evolve

    So, what if you make it into heaven, but then find out that someone you care about went to hell, just because they questioned god's existence right before they died? Could you stand an eternity of paradise, knowing your mother was going through eternal torment?

    May 23, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • Athy

      Don't worry about it, Evolve. Neither one exists.

      May 23, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
    • Bostontola

      God has infinite power and in your heaven, your mom would be there. In your mom's afterlife, she would be in hell. Very simple.

      Yes, I'm kidding.

      May 23, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
    • Archaia

      Excellent question. Personally, I'd rather be with loved ones in Hell than alone in Heaven. Unlike God, my friends and family are tangible beings whose existence is not based on blind faith. I'm not saved in any sense of the word (although the Pope would disagree), so I'm not concerned with it happening. My mom recently declared herself non-Christian. If God wants to send her to Hell for that, He's lost my praise.

      May 23, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
    • faith

      1. it will be heaven because dodo won't b there.

      2. y would u go to hell if u question god's existence. stupid question, as usual.

      So, what if you make it into heaven, but then find out that someone you care about went to hell, just because they questioned god's existence right before they died? Could you stand an eternity of paradise, knowing your mother was going through eternal torment?

      u bet. knowing i will b separated from u is heaven, period

      May 23, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
    • Dave

      God's judgment is just and righteous. There are mysteries that are not fully revealed to us, because we are finite whereas God is infinite. How can the clay question the potter? I don't hate atheists, I use to be one. I had the same questions. Sometimes it is a matter of questioning what we think we know. Atheists demand proof of God's existence, yet the world around us is an everyday, living example. How could complexity be derived from simplicity if evolution were to be a fact? How can humans be so advanced compared to other organisms? Are there monkeys out there pondering the questions of eternity and theology? If one is genuinely curious about discovering the truth, I would recommend Ravi Zacharia. He is a much better apologist than I. Perhaps pick up a study Bible and read the study notes associated with controversial passages. By the way the Pope is wrong on this. Salvation is only achieved through the finished work of Jesus Christ. How do I know this? I know this because I was regenerated into a completely different person after I wholly accepted Him as my Lord and Savior. I am no longer the person I was. We are eternal beings, the question remains, where do you plan on spending eternity?

      May 24, 2013 at 3:27 am |
    • lngtrmthnkr

      yes,question his existence that's the point,ask if he is real.Isnt that why so many post on these blogs? arnt you mostly looking for proof? seekers one day become finders.

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

    Dan Dennett interviewed by Bill Moyers

    May 23, 2013 at 6:49 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.