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. faith

    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."

    the closest dodo has gotten to a battlefield is her kitchen. she'll fight over a cheeseburger.

    May 26, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  2. stanislawkrawczyk

    I'm sorry to say so but the CNN blogger got it all wrong – a formal apology would be nice. Father Rosica is not Vatican's spokesman. Moreover, he confirmed the Pope's words instead of denying them. See for yourself: http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/explanatory-note-on-the-meaning-of-salvation-in-francis-daily-homily-of-may-22

    May 26, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
  3. my review here

    Thanks for another excellent article. Where else could anybody get that type of info in such an ideal way of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such info.

    May 26, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  4. Over 40,000 sects of insanity

    Recently we learned from CNN of a child dying when their parents, members of a Christian sect in Philadelphia, as part of their faith, refused medical care. When incidents like this come to light, other Christians are only too ready to try explain how another Christian's interpretation of ancient "scripture" is not quite right. Hands down, the most hypocritical people on the planet.

    One sect calls homosexuality an abomination while the next one (over 4,000,000 members) in the same denomination is already performing gay marriage.

    One sect, the Westboro Baptist Church believes Americans are being killed at war because America is too kind to "fags".

    One sect believes women to be subservient, while another sect in the same denomination promotes equality between the sexes.

    One sect believes that Jesus and Satan were brothers and that Christ will return to Jerusalem AND Jackson County, Missouri.

    Some believe the Pope is the Anti-Christ. Some believe Obama is the Anti-Christ.

    Some believe that celibacy is the only option for certain people, or for people in certain positions. Many of the people from these same institutions advocate against abortion, but pretend not to understand the realistic benefit of the morning after pill or even basic contraception; their unrealistic wishful thinking is causing the death of many at the hands of disease.

    In the U.S. recently we learned of the head of Lutheran CMS chastising a minister of that church for participating in a joint service for the victims of the Newtown school shooting.

    Conflicted right from the very beginning, Christianity continues to splinter and create more extreme divisions as time goes by, constantly subjecting others in its crossfire.

    Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.

    (Thomas Jefferson, from Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785)

    May 26, 2013 at 1:55 pm |

    • Bill Moyers interviewed Daniel Dennett, an American philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist whose research centers on the philosophy of mind, science & biology. He is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Watch the video at:


      Dennett says that not for all, but for many, the dangerous thing about religion is that "it gives people a gold-plated excuse to stop thinking."

      May 26, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • Science


      Hey freed you to...........go now you are free to take a wild walk where the BEAR sh-its fred !

      soundoff (2,965 Responses)


      say good bye perverts

      May 25, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse | Reply


      sambo tom science bill nye

      u r finished u filthy animal

      May 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |


      You know faith you are stuck in a big pile GREEN SLIME with NO horn-y red devil to save your ass.

      Hey Chad/faith too.................Thanks Bob peace

      add it to your favorites tool bar !



      May 25, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |

      May 25, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |


      May 25, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse | Reply

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

      Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate

      By Dan Merica, CNN



      May 26, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    May 26, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      God is the one who has a long history of killing children and other living things.

      May 26, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
    • nope

      @dick head

      May 26, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • AC

      You're insane.

      May 26, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • snopes says

      nope is false

      May 26, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • as always

      snopes is wrong and unoriginal at that

      May 26, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
  6. the AnViL™

    nobody goes to heaven – because heaven doesn't exist.

    atheists, xians, muslims, hebrews, and pastafarians all goto the same place: their graves, and no further – forever.

    studying biblical scripture is akin to learning klingon: useless fiction and an incredibly stupid waste of time.

    if people would spend more time studying biophysics – they'd understand that when you cut off the oxygen to the brain, the neurons which comprise you, your memories...etc. decay and die.

    when the brain dies – the biochemical energy which powered those neurons obeys the laws of thermodynamics and "flows downhill", dissipating out into the surrounding system.

    there is no mechanism to cause all that energy to remain coherent. it spreads out into the surrounding system – like smoke from a blown-out candle, never to be reassembled again – for eternity.

    there is no spirit, there are no souls.

    the flat fact of the matter is – when we die – that's it. we silently and finally meet oblivion... forever.

    the good news is – when you die – you will have no knowledge of the fact – as the organ you once used to know things with will no longer exist.

    there simply is no afterlife.

    after life – there is only death.

    and that's the only thing that's forever.

    deal with it.

    May 26, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • Science

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      Have a great life.


      May 26, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • AC

      Well said. The only reason any religion has any sane adherents is due to brain washing of defenseless young children – child abuse. There is not one single reason, nor bit of evidence to believe or give any credence to any of the claims made by any religion. Everything they claim, with respect to the nature of reality, they obviously can not know.

      May 26, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  7. aldewacs

    The pope says even atheists can go to his heaven. Vatican apologists quickly 'clarify' they'd have to 'accept Christ' first and turn in their atheists credentials. I suppose Francis will be taken to the woodshed to be schooled in the Vatican ways.

    As an atheist, I'm not impressed. Was I supposed to jump for joy to be "allowed" to the imaginary heaven? Am I supposed to capitulate and take this "opportunity" to renounce my position as a non-believer and grab this olive branch, possibly my last chance at Catholic salvation?

    Or is this a peek at the Catholics' awareness that their centuries old fortress is crumbling and this is a desperate attempt to attract 'weak' atheists to their camp?
    Note to the Vatican: most atheists have arrived at their positions by examining facts and evidence, and have determined that religions are hooey. Opening a side door to let them back in won't be attractive to them.

    To some weak 'believers' the offer may even be seen as a betrayal: suddenly, the people who have been painted for centuries as evildoers and spawns of the devil herself, will be invited to mingle with the 'white' angels? They get fast tracked to heaven, without the lifetime of sucking up to the deity? Desperation makes for strange bedfellows, it seems.

    But I'll decline the invitation, especially now that even Pascal's wager seems to have been devalued, and the RC is lowering its standards to let a confirmed non-believer like myself sneak in. To quote Woody Allen: “I'd never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.”

    May 26, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      I am actually quite offended, as an atheist.

      I have to do an immoral act, of allowing this jesus character to accept my just punishment? I am not immoral enough to allow someone else to stand in my place.
      I simply am not immoral enough to be christian.

      May 26, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • LinCA

      All the pope really said was that it isn't too late for atheists to join his book club. We'll get full benefits, even if we join only at the last minute. But we'd have to join. there is no getting into heaven if you don't embrace the delusion.

      I think we knew that already. According to most christian sects, heaven is filled to the brim with murderers, rapists and other scum who, just in the nick of time, "found Jesus".

      Thanks, but no thanks. I'll pass.

      May 26, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • Sammy

      Richard Cranium
      I see no reason for offence. The Pope made a remark indicating that he believed that we atheists could be good enough people to deserve Heaven, which I take as a vast improvement over the other att.itude where they see us as having to be bad people precisely because they don't believe that we'll end up there.

      May 26, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  8. Reality

    More reasons why the pope's words have no meaning:

    Again the problem is in the history. Did this simple preacher man, an illiterate rabbi at best, establish a church?

    Based on the lack of historical proof, NO he did not !! e.g. "Thou art Peter" (Matt 16: 18-19) passage only appears in one gospel." i.e. a single attestation failing a major requirement of rigorous historical testing.

    Matthew, whomever he was, was therefore a part founder/"necessary accessory" of the Catholic Church, as was Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James his brother, Mary Magdalene, Mary, Joseph and another father if you believe the mamzer stories, the Apostles and Pilate (and Constantine). It was a team effort with Pilate being the strangest "necessary accessory".

    Were economics an important influence? Yes indeed, and even more so nowl

    May 26, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  9. faith

    i love how much nazi god-hating fascists experience pure distress and terrible agony over jesus christ. alleluia!

    May 26, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      faith = troll

      May 26, 2013 at 10:40 am |
    • Doobs

      The pleasure you take in the imaginary pain of others is not normal. Seek medical help.

      May 26, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  10. faith

    "Robin Bray
    No thanks. I can't imagine a more boring thing than heaven, going on forever and ever. What a mindless dull idea. But I would love to see all the fools meeting up with their divorced spouses and being forced to be with them till the end of time. And then spending everyday with your parents and co-workers. Yikes."

    robs, baby, i fear u have much to worry about. the chances u will wind up in heaven equal the odds that i am not reporting your violent threats.

    May 26, 2013 at 9:36 am |
    • God

      faith: Shut the fff up! You are making me look bad here. Get out of your mom's basement and make connections with real people! ... if you don't like what I am saying report me to cnn now

      May 26, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • faith

      let me think. what was that line? hmmmm. how did it go?

      oh yea, "suzanne holds the mirror"
      lol. dodo, u r killin me

      faith: Shut the fff up! You are making me look bad here. Get out of your mom's basement and make connections with real people! ... if you don't like what I am saying report me to cnn now

      May 26, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • Science


      May 26, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  11. Jojo

    i'm no atheist!
    I a anti-theist. I'm glad there is no evidence whatsoever that there are gods.

    May 26, 2013 at 8:03 am |
    • Okay

      Now how do you plan on making sure that there are no human beings left on planet earth that believe in them?

      May 26, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • hee hee

      @Okay: Yes, because Jojo actually dislikes the idea of the existence of a god, she must want to rid the world of those who do. It's a logical consequence!

      Here are some mental exercises to add some nuance to your view of the world. Imagine the following possibilities:

      (1) she thinks all people who disagree with her on any points should be exterminated.
      (2) she thinks that there are some issues, such as theism, which should
      (3) she feels that theism is misguided, and would like to persuade people of this with reasoned argument.
      (4) she feels that theism is misguided, and is completely indifferent to whether other people agree with her or not.
      (5) she feels that theism is misguided, but rather likes being surrounded by people with different viewpoints, and would be deeply sad if it were otherwise.

      Hope that helps!

      May 26, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • hee hee

      Whoops! Hit return too fast. Item (2) should read:

      (2) she thinks that there are some beliefs, such as theism, which should be grounds for imprisonment.

      I hope, Okay, that it is obvious that very few people would hold views (1) and (2).

      May 26, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • hee hee

      Whoops! Hit return too fast. Item (2) should read:

      (2) there are some beliefs, such as theism, which should be grounds for imprisonment.

      I hope, Okay, that it is obvious that very few people would hold views (1) and (2).

      May 26, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  12. God

    I love atheists. They read the bible and encourage others to do the same. Plus, they talk about me more than anybody else.

    May 26, 2013 at 7:37 am |
    • God

      I love atheists because the THEISTS made up hallucinative nonsenses hateful rants then said those are my words. Those THEISTS then killed people then said they did it because of me. Damm those THEISTS ...

      May 26, 2013 at 9:33 am |
    • hee hee

      And your evidence that atheists like to talk about god is....that there are a lot of posts on a message board devoted to religion by atheists. Do you see the flaw?

      Probably not, so I'll spell it out for you: you will only see posts by atheists who like to write posts about the topic, at least once in a while... get it?

      May 26, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      Likewise, I love christians. They stand as a shining example of the dangers of avoiding reason and evidence, and living an emotion-directed life that stems from the most-primitive depths of our lizard brain.

      May 26, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
    • Observer

      Hate is nothing to be proud of.

      May 27, 2013 at 8:08 am |

    Heaven is for all good people

    who do good deeds!


    May 26, 2013 at 5:26 am |
  14. Emmanuel

    God is love! :heart: Catholic blogwalking 🙂 http://emmanuel959180.blogspot.in/

    May 26, 2013 at 2:55 am |
    • hee hee

      He is????? That's so sweet!!!! NOW I'm a believer.

      May 26, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
  15. mludowyk

    Glad I haven't wasted all those hours going to church then

    May 26, 2013 at 2:38 am |
  16. faith

    I have never done anything so wicked that it required an innocent man to be tortured to death. You christians must be the worst people imaginable if that's what it takes for you to be "saved."

    have u looked in the mirror?

    May 26, 2013 at 2:21 am |
    • tallulah13

      Poor faith. You must be terribly lonely. I bet your mom wishes that you'd make some friends and maybe get out of the basement sometimes. I bet it breaks her heart that her child is nothing but a troll.

      May 26, 2013 at 2:40 am |
  17. faith

    tallulah13 sam LinCA Athy angel moronic aka "the hard working, gainfully-employed, uneducated know nothing pukes" have once again displayed their impeccable power of persuasion.

    report them. they r criminals

    May 26, 2013 at 2:13 am |
    • tallulah13


      May 26, 2013 at 2:37 am |
    • angel moronic

      Thank you for giving proof that blind faith is pure ugly hate.

      May 26, 2013 at 9:42 am |
    • faith

      "angel moronic
      Thank you for giving proof that blind faith is pure ugly hate."

      oh. poor baby!

      take some aspirin.

      May 26, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  18. John

    What debate. People who worship and believe in imaginary beings have their own place in the mental hospital.

    May 26, 2013 at 1:36 am |
    • faith

      jim carter, mcferrin, your god "the korn man cometh" b.j. thomas, bob dylan, reggie white, tebow


      moron sambo fatty, akira, dodo, john the toilet,

      i don't no, that's a tough one

      May 26, 2013 at 2:17 am |
  19. Lord Jesus is the most powerful figure known to mankind

    Revelation 22:14-"Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city."

    Everything that is happening is pointing to the end of the world. God is
    coming sooner than most people believe. In His right hand is eternal
    life. if you desire to live and love existing, repent and put your faith
    in the Son of God (LORD Jesus Christ). He is our only hope. If you do
    not believe these words, that is fine. If you do believe and would like
    to learn more visit www . theeternalwisdom . com, this website will inform
    you on how to receive the free gift of salvation. May God bless you and
    may His mercy and grace be with mankind.

    Romans 5:8-"But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners."
    3:16-"For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only
    Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have
    eternal life."
    Matthew 5:6-"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."

    ...Please choose life...

    May 26, 2013 at 12:45 am |
    • angel moronic

      Very nice. Now show me the same claim in a Buddhist text, the Koran, the Avesta, the Vedic text. If you can find the same saying in those texts then you are good. Otherwise, stop shouting out meaning less claims.

      May 26, 2013 at 1:19 am |
    • Athy

      Bullshit, pure bullshit. But thanks for the laugh.

      May 26, 2013 at 1:21 am |
    • LinCA

      @Lord Jesus is the most powerful figure known to mankind

      Please double up on your medication and if you don't see an improvement, seek medical help.

      May 26, 2013 at 1:25 am |
    • sam

      AMEN!!! Praise be to God that He has made a way for us in the sacrifice of His only Son, Jesus Christ.

      May 26, 2013 at 1:44 am |
    • tallulah13

      I have never done anything so wicked that it required an innocent man to be tortured to death. You christians must be the worst people imaginable if that's what it takes for you to be "saved."

      May 26, 2013 at 1:49 am |
    • faith

      "angel moronic
      Very nice. Now show me the same claim in a Buddhist text, the Koran, the Avesta, the Vedic text. If you can find the same saying in those texts then you are good. Otherwise, stop shouting out meaning less claims."

      show me that jesus christ is almighty god!

      go dodo

      May 26, 2013 at 2:20 am |
  20. Ed

    Why is no talking about the biggest evidence available that challenges the facts about Jesus.
    The Gabriel Stone authenticated as real, tells of a man named (Simon of Barea) who tried to
    carry out the exact same thing as Jesus did a number of years before. He claimed to be the
    Messiah and had a following of many people that saw his claims put him on the run from the
    Roman Soldiers who eventually caught up to him in a narrow pass where he was killed and
    butchered and they stayed for weeks to watch his body rot and his followers witnessed but
    his never rose from the dead as he claimed he would. This is where the famous saying came
    from his Simon's followers that its not in his living but in his dying that we have life. John the
    Baptist the uncle of Jesus who knew Simon of Barea, was able to tell Jesus where Simon
    failed in attempt to proclaim he was the son of god and the Messiah, so Jesus would be able
    to learn from his mistakes and more profect Simon's attempted claim.

    May 25, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
    • faith

      moron, there ain't no evidence against jesus.

      May 26, 2013 at 2:39 am |
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About this blog

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.